FocusKSA | Intervention in Yemen: A Conversation with Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: March 29, 2015

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Editor’s Note:

In the early morning hours of March 26, 2015 (local time) air forces from a Saudi Arabian led coalition launched air strikes against Houthi rebel targets in the Republic of Yemen. In an announcement timed to coincide with the initiation of the campaign the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Adel Al-Jubeir, said:

“Saudi Arabia has launched military operations in Yemen, as part of a coalition of over ten countries in response to a direct request from the legitimate government of Yemen. The operation will be limited in nature, and designed to protect the people of Yemen and its legitimate government from a takeover by the Houthis, a violent extremist militia.”

As part of SUSRIS’ extensive reporting since the opening of the intervention in Yemen, dubbed Operation “Decisive Storm,” we hosted FocusKSA webcast interviews Friday, March 27, 2015 with three Gulf specialists to give you their insights and perspectives on the conflict.

  • Dr. Joseph Kechichian, Senior Fellow, King Faisal Center, Riyadh and Senior Writer, Gulf News, Dubai
  • Dr. Theodore Karasik, Gulf-based regional specialist
  • Prof. David Des Roches, Senior Military Fellow at the Near East South Asia Center, NDU

Here for your consideration is our conversation with Dr. Theodore Karasik on the regional implications of Operation “Decisive Storm.” Dr. Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He has worked on Central Asian, Russian, Caucasian and Arabian Peninsula issues for over 20 years and is a dedicated “Saudiologist” who has tracked and analyzed all issues related to internal and external Saudi affairs since the early 1990s. SUSRIS has been fortunate to talk with Dr. Karasik in the past about a host of Gulf and Saudi Arabian developments — which you can find in our interviews and articles on SUSRIS.com. [Links below]

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Transcribed from the FocusKSA video interview with Dr. Theodore Karasik conducted via Skype from Dubai, UAE on March 27, 2015.

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FocusKSA | Intervention in Yemen: A Conversation with Dr. Theodore Karasik

[SUSRIS] Good day, welcome to Focus KSA. This is our continuing webcast series brought to you by SUSRIS.com and the Saudi-U.S. Trade Group.

We’re pleased to be joined today by Dr. Theodore Karasik from Dubai, a Gulf specialist who’s going to be talking with us about Operation “Decisive Storm,” the military intervention in Yemen by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and Arab partners.

This week Saudi Arabia began a campaign, a military campaign – airstrikes in Yemen as has been widely reported in the news, and we’re going to dig down deeper with a series of conversations with specialists from the Gulf and elsewhere.

Dr. Karasik today is going to be talking with us about the regional implications of this military intervention. Ted, thanks for joining us, and why don’t you lead off with your perspective of what’s been happening with Operation “Decisive Storm.”

People Ted Karasik Inegma[Dr. Theodore Karasik] I think we have to first understand that Saudi Arabia has been developing the capability to launch such an operation over the past few years. We definitely saw this in the “Abdullah Sword” exercise from last May in 2014. This was a large-scale land exercise and showed to the region and to the world that Saudi Arabia was moving forward in terms of planning and engaging in operations outside of its territory.

With this in mind, and with the new leadership under King Salman, and with the decline of the situation in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has stood up, put up, put together a coalition of Arab partners in order to take care of the Houthi problem in Yemen. I think this is obviously, as everybody has said, is a changing moment if you will, or another way of looking at Saudi Arabia. Instead of having quiet diplomacy or using deep pockets to pay off other people or institutions, Riyadh is now ready and able to use its armed forces as it sees fit.

yemen_pol_mapClick for larger view.

There’s a few problems here with how this operation is being advertised. One is the number of aircraft that are being used and the second is the number of people on the ground. A lot of people that I talked to here in the region are commenting that the airstrikes are all being done, not like one hundred aircraft but maybe by just a few aircraft and being fed by U.S. intelligence in terms of ISR. [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance]

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There’s also the fact that the targets that are being hit on the ground are being targeted in the sense that they are known to be places where the Houthis keep particular weapons systems that are near or can be nearby where collateral damage will occur. In that sense we have to remember that the Houthis are receiving the same weapons systems that Hezbollah receives in Lebanon, and so the Saudi objective right now using airstrikes, or at least the ones that we have seen, is to be able to take out intermediate or short-range missile systems that Iran has delivered to the Houthis. That’s the main concern from Riyadh.

Now about the personnel numbers – the personnel number is very large. It’s supposed to be made up of Saudi Arabian National Guard, Saudi intelligence, Saudi border guards, but also there are Pakistanis and Egyptians and also apparently Sudanese on the ground as well as Moroccans. So we have to be very careful with the numbers and what this total force is and how they are to be used on the ground. As the Saudis have said at least twice there may be ground operations forthcoming. People here think that this might be special operation forces that will go in and try to hit particular targets, and as I mentioned before the real concern here is that the Saudis want to make sure that the weapon stockpiles that the Houthis have that threaten Saudi Arabia are destroyed.

Hafr Al-Baten Military Exercise Air Force Aircraft Tanker Fighters

Royal Saudi Air Force elements participated in the military parade and exercises near Hafr al-Baten in April 2014. (SPA)

Now, there are three scenarios here for how this is going to go. The first one is just with airstrikes. The second is a combination of airstrikes and special operations. And the third is airstrikes, special operations, and then rebuilding the networks with particular tribes in Yemen in order to flip them over to the Saudi side. And we’ve all been aware that after Crown Prince Sultan passed away a few years ago that the Yemen file had drifted. It’s now time under this new leadership under King Salman and the Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman to go back and to try to work on these networks. That’s where the deep pocket part comes in because in Yemen money talks and is able to work much like it can up in the north in Anbar where Sunni tribes have been co-opted through the use of financial gain.

In terms of regional perspective or in terms of the impact of this ongoing conflict we have to take in mind that the Houthis are going to be bent on revenge. So this is why we have seen Saudi Arabia already “up” security across the country. I think the other GCC states are in the process of doing this because the Houthis may be able to tap into the discontent among certain communities, particularly in the Shiite community, perhaps in Bahrain or in other countries, but also with those who are sympathetic to them over just what the Saudis are doing. That means that we are beginning to witness a regional sectarian war that is breaking out that could occur on a number of different levels in addition to the potential for terrorist attacks or strikes on infrastructure or pumping stations or on other landmarks.

mbs-command center-1

Minister of Defense Prince Mohammed bin Salman at a military command center in Riyadh on the first evening of Operation “Decisive Storm.” (SPA)

So this is really a moment when the implications for the region are really growing quite rapidly and quickly the longer that airstrikes and Saudi-led operations continue in Yemen.

Now, I would also like to point out here that we don’t talk much about Oman and what is happening in Oman because there is a shared border. There is a trans-regional if you will network of illicit goods and services that run from Yemen into Oman and vice versa, and I think that we’re not focusing much at all and should on how Daesh in Yemen, which is growing, and how AQAP, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, may take advantage of this situation to stretch to the east. Given the fact that Sultan Qaboos has just returned some people are arguing that the Sultan’s return is very King Hussein-like in terms of that within days, weeks that there’ll be a transition to a new leadership, that this is a time for al Qaeda and Daesh to try to make some type of move into Southern Oman. Of course this means that Iran might get involved.

map_of_oman

This is – we’ve seen increased reporting of guns being captured or weapons being captured on the Yemeni-Omani border, and we have to remember that Oman is a country that is really divided into separate entities based on geography and topography. This is a concern in Saudi and also in U.A.E. So I think it’s just something that we need to monitor and to be aware of.

In terms of the rest of the region we see that Sudan is included in this, Somalia has allowed overflight rights. We have countries as far away as Morocco who are participating in these developments and in Saudi plans for operations.

I think that this is the beginning of what al Sisi had called for in the fall, which is an era of NATO-like association or an Arab operations group, something like this. There has been a lot of talk locally about creating this type of instrument, and the most important part of this instrument is that the U.S. has asked the Gulf Arabs to stand up on their own for many years. And now the U.S. is seeing the Gulf Arabs stand up on their own to do their own fighting, but the dealing with Yemen has a lot of pitfalls and traps.

[SUSRIS] You mentioned a couple of things I’d like to dig just a little bit into, and we don’t have the luxury of too much time today but you’ve certainly given us a lot to think about, especially the implications in the region across the Yemen-Omani border, which I haven’t seen very many people addressing that piece of this yet.

You mentioned ISR – Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance. There was talk – there was an announcement from the White House that the U.S. was providing coordination and intelligence. Is there any conversation about what that entails? And we haven’t seen a lot of forthcoming press announcements other than background information.

You also talked about the internal threat in Saudi Arabia, and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef convened a meeting of internal security officials the other day. What are the implications for the humanitarian refugee issue vis a vis the Saudis accommodating humanitarian refugees, and also what that entails in terms of internal security?

mbn-security-council-meeting

Deputy Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef met with internal security force commanders. (SPA)

And lastly we’re looking at an Arab Summit this weekend, and you talked about this al Sisi NATO-like organization, and there’s been a ministerial meeting in connection with the Arab summit in which there was some discussion of an Arab force.

So if you could just maybe provide a little extra on those couple of points.

[Karasik] Certainly. First off, in terms of ISR it is assumed that this being fed directly to the operations center at PSAB where this is being all coordinated from.

[SUSRIS] For those who don’t follow these acronyms that is Prince Sultan Air Base at Al Kharj, southeast of Riyadh.

[Karasik] Exactly, and this information is being received by the Saudis for their airstrikes and it is rumored that not necessarily Saudis are flying the fighters in this operation but it’s being done by other Arab nationals. Because of the nature of the airstrikes and the situation on the ground because we don’t want to have any Houthi capability to shoot down any jet aircraft and to capture anybody, of course.

bab al mandeb

The Strait of Bab el Mandeb, the “Gateway of Anguish,” is 18 miles across at its narrowest point and has seen oil shipments of about 3-4 mbpd pass through.

The other point here is that there is also information being gathered by the Egyptians and the Americans, particularly around the confluence of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden because this is a critical chokepoint and no one wants the Iranians or anybody affiliated, at least from Riyadh’s point of view, to take control. They do not want to see the Houthis begin the mine the Red Sea, which would really create a major problem in maritime transit along the Red Sea because this would take months to clean up.

So there’s a lot going on in the ISR picture besides just what’s happening conducting airstrikes. It also involves maritime domain awareness.

In terms of the internal – I’m sorry, in terms of the humanitarian issue, this has always been a scenario of refugee flows either coming from Yemen or from Saudi Arabia itself. I think it’s very critical that the Saudis and their allies are on top of the potential impact on Asir, Jizan, Najran, and so on, and I’m sure that the Red Crescent and other agencies will be brought in, in the event that there is any IDP [Internally Displaced Persons] flows or any refugee flows coming in over from Yemen.

In terms of the internal security angle, clearly as you’ve mentioned Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is firmly making sure that the cities are firmly under control and deploying extra assets, but I think the big fear is that because of the tribal networks between northern Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia that these attacks, these airstrikes may light a fuse for disruption or mob violence if you will, in the southern part of Saudi Arabia. I think that this needs to be kept in mind.

At the same time on the internal situation is we do have Daesh and the Islamic State up to the north while they’re fighting it out over Tikrit and other areas. How may they be thinking about taking advantage of the northern border area which has issues? And we’ve talked before about the northern tribes and their affiliation.

Overall this operation is trying to go after a particular ethnic group, but it’s also igniting a lot of other strands of family tribal relationships that cut across Saudi Arabia by region and also across international borders.

So the Saudis have to really be up on their game in terms of security in the Kingdom. I’m sure they’re working very quickly on this issue.

[SUSRIS] Great. Before I ask you to wrap up any final thoughts let me just remind everyone this is Focus KSA, a webcast program brought to you by SUSRIS.com and the Saudi-U.S. Trade Group.

We’re talking with Dr. Theodore Karasik, a specialist on the Arabian Peninsula and regional Middle East affairs and many more things. He’s joining us by Skype from Dubai. Ted, any last thoughts on what we should be looking for in the coming days?

[Karasik] I think that we need to really understand that the Saudis have launched this operation with their colleagues at this time because of the pending P5+1 agreement. Riyadh wants to expose Iran’s behavior and support for the Houthis on the Saudi border and also taking over the bulk of Yemen. I think we need to watch for this issue of the Saudi airstrikes and the Yemeni response as trying to scuttle the talks or affect the talks.

Transcribed from the FocusKSA video interview with Dr. Theodore Karasik conducted via Skype from Dubai, UAE on March 27, 2015.

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About Dr. Theodore Karasik

theodore-karasikDr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans.

Dr. Karasik was previously Director of Research and Development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE and Beirut, Lebanon.

Dr. Karasik has been a Lecturer at Wollongong University of Dubai where he teached graduate level international relations. Karasik was a Senior Political Scientist in the International Policy and Security Group at RAND Corporation. From 2002-2003, he served as Director of Research for the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy. He has worked on Central Asian, Russian, Caucasian and Arabian Peninsula issues for over 20 years regarding nuclear proliferation, security and terrorism questions including transnational terrorist groups, clan structures and politics, and criminal organizations. He writes numerous risk assessments across his geographical focus. Since 9/11, Dr. Karasik has also concentrated on terrorist targeting and tactics regarding critical infrastructure in the United States, Europe, and the GCC states. Finally, he is a dedicated “Saudiologist” who tracks and analyzes all issues related to internal and external Saudi affairs since the early 1990s.

Dr. Karasik’s key RAND publications released to the public are “Saudi-Iranian Relations Since the Fall of Saddam: Rivalry, Cooperation, and Implications for U.S. Policy (2009 co-author); “Future U.S. Security Relationships with Iraq and Afghanistan: U.S. Air Force Roles (2008 co-author); “Ungoverned Territories: Understanding and Reducing Terrorism Risks (2007 co-author), “Beyond al-Qaeda: The Global Jihadist Movement” (2006 co-author), “Beyond al-Qaeda: The Outer Rings of the Terrorist Universe,” (2006 co-author), “War and Escalation in South Asia,” (2006, co-author), “Economic Dimensions of Security in Central Asia,” (2006; co-author), “The Muslim World After 9/11” (2004; co-author) and “Toxic Warfare” (2002). His other publications include “Islamic Finance in a Global Context: Opportunities and Challenges,” Chicago Journal of International Law, vol. 7, no. 2, Winter 2007 (co-authored) and “Chechnya: A Glimpse of Future Conflict?,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, July-September 1999 (co-authored).

Dr. Karasik is a military analyst on al-Jazeera International and is frequently interviewed by The National, Reuters, Trends News Agency, and AFP. He has a background in basic geology and petroleum geology directly related to his previous work on the Caspian and Arabian Gulf regions. Dr. Karasik served as a Subject Matter Expert on Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia for the U.S. Library of Congress. He also served as a Committee Member on IREX’s Contemporary Issues Fellowship Program for Azerbaijani applicants. Dr. Karasik worked for 18 months with internists in Santa Monica, CA to develop a software package to track human systems and pharmaceutical use. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California, Los Angeles in four fields: Russia, Middle East, Caucasus and an outside field in cultural anthropology focusing on tribes and clans from Central Asia to East Africa. He wrote his dissertation on military and humanitarian operations in the northern port city of Arkhangel’sk and their impact on political institutions during the Russian civil war.

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