Saudi Arabia’s newfound military prowess and interventionist policy is being put to the test in the battle for central Yemen, with rising casualties posing a challenge to public support for the war.
For Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab Gulf allies, the military campaign in Yemen’s central province of Marib is their largest in more than 80 years and for some members of the coalition, their first real taste of war.
This week they embarked on the offensive’s largest ground operation, escalating a six-month aerial campaign targeting Shiite Houthi militias – which Riyadh says are backed by regional rival Iran – in a bid to re-install a pro-Saudi government.
Both in public and private, Saudi military officials have hailed their military action – depicting the war in Yemen as the first step of a wider and ambitious policy of “deterrence” and “checking” Iranian military and political influence in the region.
As part of the coalition’s surge, Qatar dispatched 1,000 troops to Yemen on Monday, marking that country’s largest ever military operation and adding to the growing forces of several hundred Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini forces. According to some reports, Saudi ally Egypt has contributed 800 troops to bolster the Gulf forces.
The precise size of the Saudi-led ground force is in dispute. Qatar-based Al Jazeera reported that a total of 10,000 Gulf troops had amassed in Yemen as of Wednesday – a number Saudi military sources and analysts place at 4,000. But as the coalition forces set their sights westwards to Sanaa, the capital, analysts expect the number to quickly surpass 10,000.
At first glance, the sparsely-populated central province of Marib may not seem like the center of the battle for future Gulf military policy. But due to the presence of oil refineries, key weapons depots, and its supply lines to Houthi forces some 75 miles north in Sanaa, the town has become the focus of the coalition force’s strategy to “cut off” Houthis in the capital and key to its victory in Yemen.
Impact of rising casualties
Three days in, and the battle for Marib already marks Saudi Arabia’s largest military venture since the 1934 Saudi-Yemen war as well as the first exposure to warfare’s costs for many of its allies.
“This is really the first time many of these countries on their own have gone outside their borders – and for Saudi Arabia, the first time since the 1930s,” says Gregory Gause, a Gulf expert and professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University.
And casualties have risen. Shortly before the ground invasion, a Houthi rocket attack on a military base outside Marib on Sept. 4 killed 60 Gulf troops, including 45 Emirati soldiers, according to official news agencies in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
The attack so far has rallied rather than hindered public support in the Gulf for the campaign, with an outpouring of support through social media in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. In a play to the public, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed ben Zayed vowed “revenge” and pledged to rid Yemen of Houthi “scum,” while Bahraini King Hamad al-Khalifa enlisted his own sons to join the campaign.
Yet as the fighting drags on and coalition members prepare for a costly ground invasion of the capital Sanaa, military analysts and coalition officials privately expect casualties to soar – and public morale to waver.
“I think the biggest question is the sustainability of casualties – UAE, Kuwait and Qatar – these societies really haven’t suffered casualties in foreign wars in the living memory of anyone,” Mr. Gause said.
Playing the Iran card
Saudi military analysts say that by painting the struggle for Yemen as part of a wider war against Iran and its encroaching influence in the Arab world, the Gulf monarchies are trying to prepare their publics for a longer, costlier war than originally billed.
“The public debate in the Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain is very simple: action in Yemen is not only to save Yemen from the hand of Houthi militia control, it is rather an important part of an overdue regional, Arab confrontation with Iran,” says Mustafa Alani, director of national security at the Jeddah-based Gulf Research Center
“Winning in Yemen is a key battlefield in the wide war against Iran aggressive policy,” he says. “Coalition forces understand the cost of this confrontation, and the possibility of high causalities in certain areas.”
Saudi military and palace officials have insisted they are ready to use the Sunni coalition again in countries such as Iraq and Syria, where Iranian forces such as the elite Revolutionary Guard have been actively fighting Sunni rebels and Islamist militias.
Can strategy survive battle for Sanaa?
With its regional fighting force being put to the test in Yemen, the parameters for a wider Saudi victory are clear.
Should the coalition uproot the Houthis from Sanaa and reinstall the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in the capital within the next three months, Riyadh’s new policy of intervention will be deemed a success, Gulf military analysts and officials say.
However, should the offensive on Sanaa stall and casualties rise, the appetite for future military action in states such as Iraq and Syria – where the conflicts are much more protracted and Iran has a strong military presence on the ground – will fade.
“There are some Saudis making a deal that this is ‘the first step’ in a brave new strategy. It is certainly new, but whether it extends to much more difficult situations such as Syria and Iraq has yet to be seen,” Texas A&M’s Gause said.
Observers and analysts say that should the battle for Marib and Sanaa prove a success, the Gulf Cooperation Council may formalize its Yemen coalition as a stand-by fighting force.
But if the war drags on and losses pile up, Saudi Arabia’s aggressive military policy may die out along its southern borders.