Analysis: Boots on the ground in Yemen? Think again

Saudi-led coalition must carefully consider the serious implications of a ground incursion in Yemen.

A Saudi soldier looks through binoculars at Saudi Arabia''s border with Yemen
Yemen has historically been a graveyard for many invaders [Reuters]

As the  Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen enters its third week, the majority of Yemen’s territory remains under the control of Houthi rebels and former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh loyalists.

This raises the question of whether the Saudi-led alliance will expedite plans to begin a ground troops incursion into Yemen. It is unclear, however, whether sending ground troops will help achieve the political demands of both Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, or whether the move will lead to a protracted war.

Based on Yemen’s history, social structure, and complicated political context, it could be argued that the kingdom and its coalition must carefully consider the possible implications of sending ground troops into Yemen.

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First, the society in Yemen is highly armed, with a strong and persistent gun culture in key tribal communities where images of tribesmen carrying rifles are part of everyday life.  

According to some estimates, the country is second to the United States in terms of the per capita ratio of privately owned guns.

Yemeni tribes have historically played decisive roles in the outcomes of almost every war in the past. Indeed, such engagement should be carefully coordinated to prevent the rise of radical elements or the fall of potential military assistance into the wrong hands.

Past foreign military incursions into Yemen have met with severe resistance, including the Egyptian military intervention in the 1960s – sent by President Gamal Nasser of Egypt – in support of northern republican forces fighting against ousted Imamate forces backed by Saudi Arabia. 

Yemen has historically been a graveyard for many invaders.

Any military ground incursion will fuel the Houthis’ political propaganda that portrays them as defenders of Yemen’s territorial integrity, and rallying people behind the Yemeni flag will become a more effective mobilisation tool. The Houthis and Saleh loyalists have a huge advantage in terms of knowledge of the difficult terrain, and local support that they might receive. 

This includes local contacts and military intelligence, which the Saudi-led coalition will have extreme difficulty cultivating during the early weeks of any potential military incursion. Al-Qaeda elements in Yemen may also attempt to exploit the situation to their political advantage, further hindering a Saudi-led incursion.

Al-Qaeda fighters have already initiated some bold actions in some southern towns over the past two days, such as attacking state prisons and a presidential residence. 

Finally, there is the issue of potential civilian casualties from any ground incursions. The United Nations has already estimated more than 500 deaths resulting from the ongoing conflict, a number that will certainly increase significantly under any ground military confrontations and may negatively affect an already sceptical public opinion.   

Thus, the Saudi-led coalition should exhaust all options for political settlement – including backdoor diplomacy with the Houthis and the General People’s Congress, former President Saleh’s party.

If these political solutions are unsuccessful, then the Saudi-led coalition should engage Yemeni tribes, opposed to the Houthi-Saleh alliance in both north and south Yemen, to ensure a broad popular support. 

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Yemen’s tribes have historically played decisive roles in the outcomes of almost every war in the past. Indeed, such engagement should be carefully coordinated to prevent the rise of radical elements or the fall of potential military assistance into the wrong hands.

The US will certainly be profoundly reluctant to allow support for the Yemeni tribes in areas that have witnessed active presence by al-Qaeda fighters.

Consequently, effective and controlled mobilisation of Yemeni tribes should occur through well-established political organisations such as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMPs). Within the JMPs, both al-Islah, the Muslim Brotherhood party, and the Yemeni Socialist Party can play significant roles in popular mobilisation.

In fact, al-Islah has been the first key political party to overtly support Hadi’s call for military intervention in Yemen by the Gulf Cooperation Council. 

In retaliation, Houthi rebels have targeted the homes of top Islah leaders over the past 48 hours,

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reportedly arresting more than 100 mid-level leaders. Al-Islah has long avoided direct military confrontation with the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. The recent escalations, however, may have motivated the party to mobilise its strong political base against them.

Nonetheless, the rise of a charismatic nationalist military leadership will be a key factor in defeating the Houthis. Hadi may remain in Saudi Arabia for some time to secure his own political survival, but many Yemenis are critical of his absence in the fight against the Saleh-Houthi alliance.

In fact, the current status of Hadi’s minister of defence remains uncertain and his recent sacking of three pro-Houthi military leaders – whom he had appointed while he was in Sanaa – is a move that can be described as too little, too late.

The absence of a nationalist military front will certainly open the door for warlords and radical elements to fill the political void.

Source: Al Jazeera