Behind the Scenes of a Stagemanaged War

The Saudi war in Yemen was launched by a tiny clique within the royal family, ignoring the wishes of many high-level princes and catching the Saud family’s allies in the other gulf monarchies by surprise, writes Fouad Ibrahim in Al-Akhbar. The giant Saudi military’s remarkable incompetence in the fighting so far has exposed the kingdom’s weakness, as well as its disquieting links to Al-Qaeda allies who control parts of Yemen, Ibrahim writes.

“Decisive Storm” was a home cooked Saudi-American plot, according to our sources within the circles of decision making in Saudi Arabia. It was not until six hours before launching the operations that Saudi leaders saw fit to inform their fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council of the attack. The Saudi Arabians told the GCC leaders that all they needed was their “moral support;” they would handle the rest themselves. The Saudis gathered approval from other states – Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Sudan and Jordan – only by phone call, and without going into any details of the planned operation.

Even the then-Saudi minister of Foreign Affairs, Saud al Faisal, our sources say, was not told about the decision to go to war until the attack was underway. This despite a statement he had issued two days before Decisive Storm was launched, discussing ‘steps’ the Saudis were going to take if Ansar Allah kept on advancing towards Aden. According to our sources, the ‘steps’ the minister thought he was referring to in that speech were not war but sanctions, as well as arming of local Yemeni forces aligned with Saudi Arabia.

With command-level leaders like Saud al Faisal being kept out of the loop, there is little doubt that many other princes in lesser positions were equally taken by surprise when the war was launched. Leaks from within the royal family confirm that Mohammed bin-Salman-the defense minister who is the new king’s son-was the driving force behind the attack on Yemen. The decision to attack was made with his father the king, and with the crown prince/interior minister Mohammed bin Nayef, two months ago-and in consultation with the Americans.

And sources close to decision-makers in the other Gulf Cooperation Council countries confirm that “Mohammed bin Salman is still running the war singlehandedly, refusing to take advice from anyone else.” The crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef went so far as to ask the Americans to intervene and put a stop to the king’s son’s recklessness before it leads to a catastrophe due to Bin Salman’s insistence on war, and his refusal to consider a political solution. Former crown prince Muqrin bin Abdelaziz, who was pushed aside when Salman took the throne [Muqrin headed the secret police until this year] was also kept out of the loop regarding the Yemen attack, and therefore was not part of the war council.

The public silence of these princes by no means implies their consent to the Saudi attack; indeed it their lack of public support is very telling, given the public relations campaign the regime undertook to exhibit support for the war, ranging from public proclamation of unconditional and total support by its allies in society, to its treatment of opponents of the attack as traitors.

Of course it is vital to underline the American role in Operation Decisive Storm even before it got off the ground. The United States provided the Saudis with GBU ‘Bunker Buster’ bombs ahead of the attack, and in fact exhausted its entire supply of these bombs in the gulf region, and particularly in Kuwait, where it had stockpiled a huge quantity of these bombs. They were dropped during the first two weeks of the war, in order to destroy concealed rocket caches belonging to the Yemeni army and Ansar Allah [the Houthi armed wing]. After the failure of the Saudi bombing campaign, American warships entered the Gulf of Aden and fired ten Tomahawk-109 missiles [at $600,0000 each]at the entirely vacant Yemeni Army barracks.

Gulf Cooperation Council sources say that the Saudi Arabian air force pilots were not competent; in the first days of the war they dropped their bombs at random, killing numerous civilians and actually striking more civilian buildings than military targets. At this point the Americans stepped in and began directing the aircraft, providing accurate targeting information via reconnaissance drones hovering in the Yemeni skies for 30 hours straight.

According to military experts, Saudi warplanes were taking off from Khamis al-Mushait and Taif, in the West of Saudi Arabia, flying the 1,600 kilometer distance back and forth from Yemen, beyond the practical range of their fleet. So the Americans stepped in to provide aerial refueling services; eight planes would take off in a group; two to fly the bombing mission and the other six to carry the fuel. An American-Saudi command center was established to oversee the operations and provide the pilots with intelligence and aircraft guidance.

However, after four weeks of continuous air, naval, and ground-based bombardment, Saudi Arabia has found itself under increasing international pressure, and the situation underwent a series of shifts: first, Iranian warships moved toward the Yemeni coast, a clear message to the Saudis which in turn induced a pair of American warships to steam into the Arabian Sea as well.

Second, Yemen army and Ansar Allah military units moved toward Bab al-Mandab, [the strait which provides access to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal]. And third, Yemeni forces crossed the frontier with Saudi Arabia, penetrating several kilometers to seize several Saudi military posts. The Saudi National Guard [the Haras al-Watani is a military body ordinarily intended to defend the House of Saud from internal threats and coups]ended up being deployed to meet this last threat.

On the diplomatic front, an Ansar Allah delegation met with the Russian Ambassador in Sanaa, who has been a key figure in the shuttle diplomacy between the local and international players in the Yemeni war. The [Houthi] message was that their response to the Saudi aggression would be rapid; the Russian ambassador however asked them to contain their response until the Russians could get in touch with the Americans and try to contain the danger of a region-wide explosion. Russian diplomacy produced two important meetings for the Iranian ambassador in Riyadh: one with the now-dismissed Saudi Minister of Foreign affairs Saud al-Faisal, and the other with the new interior minister and crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef [one of the war’s three architects]. The crown prince underlined the significance of Yemen to his country, saying that its importance was comparable to how Iran sees its own neighbor, Afghanistan. As for the former Saudi foreign minister, he was eager to meet with his Iranian counterpart, but the Iranian answer was clear: there would be no meeting between al-Faisal and Zarif until the Saudis ceased fire in Yemen.

However, the Sauds were meanwhile getting a taste of the direction things might take in Yemen: new provinces continued to fall into the hands of Ansar Allah in spite of the air war overhead, and on top of that, there had been a special message that traveled like a bolt of electricity directly to the Saudi military planners: a cross-border attack from Yemen launched into Saudi territory. The operation stayed out of the headlines, but it was major wake-up call for decision makers in Saudi Arabia.

An agreement drafted by representatives from neighboring countries demanded that there must be an immediate halt to bombing civilian buildings and killing civilians. However, the original draft of the agreement would have ended up being a historic defeat for the Saudis, who needed a face-saving way out.

That is why the Saudis elected to transition ‘Decisive Storm’ into what they are calling ‘Operation Return of Hope,’ the plan they are carrying out in Yemen at present. Operation Return of Hope has no political aims: on the contrary, it is a search and destroy mission, a fiction that the all-out assault has ended, even as the rhythm of attacks actually increases; this stage was only meant to lighten international pressure on the Saudis, even as they keep up an all out war on Yemen.

The rules of engagement have not changed between ‘Decisive Storm’ and ‘Return of Hope’ in spite of the name change. The Popular Committees, the Yemeni national army and Ansar Allah all refuse to accept any Saudi participation in internal Yemeni talks aimed at ending the conflict. Beyond that, they have totally rejected a proposal that the dialogue take place in Riyadh. This double rejection of a Saudi role has boiled the Sauds with the rage of the loser.

Crucially, the end of Decisive Storm does not mean the Saudis are ending the war, because calling the whole thing off now would reflect very badly on the Saudis in two arenas: first, on the perceived unity and stability of the al-Saud regime at home, and second, on the al-Sauds’ political influence abroad. Domestically, an end to the war now would be dangerous, because the stunning victory the regime’s supporters had expected would be exposed as a military defeat. Abroad, a settlement now would dangerously expose Saudi weakness both to the smaller countries of the Gulf which have long been under the Saudi thumb[Bahrain, the UAE], as well as to more distant countries which have endured years of Saudi plots and machinations in their internal affairs [Iraq, Syria, Lebanon].

What the Saudis need is a victory on the battlefield which will give them leverage in future international efforts. The military will need to occupy Aden or some other important city, where they can set up a government of some kind, even a transparently puppet government. Even if a Saud-imposed government only rules a tiny piece of physical territory, it will validate the “return to legitimacy” that was the official justification for the Saudi attack in the first place.

However, this goal is still very far away, in spite of the enormous amounts of Saudi money which is being thrown at anyone who shows willingness to take up arms against the national army and the [Houthi] Popular Committees.

The House of Saud may be losing the war, but they want to deprive their opponents of the taste of victory, and this is why they are using every tool they can deploy in Yemen. And so for the first time they are actually allowing the relationship between the Saudi regime and the Al-Qaeda organization come to the surface, in the form of the open and complete coordination between them on the ground. For example, in every case, when Ansar Allah has seized a military encampment in South Yemen from Al Qaeda, the camp is immediately bombed by the Saudis.

Saudi Arabia is already acting in the role of the loser: as the Iraqi saying goes, they want to win or they’ll destroy the playing field. This approach in the manner that Saudi attacks are targeting all of the components of the state in Yemen, all of its infrastructure, delaying the rebirth of the “New Yemen” [promised by the Arab Spring]for decades into the future.

Fouad Ibrahim Translated from Arabic by International Boulevard