Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by Carpatho-Russian exclusively for SouthFront
Classical military science warns against war on two fronts. But it is exactly that which Saudi Arabia (KSA) — one of the key countries of the Middle East region – is now engaged.
Its armies are the main military force of the “Arabic Coalition”, fighting in Yemen against the Houthis of the north of this country. Regarding Syria, the kingdom is at war there by “proxy”, using the forces of controllable militants from radical Islamic structures close to Al-Qaeda (in the ranks of which, by the way, there are Saudi retired reserves), in union with groups operated by Qatar and Turkey. In this regard, the pro-Qatar Islamic State, forbidden in Russia, which maintains close relations with the Turkish leadership contrary to all denials of Ankara, has its own aggressive plans concerning the KSA.
Limitation of the military resources of Riyadh, whose armed forces are equipped with modern weapons and equipment systems but are unable to master most of the equipment in their hands, forces the Saudis to proceed to creation of coalitions over and over. The pan-Arab forces, the “Arab Coalition”, and finally the announced “Islamic Coalition” are seen by political scientists and journalists as something like NATO (with all the unsteadiness of today’s North Atlantic Alliance and its inability to wage effective combat operations). Meanwhile, they are not and will hardly become a real military force. As underlies the KSA rapprochement with the leaders of such countries as Turkey and Pakistan, including through people with dubious reputation. We shall examine these processes, relying on materials from experts of the IBV, V.A. Vasilyev, P. P. Ryabov and Y.B. Shcheglovin.
Barricades on the road to peace
The Saudi military declared that they were able to bring down a “ballistic missile” (SA-2 or SKAD) which was aimed at an air force base on the Kingdom’s territories. It was specifically this type of rockets that the Yemeni Zaydis fired in the summer at the same base in Najran. At that time some aircraft and helicopters of the Royal Air Force were destroyed, and several high-ranking Saudi generals, including the commander of the Air Force of KSA, were killed. There was serious examination of the suppliers of ABM systems from Lockheed Corporation (USA). After Riyadh threatened to tear up all existing contracts with this firm, modernization of earlier equipped systems and ABM platforms was carried out in Najran province. But it has not yet been possible to intercept rockets of the Katyusha type. In this, the Americans accuse the Saudi military of bad qualifications in ABM operations, even though the supplier only guarantees an interception rate of 80 percent of the rockets launched against a target.
The attempts of coalition forces to spread out so as to minimize victims, have led to a loss of the rate of advance and leveled its advantage in heavy equipment
The mentioned attack on the Saudi Air Force base looks illogical, as it occurred at the height of peace talks supervised by Riyadh between the government of Yemen and Zaydis in Geneva. Recall, however, how on the eve of these consultations the Houthis (more precisely, the military loyal to former President A.A. Saleh) struck with the Tochka-U rocket the coalition forces camp run by the Saudis near Taiz. Losses were more than 100 people, including 83 Blackwater mercenaries, and several dozen Saudi, Bahraini, and Emirate military. During the same time, the commander of VS KSA special forces in Jizan was killed in an ambush. In response, the Royal Air Force for two days running bombed Zaydi targets in Saada and Sana’a.
As Saudi mass media have confirmed, the Houthi lost up to 200 officers of mid-range and top command leadership during the mentioned bombardments. So the attempt to use a rocket to attack a KSA Air Force base from which military aircraft fly for bombings was the classic answer from the side of the Zaydis. It indirectly confirms that the Houthis really did have serious losses as a result of the Saudi airstrikes. In this, during the entire period preceding the truce and consultations in Geneva, the parties at war in Yemen tried to cause each other the maximum loss and to establish (or at least to keep) control over the main strategic zones of the country. Hence, on December 21 troops loyal to president A.M. Hadi, tried to march to Sana’a from the Marib base.
The attacking forces were divided into three wedges, one of which was focused on Al-Hazm in the north of the country. The city was taken. The second group attacked the Nayhem region, through a direct route to Sana’a opens. Several strategic heights 40 kilometers from the Yemen capital were captured. According to some reports, a number of villages in the suburbs of Sana’a came under control of the local tribal militia, awaiting the arrival of coalition forces. The third wedge was directed against Havyan which it was not possible to capture, despite bombings and artillery strikes. The coalition aircraft strike civilian objects in the city and around it, attempting to intimidate the civilian population supporting Zaydis. In Sana’a the Houthis are preparing for defense, arranging mine traps, barricades, and bunkers in cellars of houses.
In all this, groups of the former Republican Guard, loyal to President Saleh, are not noticed in the city. Experts believe that they were withdrawn from the capital so as to minimize damage from possible air strikes, and deployed closer to the Saudi border and to the South — to Taiz, which Saleh has sworn to defend to the last bullet. In order to delay the Houthis from the direction of the capital, the Saudis and Moroccans from the base in Jizan performed two diversionary offensive operations, not going too deep into the internal regions of Yemen. And during the first of them – attacks on Harada – the commander of special forces of the armed forces of the KSA was killed. The second attack was directed on the city of Al-Buka. In these forays observers note military interaction of the Saudis with local tribal groups from the Islakh party.
In Maribe and Taiz, the Houthis withstood the attack of coalition forces, using ambushes and firing Tochka-U missile systems at the opponent. This had a serious constraining effect. Losses of coalition forces appeared very significant, and attempts to disperse them with small groups in the mountain district, while minimizing losses, led to losing the tempo of the attack and leveled the advantage of using heavy equipment. From this, experts drew the conclusion that Houthis kept considerable arsenals of heavy and rocket armament, despite the massed months-long bombings of their positions by coalition forces.
It is clear that Riyadh will from here do everything possible to resolve the Yemen problem, despite the fact that it takes away from the kingdom considerable financial and organizational resources, specifically on the combat path. The compromise presented to it in the Geneva format of negotiations in the person of U.N. intermediaries presumes the de facto legalization of Houthis in the north of Yemen, in Saudi Arabia’s “underbelly”. This does not sit well with Riyadh, despite all possible written or other guarantees of non-aggression against the Saudi territory from the Zaydis. At the same time, the United Arab Emirates agree with the actual division of Yemen on a North – South axis, as in this case they achieve their main task — renewal of control of the Emirates over ocean ports of the country. The presence of Houthis in the North and their communication with Iran does not bother the United Arab Emirates: Abu Dhabi prefers to negotiate with Tehran rather than with the Muslim Brotherhood. And the alternative to the Houthis in the north of Yemen are in the person of the Islakh party.
Hence, we ascertain a split in the ranks of the coalition concerning further tactics and strategy in Yemen. This, however, does not cancel rapid renewal in this country of full-scale operations, which are for the time being in smoldering mode, despite an officially declared truce with prisoner exchange. This is needed by the belligerent parties as a technical respite and has no presuppositions for development into long-term peace process, not to mention resolution of the Yemen crisis to the satisfaction if not everyone, then at least the main parties to the conflict.
A coalition in word only
As far as Syria, according to American analysts Saudi Arabia will increase its participation in the conflict. On the whole, it answers to the interests of the USA, which is trying to find a regional force to expand its ground operations. It is in this regard that Washington expressed support for Riyadh’s plans to create the Muslim coalition from 34 countries which the KSA Minister of Defense and son of King Mohammed Ben Salman announced. The speculations of the American analysts that such a coalition would legitimize the claims of the Arab monarchies (KSA and Qatar) and Turkey for a special role in the intra-Syrian conflict and legitimize this activity in the eyes of the Arab and Muslim countries, who suspect Ankara of neo-Ottomanism, suffer severe strain. These are attempts to match the desired with the actual.
Iran, Iraq and Oman, negatively relating to war with Assad, are joined by Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan
Whether in the end Riyadh and Ankara (Doha meanwhile not showing any public activity) will officially announce the creation of an Islamic coalition or not, and whether that is intended to enter armies onto Syrian territory (requiring UN Security Council consent), or continue operations in the format of irregular formations, changes nothing. All countries which have been oriented to oppose the actions of KSA and Turkey on the Syrian direction, remain so. And so to this group containing Iran, Iraq, and Oman were joined Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan, which much to the displeasure of Riyadh refused to participate in a new coalition, but accented the special position of Islamabad concerning preservation of the unity of Syria and preservation of the regime in Damascus. As far as possible to understand it, this process will gain momentum.
Pakistan does not at all welcome the Saudi-Qatar union (even temporary) regarding Syria. Due to the latest attempts by Qatar to shake up the unity of the Taliban and create IS branches in Islamabad’s zone of national interests in Afghanistan, the Pakistan position is quite logical. As far as the Americans, they perfectly well understand: the arrival of the Saudi and Emirate armies in the Syrian territory will evoke a sharply negative reaction in Tehran. This step can completely provoke the introduction into Syria of active armed forces of Iran, which will lead to the actual division of the country and a transition of the conflict to regional war.
The operations of the Russian ASF in Syria have buried all actions planned by Turkey and the USA near the city of Azaz. There (with diligent ignoring of the obvious facts by Washington), the introduction of Turkish special forces on the Syrian territory for protection of routes of supply of oil and logistics of supporters of IS and the pro-Saudi groups was outlined. From here, Erdogan’s efforts to delegitimize President Assad and his regime are clear. Ankara for itself has already come to a decision that the northern provinces of Syria are a zone of its integral interests. Whether these territories would become part of Turkey or, by analogy to Northern Cyprus, remain formally independent, is not so important.
One issue for conducting operations in Syria by forces of the ground divisions of the countries of the Islamic coalition is the antagonism between Turkish security officers and the Syrian Kurdish formations of the Party of Democratic Union (PDS). This opposition nullifies all efforts to organize an attack on positions of IS in Raqqa, and direction by 50 American special forces members in the Kurdish groups did not correct the situation. The Kurds continue to remain for the USA a priority group to support, and their negative relationship to the introduction of any Arab forces into areas supervised by them is certainly taken into account by the Pentagon. As PDS leadership considers it, such a scenario will only strengthen Arab-Kurdish opposition with old roots. All the more as inter-ethnic conflicts are already taking place in the city of Tal-Abyada.
There is an open question who will be the backbone of an Islamic coalition. The Jordanian and Egyptian armies are most often called the most efficient in this regard. However for the time Cairo is only demonstrating its intentions, as in Yemen. It has no appetite to get involved in civil war in the territory of Syria, believing it to be a dangerous adventure. And it lacks forces for this purpose. The most battle-capable parts are directed to the Sinai. Preservation of the international prestige of the Egyptian resorts of the Red Sea and the safety of tourists visiting them outweigh in their value to the budget of the Arab Republic of Egypt the KSA plans in Yemen and Syria. Other detachments cover the Libyan border, and some divisions are drawn off towards Yemen in exchange for Saudi credits and loans.
In addition, the military in Cairo are obviously supporting President Assad in his fight against Islamists. It is notable that Egypt is attempting to distance itself from an intermediary role in the organization of negotiations between Damascus and the “moderate part of the opposition”, despite the requests of Riyadh and Washington. It remains an open question for the Arab Republic of Egypt regarding normalization of relations with Turkey, which openly supported the Egyptian “Muslim Brotherhood” and condemned the revolution by which the army and President As-Sisi, now heading the country, returned to the power after excluding the Islamists. In addition, Ankara is playing an active role in supplying to terrorist groups in Sinai weapons from Libya. Cairo is hardly prepared to close its eyes to this.
For reconciliation of Turkey and Egypt, someone of them would need to back off their fundamental points, but it makes no sense to expect this. Consequently, there will be no progress in negotiations on joint military operations in Syria that will benefit both the region and Russian-Egyptian relations. Riyadh can influence Cairo only through granting it financial assistance, and that will “work out the issues” before the Saudis without showing excessive zeal.
The same thing also pertains to Jordan. This shows readiness for financial assistance to participate in a coalition, but does not wish to send troops to Syria. Amman reached an agreement with Damascus on distribution of powers between the center and tribal leadership in the south of Syria (which is a zone of interest for Jordan) which set down as a basis the amnesty for local opposition and its truce with the authorities. King Abdallah does not wish to strengthen Islamists in the neighboring country, taking the risk of facing them at home, taking into account the growth of anti-monarchic moods and the appearance of IS supporters among the Bedouins in south Jordan. This forces Amman to limit itself to declarations of intentions, instead of acting in favor of Saudi Arabia, with which the Hashemites have long-time accounts.
Immersed in oil
In connection with everything stated above, it is difficult to expect any serious actions of the new Islamic coalition in Syria very soon. Opposition will continue on this line: Assad’s regime — Ahrar ash-Sham militants in Aleppo, and Kurds — IS and militants of pro-Saudi groups around Azaz and Raqqa. All the more that information on links between President of Turkey Erdogan and his clan with the Saudis who have been directly tied in with radical Islamic groups recognized around the world as terrorists is especially worth attention.
This information originates from western sources. According to the British and American intelligence services, one of the main intermediaries in the illicit trade of Iraqi and Syrian oil is the Saudi businessman Yassin al-Qadi, son-in-law of Sheikh Ahmed Salah Yamzhum, in the past a minister of the government of KSA, and personal friend of President Erdogan. The United Nations introduced sanctions against al-Qadi in 1999 and 2000 when UN Security Council Resolutions 1267 and 1333 called him a suspect in communicating with Al-Qaeda. On October 12, 2001, the Office of Foreign Asset Control )OFAC) at the US Treasury Department issued an order to freeze his assets in the USA. Soon a similar trial took place in the European Union.
The Jumhuriyet newspaper published an article in 2013 about the investigation of contacts of al-Qadi with Erdogan, conducted by Turkish judicial authorities. The publication published dates of meetings, and confirmed that the head of MIT [Turkish Intelligence Service] H. Fidan and the Egyptian businessman U. Kutb, son of large-scale sponsor of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood M. Kutb participated, and occasionally the sons of Erdogan and al-Qadi, Bilal and Muaz. Al-Qadi is an oil industry worker. He supported contacts of the Saudi upper circles and the Turkish leadership regarding organization of illicit trade in black gold [oil]. IS needed help in this sale, and Erdogan, providing transit through Turkish territory, set up a channel to mix the illegal oil with Kurdish, Azerbaijani, and Turkmen oil, via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, and sale of this mix in the world market. This explains the alliance of Turkey with Qatar and KSA in the attempt to destroy Syria as the state, from the financial point of view. Meanwhile no one has discontinued the strong competition in the world markets and attempts to capture another’s territory and resources as a method of conducting policy…
Evgeny Satanovsky, President of the Institute of the Middle East