Containment: The Gulf States' Game Plan for Yemen

"The coalition has succeeded in neutralizing threats that could have otherwise pushed the conflict beyond Yemen’s borders."

The Saudi-led international coalition operating in Yemen announced late last month it had ended the first phase of its nearly month-long campaign in the country. Though the coalition fell short of its stated goal of returning Yemen’s internationally recognized government to power, it insists that in removing the threat of spillover to Yemen’s neighbors, it has met its primary objectives.

The “mission accomplished” rhetoric may appear to be an example of moving the goalposts to claim success, but a close look at the initial campaign reveals that its ambitions were always limited to containing the conflict within Yemen’s borders.

When President Abed Mansour Hadi was forced to flee the strategic port city of Aden in March, it was clear that the forces loyal to him would be unable to stop the rebel offensive sweeping across the country. The Houthis, allied with forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, had seized the capital Sana’a in September and were rapidly consolidating control over much of Yemen’s heartland. As the government in Sana’a deteriorated, Saleh loyalists in Yemen’s notoriously divided military turned on Hadi, handing the rebels control of several key assets.

In taking Sana’a, the rebels seized several military installations in and around the capital, which held the military’s stockpile of Scud-B and SS-21 Scarab ballistic missiles. Correctly positioned, both of these systems could reach deep into Saudi territory or across the strait to the joint U.S.-French base in Djibouti. A spokesman for the coalition has also suggested that Saleh’s loyalists possess chemical weapons, which could be fitted to ballistic missiles, though evidence of such arms is scant.

Rebel forces also took control of warplanes, based at Sana’a International Airport, which had previously given government forces the edge over the Houthis and against a separate ongoing insurgency by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Using these aircraft, rebel forces targeted Hadi in Aden, forcing his retreat. While it is likely that elements of the air force loyal to Saleh conducted the strikes against Hadi, Saudi media reports suggest that Iran has trained some Houthi pilots as well. 

Flying unopposed, the rebels enjoyed a substantial strategic advantage over Hadi’s forces, but also the ability to threaten Yemen’s neighbors. Yemen has never had a particularly large or advanced air force, but its handful of MiG-29 fighters are able to carry a range of weapons including Kh-29 and Kh-31 guided missiles (apparently delivered by Russia over a decade ago), which could have been used to strike vessels in and around the country’s territorial waters.

The coalition bombing campaign focused on eroding this edge by closing off Yemeni airspace and striking multiple rebel-controlled air bases and ballistic missile sites. After the first four days of strikes on rebel bases, one Saudi officer claimed that the insurgents “no longer possess any planes and they no longer have command and control, inside or outside the air bases.” However, after weeks of heavy bombing, it appears some ballistic missile stockpiles have eluded the initial waves of air strikes. These include a Scud missile facility on the edge of Sana’a that was struck on April 21, causing a massive explosion that killed 25 and wounded hundreds. 

Yemen’s ballistic missiles and fighters, however, were not the coalition’s only concern. By the start of the intervention, Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists had already advanced far south, making their way to Aden. As they did so, U.S. and British special forces evacuated their posts at Al-Anad air base near the city, removing a vital Western outpost in the ongoing battle to contain AQAP.

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