Most Americans might be forgiven for having no clue what the war in Yemen actually looks like, especially as Western media has spent at least the first two years of the conflict completely ignoring the mass atrocities taking place while white-washing the Saudi coalition's crimes. Unlike wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, which received near daily coverage as they were at their most intense, and in which many Americans could at least visualize the battlefield and the actors involved through endless photographs and video from on the ground, Yemen's war has largely been a faceless and nameless conflict as far as major media is concerned.
Aside from mainstream media endlessly demonstrating its collective ignorance of Middle East dynamics, it is also no secret that the oil and gas monarchies allied to the West are rarely subject to media scrutiny or criticism, something lately demonstrated on an obscene and frighteningly absurd level with Thomas Friedman's fawning and hagiographic interview with Saudi crown prince MBS published in the New York Times.
But any level of meticulous review of how the Saudi coalition (which heavily involves US assistance) is executing the war in Yemen would reveal a military and strategic disaster in the making. As Middle East Eye editor-in-chief David Hearst puts it, "All in all, the first military venture to be launched by the 32-year-old Saudi prince as defense minister is a tactical and strategic shambles."
And if current battlefield trends continue, the likely outcome will be a protracted and humiliating Saudi coalition withdrawal with the spoils divided among Houthi and Saudi allied warlords, as well as others vying for power in Yemen's tenuous political future. But what unsurprisingly unites most Yemenis at this point is shared hatred for the Saudi coalition bombs which rain down on civilian centers below. For this reason, Hearst concludes further of MBS' war: "The prince, praised in Western circles as a young reformer who will spearhead the push back against Iran, has succeeded in uniting Yemenis against him, a rare feat in a polarized world. He has indeed shot himself, repeatedly, in the foot."
So how has this come about, and how is the war going from a military and strategic perspective?
First, to quickly review, Saudi airstrikes on already impoverished Yemen, which have killed and maimed tens of thousands of civilians (thousands among those are children according to the UN) and displaced hundreds of thousands, have been enabled by both US intelligence and military hardware. Cholera has recently exploded amidst the appalling war-time conditions, and civilian infrastructure such as hospitals and schools have been bombed by the Saudis. After Shia Houthi rebels overran Yemen’s north in 2014, embattled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi vowed to “extract Yemen from the claws of Iran” something which he's repeatedly affirmed, having been given international backing from allies in the West, and a major bombing campaign began on March 2015 under the name "Operation Decisive Storm" (in a cheap mirroring of prior US wars in Iraq, the first of which was "Desert Storm").
Saudi Arabia and its backers fear what they perceive as growing Iranian influence in the region, something grossly exaggerated, and seek to defend at all costs Yemeni forces loyal to President Hadi. The coalition includes Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Egypt, Sudan, and the US and UK, and the Saudi initiated war has also lately received behind the scenes political support from Israel, something recently confirmed by Israeli officials. Concerning the supposed Iran threat in Yemen, an emergency session of the Arab League recently doubled down on its shared commitment to wage war against Iranian interests after it blamed Tehran for a November 4 ballistic missile attack from Shia Houthi rebels against the Saudi capital, which Iran denies playing a role in.
But the Saudi coalition is now in shambles according to a new Middle East Eye investigation. The report highlights some surprising facts long ignored in mainstream media and which give insight into how the Saudi military campaign is likely to end in total failure as "more than two years into a disastrous war, the coalition of ground forces assembled by the Saudis is showing signs of crumbling."
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Below are 5 key takeaways from the full report.
1) Saudi coalition ground forces have a huge contingent of foreign fighters, namely Sudanese troops with UAE officers, suffering the brunt of the battle on the front lines.
Sudanese forces, which constitute the bulk of the 10,000 foreign fighters in the Saudi-led coalition, are suffering high casualty rates. A senior source close to the presidency in Khartoum told Middle East Eye that over 500 of their troops had now been killed in Yemen.
Only two months ago, the commander of the Sudanese Army's rapid support force, Lieutenant General Mohammed Hamdan Hamidati, quoted a figure of 412 troops killed, including 14 officers to the Sudanese newspaper Al Akhbar. "There is huge pressure to withdraw from this on-going fight," the Sudanese source told MEE. A force of up to 8,000 Sudanese troops are partly led by Emirati officers. They are deployed in southern Yemen as well as to the south and west of Taiz in al Makha.
2) Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir has been dubbed "president of the mercenaries" for accepting over $2.2 billion from Saudi Arabia and Qatar in order to provide canon fodder for the Saudi ground war in Yemen in the form of thousands of young Sudanese troops, but he's threatening revolt. To escape his untenable position, he is reportedly seeking help from Putin.
At home, Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir is also having second thoughts. He remembers the lifeline he got when Riyadh deposited $1bn in Sudan's Central Bank two years ago, followed by Qatar's $1.22bn. But he hardly enjoys being known as "president of the mercenaries," and he has other relationships to consider.
On Thursday, Bashir became the latest of a procession of Arab leaders to beat a path to Vladimir Putin's door. He told the Russian president he needed protection from the US, was against confrontation with Iran, and supported the policy of keeping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power. This follows an incident at home, which was variously described as espionage and a coup attempt. Taha Osman Ahmed al-Hussein was dismissed as the director of the Office of the Sudanese President after he was discovered carrying a Saudi passport and a residency permit for the UAE. He was caught maintaining secret contact with both.
3) Saudi-backed Yemeni fighters are increasingly mutinying and fear local mass push back from Yemen's civilian population due to the unpopular bombing campaign.
Mutiny is also stirring in the ranks of Yemenis who two and a half years ago cheered the Saudi pushback against the Houthis who were trying to take over the entire country.
The Saudi relationship with Islah, the largest group of Yemeni fighters in the ground force employed by the coalition, has at best been ambivalent. The Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's closest partner in Yemen, Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, is openly hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Yemeni party... They [Islahi leadership] are feeling the political price they are paying for supporting a campaign that turned in Yemeni eyes from liberation to occupation... Enough is enough. The regional Islahi leadership are now talking of starting direct negotiations with the Houthis, a senior Islah source told MEE.
4) Saudi proxy fighters are at war with each other: an Emirati-backed militia fighting under the Saudi coalition is assassinating other members of the Saudi coalition in what's increasingly an internal coalition civil war.
They are also paying a physical price. A number of Islahi sheikhs and scholars as well as Salafis who rejected Emirati leadership have been killed or targeted by assassination attempts. The list is growing: there have been assassinations of Khaled Ali al-Armani, a leader in the Islah Party, on 7 December 2016; Sheikh Abdullah Bin Amir Bin Ali Bin Abdaat al-Kathri, on 23 November 2017 in Hadhramaut; Abdelmajeed Batees (related to Saleh Batees) a leader in the Islah Party on 5 January 2017 in Hadhramaut; Mohammed Bin Lashgam, Deputy Director of Civil Status, on 17 January 2017; Khaled Ali al-Armani, a leader in the Islah Party, on 7 December 2016...
"The Emiratis do not conceal their hostility to Islah. Islahi sheikhs and scholars are being assassinated, and this is being co-ordinated by the pro-Emirati militia. In addition, the UAE is clearly enforcing the blockade of Taiz, and withholding support for our fighters in the city," the source said.
5) Oman is entering the fray, which will further fragment the Saudi coalition as rivalries for territorial control develop.
As if the balance of competing outside forces in Yemen is not complicated enough, enter Oman. Oman, too, regards southern Yemen as its backyard. It is particularly worried about the takeover of a series of strategic ports and islands off Yemen by the Emiratis. A Qatari diplomatic source described this as the Emiratis' "seaborn empire," but the Omanis are upset by this too.
The Omanis are understood to be quietly contacting local Yemeni tribal leaders in south Yemen, some of them separatist forces, to organize a more "orchestrated response" to the militias paid for and controlled by Abu Dhabi.
Like the proxy war in Syria, it appears that Gulf/US plans have backfired, and we are perhaps in for a long Saudi coalition death spiral fueled by delusion and denial. Sadly, it is primarily Yemeni civilians and common people in the region that will continue to bear the brunt of suffering wrought by such evil and delusional stupidity.