Supporting ‘Operation Decisive Storm’
President Obama should take robust action to support his allies in the Gulf
As President Hadi’s government in Aden was increasingly under onslaught from the murky marriage between former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Iranian-backed Houthi movement in northern Yemen, President Hadi made an urgent call for international assistance to support his fledging government, which had already been forced to flee to the southern port of Aden from Sana’a earlier this year.
Riyadh’s attempts to find a political solution to the civil war were repeatedly stymied by the Houthi leadership’s uncompromising rejections to meaningfully negotiate on terms other than their own. Seeking to avoid military escalation, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Naif warned Ali Abdullah Saleh’s son, Ahmed Saleh, that if his alliance moved on Aden that the GCC couldn’t stand back.
Rebuffing such warnings, the Houthi leadership, with the assistance of Saleh-backed Yemeni air force units, began to bombard Hadi’s remaining positions in southern Yemen. With the impending fall of Aden, Saudi King Salman took decisive action, along with a global coalition of states from Morocco to Pakistan, to support Hadi’s government. Critically, the Royal Saudi Air Force, along with Emirati, Qatari, and Bahraini planes made over night strikes, which both have neutralized the ability of Saleh’s aligned air force units to launch further strikes against Hadi’s position in the South and have targeted senior members of the Houthi leadership.
While this Operation has unsurprisingly received criticism from the Houthi’s main foreign sponsor, Iran, who likened the GCC action as equivalent to that of Al Qaeda or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Riyadh’s operation is a defensive operation to ensure the security of Saudi Arabia (who shares a long porous border with Yemen) and other GCC states who could be directly impacted by the Houthis’ seizure of power in Yemen and their willingness to potentially allow Tehran to use the Kingdom’s southern neighbor as launching base to try to destabilize the Arabian Peninsula.
President Obama should take robust action to support his allies in the Gulf in defending the sovereignty of Yemen’s government and ensuring the security of the GCC.Andrew Bowen
Importantly, Saudi Arabia has kept the aims of this operation very limited, focused on shoring up Hadi’s position in the state, so that there can be a better environment for negotiations to reach a political solution that preserves the territorial integrity of the state and also creates a stable government that is legitimately representative of the Yemeni people. At present, neither the Houthi leadership nor Saleh believe they need to reach a political solution through negotiations. Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif’s recent comments in Lausanne underscore as well Tehran’s disinterest in a equitable political solution at present.
These opening hours of this Operation are crucially then only the beginning of a sustained air and naval campaign, with an expected ground campaign to follow, if these current operations aren’t sufficient. The Egyptian Navy is expected to help secure the Bab el Mandeb strait which the Houthis may attempt to exploit to disrupt naval traffic in the Red Sea, which could critically hamper GCC oil exports. Any ground campaign, which could be quite costly and logistically challenging, will likely fall on President Sisi or the Pakistani government.
President Obama’s decision to support “Operation: Decisive Storm” to shore up Hadi’s government through intelligence sharing and logistic support is an important first step, but one that will require further U.S. support in the coming days and weeks. As senior members of Congress have acutely warned in the past 24 hours about the risks of the collapse of Hadi’s government both to the security of the GCC but to further empowering Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Daesh, Washington should immediately back a UN Security Council resolution authorizing international assistance to support Hadi’s government. In the U.S.’s meetings with Zarif in Lausanne, Kerry should consider using this an opportunity to also urge Iran to support a political settlement in Yemen.
Washington should also increase its military aid to Saudi Arabia and the GCC as they sustain a potentially long campaign. If there is indeed an Egyptian ground operation, Obama should lift the block on the remainder of committed military aid to the Egyptian military. In this context, the U.S. Central Command could play a critical role both in providing advisory support in this longer air campaign and in naval operations to secure the Red Sea. The U.S., along with Britain, could also reassess direct ways that they can militarily support Hadi’s government after their withdrawal of personnel last week from Yemen. While it has been much reported that a number of the arms provided to the Yemeni military since 2007 have fallen into the hands of former President Saleh and the Houthis, it would be a mistake to not provide arms and support to Yemen’s legitimately recognized government in Aden.
It is in the U.S.’s clear national interests to ensure then both the security and stability of its allies in the Gulf and to prevent the state from becoming a further launching point for terrorism. Failing to take such robust action and allowing an internationally recognized government to fall at this critical hour would only deepen distrust amongst the U.S.’ partners in the Gulf about Washington’s security commitments. As the Obama administrations gets closer to reaching a nuclear deal with Iran, President Obama should use this an opportunity to show that beyond his rhetoric that the U.S. in terms of actions is as much committed to the GCC’s security as it is to a nuclear entente with Iran.
Andrew J. Bowen, Ph.D. is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, DC.
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