Saudis Step Up Yemen War, Deploy National Guard

Saudi Arabia starts a new military operation in Yemen and deploys its National Guard.

An honor guard at the Saudi Arabian Air Force Institute in Jeddah, June 2, 2014
An honor guard at the Saudi Arabian Air Force Institute in Jeddah, June 2, 2014 (DoD/D. Myles Cullen)

Saudi Arabia’s Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that one operation in the regional military intervention the kingdom is leading in Yemen was drawing to a close while another effort, dubbed “Restoration of Hope,” began.

No more information about the new operation was immediately released.

Earlier in the day, King Salman has ordered his National Guard — which is separate from the regular army — to join the campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen, possibly paving the way for a ground invasion almost a month after Saudi Arabia first launched airstrikes against what it considers to be proxies for its regional nemesis, Iran.

The deployment of the National Guard suggests King Salman is upping the ante. The last time the kingdom deployed the elite force — whose primarily responsibility is protecting the royal family — was in 1979 when Islamic militants attacked the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

It was unclear if the shift announced on Tuesday would involve a suspension of bombing. The Arab coalition, which includes Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and six other Sunni states, has failed in its proclaimed objective to restore Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi to Yemen’s presidency.

Nor does the campaign appear to have decisively set back the Houthis who forced Hadi to flee the capital, Sana’a, in February and set up a remnant government in the port city of Aden.

Although Hadi later fled to Saudi Arabia, Aden remained the focus of the campaign. Jets airdropped weapons into the city to help Hadi loyalists stop the Houthis taking it over altogether.

However, the Houthis still control almost the entire west of Yemen, including the territory of the former North Yemen.

The Saudi-led campaign does appear to weakened the alliance between the Houthis and Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The news agency Reuters reported last week that five pro-Saleh military brigades had defected and one was engaging the Houthis in the vicinity of Taiz, a city in the southwest.

Further splits could weaken Saleh and help Saudi Arabia and its allies beat back the Houthis who are engaged in street battles for control of Aden.

The Houthi-Saleh alliance is one of convenience. The former strongman waged six wars against the Shia rebels from 2002 to 2009. According to Reuters, “the group fears the Saudi drive for defections could even see Saleh on Riyadh’s side once again.”

The Saudis only withdrew their support from Saleh in 2012 when he seemed unable to put down an Islamist-inspired uprising that the kingdom considered a greater threat at the time.

Although Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the United States, tend to see the crisis in Yemen within the context of the Sunni states’ regional struggle for hegemony with Iran, the conflict has local roots. Iran threw its support behind the Houthis but did not create the group nor inspired their rebellion.

The Houthi revolt was “spurred by the deterioration of central government control before Saleh’s exit,” argues Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, “and then exacerbated by his successor’s inability to consolidate power — all of which created a perfect opening for the Houthis whose complaints about corruption and widespread pernicious foreign influence seemed to resonate with more Yemenis than ever.”

The Houthi takeover of the central government has fueled independence sentiment in the former South Yemen. Garrett Khoury writes at The Eastern Project that many of the fighters backing Hadi are actually southern separatists.

The Houthi advance has reignited separatist passions, as southerners see themselves as defending against a northern invasion, just as they were in 1994. The Southern Movement, as it is called, has gone from a civil rights-style group when it was born nearly a decade ago to a military force defending the south. They are not fighting for Hadi. He has little visible support, even in Aden.

It was Saleh who presided over Yemen’s unification in 1990 and a civil war that started four years later when the south tried and failed to secede. Hadi, despite being a southerner, never won the trust of the Southern Movement.

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