To Yemen and Beyond: A Conversation with Dr. Anthony Cordesman

Published: April 28, 2015

Editor’s Note:

Last week the Saudi-led coalition announced its intervention in Yemen, which began on March 26, 2015 with air strikes against Houthi rebels, entered a new phase dubbed Operation “Restore Hope.” Saudi officials have characterized the current focus as political and humanitarian but retained options for combat operations under certain circumstances. On April 22nd Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel Al-Jubeir told a press conference the solution being sought was one that would be “based on UN Security Council Resolution 2216, the GCC initiative and the outcomes of the national dialogue in Yemen.” The White House, which had agreed to provide support and intelligence to the coalition, concurred with the necessity for UNSCR 2216 to be followed by all nations concerned and reiterated its intention to monitor and act against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula elements operating in Yemen.

The Yemen intervention is just the latest issue on a full plate of challenges Washington and Riyadh are facing. To get a better understanding of the Yemen campaign and the implications for the United States and Saudi Arabia we asked Dr. Anthony Cordesman to talk about what has happened over the last month and to take a wider view on the regional defense issues. Dr. Cordesman, Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has written scores of assessments and reports on defense and security issues in the region, and recently on the situation in Yemen — drawing on that case for larger meaning in understanding the dilemma of failed states:

“This raises far broader strategic issues than the immediate nature of military intervention in Yemen. It illustrates far broader strategic problems in fighting counterinsurgency and other military campaigns in failed states. No campaign can succeed that does not blend military action with some form of effective stability operations bordering on nation building. This is a challenge that goes far beyond Yemen and that every headline shows is just as real in cases like Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.”  [“Yemen and Warfare in Failed States” – Anthony Cordesman]

Dr. Cordesman also wrote about Yemen and many other strategic challenges facing the United States in an analysis titled, “America’s Failed Approach to Chaos Theory: The Complexity Crisis in U.S. Strategy.” You can find that report and many others by Dr. Cordesman at the links below.

Today we are pleased to provide our conversation with Dr. Cordesman.  He was interviewed by phone from his office in Washington, DC on April 24, 2015.



To Yemen and Beyond: A Conversation with Dr. Anthony Cordesman

[SUSRIS] Thanks for taking time to talk with us about the intervention in Yemen and the consequences for Saudi Arabia and the United States. We’re in a new phase of the intervention, the so-called Operation “Decisive Storm” launched a month ago has become Operation “Restoring Hope.”  How would you describe what we’ve seen in the intervention launched by the Saudi-led coalition?

[Dr. Anthony Cordesman] Well I think you have to go back much further than simply looking at the Saudi campaign.


Dr. Anthony Cordesman, CSIS Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy

The problem is Yemen is a failed state and it has steadily deteriorated since 2011. Long before then the previous dictator Saleh did not move the country forward. It deteriorated steadily in economic terms and in critical infrastructure in areas like water.

The problem with the Houthis, serious as it was, was only part of the problem. You had growing north-south tensions, the so-called Hadi economic reforms to some extent appealed to the international economic community but raising prices and reducing subsidies in a country with a failed economy scarcely produced public support.

You had deep divisions and problems within the Yemeni security services, and you never saw them unite. Saleh and those around him were able to keep ties to elements within them. Some of them supported the U.S. role, some of them didn’t. And you still had a major threat from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Now, the Saudi air campaign came after the Houthis suddenly expanded greatly outside the traditional areas of their influence and control. But they did so not so much with Iranian support as with the ability to exploit Saleh, divisions within the Yemeni military, and exploit the problems in general – the tensions between north and south, the lack of unity in the capital and major cities.

f-15-royal saudi air force-fighter-jet-1

I think that the air campaign focused on the Houthi’s ability to acquire military equipment, to threaten Aden, and to move forward. So far it seems to have limited and halted the advance on Aden and taken out the kinds of weapons systems that were most threatening if the Houthis could have not only seized them but taken control of them.

It’s not quite clear what happened in terms of the air campaign and how much of it was directed against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It’s probable that at least some of the strikes went beyond the Houthi. It’s also not clear, partly I think because of the politics involved, how many of these strikes effectively had to go against targets that had at least some Sunni and Yemeni military presence.

So when we talk about evaluating the effectiveness, and I think it has had some effectiveness, but air power can’t occupy space. Air power can push people to negotiate, it can’t force them to reach a solution. And air power can’t deal with any of the underlying structural issues that have made Yemen a failed state.

Click for larger map.

Click image for larger view.

I think we also need to be very careful about exaggerating Iranian influence. The Houthi and other Shiite groups in Yemen are not “Twelvers,” they’re not naturally tied to any support of an Iranian supreme leader, and a great deal of their gains came basically because Sunni political factions effectively turned on each other.

Now, whether the Kingdom can couple the air effort to successful negotiations between the various Yemeni factions and at least produce some kind of unity among the Sunnis is still to be determined.

As for dealing with the deeper problems of Yemen, there’s no indication that anyone yet has the capability to move Yemen away from being a failed state and towards some form of development.

[SUSRIS] Can you talk about the U.S. interest and policy in the Yemen intervention? What has been the reaction?

[Cordesman] Well the key problem was that once you had carried out the key elements of the air campaign — you had essentially destroyed the targets most valuable to the Houthi and others that could have been used against the Kingdom, that could have been used basically to create an enclave that might have had Iranian support — two things happened.

One was you can’t use air power without civilian casualties and collateral damage, and that was getting more and more attention.

The second was that you’d reached the point where the key immediate goal became political negotiations and some kind of political stability.

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Yemen President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and King Salman bin Abdulaziz at the Arab Summit in Egypt on March 29, 2015. (SPA)

Now, I’m certain that the U.S. pressed the deal with the political issue. But I think one has to be very careful here. Saudi Arabia has a long history of working with various tribal groups of trying to find some way to ensure that Yemen’s political structure is not a threat to outside states. One problem you have here is what Saudi Arabia did behind the scenes to move toward negotiation before it announced this shift?

A lot of people immediately leapt to the conclusion that the air campaign was over despite of the fact that Saudi briefers had never said that, and I think that from everyone’s viewpoint the problem now is can Saudi Arabia move the country toward negotiation? That’s not clear yet. It’s easy to have people talk. It’s very different to have them settle and actually stick with the agreement.

[SUSRIS] What does this mean for Saudi Arabia’s role in the region?

[Cordesman] Well I think we need to be very careful here. As you remember the origins of the Saudi Air Force as an effective force, it was because Saudi Arabia used “Lightning” fighters effectively in dealing with Yemen much earlier.

The whole history of Saudi Arabia is one that it has been very reluctant to use military force when it was unclear what the end result would be. But I think people tend to forget how quickly and decisively Saudi Arabia reacted in 1990. Many Americans who had thought it would be very difficult to persuade the Kingdom to really actively create the base and structure for liberating Kuwait suddenly found that the Kingdom when it faced a real security issue acted.

I think, too, that we need to remember that King Abdullah over the last half-decade pushed very consistently for a tighter, more integrated Gulf Cooperation Council, more Arab unity, more independence. Prince Saud and others pushed for Saudi action to deal with Syria and Iraq, and Saudi Arabia took an independent stand there.

It’s certainly true that the new King, the new Minister of Defense, acted quickly, decisively on their own in structuring this air campaign against Yemen. But one needs to be very careful about underestimating Saudi Arabia’s past or saying what is happening is too much of a break with it.


Minister of Defense, Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (SPA)

I think that Saudi Arabia has consistently built up its air and military capabilities. It has always made it clear that its partnership with the United States was one shaped by Saudi strategic priorities and the Saudi strategic perspective. From everyone’s viewpoint the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and everyone dealing with Yemen was unprepared for the speed with which the existing power structure centered around Hadi and Sunni dominance virtually imploded in a matter of weeks, having really deteriorated since 2011.

The fact the Kingdom acted decisively – well, in 2009 it had tried to act in securing its border and found out as we have found out in the United States in dealing with Iraq and other states this kind of warfare is really difficult.

So there is a history here and a fairly clear evolution. Will we see a more independent Saudi Arabia and one that makes more use of its military power? I think it will make more use of its military power, but I don’t think that there’s any clear indication it’s going to do so without the caution that Saudi Arabia has shown in the past. Sometimes we in the West tend to forget that Saudi Arabia has been willing to tell the United States that it will not accept any pressure on its sovereignty and that it is an independent power consistently over the years.

[SUSRIS] The US-GCC Summit is set for Washington in a couple of weeks. There’s been a lot of pushback among Gulf partners about the U.S. relationship with Iran. Some fear there’s a shift in U.S. priorities in the region. So as the GCC leaders come to Washington what should people know about the state of the relationship between Washington and the Gulf and the issues that concern them?


President Obama met with King Salman during the visit of an American delegation to Riyadh in January to express condolences on the passing of King Abdullah. (SPA)

[Cordesman] Well I think first it is a very complex situation because frankly none of us have a clear strategy for Syria. The Saudis may criticize the U.S. approach but the Saudi approach did not work any better. There were probably at least as many tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar over what happened in Syria as there were between Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Nobody really has a clear plan for Iraq. I would hope that the more recent announcement that the Saudi ambassador may actually return to Baghdad is implemented this time. In many ways for all the talk of U.S. and Saudi tensions what is needed more than anything else is cooperation in ensuring that Iraq remains independent and united and that there is some way of bridging the gap between Sunni and Shiite Arab. That is an issue that to some extent has been lost in the focus on Yemen. There is a need to look beyond the use of military force in dealing with Yemen. There is a need to have a clear dialogue on Iran, but here too I think one has to be very careful.

One real problem out in the Gulf is the gap between the people who actually work in the national security community and the various think tanks, media and intellectuals. Many of them, quite frankly, don’t really do serious analysis, don’t pay close attention to what the United States is doing, and often don’t pay a lot of attention to what their own country’s military forces are doing.

You may get a flood of op-ed pieces, short articles, and opinions. Now, when you talk about U.S. and Saudi cooperation, or U.S. and U.A.E. cooperation, or U.S. cooperation with the GCC – could we do better? Yes. But I think one has to be very careful here. Between 2010 and 2013 Saudi Arabia alone had more than 80 billion dollars worth of arms orders from the U.S.

We’re not talking about the U.S. somehow distancing itself from the Gulf. You see the same build up and cooperation in arms transfers and military exercises with all of the other Gulf states, particularly the U.A.E. The Saudi-U.A.E. relationship in some ways is coming to be a critical underpinning here and you see more cooperation between Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United States. There are real questions about how much Saudi and Egyptian cooperation can be strengthened. What would it really mean? How would this affect the U.S. relationship with Egypt? I think certainly this is going to be a subject on the table.

When you talk about the U.S. and Iran remember that first it’s unclear we’ll have a nuclear agreement. Second, the U.S. has made it very clear that it’s going to take time to find out whether Iran is serious about that agreement.

The U.S. efforts to have missiles included in that agreement have so far not had any success. So there is the whole issue of missile defense. The U.S. has deployed missile defense ships to the Gulf and is actively working with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states to improve missile defense.

You have between the [CENTCOM] air command, AFCENT, and the naval command, NAVCENT, a very active effort to cooperate with the Gulf states in dealing with this steady build up of the Iranian asymmetric warfare threat in the Gulf. It is now a missile-air-naval threat, as well as one of irregular forces and elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. None of this is affected in any sense by the nuclear negotiations.

You certainly don’t have U.S. cooperation with Iran in Syria. You don’t have it in Iraq. One of the key elements of the visit of the Iraqi Prime Minister to the U.S. was a set of conversations on the risks of Iranian influence and the Iraqi Prime Minister did not attempt to understate these issues. He was very frank about the need to on the one hand work with Iran where possible and on the other hand limit its presence and ensure that Iraq’s sovereignty was preserved. He certainly had clear U.S. encouragement in that.

You have a U.S. role in Lebanon, which people tend to ignore but Saudi Arabia, the United States and France have actually managed to make a significant improvement in the capabilities of the Lebanese Armed Forces.

You again saw that the U.S. deployed naval forces to ensure that you didn’t have an Iranian naval presence that affected the Houthi and the situation in Yemen. When you look at some of the most important activities in Saudi Arabia that deal with counterterrorism I think one has to remember that whatever the political tensions may sometimes be, and of course over Iraq and Syria and the rest they can be real, you have ever since 2003 steadily at the working level tightened the cooperation on counterterrorism between Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Now, also when you talk about the rebalancing to Asia it’s mildly amusing that when the U.S. announced its new Sea Power strategy — if you go back and look at the press release — the only area that it specifically announced an increase in U.S. Naval deployments was to the Middle East and not to Asia. That is a set of deployments essentially oriented toward countering Iran’s role in building up asymmetric warfare forces.

Now, is everything going to be smooth? No. Saudi Arabia is a sovereign state. So are each of the Gulf states. Do they have reason to be concerned about the U.S. negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue? Yes, because it shapes the whole security future in the Gulf and any prospect for limiting the spread of weapons of mass destruction. These are critical national security interests, and no state can afford to ignore these interests.

It is really important to keep the underlying realities in perspective to actually analyze the trends that are going on. And it is a little disturbing that far too often what we get not at the official level but at the sort of think tank and media level in the Gulf is the same old focus on conspiracy theories, on fear rather than substantive analysis and action. It’s, I think, rather odd that this is one of the few areas in the world where intellectuals need to catch up with their government. In most places governments need to catch up with their intellectuals.

[SUSRIS] So the rhetoric is not keeping up with the reality?

[Cordesman] Well one thing that we in the U.S. need to recognize is that we are now putting more and more emphasis on strategic partners. We have them. But if you have strategic partners like Saudi Arabia, or the U.A.E., or Jordan, or Egypt, just as there is a clear need for them to listen to our side of the dialogue, perhaps one thing that is clear is that Americans need to be very careful to listen to their partners. Perhaps it is time that partners like Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states were actually more open and forthright.

There is in these partnerships a need for a clearer set of demands and a stronger effort to make it clear to the U.S. that partnerships mean listening and accepting the priorities of the partner. This is not something where their problems simply rest in the Gulf, they rest on the U.S. side as well.

[SUSRIS] Thank you again for your time and perspective on these important questions.

Dr. Cordesman was interviewed by phone from his office in Washington, DC on April 24, 2015.


Anthony Cordesman
Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at CSIS. During his time at CSIS, he has completed a wide variety of studies on energy, U.S. strategy and defense plans, the lessons of modern war, defense programming and budgeting, NATO modernization, Chinese military power, proliferation, counterterrorism, armed nation building, security in the Middle East, and the Afghan and Iraq conflicts.

Cordesman has traveled frequently to Afghanistan and Iraq to consult for MNF-I, ISAF, U.S. commands, and U.S. embassies on the wars in those countries, and he was a member of the Strategic Assessment Group that assisted General Stanley McChrystal in developing a new strategy for Afghanistan in 2009. He frequently acts as a consultant to the U.S. State Department, Defense Department, and intelligence community and has worked with U.S. officials on counterterrorism and security areas in a number of Middle East countries.


Before joining CSIS, Cordesman served as director of intelligence assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and as civilian assistant to the deputy secretary of defense. He directed the analysis of the lessons of the October War for the secretary of defense in 1974, coordinating the U.S. military, intelligence, and civilian analysis of the conflict. He also served in numerous other government positions, including in the State Department and on NATO International Staff. In addition, he served as director of policy and planning for resource applications in the Energy Department and as national security assistant to Senator John McCain. He had numerous foreign assignments, including posts in the United Kingdom, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iran, as well as with NATO in Brussels and Paris. He has worked extensively in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. He is a recipient of the Department of Defense Distinguished Service Medal.

Cordesman is the author of numerous studies on energy policy, national security, and the Middle East.


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