Assessing the Chaos in Yemen – Part 2 – Des Roches

Published: April 7, 2015

Editor’s Note:

It was standing room only at the National Council on US-Arab Relations hosted event “Yemen in Chaos: Analysis, Prognosis, and Prospects” at the U.S. Capitol Rayburn House Office Building in Washington on Thursday. The event, broadcast live to the country on C-Span TV, brought together a distinguished panel to examine the issues and developments in the aftermath of the Saudi-led coalition intervention in Yemen to fight Houthi rebels:

Dr. John Duke Anthony, Founding President & CEO of the National Council, served as moderator and H.E. Adel A. Al-Jubeir, Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States, delivered featured remarks. Additional featured specialists included: Mr. Jeremy M. Sharp, Specialist in Middle East Affairs for the Congressional Research Service and Author of the CRS Report, “Yemen: Background and U.S. Relations;” Ms. Sama’a Al-Hamdani, Analyst and Writer for Yemeniaty and former Assistant Political Officer for the Embassy of the Republic of Yemen in Washington, DC; Professor David Des Roches, Senior Military Fellow at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies (National Defense University) and Council Malone Fellow in Arab and Islamic Studies (Syria); and Mr. Abbas Almosawa, Yemeni Journalist and Analyst, and former Media and Information Advisor for the Embassy of the Republic of Yemen in Abu Dhabi and Beirut.

SUSRIS has already provided Ambassador Al-Jubeir’s remarks from this event. Today we provide the presentations of Mr. Sharp, Professor Des Roches, Mr. Musawa and Ms. Hamdani. We also have the question and answer portion of the event, moderated by Dr. John Duke Anthony. You can also review the entire session on C-Span [Link] and find extensive articles, interviews and more in “Yemen in Turmoil” a SUSRIS Special Section.

Here in Part 2 is Professor David Des Roches, Senior Military Fellow at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies (National Defense University) and Council Malone Fellow in Arab and Islamic Studies (Syria). You can read more from him in our exclusive FocusKSA interview “Intervention in Yemen: A Conversation with David Des Roches” from March 28th.


[Dr. John Duke Anthony]
Colonel David Des Roches.

[Colonel David Des Roches] Thank you very much, Dr. Anthony. It’s an honor to be on a panel with such distinguished members. I feel like the forgotten member of that early 1970s super group Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Leibowitz.

My remarks also do not reflect the view of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

Jeremy’s taken a lot of my thunder. It’s always awkward when you’re in violent agreement with members of the podium, but I’d like to address a few aspects of the national crisis focusing on security implications on Yemen and its neighbors. I won’t get too wonky, but you can ask me questions if you want to know about precision-guided munitions or T-55 tanks.

First, background. It’s clear to us now and clearer to the Saudis that it was a mistake to leave Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen. The calculus at the time was allowing him to remain as head of his party would prevent conflict and bloodshed, a move that hindsight now shows – I admit this – with hindsight, considerable hindsight that was misguided.


It is now clear that Saleh retained or purchased the loyalty of significant parts of the Yemeni Armed Forces, most notably the Republican Guard. The extent to which the Yemeni Armed Forces are loyal to al Hadi was brought into question with this summer’s rapid Houthi advance into the capital.

There was a tense period of confrontation in the capital which ended with Hadi’s house arrest and the derogation of the Yemeni political system. The lack of a Yemeni Armed Forces opposition to the Houthi expansion southward towards Aden can only partly be explained by inefficiency and the normal fighting problems of a patronage-based army. There was some treachery involved as well. There was some turning of units.

The Houthis are misunderstood as well. This is important. It is not well-known here that in some parts of the country the Houthis are seen as the vanguard of the general opposition to the established political order in Yemen. That is they are not a unified fighting force and their support may be transactional and shallow in parts of the country that we and the Saudis consider as conquered.


FocusKSA ( interview with Col. David Des Roches.


At the end of the day, all politics in Yemen are tribal and armies generally do not do well in areas occupied by hostile tribes.

Now, let me talk a bit about the air campaign. My bias, my career has been spent in the ground forces, but it’s important to look at this since that’s what we’re doing here.

The Saudis, for their part, have seemed to have concluded that both Yemeni Air Force as well as the Yemeni surface-to-surface missile brigade are under de facto Houthi control and made a point of targeting those capabilities early in the bombing campaign. They hit the surface-to-surface missile depots twice to make sure that the rubble bounced once it was destroyed.

It is interesting to note thought that with the MIG-21s they chose to crater the runways and attack hangars but not the aircraft itself. So there seems to be an idea that the Saudis feel that eventually the Yemeni state will reconstitute itself and will still have those MIG-29s once they do it, but so long as the runway is cratered they can’t fly.


The spectacular series of explosions in Sana’a on Tuesday night were proof of the determination of the coalition to prevent retaliation against Saudi soil. Indeed, there have been reports that the Saudis also moved Patriot batteries, and they’ve upgraded to PAC3 to the southern border in order to prevent an attack, and a few Saudis have stated that the fear of Yemeni SCUDs is what drove the military action.

The air campaign in Yemen is impressive. Saudi Arabia, which provides the overwhelming bulk of the air power, has shown that it learned from and improved on its generally unimpressive conduct of the border war with the Houthis in 2009.

Most specifically, in 2009 a general criticism – you’ll hear it from everybody – was that the Saudi Air Force relied too heavily on newly acquired precision-guided munitions, or PGMs. The result was a poorly coordinated bombing campaign, which did little damage to serious military targets but stirred up considerable international condemnation for hitting civilians. Reportedly there were also as many as one thousand Saudi casualties and Moroccan and Jordanian forces had to deploy to bolster the Saudi forces on the ground.


Click for larger view.

The contrast with now is extremely impressive. The Saudis skillfully laid the political groundwork for building an international coalition, which sends a decisive message to both the Houthis and the Iranians. Most importantly, as Jeremy mentioned, perhaps as a quid pro quo for acquiescence on an eventual Iran deal the Saudis secured the active cooperation of the United States. The U.S. agreed to provide intelligence and logistics support. Presumably this means at the least help in identifying and picking targets, and then assessing of the target after each strike, which is exactly what was lacking in 2009. This could also mean rapid resupply of F-15 parts as well as of precision-guided munitions.

So these scarce assets will not only be used more effectively because of increased, enhanced targeting, but also they’ll be replaced more rapidly. And of course as Jeremy mentioned, the American cooperation extended Sunday to the rescue of two Saudi pilots who were downed at sea, and that is extremely important.

As the air campaign grinds on, however, its effectiveness will decrease not arithmetically but exponentially. High payoff targets such as SCUD missile depots are already destroyed. Other targets will be dispersed among civilians or in areas such as mountain valleys where they can be defended by anti-aircraft artillery traps. As we saw with the Kosovo campaign, or with Korea, or with Vietnam, or with World War II in Europe, if you try to achieve a military victory just from the air you eventually redefine not only your target set, which expands, but also you redefine victory.

Air forces cannot seize and hold terrain. Let me say that again – air forces cannot seize and hold terrain.


In Kosovo, the target set expanded as coalition air planners grew frustrated with the lack of political success. The same will happen to this coalition if the military effort is not accompanied by an effective political initiative that offers the Houthis something other than surrender.

It’s important to discuss what victory means here. The Houthis may not be who we think they are. They have always been among a broad group of Yemenis who are unhappy with political development in the post-Saleh era, which appears to have not ended.

As airstrikes harden opinion in Yemen, this opposition will become more of a broadly based group. If the airstrikes continue outside the context of an overall political settlement, Yemeni opposition to the coalition will harden, not just among the Houthis but among average Yemenis.

Saudi Arabia and her partners may find that what they thought was a proxy war with Iran will transform into an actual war with Yemen.

A word about ground operations. Ground operations by non-Yemeni forces other than perhaps a limited covering operation aimed at defending the approaches to Aden if the enemy force, if the Houthi forces can be ejected from Aden – I think the Houthi forces are actually a Saudi armor brigade that just switched sides – they’re ill-advised. The Egyptian Army lost over 25,000 soldiers in North Yemen in the 1960s. The terrain is mountainous and the infrastructure is rudimentary. An assault on Sana’a from the Red Sea would involve forcing a potentially endless series of Thermopylaes. The Yemeni Army should, if it wants to, be capable of ousting the Houthis from everywhere south of Sana’a on their own.

The question is who does the Army answer to? It appears at the moment to be more Saleh and less Hadi. But loyalties are transient things in Yemen. Hopefully Saudi influence and money could force a shift back to the Yemeni government. If the bombing campaign continues and the inevitable civilian casualties mount, however, this happy outcome becomes both more expensive and less likely.

Now, a word on AQAP, as Jeremy foreshadowed. AQAP remains an important security concern for America. Boko Haram and Daesh get all the press at the moment, but only AQAP has shown both the intent and the capability to mount attacks on the American homeland, and indeed on the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince.

AQAP is a shared concern. Yemen has been a vital but vacillating power in the campaign against AQAP, and we saw that in this morning’s jail break. Saleh was a smart fellow – he is a smart fellow. He realized that if AQAP were defeated decisively instead of being treated as an American partner in the global war on terror he would be put in the same box as Eritrea, Burma, and other international pariahs. It appears that there were selected local truces with AQAP.

The challenge for policymakers in the United States, in the West, and in the Gulf has always been to discern where the line is between treachery, tribal politics and local government, and the central government lack of capacity.

The Houthis and AQAP have fought. There have been bombings and attacks carried out by one side on the other, but it would be fool-hearty to suppose these two forces will cancel each other out. The fighting with the Houthis, who are of regional concern, has detracted from the fight against AQAP, who is of global concern.

Finally, a word on Iran. Iran did not give birth to the Houthis, and the support of the Houthis is not vital to their success. They’ve survived on their own. They have exploited the opportunity to stick their thumb in the eye of the Saudis, and it is possible that the Saudis may have let their distaste for Iran to cloud their better judgment. I’ve skimmed over a number of things.

I’d be happy to take your questions, but let me close by saying there is no military solution to the current political problems of Yemen, and I welcome your questions. Thank you.

[Dr. John Duke Anthony] Thank you, David.


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