The GCC and Yemen – What Next?
The GCC nations met this week in Riyadh and discussed a number of issues ranging from the Iranian nuclear talks to a Palestinian/Israeli stalled negotiation. However, the issue at the top of the agenda was the continuing war in Yemen and where the GCC should go from here.
There are four factors that will determine the outcome of any Yemen operation: 1) political, how will a peaceful Yemen be structured and how will the \Houthies fighters be included; 2) strategic, What are the goals for the Saudi led alliance in Yemen and how will they be accomplished militarily; 3) what should and can the GCC nations do militarily to win in Yemen, and 4) international, who can the GCC count on to support them and sell the necessary arms to carry out a major military offensive.
The political factor has proven intractable for several months as the Saudi and its GCC allies were instrumental in blocking any political settlement. The Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel Al Jubeir tried to justify the military aggression claiming that the use of force “was a last resort”.
This has been complicated by the fact that Yemen says that the Houthi fighters will have no future part in Yemen and the fighter’s insistence that they be included.
This approach is already in the works as this week the GCC announced talks for an end to the Yemeni crisis that will begin on May 17 in Riyadh. “The president of Yemen has called for the start of the dialogue,” Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah said hoping “that everyone would accept and join the other Yemeni colleagues that are already in Riyadh… to start this process.” The announcement came at the end of the GCC summit. But most observers believe that this venue will not lead to any solution except the potential for a “humanitarian cease fire” since no Yemeni nationalist will accept the capital of aggression on his country to be the host for any negotiation to each a political settlement.
The strategic factor is also complicated. The conflict isn’t just against Houthi rebels, but their major supporter, Iran.
Traditionally, the GCC isn’t known for direct belligerent policies and prefers reaching political settlements. Therefore, the newly formed coalition of Saudi Arabia and eight Arab allies represents a “formidable force” to politically and strategically counterbalance what they perceived as the expanding influence of Iran in a currently unstable region.
But, military power is only useful if it can be employed successfully. And, as was seen in the air campaign by the Saudi alliance, it did little to convince the Houthi to submit to their wishes, or to force them back.
This leaves two strategic possibilities – either commit to a major GCC ground force (or bring in Pakistan for the ground forces), or rely upon the defeated, demoralized government forces of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
It appears as if the GCC has opted for using the Yemeni government forces with introduction of small Special Forces from willing Countries, to win the war on the ground. However, they will receive considerable support from the Saudi alliance and western powers. That support will consist of logistics, training and intelligence. It’s also pretty much guaranteed that some US and Western Special Forces will be involved in the ground war as advisors.
The next factor is the tactical one. Given the alliance’s decision not to commit a large number of its own ground forces and to rely, instead on the Yemeni military, the tactics that are dictated will be mainly insurgency and guerrilla warfare. The air war will continue to hit conventional military targets and logistics hubs. Meanwhile, Special Forces and Yemeni allies will target supply routes and vulnerable rebel areas. The goal will be to reduce the ability of the rebels to fight so the Yemeni military can defeat them on the battleground.
Although this approach has a lower profile and allows the Yemeni military to take the lead in winning the war, it isn’t one guaranteed to bring about a victory as events on the ground has proved. In many ways, it is similar to the tactical approach taken by the Saudis in Syria – an approach that has failed to defeat either Assad or ISIS.
In fact, this “half hearted” approach may very well encourage the growth of al Qaeda in Yemen or even ISIS.
The other problem with this approach is that it takes time. It will take months to put the training infrastructure in place along the Yemeni border. And, then it will take more months to start training Yemenis. The result is that, at best, the Saudi led alliance can’t expect to see tangible military results until 2016 at the earliest
The final factor is that of foreign policy. This factor was highlighted this week at the GCC meeting when French President Francois Hollande became the first Western leader to sit in on the meeting. This honor was even more pointed as the GCC was scheduled to meet with Obama next week in the US.
The involvement of the French president was recognition of the evolving international relationships in the region. Britain, once the major outside influence in the region, has been silently pushed to the sideline, while the US is seen as a feckless and unreliable ally in the current situation.
Obviously the French has a growing concern about the rise of Islamic terrorism in their own country and are aware of growing immigration pressure as unrest swamps the region, especially North Africa.
France also sees the GCC as a major customer for its large armament industry. Hollande arrived in Riyadh from Qatar, where he was present on Monday for the signing of a $7 billion deal between French aerospace firm Dassault and Qatari defense officials.
The agreement includes an order for 24 Rafale fighter jets, with an option on a further 12.
Gulf leaders wanted Hollande to visit them ahead of the Washington summit to demonstrate that they have a faithful ally in France, “and they ask the same thing from Obama”, a senior French official said.
“We are now a major partner of the region,” said the official to Reuters.
In addition to strengthening the GCC military forces, the French deals also help offset some lost business from Russia. France has had to cancel several billion dollars in defense contracts as Putin and Russia have become more aggressive towards its neighbors, including NATO countries of Poland and the Baltic states.
The honor granted to the French president will also help next week in Washington as the GCC nations remind Obama that they have other allies that they can rely upon if the US becomes too soft on Iran or the unrest in Yemen.
Clearly, the GCC nations have something to worry about when it comes to American resolve. Obama’s desire to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran has made the American president afraid of offending the Iranians. Not only does the GCC need American logistical and intelligence assistance in Yemen, they will also need US Special forces to train and assist GCC and Yemeni forces in the war.
The GCC nations also need American naval forces to prevent Iranian military aid from reaching the Houthi fighters. And, this support is clearly in question as Iran claims an Iranian naval fleet chased a U.S. warship and military planes through the waters off the southern coast of Yemen late Monday.
Saeed Ghasseminejad, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), said Iran has only been emboldened by ongoing nuclear negotiations with the United States. “Iran’s armed forces, especially the IRGC, have been the main beneficiary of the temporary nuclear agreement,” he said. “The Obama administration has given them billions of dollar and a green light to dominate the region. Iran is using the money it receives to expand its missile program, to build new nuclear infrastructures, and to fund the Quds Force’s operations.”
“The truth is that in order to convince Iran to sign the nuclear agreement United States is literally bribing and strengthening the most radical and dangerous faction in Iran,” he said.
The other concern for the GCC is the lack of interest in the Yemeni conflict in the US. Since the air war has tapered off, the war in Yemen has become “non-news” in the US. Few Americans are aware of the ongoing war and this leaves Obama relatively free politically to ignore the issue if he desires. That could change, however, if Iran’s moves against the US Navy provoke a confrontation.
Such a confrontation wouldn’t help the GCC alliance, however. It would, however, help opponents to the Iranian nuclear deal, who would point to it as proof that Iran can’t be trusted.
The major card that the GCC nations hold over Obama is the continued purchase of American arms. The attendance of the French president at the GCC meeting and the aircraft deal with Qatar makes it very clear that the GCC can turn elsewhere if the US fails to support the GCC diplomatically.
Given the weak US economy and slumping American exports, Obama is likely to pay attention to the GCC and its concerns next week at Camp David. He is also quite aware that failure to support the GCC could have a negative impact on his war on ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
In conclusion, the situation in Yemen is still clouded and the GCC nations have yet to find an acceptable solution to the conflict. The political solution remains a vague hope as the Yemeni government and Houthi fighters are still far apart in their demands.
Strategically, the alliance has yet to articulate a winning approach. Historically, air campaigns can cause damage, but can’t win a war unless ground forces are successfully employed. The low profile approach being taken by the GCC and its allies may be more acceptable diplomatically and politically, but has a high risk factor as seen in Syria.
The tactical approach of hitting military targets and logistic hub, along with guerrilla attacks on vulnerable targets and American interdiction of Iranian military supplies will work if given time and a critical mass of trained insurgents. However, such an approach relies on continued GCC resolve and continuing assistance from its Western allies. However, as the war continues, the chances that all of the coalition remains firm declines as domestic pressures at home may force some leaders to pull out of the effort.
Finally, there is the diplomatic factor. France appears to be a solid ally, but the US is less certain. There is no political pressure in the US to continue to support the alliance and Obama remains an unreliable ally as long as he remains committed to an Iranian nuclear deal. Undoubtedly, at some time, Iran will make Yemen an issue if Obama remains committed to a nuclear deal, no matter what the cost. At that point in time, American assistance could quickly evaporate.
In the end, it appears that Yemen is proving to be just as intractable a problem as it has been for decades. However, as the GCC looks at the threats surrounding it, the issue is less one of stopping the fighting in Yemen and more one of pushing back Iranian perceived expansionism.
In that case, continuing the fight without a clear winning strategy seems to be a viable, even if undesirable, option.
A Key Moment for the Gulf Cooperation Council
By Jon B. Alterman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
May 5, 2015
A flurry of attention is surrounding the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states this week and next. An impending summit with President Obama at Camp David at the end of next week is driving a host of meetings. French President Francois Hollande is in Riyadh for a GCC summit, and Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with the Saudi government in Riyadh and then the GCC foreign ministers in Paris at the end of this week. At issue are a series of security threats in the Middle East, which the United States believes are best addressed by negotiations with the Iranians and which many of the GCC states believe must be met with unity, toughness, and resolve. The GCC states look around the region, and they attribute much of what is wrong to Iran. They see Iran virtually controlling Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and grasping for power almost everywhere else. Whereas in 2012 Arab leaders thought their greatest threat came from within, most now attribute the greatest threats to Iranian malfeasance. They see an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program representing an acceptance of Iran’s actions in the region, and they fear that an Iran unhampered by sanctions will be even more aggressive.
Ayatollah Khamenei begs not to be humiliated
By J. Matthew McInnis
American Enterprise Institute
May 7, 2015
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s fears of humiliation by the United States in the nuclear talks showed beneath anger, threats, and bombast in an impassioned speech on May 6. Speaking to Iranian educators in Tehran, Khamenei stated that Iran will not negotiate under the specter of military threats. The Supreme Leader seemed to be particularly piqued about comments from Vice President Joe Biden on April 30 that the president is willing to use “all instruments of American power” to prevent Iran from getting bomb, and from Secretary of State John Kerry reminding reporters in Israel on May 3 that the United States has developed a weapon—the Massive Ordinance Penetrator or MOP—to destroy Iran’s nuclear program if needed.
Why the Iran Nuclear Deal Is Not the North Korea Deal
By George Perkovich
April 28, 2015
As negotiations and debate proceed over a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran, comparisons will inevitably be made with the 1994 Agreed Framework that sought to end North Korea’s (the DPRK’s) nuclear weapons program. That earlier agreement failed due to a combination of factors. Many observers assert that a comprehensive agreement with Iran that will potentially be finalized in summer 2015 will also fail to prevent that country from acquiring nuclear weapons. To analyze this assertion and identify potential ways to avoid its validation in the coming months and years, it is worthwhile to explore the differences and similarities between the two cases. Iran and the DPRK—as countries—do share some attributes, including a pattern of violating international norms regarding nonproliferation, terrorism, and human rights. The agreements are also similar in certain ways. Like the Agreed Framework, the prospective arrangement with Iran will reward bad behavior to a degree. And animosity between the executive and legislative branches greatly complicates the prospect that the United States will live up to its side of an agreement with Iran.
What We Don’t Know About Iran Could Hurt Us
By Ilan Berman
American Foreign Policy Council
May 30, 2015
To hear the Obama administration tell it, the framework nuclear accord agreed to between the P5+1 powers and Iran last month in Lausanne, Switzerland is a good deal. The White House has pledged that the final agreement to be concluded in coming weeks, backed up by a robust monitoring and verification regime, will block Iran’s pathways to a bomb for at least a decade – and perhaps considerably longer. But is this feasible? The Iranians, at least, appear to have other ideas. Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has declared that he will not sign off on a final nuclear agreement unless the country’s military facilities are declared off limits to Western oversight. Similarly, the deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Hossein Salami, publicly equated the idea of opening up the Islamic Republic’s military facilities to outside inspectors to a “national humiliation.”
“An Army in All Corners:” Assad’s Campaign Strategy in Syria
Institute for the Study of War
U.S. policymakers in April 2015 appear to be returning to the position that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad represents the “least worst option in Syria” for American strategic interests. Assad is often compared to the Islamic State (ISIS) with the implication that Assad is the lesser of two evils. Senior administration officials including Secretary of State John Kerry signaled support for diplomatic negotiations with the regime in March 2015, rather than developing a committed strategy to remove Assad from power. American leaders’ ambivalence reflects the limitations of U.S. policy which attempts to treat Syria as the backdrop for a narrow counterterrorism problem rather than a comprehensive national security issue. This outlook is dangerously flawed. U.S. policymakers may be being captured by Bashar al-Assad’s own narrative. Assad’s political objective is to remain in power past the end of the Syrian war. However, the inability of regime forces to defeat the Syrian opposition decisively in battle has forced the regime to rhetorically embrace a negotiated solution to the conflict. The Syrian military campaign has complemented such official statements by attempting to set conditions on the ground favorable to the regime’s negotiating position.
Turkey’s June 7, 2015, Election Campaign Brings Changes
By Ilter Turan
German Marshall Fund
May 5, 2015
Some elections are more important than others. Turkey’s June 7, 2015 elections promise to be one such critical event, one in which a clear shift occurs in the distribution of the vote from those that have been obtained in the preceding elections. The governing AKParty, which has added to its share of the vote in each succeeding election since it first achieved power in 2002,1 is expected to experience a decline this time. As many as four parties may clear the 10 percent national electoral threshold and seat deputies in the legislature.
Watch out Washington, the Saudi Hawks are in Ascendancy
By David Ottaway
The latest shakeup in the ruling House of Saud has assured that Washington’s favorite prince, Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, will now become king as he is anointed heir apparent. But it also likely heralds new tensions in U.S.-Saudi relations as a new breed of “Saudi hawks” comes to power. They are opposed to any U.S. détente with Iran, its chief rival for regional hegemony. They are also gearing up for a military showdown with Tehran’s allies in the Yemeni civil war, while the Obama administration is pressing for a negotiated political solution there.
The Cult of the Offensive: The Islamic State on Defense
By Michael Knights
April 30, 2015
The Islamic State has been on the defensive in Iraq for more than eight months and has lost practically every battle it has fought. After peaking in August 2014, its area of control has shrunk, slowly but steadily. The group’s ability to control terrain has been dictated largely by the weakness of its opponents. When the Iraqi security forces (ISF) and the Kurdish Peshmerga have committed resources to an attack, they have dislodged the Islamic State’s defenses, particularly when Western airpower, intelligence, and planning have been a large part of the mix. This paper will use case studies from recent battles in north-central Iraq to argue that the Islamic State has a distinctive defensive operational style, and that this style has many exploitable weaknesses as the coalition considers new offensives in Anbar province and Mosul. In many ways, the Islamic State’s defensive style is reminiscent of the German military between 1944 and 1945: At the tactical level they are highly dangerous and can still win engagements, but at the operational level they lack strategic coherence and they display a chronic inability to defend terrain.
Iran and Saudi Arabia on a Collision Course
By Farzin Nadimi
April 30, 2015
On April 28, Saudi-led coalition aircraft bombed runways at Yemen’s al-Rahaba Airport to prevent an Iranian Airbus A310 plane from landing there. The Sana airport is currently controlled by Houthi/Zaidi forces with close ties to Shiite Iran, and the plane belonged to Mahan Air, a company affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. At the controls was a famously reckless ex-IRGC cargo pilot who had stubbornly ignored orders from Saudi F-15 crews to change course, spurring the runway strikes that rendered the airport inoperable and eventually forced him to turn back. Just last week, a convoy of cargo ships from Iran had attempted to run the Saudi blockade and deliver supplies and possibly arms to Yemeni ports under Zaidi control. The convoy was reportedly escorted by two of the IRGC Navy’s Tondar-class missile boats (armed with Ghadir anti-ship missiles, whose range is up to 200 miles), but it was called back after the U.S. Navy sent the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the guided missile cruiser USS Normandy from the Persian Gulf. The standoff was brief and politically courteous, but it also carried a clear message for Iran.