Geopolitics

Saudi Setback in Yemen
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 03 Oct , 2019

Within a fortnight of the Houthi drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco’s Abqaiq refinery and the Khurais oil field on September 14 that disrupted oil production and export capacity to the tune of five million barrels of crude per day, about 50% of Saudi output and 5% of global supply, Houthis have caused a major upset for Saudi Arabia.  

Houthi troops attacked Saudi Arabia’s Najran region bordering Yemen claiming capture of thousands of Saudi troops and killing some 500 including several officers and soldiers. As per UAE sources several Saudi Arabian Army officials and officers have been taken captive by Houthis. Najran region of Saudi Arabia is inhabited by the Yam tribe, who are Yemeni origin.

Al Masria TV channel run by Houthis broadcast that thousands of Saudi troops were killed and surrendered, along with hundreds of weapons systems imported from US likes Armour vehicles, ammunition, rockets, guns etc.

Speaking at a press conference on September 28, Brigadier General Yahya Saree, spokesman for Yemeni Armed Forces, stated, “The operation resulted in the complete destruction of three military brigades of the enemy (Saudi) forces, seizure of large quantities of military equipment, including hundreds of vehicles and armored vehicles, capture of thousands of enemy forces, mostly traitors and the beguiled (Saudi-sponsored Yemeni militiamen loyal to Yemen’s former president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi). Hundreds more were killed and wounded in the process as well. Only 72 hours after the start of the operation, our forces laid full siege to enemy troops. Three brigades of traitors with units of the Saudi army were completely destroyed, and scores of people taken hostage…. Our forces worked to protect thousands of surrendered enemy forces against retaliatory raids by the coalition of aggression.”

AL Jazeera TV reports that Houthis used snipers effectively to soften defence of the three Saudi brigades, which later surrendered. Houthis are now in full control of the country’s Northern region. Houthis have released footage of the attack, which was also covered on WION TV in India. Houthis claim to have taken some 2000 Saudi mercenaries captive with their weapons, ammunition and equipment including armored vehicles. The number may be exaggerated but the operation proves that Saudi forces were caught with their pants down.

The fact that some 200-300 Houthis pulled of this attack so successfully is major embarrassment for Saudi Arabia. Surrender by the Saudi forces-mercenaries in this manner indicates they can hardly be classified as good fighters. There is also speculation that the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition’s C-in-C Raheel Sharif (former Pakistani army chief) may be fired and sent back to Pakistan because capitulation of these three brigades.

Documents of some of the captives displayed by Houthis indicate they are from ISIS-AQAP. This could be a ruse to obfuscate identities of Saudi and coalition forces. On the other hand, ISIS-AQAP cadres could also be part of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition.  Patrick Cockburn, former head of MI6, in his article titled ‘Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country; published on July 13, 2014, had written, “Iraq is disintegrating not because of Maliki but due to Sunni revolt in Syria and its takeover by jihadis, sponsored by donors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE. By seeking to weaken Maliki and Assad, Saudi Arabia and its allies are  playing into the hands of ISIS . West may have to pay a price.”

Much before 9/11, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi ambassador to US told head of MI-6, “Time is not far off in Middle East when it will be literally ‘God help the Shia’. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.” Saudi sympathy for anti-Shia “militancy” is also identified in leaked US official documents.

The then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in December 2009 in a cable released by Wikileak that “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for Al-Qaeda, Taliban, LeT and others.”

Yemen lies astride the Bab al-Mandeb, an important shipping lane on the Red Sea that leads to the Suez Canal. Most Asian shipments to Europe pass through it, as do millions of barrels of oil per day. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia and a number of its regional allies launched a devastating campaign against Yemen.

Reports had emerged then that Pakistan too had provided troops from its Mujahid battalions for the ground offensive for the Saudi-led ground invasion. Yemen’s Houthi Ansarullah movement claim they inflicted dramatic losses both in terms of military hardware and personnel on the Saudi-led forces in the campaign that lasted several months. According to the US-based Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), the war has claimed more than 91,000  lives over the past four and a half years.

The war has also taken a heavy toll on the country’s infrastructure, destroying hospitals, schools, and factories. The UN says over 24 million Yemenis are in dire need of humanitarian aid, including 10 million suffering from extreme levels of hunger.

The West feels Yemen is well connected for terrorists to take  advantage of ungoverned space to plan and launch spectacular attacks against the US and its allies. Interestingly, according to some estimates Saudi Arabia is spending $5 billion every month on operations in Yemen, while Iran spends less than 1% of that amount for supporting the Houthis.

Recent successes of Houthis indicate their capacity to wage asymmetric war. At the same time, Houthis have been flying Saudi jets also.  In December 2017, remains of a one-way kamikaze Iran-origin Qasef-1 UAV, fired by Houthis into Saudi Arabia were displayed at a press briefing at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington.

Saudi Arabia said such drones attacked one of its oil pipelines as other assaults targeted energy infrastructure elsewhere in the kingdom on May, 14, 2019;  Houthi drones had hit Saudi Arabia’s 750-mile East-West Pipeline linking Red Sea. It may be recalled that in August, Houthi drones set fire to Saudi Arabia’s Shaybah oilfield near the UAE border. Post the recent attack on Najran region, Houthis say they will hit Saudi Arabia even deeper and also target Mecca-Medina.

In a recent TV interview, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has warned that oil prices may soar if the world does not act to deter Iran. He said failure to act could embolden Iran and lead to war, which he said would ruin the global economy. But MBS was referring to the attack on oil facilities on September 14, which he blames on Tehran. Iran has responded by saying that these remarks by MBS would “bring [the Saudis] nothing but shame”.

On September 24, Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi foreign affairs minister had said that US patience with Iran is not inexhaustible and warned that military options are still being considered following the attack on the Aramco oil facilities of Saudi Arabia. He also said that the UN-commissioned report into the origins of the attack will be available fairly soon, and described the EU’s September 23 statement ascribing the responsibility to Iran as “very significant”.

US has announced beefing up Saudi air defence by sending one Patriot missile battery, four Sentinel radars and 200 support troops. An additional THAAD missile defense system and two additional Patriot missile batteries are on standby. Pentagon has also sought international support and contributing assets to reinforce Saudi Arabia’s defence.

The US recently imposed more punishing sanctions on Iran and Tehran has ruled out talks with the US under economic pressure. There are also reports of Trump contemplating a second cyber strike on Iran. Will Saudi Arabia directly attack Iran is questionable. Negotiating peace accord with Houthis by Saudi Arabia doesn’t appear possible either.

Given the recent Houthi successes, more attacks by them in Saudi Arabia and even UAE are very much possible. How in such backdrop will the US and Saudi Arabia punish-attack Iran knowing Iran’s unconventional capabilities, effect on global oil flow and movement through the Persian Gulf, would need serious examination by the opposing forces.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

is a former Lt Gen Special Forces, Indian Army

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