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Saudis Find Out Hard Way: Yemen Is AnotherGraveyard of Empires
Invaders throughout history have thrownthemselves against the anvil, only to be left bloodied and defeated.


Young Yemeni man in port city of Aden.


“The Saudis are trying to use a brick tosmash an anvil. They will destroy themselves, not Yemen.”
That’s how one of Yemen’s more prominenttribal sheikhs described Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The war will enterits fourth year this month. Its primary supporter, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammadbin Salman, boasted that it would last weeks or perhaps a few months. Thecampaign, which was christened “Operation Decisive Storm,” was meant to showoff Saudi Arabia’s military might by rapidly defeating the Houthi rebels—whoenjoy limited Iranian support—and reinstalling Yemen’s exiled president, AbdRabbo Mansur Hadi.

“沙特人正试图用砖头砸铁砧。他们将毁灭自己,而不是也门。”这是也门最著名的部落首领之一对沙特阿拉伯在也门的战争的描述。这场战争将于本月进入第4个年头。它的主要支持者沙特王储穆罕默德·本·萨尔曼(Muhammad bin Salman)曾夸口说,这场战争可能只会持续几周或几个月。这场被命名为“果断风暴行动”的战役旨在通过迅速击败胡塞叛军——他们部分受到伊朗支持——并扶持也门流亡总统阿卜杜·拉布·曼苏尔·哈迪(Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi)重新上台,以展示沙特的军事实力。

The war, which is commonly referred to inSaudi Arabia as Muhammad bin Salman’s war, was meant to mark the ambitiousyoung prince’s debut on both the national and international stages. It was alsosupposed to check what Saudi Arabia views as growing Iranian influence in theregion.

这场战争,在沙特阿拉伯通常被称为穆罕默德•本•萨尔曼(Muhammad bin Salman)的战争,是为了彰显这位雄心勃勃的年轻王子在国家和国际舞台上的首次亮相。这场战争同样也被期望用来检验沙特阿拉伯对伊朗在该地区日益增长的影响力的看法。

Instead, it’s shown Saudi Arabia’s lavishlyfunded and equipped army to be a paper tiger incapable of even defending theKingdom’s southern border from sandal-clad rebels equipped with nothing morethan light and medium arms. Rather than checking Iranian influence, the war mayforce the Houthis, whose relationship with Iran has heretofore been limited, toenhance their dealings with Tehran. Most critically, it has resulted in whatcould be the permanent fragmentation of Yemen. That country’s strategiclocation along the Bab al-Mandab, just across from the Horn of Africa, and longborder with Saudi Arabia mean that the instability in Yemen will be hard, ifnot impossible, to contain.


This instability and a plethora ofunintended and unforeseen consequences are already in evidence along theSaudi-Yemeni border. Saudi Arabia’s military has thus far been unable to securethat border. Hours of footage of the Houthis’ retaliatory attacks on Saudiborder posts and other military installations well inside the Saudi provincesof Najran, Jizan, and Asir have been posted on YouTube and other sites. In manyof these videos, Saudi forces, even though they are equipped with M1 Abramstanks and armored personnel carriers, flee in disarray when engaged by ahandful of Houthis armed with RPGs and Kalashnikovs.


These southern Saudi provinces are home torestive and frequently oppressed religious minorities that include Zaidis andIsmailis—both of which are branches of Shi’ism that are different from thepredominate branch in Iran. The Saudi government has little control over partsof these provinces and, as such, they are ripe for revolt if there is weaknesswithin the House of Saud. Thousands of Yemenis who have had their livelihoodsand loved ones destroyed by Saudi bombs would be quick to aid such a revolt.


Rather than relying on its poorly trainedand ineffective army, Saudi Arabia has used its air force to pummel Yemen. TheSaudi-led campaign, which is reliant on mid-air refueling capabilities from theU.S., has devastated Yemen’s infrastructure, targeted and destroyed much ofYemen’s once-productive farmland, and killed hundreds of civilians. As a resultof the air war and sanctions, Yemen now faces the world’s worst humanitariancrisis. More than 80 percent of Yemen’s population of 26 million requiresurgent aid. Photos and videos of starving children and emaciated adults are inclear evidence on Twitter and international news sites.


In South Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and UAE backedmilitias—ranging from southern separatists to militant Salafi groups that areindistinguishable from al-Qaeda—are competing with one another to secureinfluence and access to the weapons and materiel provided by their backers.Aden, the de-facto capital for Yemen’s powerless government in exile, is nowthe scene of almost daily assassinations and bombings. The most recent attackon February 24 involved two Islamic State suicide bombers and killed 14 people.Most of the assassinations, which have targeted clerics, security personnel,and tribal elites, are unclaimed.


There is almost no place in the south thatis secure against these kinds of attacks. Only in the north, where the Houthisare allied with Yemen’s former ruling party, the General People’s Congress, isthere a semblance of security. But there, the Houthis increasingly rule with aniron fist. They have targeted journalists and, in the wake of the assassinationof Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, for which the Houthis wereresponsible, executed many of Saleh’s supporters.

在南方,几乎没有地方可以抵抗这种类型的袭击。只有在北部,胡塞与也门的前执政党——人民代表大会结盟,才有了表面上的安全。但在那里,胡塞的统治越来越铁腕化。他们已经瞄上记者,在也门前总统阿里·阿卜杜拉·萨利赫(Ali Abdullah Saleh)被胡塞组织暗杀后,萨利赫的许多支持者被处决。

Still, many in northern Yemen respect theHouthis for their continued ability to defy Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both ofwhich are increasingly viewed as colonizers by Yemenis in the north and thesouth. Yemenis living in the north also fear the chaos and violence that couldengulf their home if the Houthis are defeated. The Houthis and the parts of theYemeni army that are allied with them have acted as an effective bulwarkagainst al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State. Priorto the start of “Operation Decisive Storm,” a Houthi-led offensive against AQAPhad weakened the organization in a number of its traditional strongholds. Now,AQAP is resurgent across much of southern Yemen where its operatives areovertly and covertly enmeshed with many of the anti-Houthi forces.


To combat a resurgent AQAP, the UAE and itsproxy forces have launched a new campaign aptly named “Operation Decisive Sword.”Given the deepening humanitarian crisis and ever-increasing factionalism inYemen, Operation Decisive Sword will be no more decisive than Muhammad binSalman’s Operation Decisive Storm. What may well be decisive is the defeat ofboth Saudi and Emirati ambitions in Yemen.


It is estimated that the war in Yemen iscosting Saudi Arabia $5 to $6 billion a month. This comes at a time when theKingdom is already struggling to maintain its generous social welfare programsthat are critical to the House of Saud’s continued hold on power. The UAE, too,is spending billions in Yemen, much of it on the private military contractorsthat are helping it run its war. In the case of the UAE, the government seemsto view the billions that it is spending as an investment that will allow it tocarve out a permanent sphere of influence in Yemen. The UAE, perhaps more thanSaudi Arabia, recognizes that Yemen is incredibly valuable real estate. Thegovernorates where the UAE and its proxies are most active are the areas thatare richest in natural resources.


However, it is only a matter of time untilthe UAE-backed militias turn on their patron. The rhetoric in southern Yemen isalready infused with descriptions of the UAE as a neo-colonial power intent onasset stripping. The UAE has already set up a military base on theonce-pristine Yemeni island of Socotra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It hasalso set up permanent bases on the Yemeni island of Perim in the Red Sea.Social media in Yemen is rife with pictures of UAE military parades in Socotra,of the base in Perim, and, most recently, a photo of dozens of dragon’s bloodtrees, native to Socotra, that had been stripped from the island. No doubt thethreatened trees are destined to become part of the landscaping for a palacesomewhere in the Gulf. These kinds of photos, along with the abuses perpetratedby the UAE and their proxies, will in time produce a violent reaction.


Saudi Arabia and the UAE should haveexamined the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both countries, despitehaving the best trained and equipped military in the world, the U.S. has failedto achieve its aims. In the case of Iraq, a deeply flawed strategy ended upempowering Iran by turning much of Iraq into a satellite state. In Afghanistan,the war has resulted in the deaths of nearly 2,300 U.S. soldiers and tens ofthousands of Afghans. It has also cost the U.S. well over a trillion dollars.Despite the expenditure of lives and treasure, the Taliban—who are active in 70percent of Afghanistan’s provinces—are on track to once again become thepreeminent power.


The U.S. can absorb these losses because ofthe size of its economy, the strength of its military, and the complacency ofmuch of its population. Countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE will find itfar more difficult to sustain a war effort that does not yield results. Onaccount of their proximity to Yemen, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are far morelikely to experience significant and direct blowback from a war that has madetens of thousands of well-armed Yemenis their enemies.


Yemen is an anvil against which a number ofinvaders have thrown themselves only to be left bloodied and defeated. From theRomans in 25 BC to the Egyptians in the 1960s, Yemen has long resistedinvaders. The governments of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE would do well torecognize that their adventure is far more likely to break them than theYemenis who have defied occupiers and invading armies for centuries.


As the always astute Yemeni commentatorHaykal Bafana argues:
Academics, analysts and journalists areperpetually perplexed by the primal vortex of chaos that is Yemen. Wisdom is torealize that this confusing Yemeni enigma, which continuously eludesunderstanding, is the Yemen Model, defined.


Outsiders may not understand Yemen butYemenis certainly do and it is they who will, in time, have to end the conflictand begin rebuilding their country. The longer outside powers are in Yemen, thelonger this process will be put off and the more danger will be posed to SaudiArabia and the UAE.