Alwaght- The problem for Saudi Arabia moving into the future is that once an alliance like Saudi-led coalition against Yemen has been built and forces engaged, blood shed, it is very difficult to just ‘exit’ without any real advantage or dominant position being established. It becomes a position of foreign policy pride and image-consciousness, Dr. Matthew Crosston, Professor of Political Science, says.
The Saudi regime and its allies started relentless military campaign against Yemen on March 26, 2015 with the stated objective of undermining the popular Ansarullah movement (Houthis) and restoring to power fugitive Yemeni president Abdu Rabuh Mansour Hadi.
The aggression has claimed lives of over 9,500 Yemenis, including 4,000 women and children; it has also taken a heavy toll on the already-impoverished country’s facilities and infrastructure, destroying many hospitals, markets, schools, factories and mosques.
Following is an interview with Mr. Crosston on Saudi-led coalition's military campaign against neighboring Yemen.
Q: What is the Yemen' wars nature and who are the warring parties?
A: The Yemen conflict is a frightening mix of internal turmoil, multinational coalition forces, militarized and radicalized non-state actors, and major powers enacting something of a regional proxy battle within Yemen borders. In one way or another, formally and informally, there is ‘activity’ supporting forces both for and against the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels that include Saudi Arabia, basically all of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iran, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and small but radical off-shoots of DAESH. To a smaller degree there is certainly ‘elevated interest’ in the activity taking place in Yemen from both the United States and the European Union. While there may not be formal forces operating within Yemen from the US or EU, it is without doubt both see the outcomes of the Yemen conflict directly affecting their national security interests.
The standard explanation is that the Yemen conflict is a classic internal crisis based on opposition forces fighting an entrenched authoritarian domestic regime. However, the reality is more complicated. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have direct competing interests in the two local forces fighting each other. Iran would prefer the Houthi rebels oust the domestic regime, while Saudi Arabia and most of the GCC clearly want the government to remain in power. The possible entrance of AQAP and off-shoots of DAESH into the Yemen region makes the conflict much more important geopolitically to major global powers like the United States. The future of Yemen in terms of prosperity and stability is, alas, not in all likelihood of great important to any of the above-mentioned players. Rather, how Yemen goes is reflected purely through the individual geopolitical interests of each player. Thus the geopolitical importance of Yemen is minor in terms of its own long-term future but is major when it comes to larger player concerns about radicalized, militant, non-state groups that might use Yemen as a launching point for terror activity far beyond the Gulf region.
Q: Why Yemen is of great importance for international and regional players?
A: I basically answered this question with my answer above. In addition to those factors, there is also a general global community concern to make sure Yemen does not end becoming a formal de facto ‘proxy war’ for Middle East hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While that rivalry has long been in existence, the potentiality of it erupting into proxied military fighting disturbs almost all countries around the globe with worries about how many other states could end getting sucked into the extended conflict.
Q: What are Bab al-Mandab and Gulf of Aden economic and political significance? Do you think that Israel is so sensitive about these strategic areas and will it take exclusive actions?
A: “According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the Strait of Bab el-Mandab is a key chokepoint between the horn of Africa and the Middle East, and a strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean. It is located between Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea, and connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. Three to four billion barrels of oil per day are shipped through the Strait, making it a vital waterway for the global economy. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait and Gulf of Aden are strategically important to the United States as an important sea lane for lawful shipping and transit," said Rear Adm. Terry B. Kraft, Commander of Enterprise CSG.
That above fact was stated all the way back in 2011, long before the Yemen conflict erupted in earnest. Therefore any conflict involving the countries that are the ‘holders of the chokepoint’ will be of direct and dire interest to major stakeholders in the global economy. Thus, I think it is not as important to talk about how sensitive Israel is about Bab al-Mandab and the Gulf of Aden as it is to discuss how crucial it is to the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China. More than anyone else those two countries would be VERY reluctant to allow trouble within Yemen to spill over into Bab al-Mandab and affect the regular flow and conduct of business within the global economy.
Q: How do you assess Saudi Arabia's alliance-building? How do you predict its future?
A: I am personally a skeptic about the alliance-building conducted by Saudi Arabia in terms of the conflict in Yemen. First, this alliance has clearly not put a quick and definitive end to the conflict with its side emerging the clear victor. That was the obvious optimal end-result sought and so far it is not anywhere close to becoming a reality. The problem for Saudi Arabia moving into the future is that once an alliance like this has been built and forces engaged, blood shed, it is very difficult to just ‘exit’ without any real advantage or dominant position being established. It becomes a position of foreign policy pride and image-consciousness. At the moment Saudi Arabia also has been able to hold off an international perception of being directly responsible for atrocities or poor military judgment on the fields of battle in Yemen (this is debatable, of course, but overall the global community has not risen up to condemn Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the conflict overall). Because of these factors that are part logistical, part military strategy, and part international public relations, I do not believe Saudi Arabia sees it as detrimental to itself to continue its involvement within Yemen. As such, I believe this alliance will continue to be extremely active in trying to influence how the future of Yemen goes.
Q: Do the US and Israel provide Saudi-led coalition with military and intelligence?
A: While both countries deny ‘active involvement’ in the Yemen conflict, there is damning and somewhat overwhelming reportage of Israel and the United States supplying intelligence, information, and materiel support to the Saudis. Sometimes countries can play a bit ‘fast and loose’ with this type of activity by stating all such cooperation is part of the normal relations between the two countries and that the US and Israel cannot be held responsible for what Saudi Arabia may actually do with such intelligence and information. In terms of international law this is technically credible but in terms of the spirit of conflict resolution and the termination of violent conflict, this type of posturing often rings hollow to most around the world. In this particular case, it is clear that while it seems clear Israel and the US do not think Saudi Arabia is using the best strategies and tactics within Yemen, they both still prefer a ‘Yemen solution’ that sees a stronger Saudi Arabia rather than a stronger Iran.
Q: Could this war be extended from north of Yemen to the south of Saudi Arabia, areas of Qatif and al-Awamiyah?
A: At the moment I find it difficult to believe such connectivity will happen. Is it possible? Maybe. But in order for that to truly happen it will become important for those in Qatif, and their protests against the Saudi way of running things INTERNALLY, find a philosophical unity with those who may protest against the Saudi way of acting on things in Yemen EXTERNALLY. At the moment, within Saudi Arabia, these two critiques are seemingly quite disparate and distinct, sharing no connective theoretical or political bridges that could lead to an intensified protest activism. This does not mean it is impossible but so far this connectivity has not happened organically. When that is the case it usually means some force, internal or external, needs to be a catalyst to create the connection artificially. This would be of direct interest to the Houthis and those agents that support them but it is as yet unclear if they have anyone or any organization capable of fulfilling that role.
Q: Is there any possibility of Russian intervention in the Yemen's crisis?
A: At the moment, with the sudden withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria on the edict of President Putin, it does not seem like it is presently in the Russian Federation’s interest to enter the Yemen arena. First, Russia is not nearly as close to or sees a direct ‘sphere of influence’ interest with Yemen as it did with Syria. Second, while the arguments Russia made to enter Syria in the first place could be ‘stretched’ to fit the Yemen context, it is a harder sell within the Russian military community to argue that the affairs of Yemen and how its internal political turmoil is resolved is as directly impactful geographically and geopolitically on Russia as Syria is. This may in real terms end up being inaccurate, but the perception at the moment is quite strong and it argues against any immediate ‘Russian adventurism’ inside of Yemen.
Q: what is your take on United Nations and Human rights organizations' reaction towards significant civilian casualties in Yemen?
A: “The top U.N. human rights official said his organization will investigate possible Saudi-led coalition war crimes and crimes against humanity in Yemen.The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen may be responsible for "international crimes", a category that includes war crimes and crimes against humanity, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Friday. "We are possibly looking at the commission of international crimes by members of the Coalition," Zeid said in a statement Friday. International crimes include war crimes, crimes against humanity and grave violations of human rights. The U.N. top human rights official also condemned an airstrike in Yemen this week, which targeted a local market and killed at least 106 people, adding that the coalition was "responsible for twice as many civilian casualties as all other forces put together.”
The above was on March 18, 2016. This at least indicates an initial movement on the part of international organizations and potential ‘watchdog’ agencies to view more critically Saudi initiatives within Yemeni territory. Up until now, as mentioned before, I do not think the global community wanted to take too critical a look into Saudi activity in Yemen and perhaps was simply ‘wishfully hoping’ that nothing too egregiously anti-humanitarian would take place and be able to be directly tied to Saudi action. It seems that such hopes are now starting to fall a little flat. Whether this first report will continue to build past a tipping point and launching formal international investigations against Saudi maneuvers is hard to predict. First looks into potential atrocities more often than not tend to not grow into sustained forays. We can also be assured that whatever international pressure or influence Saudi Arabia and its allies can exert on this process will be out in full force. This is part of the more unseemly side of international law: we may hope it is a black-and-white situation holding little room for backdoor political ‘massaging.’ But reality tells me that such manipulations happen far more often than we may wish to acknowledge, especially when it involves important international players and their perceived national security interests.