Stephen Bell to Mirat Al Jazeera: the coalition has failed to achieve its military goals

Interviewed by Sondoss Al Asaad

Five years of the imposed aggression have devastated Yemen leaving the country at the verge of a ‘humanitarian catastrophe,’ where 18 million people are in need of assistance and created the largest food security emergency in the world. Since the onset of the Saudi-led aggression, anti-war campaigners organised protests in solidarity with the Yemeni people. Mirat Al Jazeera has interviewed Stephen Bell, the Treasurer of the Stop the War Coalition, who affirms that after five years, the coalition has failed to achieve its military goals and that the collapse of the Coalition will be the harbinger for the Yemeni resistance’s ultimate victory.

The balance of power has changed

There has been a broad military deadlock since the movements of the summer of 2015. Almost certainly the forces of Ansarallah had been over-extended by the taking- over of Aden, so the subsequent loss was not a surprise. But following that, the Saudi led coalition has been unable to roll up the resistance forces. Underlying this failure is the failure of the Gulf transition process after 2011. By this process, the Saudi regime hoped to overturn the popular forces which had brought the former regime to an impasse and had split the national army and state forces. But the popular forces represented a majority of the Yemeni population. The transition process was not coherent enough to overturn this real balance of forces, and in 2014 this balance reasserted itself with the assumption of power by Ansarallah and the patriotic section of the General People’s Congress.

This balance cannot be overturned by purely domestic manoeuvres. The Saudis decided, with US imperialism’s support, to embark on military action on the assumption that the military balance would be more favourable than the political balance. This proved to not be the case because the patriotic forces are fighting for Yemen’s independence and the possibility of social progress for the population. The invading forces are fighting for money and foreign governments. The resistance has better morale and domestic support. That is why the Saudi led coalition has failed and will continue to fail.

Factors that helped the Ansarullah to successes

The success of Ansarallah has in the first instance been the successful mobilisation of the majority of the population for an independent future for Yemen. Without this achievement, it would probably have been reduced to protracted guerrilla warfare against the invaders. As it is, it has achieved a credible government and state structure which can lay the basis for a credible political solution through a peace process with genuine national forces from the coalition. Providing governance to over 60% of the population means Ansarallah can make a successful peace after the war.

Clearly, military successes have reinforced and deepened social mobilisation. Technological factors, especially those associated with having secured a large part of the old armed forces, would not be so significant if the leadership did not command such an extensive social base.

Yemeni resistance’s defence system

The failure of the Saudi coalition has meant that there has been an over-reliance upon superiority in the air. The ground forces of the coalition, if we put to one side its Yemeni allies, has largely been composed of mercenaries with primarily UAE officers. At the start of the war, the Saudis boasted of having an army of 150,000. This has not been deployed, because it is largely a myth and that which exists is unreliable. The Saudis failure to expel and overturn the popular forces fighting in the southern provinces of the Saudi state demonstrates the inability of the Coalition to present ground forces capable of actually defeating Ansarallah and allies.

The main remaining card, particularly for the Saudis, has been air power. This has meant that they can severely damage Yemen’s infrastructure and intimidate the civilian population with air raids. Yet victory cannot be won without a substantial land force. Equally, naval superiority allows for a siege to be imposed, particularly as the US navy is acting as a reserve for the Saudi blockade. 

But even a crippling siege cannot force a risen people to surrender, as has been also demonstrated by the Palestinians in Gaza. Hence the recent successes in challenging the Coalition’s air superiority are highly significant for the further development of the struggle.

Implications of the US involvement

US imperialism does not want to see genuine independent states in the Middle East and North Africa. To maintain its hegemony it needs states and governments that readily accept US “friendship” and “protection”. Post-2011, US interventions, overt and covert, in Syria, Libya, Egypt and Iraq have been to support the creation of regimes and governments which do not promote sovereign control of national resources. The US has been heavily dependent on Saudi Arabia and the UAE in these interventions. 

The people of Yemen have long demonstrated their refusal to simply accept submission to the US and its regional allies. The failures of US policy, inside and outside Yemen, demonstrate that from a historical perspective US imperialism is in decline, whatever its short term gains here and there. The military impasse in Yemen is as significant as the failure of the US to establish a stable pro-US regime in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Driving Factors behind the recent territorial gains in Jawf and Nehm

The morale of the resistance is far superior to that of the Coalition. Nor has the resistance’s unity fractured, even after the betrayal of Saleh and some allies. In contrast, the Coalition has suffered unending divisions and fragmentation. 

Qatar and Morocco have left the Coalition. The UAE has reduced its ground forces, whilst sponsoring a split in the Coalition between the Southern Transitional Council (STC)/Security Belt forces and those of al Islah and Hadi. Al Islah has also been split in this, with some forces around Tawwakol Karman calling for resistance to the Coalition. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the popular forces have regained ground and secured it in Jawf and Nehm. 

Saudi retaliatory airstrikes against civilians as a response to their losses 

Almost certainly, Muhammed bin Salman would like to end the war. But he has no path to victory. The Trump administration has no desire to see the popular resistance secure a victory, so favours continuing the war, for now, having twice vetoed Congress on the issue. 

All of which reinforces the point made earlier that the real expression of the continuation of the war is the air raids and the siege. The Saudis are incapable of any major military initiative.

Economic and humanitarian impacts of Saudi Arabia’s sea blockade

The UN’s characterisation of the situation remains in place; this is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. This is entirely the result of the actions of four governments – those of Saudi Arabia, UAE, US and UK. None of whom dispute the seriousness of the crisis. 

The Coalition obviously believes that inflicting such suffering upon the Yemeni people is justified to subvert the popular will of Yemen.

The UN estimate is that 24 million Yemenis, approximately 80% of the population, are in need of humanitarian assistance. Having created this catastrophe, these four governments still boast of their aid levels to Yemen, whilst taking military action to ravage the country further.

Yemenis under the blockade

The siege cannot be overcome; until it is lifted it has to be endured. The economics of resistance has allowed the Yemeni people to survive, but there is no question of prospering in these circumstances. Peace is required for prosperity. The war effort has the priority in the utilization of resources, but the revolutionary administration has to be careful to hold popular support through the careful and just distribution of necessities across the population in the areas it controls. The National Salvation Government’s anti-corruption initiatives in Sana’a and elsewhere have been very important to sustain the population. In times of war, severe measures are necessary, but they must be justified. 

The Government’s decision to lift the tax on humanitarian goods is very welcome. The tax appeared to place the concerns of the revolutionary regime over the concerns of the hungry people, so it was correct to end it.  

Blockade of the Sana’a international airport

The airport blockade has had terrible consequences for Yemenis who require medical treatment that Yemen cannot currently provide. 

In September, the World Health Organisation reported that 35,000 cancer patients were deprived of treatment by the blockade, 12 per cent of whom were children. The painfully slow progress in the peace talks has resulted in the first air-bridge when 28 patients were taken out on flights from Sana’a recently. The UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen, Martin Griffith, welcomed this start but added: “…many thousands of patients needing medical care abroad remain in Sana’a”.   

Re-opening of the airport’s negotiations

 The UN-sponsored negotiations are terribly fragile. On February 16th there was an agreement reached to exchange lists for a future prisoner exchange. Given that 290 detainees were released by Ansarallah in October, and 128 by the Saudis in November, it might have been expected that more progress would be made by now. The same is true of Sana’a airport. It is understandable that the resistance is trying to organise an international campaign, or at least raise international awareness, that Sana’a airport is a lifeline for Yemeni civilians.

 It is likely that the airport will be opened when the peace process is more firmly established. That does not appear to be an immediate prospect. The US Presidential election is a factor in this. Trump prefers chaos and a continuation of war to an outright setback for his policy in Yemen. He has woven Yemen into his “Iran is the greatest threat to world peace” tapestry. 

Unravelling it is politically dangerous for him at present.

Pro-coalition mercenaries’ withdrawal 

Most certainly these withdrawals signify victories. 

These forces were deployed to defeat the popular resistance. They were withdrawn because they couldn’t. The uprising in Sudan is a factor which has been a setback for the US/Saudi allies. The bargaining in negotiations on incorporating the opposition has led to winding down the subcontracting of Sudanese youth to the Saudi war machine. 

And hence, greater pressure on Saudi allies inside Yemen, who still have to face the intransigence of the people’s resistance. This is not a shift in strategy; it is a setback and retreat.

The UAE’s occupation of the southern provinces

The UAE regime appears to want to control Yemen’s ports, and along with Saudi Arabia, to have control of the energy and natural resources in the southern provinces. The UAE’s goals then may be achieved through the partition of Yemen. This would explain its promotion of relations with the STC over the Hadi government. In turn, this has strengthened the separatist forces over the forces of al-Islah. The Saudis cannot be satisfied with this; southern separation leaves most of Yemen under control of Ansarallah. Thus there are real elements of conflict between the two key regional governments in the Coalition. Nor can there be any confidence that the Riyadh agreement guarantees against the military conflict between pro-Coalition militias.

Stephen Bell is the Treasurer of the Stop the War Coalition. He was a coordinator for the protests when Mohammed bin Salman visited London. He has been involved in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign for many years. He is a lifelong activist in the trade union and labour movement. He was Head of Policy for the Communication Workers Union from 2002 -2015. Twitter: https://twitter.com/RednRuff

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