Gwynne Dyer: Saudi Arabia’s “Decisive Storm” blows over in Yemen
Once upon a time big military operations were given obscure names so the enemy wouldn’t guess what the plan was. The German plan for the invasion of France in 1940 was called “Fall Gelb” (Case Yellow); the American counter-attack in the Korean War that recovered Seoul was “Operation Chromite”. But then the PR guys got their hands on it.
By the 21st century we were getting dramatic titles like “Desert Storm” (the 1991 Gulf war), and then aspirational ones like “Operation Iraqi Freedom”. So it was only natural, when Saudi Arabia decided to bomb the Houthi rebels who had taken over most of Yemen, to name the operation “Decisive Storm”. That sounds nice and decisive, and stormy too.
And when the Saudi military spokesman, Brig-Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri, announced on Tuesday (April 21) that Saudi Arabia was calling the bombing campaign off after one month and 2,415 bombing sorties, he naturally claimed that it had been a decisive victory. The bombing had destroyed 80 percent of the Houthis’ “transport lines” (colloquially known as “roads”), and they had also knocked out all of the rebels’ ballistic missiles.
Ballistic missiles? Yes, the Houthis had captured a base outside Sana’a that was home to some Scud B ground-to-ground missiles (range 300 kilometres, vintage 1965), although they might not actually fly after half a century of Yemeni-style maintenance, and they could barely reach the country’s own borders if they did.
Anyway, the Saudi Arabian Air Force took them out, so we can all rest easier now. A Saudi billionaire has even promised to give each of the 100 Saudi pilots involved in the bombing campaign a Bentley (sort of a down-market Rolls-Royce) in gratitude for their efforts.
Moreover, said General al-Amiri, the Houthi militia is no longer in a position to harm civilians. He didn’t actually say so, but you would assume from the context and his manner that Yemen is now at peace, and the Houthis have all gone home to their own tribal territory in the north of Yemen, and Yemen’s legitimate president is safely back in Sana’a, the capital.
What’s that? The legitimate president is still in exile in Saudi Arabia? And the Houthis haven’t gone home either? They still control most of Yemen right down to Aden. And the remainder of the country is now ruled by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, except for the bits run by its even nastier Islamist rival, ISIS. How is that a victory?
Have some pity for poor General al-Asiri. He had to say something positive; he works for the government. But the one scene that defines the event was a television studio in Sana’a where a Yemeni news anchor was running a clip of Asiri’s speech. When the anchor comes back on the screen and picks up his script, he can’t say anything. He’s trying to, but he’s corpsing.
He giggles, he snorts, he fans himself with his script, he puts his head on the desk, he completely loses it. And then the people behind the camera start laughing too. This is known in PR-speak as “abject failure”. When you are trying to convince your audience that your bankruptcy was actually a canny tactical move, you do not want them to collapse in hysterical laughter.
What can have possessed Saudi Arabia to launch this foredoomed aerial campaign, and rope in practically every other Sunni Arab state to send a few planes along to help? Mostly, it was simple paranoia. The Saudi Arabian authorities have convinced themselves that the “Shias” (by which they usually mean Iran) are on the offensive, and gobbling up any Arab territories where they can find fellow Shias. The Houthis are Shias. Q.E.D.
There was a lot of talk about Iran supplying arms to the Houthis at the start of the bombing campaign, and the Saudis managed to get almost every other Sunni Arab counry to send a couple of planes along to help. At the end of it, General al-Asiri didn’t mention the Iranians at all. Maybe they all went home (although it would be hard to leave with all the airports shut and the coast under naval blockade). Or maybe they were never there.
Bigger countries have made bigger mistakes and paid quite small prices: the United States invasion of Iraq, for example. Saudi Arabia won’t pay a big price either, for it appears that the grown-ups in Riyadh have intervened after a month and turned the military machine off. No follow-up ground invasion, just a smooth transition to “Operation Restore Hope”, the humanitarian aid they would have provided after they’d won, if they had won.
Saudi Arabia is well out of it, and as outcomes go, it’s less bad than many. Just a bit of advice. Stop using those American-style names for operations. When the United States started using them is when it started fighting dumb wars, and losing them.
Stop press: On Wednesday (April 22), the Saudis started bombing again, but just a bit, they said. Oh, well...
Apr 23, 2015 at 5:27am
These little losses in the Middle East get little serious attention in the Middle East, but they are not nothing.
The Saudi military was supposed to be a legitimate power in the Middle East, at least potentially.
They are well very funded by the monarchy, well manned by the underemployed (and traditionally martial) Saudi elite well armed by their US allies. American trained Saudi pilots fly the latest US-made fighter jets in large numbers commanded by generals trained in the US.
Spending-wise they are 3rd or 4th in the world, a tie with Russia. A budget bigger than of Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Iran combined.
If they are unable to put down a tribal rebellion in Yemen, that has political and strategic consequences everywhere. Potential proxy wars, uprisings, civil wars or an actual war with Iran are always on the table for a 5 year horizon and Saudi military proficiency is part of the equation.
IS started their revolution in earnest the day they routed the much larger and ostensibly more professional Iraqi force. A paper tiger crumpled and was immediately written off by any strategists as irrelevant. If Saudis prove incompetent, that will mean a change in the power balance.
Apr 23, 2015 at 9:15am
"Anyway, the Saudi Arabian Air Force took them out, so we can all rest easier now. A Saudi billionaire has even promised to give each of the 100 Saudi pilots involved in the bombing campaign a Bentley"
Harper's pilots didn't even receive a Chevy.
"And the remainder of the country is now ruled by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, except for the bits run by its even nastier Islamist rival, ISIS. How is that a victory?"
Maybe you're missing something . Harper's pilots joked they were al-Qaeda’s air force.
The self control of our anchors is better than this:
" When the anchor comes back on the screen and picks up his script, he can’t say anything. He’s trying to, but he’s corpsing."
Apr 27, 2015 at 9:20am
"Once upon a time big military operations were given obscure names so the enemy wouldn’t guess what the plan was...By the 21st century we were getting dramatic titles like “Desert Storm” (the 1991 Gulf war)"
Operation Babylift got a dramatic title - just a few decades ago:
"A month before ordering the final evacuation of Vietnam, Ambassador Martin approved an airlift of thousands of South Vietnamese orphans to the United States where they were to be adopted by Americans. "
Apr 28, 2015 at 5:17am
The South Vietnamese "baby lift" contained an amazing number of ARVN officers and RVN officials children, damn few street kids.
May 1, 2015 at 12:18pm
Of course the Saudis are going to fight like mad (or hope they can con someone else into doing it for them) to protect their own little bit of ethnic cleansing. Yemen and the Saudi province next door to it were majority Shia until the Saudis started using their oil money to push its grim Wahabist brand of Islam onto the area.
The "legitimate president" of Yemen was every bit as artificial and propped up from outside as were the Soviet-installed rulers of Afghanistan in the 1980s (you know, the ones we ousted as a favor to our Wahabist Taliban friends?) but with far less charitable motives where his subject peoples were concerned.
If the oligarchs of the Western world didn't spend most of the last two centuries freaking out every time some place or group in the Islamic part of the non-West actually tried to embrace liberty, equality, and fraternity (especially in a secular context), we wouldn't be faced with ISIS, Al Qaeda, or Saudi Arabia.