Saudi and UAE boots on the ground intensify the Yemen war

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. We’re a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH here in Boston. If I told you the US was backing an air war that just turned into a ground war in a key part of the world, that might catch your attention, right? Well, that is exactly what’s happening in Yemen.


Michael Knights: Yes, the land campaign is now escalating and accelerating, and President Hadi’s forces will probably be within striking range of the capital, Sanaa, within a number of weeks.


Werman: That’s Michael Knights. He’s a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and he’s talking about Operation Golden Arrow. That’s a new military offensive with boots on the ground in Yemen. It’s led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the United States is providing logistical assistance. It comes four months after a Saudi-led airstrike campaign in support of Yemen’s exiled president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. Michael Knights says this is something new for the Saudis and their allies.


Knights: What we’ve seen happen is something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago, which is the Gulf security forces--Saudis and Yemenis--arranging a huge military operation all on their own and landing forces both by sea and by air into Aden, the southern port city, taking over that city, and then starting a big mechanized dash towards the north, towards the capital, Sanaa.


Werman: Why were they able to do it now?


Knights: Over the last ten years, they’ve developed far more advanced military capabilities and they’ve also become tougher soldiers. And the UAE has landed main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery pieces, and there are also helicopter gunships now operating from southern Yemen.


Werman: And when we say the US is supporting this operation, what does that actually mean?


Knights: It means that the US is helping with the planning of the operation, providing intelligence for the UAE and Hadi loyalist forces; it means that the US is providing logistical support. And also, other European countries, too. For instance, the British just diverted many of their precision-guided bombs away from their own air force to give them to the Saudis to use in the air campaign.


Werman: So, who exactly are these forces? Because there seem to be some reports that maybe they’re not all Saudi, maybe none of them are Saudi.


Knights: It looks like the Saudis have taken a number of Yemenis serving in the Saudi armed forces and also people of mixed Yemeni and Saudi parenthood, of which there are many, and have trained them to be part of President Hadi’s new security force. And then there’s also the members of the Emirati armed forces and the UAE and the Saudi special forces that are there on the ground, engaging in combat operations every day.


Werman: So, there are Saudi forces on the ground as special ops, but what about kind of regular rank and file troops?


Knights: The regular rank and file troops have mainly been provided by the UAE. They’re the guys who are driving the tanks, the armored personnel carriers, and we’ve now seen at least five of them killed in action.


Werman: So if Operation Golden Arrow gets to Sanaa, what’s going to be the cost in civilian lives?


Knights: The cost in civilian lives from the ground campaign may be relatively limited. What worries me is that the Saudi-led air campaign is quite brutal. It’s not like one of our modern air campaigns with the US or the UK, where we worry about civilian casualties. The Saudis, in many cases, seem to be deliberately causing civilian casualties, and certainly causing civilian suffering by knocking out power stations and other pieces of civilian infrastructure.


Werman: Well precisely on that point, there have been human rights groups that have criticized the Saudis for using cluster bombs in their air campaigns--some of those cluster bombs are actually manufactured in the US--and are purposely starving Yemenis with the naval blockade. Why do the Americans still support the Saudi operation?


Knights: The US is in a very delicate position. By striking the nuclear deal with Iran, the US has made its Gulf Arab partners very paranoid about future US commitment to the region. And so, the US is trying to counterbalance that by being a good ally in Yemen. In my view, in some ways we are fighting the wrong war against the wrong people. But at this point in time, the US has very little choice.


Werman: Michael Knights is a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Michael, thanks very much for the update.


Knights: My pleasure.