“Operation Decisive Storm” in Yemen marks a U.S.-endorsed Gulf position against Iranian encroachment on the Saudi border through the Houthi coup against the legitimate government in Yemen. The question, however, is this: are the military strikes by Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia, with the participation of Egypt and Pakistan, part of a strategy to halt Iranian encroachment in the Arab countries, or is it just a Yemeni episode imposed by necessity? The decision to respond militarily followed a request by the Yemeni President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi, who was besieged by the Houthis seeking to complete their coup in Aden and bring Iran to the strategic strait of Bab al-Mandab.
Saudi national security was also a major factor behind the Gulf and Arab military decision, because the developments on the Yemeni arena placed the Houthi and Iranian militias in a position of dominating decision making and of threatening the Saudi-Yemeni border. So will Decisive Storm persevere militarily until the Houthi coup -- supported by former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, his son Ahmed, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard -- is undone, even if this requires a ground operation and not just air and naval operations? Is the sudden awakening regarding the need to act in Yemen and make a military move part of an obligatory response, or is it the start of a qualitative strategic shift to re-sort regional balances and let both Washington and Tehran know that the Arab awakening is serious, especially on the eve of an anticipated U.S.-Iranian deal?
Operation Decisive Storm will raise morale among the supporters of legitimacy in Yemen and many Gulf people who suffered one humiliation after the other as a result of the Houthi adventures in Yemen and at the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. However, air strikes alone cannot decide the outcome of a war, despite the importance of dominating the skies. The United States relied on drones to fight al-Qaeda in Yemen, but this did not succeed in eliminating al-Qaeda or make a real impact on the ground in Yemen.
This does not negate the importance of taking out military bases, weapons caches, and air bases controlled by the Houthis, pro-Saleh forces, or Iranians in Yemen, however. Furthermore, eliminating senior Houthi commanders is a development that would affect morale on the battlefield. So certainly, air and naval operations have tangible value and results. However, control on the ground is of a different magnitude of importance.
In the past two days, there has been much talk about preparations for a ground operation by Egypt, Jordan, and Sudan. There were reports about the participation of 6 Moroccan planes, 6 Jordanian planes, and 3 Sudanese planes in Decisive Storm, to which Saudi Arabia committed 100 planes and naval units and 150,000 troops, and the UAE 30 planes, and in which Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain are also participating.
The participation of 10 Arab countries in the military operation in Yemen is important and carries many far-reaching implications, especially if the talk about ground intervention materializes. In that case, the Yemeni issue will enter a new internal and regional phase.
Some are rushing to say that Egypt will intervene with ground forces in Yemen. Others are also confident Egypt will be drawn to interfere in Libya. Both scenarios are possible, though they are unlikely. Egypt realizes today that it is unprepared for a military intervention in Libya, as it could become involved in a protracted conflict there. Egypt still remembers its previous involvement in Yemen, meanwhile, and the bitter taste in its mouth from those times.
Of course, there are new developments today in terms of the extremely important strategic relations between Egypt, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This relationship includes mutual defence when it comes to the national security of any one of these countries. In fact, Yemen’s developments posed a threat to Saudi national security, prompting the military operation.
What will give Decisive Storm a sense of military and political seriousness is clarifying its strategic-regional dimension, beyond YemenRaghida Dergham
The most important link in the future and in the outcomes of Decisive Storm has to do with the question of whether the operation’s strategic implications are confined to Yemen, or whether they go beyond Yemen. In other words, the decision-makers must have examined how to respond to the Iranian incursion inside Yemen as part of a broader political-military strategy. Their planning must have addressed the timeframe of Decisive Storm and the requirements of the phase that follows the operation vis-a-vis Iran, the Houthis, and Ali Abdullah Saleh. This is the minimum requirement. However, it is also important for the leaders of Decisive Storm to have a vision that goes beyond Yemen in terms of regional repercussions, to confront the Iranian role in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, not just in Yemen.
The Arab military operation in Yemen does not have an international dimension, unlike the coalition against ISIS, which includes the majority of Arab countries under U.S. leadership. Washington is not part of Decisive Storm, though it has endorsed it after the Houthis nearly took power in Aden after Sanaa.
Washington was compelled not to object to Decisive Storm after it previously turned a blind eye to the events in Yemen. It was as if Washington had seen the Houthis and their Iranian allies as a means to eliminate al-Qaeda and prevent ISIS from entering Yemen.
In fact, it was not just the United States that was absent from Yemen because of a dismal policy based on mutual attrition. Some Gulf countries also saw this policy as beneficial, to exhaust the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh on the one hand, and al-Qaeda and the angry tribes on the other hand hand. This strategic mistake was made worse by the belief that betting on the failure of the Houthis to govern Yemen by themselves was tantamount to a real policy, or that bribing tribes from time to time was a real policy.
Iran won’t back down
For its part, Tehran, in its first reaction to Decisive Storm, has made it clear that it will not back down. Tehran criticized the military operation, saying the Saudi military strikes would hinder a peaceful solution in Yemen. In other words, Tehran will not let Riyadh feel comfortable and will not facilitate its victory in Yemen, but will instead seek to implicate it and implicate Egypt, should Egypt decide to intervene on the ground.
If Decisive Storm has an exit strategy -- just like each calculated military operation has an exit strategy -- then a political track parallel to the military track is unavoidable, to address the Yemeni crisis politically on the basis of new foundations. But if the military objective is exclusively to create new balances on the ground, Decisive Storm’s strategy will be a “staying strategy” because a military approach to the crisis will need time and could lead to a quagmire.
The problem today is that the political approach requires compromises that have become difficult following the military operation. The political approach requires understandings that are rejected now with the vengeful and vindictive former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has played a fundamental role in leading Yemen to the brink of civil war. Ignoring him leads to further bloody conflict, while an accord with him requires a compromise that is difficult if not impossible for the decision makers behind the military operation to accept.
As regards the Houthis, it is impossible to eliminate them, even if there is an overwhelming desire to punish this tribe that has challenged major Gulf powers. There is also the al-Qaeda, which must not be encouraged or enabled, whether individually or officially by Saudis, because this will feed another monster that will backfire against Saudi Arabia and the region. Subsequently, no matter how much al-Qaeda could appear to be a necessary factor to defeat the Houthis or the Iranians behind them, enabling al-Qaeda would be suicide
Thus, there is a need for a comprehensive strategy that goes beyond the traditional buying of allegiances and the military goals of Decisive Storm, no matter how crucial or necessary they are. This strategy has an American component and a component related to the Iranian encroachment and Arab balances.
The developments in Yemen constituted the most important challenge for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which had sought a political solution in Yemen following the wave of change there 5 years ago. The GCC helped Ali Abdullah Saleh leave Sanaa, and facilitated dialogue that nearly pushed Yemen to a federalism formula satisfying all sides. But Iran became involved in Yemen, believing helplessness was the dominant feature of Saudi policy, following Tehran’s victories in Syria and Iraq. Tehran grew increasingly self-confident as a result of its overtures to the U.S. administration, and President Barack Obama’s desperate bid for a nuclear deal with Iran. Tehran proceeded to consolidate its hold over Yemen in Saudi’s backyard, seriously challenging Saudi national security.
Decisive Storm followed the Yemeni president’s appeal for help. But what made it a strategic requirement is the dramatic U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, which had reached the extent of disregarding the entire Arab national security. Washington remained silent vis-a-vis Iran’s encroachment in Syria, and became an “aerial” partner of the militias run by Iran in Iraq under the pretext of the joint fight against ISIS. Washington turned a blind eye to Iranian encroachment, both directly and through the Houthis, in Yemen, next door to Saudi Arabia.
What will give Decisive Storm a sense of military and political seriousness is clarifying its strategic-regional dimension, beyond Yemen. This requires a conversation and a new discourse between Arab countries, particularly between Gulf countries and Egypt, over the military role of these countries on the ground and how to best respond to Iranian escalation from Yemen to Iraq and Syria. In turn, this requires sitting at the long-term policy drawing board, and not contenting oneself with issuing statements and holding Arab summits. This is what is needed from Decisive Storm, so that this operation would be truly qualitative as part of a tight strategy, rather than being just a storm of rage as part of fleeting responses, which would reinforce the conviction that Saudi policy is haphazard and reactive.
What Decisive Storm also requires is a rational political dimension, because the interests of the Middle East and the Gulf do not lie in a large-scale military confrontation with Iran, unlikely as this may be. Perhaps Decisive Storm will open the door to accords, as proxy wars in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq failed and destroyed these countries. Only Syrians, Yemenis, Iraqis, and Lebanese were killed in those wars, and not citizens from the countries backing the proxy wars.
At the level of the Arab-American dialogue, Decisive Storm is a new milestone, but it will not turn into the nucleus of a new kind of Arab-American or Gulf-American relationship unless there is real determination to stop Iranian encroachment in Arab countries and end American disregard for Arab interests and positions.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on March 27, 2015 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.