Washington: Saudi Arabia will send troops into Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, if peace talks between the Saudi-backed government and Al Houthi rebels fail, a military spokesman said on Wednesday, raising the spectre of extended conflict.
Brigadier General Ahmad Asiri, a spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition that has been fighting Al Houthi rebel forces for the past one year, said Saudi Arabia hoped that peace talks in Kuwait, already strained by ongoing violence on the ground, would succeed.
“We have two lines working in parallel — a political process and the military operation. One of them will reach the end,” he said. “If not, ... today we have troops around the capital, and we will get in, because the goal should be achieved which is securing Yemen.”
“Securing Yemen doesn’t mean that we will tolerate to have a militia ... controlling ballistic missiles, artillery, etc, and threatening our border and threatening the area.”
The Sana’a area is populated by supporters of Al Houthi movement and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Earlier, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir had said the only way to solve the Yemeni conflict is through political talks. “We still believe that the only way is a political solution, built on the foundations of the national dialogue,” Al Jubeir said last year.
On May 9, delegations representing the Yemeni government and Houthis met in Kuwait with UN special envoy to Yemen Esmail Ould Shaikh Ahmad to discuss a political solution.
“What I heard from both delegations is promising, but we shouldn’t forget that the challenges are enormous and the gap between them is large,” Ould Shaikh Ahmad said in a statement following the meeting. “There is no doubt that we are at a true crossroads. We are either moving towards peace or going back to Square One.”
A key sticking point in the negotiations is the Yemeni government’s demand that Al Houthis and their allies of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh disarm and relinquish cities they had captured last year.
Asiri’s comments came several days after US officials revealed that they had placed a small team of US advisers on the ground around the Yemeni port city of Al Mukalla, where they are supporting operations in a parallel campaign by Emirati troops fighting alongside Saudi and Yemeni forces against Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
When Yemeni and Gulf forces pressed into Al Mukalla last month, it was a milestone in the country’s multi-sided civil war, expanding their campaign to launch a major offensive against a group that US officials identify as the most lethal Al Qaida affiliate.
The action against AQAP has also drawn the United States deeper into the conflict. The small advisory operation marks the first US military presence since the rebels’ takeover of Sana’a in late 2014 that prompted Washington to pull remaining American personnel out of Yemen and end a long-standing training programme for local forces.
Asiri said Saudi and Emirati Special Operations forces, about a company-size unit of each, joined troops loyal to the Yemeni government in fighting the militants in Al Mukalla. He declined to say how many Saudi troops had been on the ground but said most of them had been withdrawn after the fighting in Al Mukalla subsided. In addition to the foreign troops in Al Mukalla, on Yemen’s southern coast, 300 Sudanese troops are in Aden, another important port city to the west.
Asiri said Al Mukalla operation was just “one step” required against AQAP, which had retreated into remote areas where it is difficult to track, adding that Yemeni forces would need to reassert government control of those areas. “The objective is, once you free the zone, you put the army on the ground, the Yemeni army on the ground, and you start providing services,” he said.
The expanded operations against AQAP take place as the United Nations struggles to bring about progress in the Kuwait peace talks. This week, Al Houthi leaders accused Saudi Arabia of violating a recently announced truce. Asiri, meanwhile, said that rebels had fired two Scud missiles at a Saudi city this week.
“We cannot leave Yemen in a grey area without having a final result,” he said. “Otherwise, we will see the Libyan model in Yemen.”
The general defended Saudi Arabia’s management of its air campaign against Al Houthi rebels, saying that strikes were conducted to the standard of Nato operations.
“We take all measures to conduct surgical air strikes,” he said.
The United Nations has accused the Saudi-led coalition of being responsible for twice the number of civilian casualties as other combatants in Yemen. Asiri said Saudi and allied forces systematically investigated allegations of civilian casualties but were hindered by a lack of access to Al Houthi-controlled areas. He did not provide a number for how many of those allegations had been verified.
The United Nations says the conflict has killed more than 6,000 people and triggered a severe humanitarian crisis in an already poor country.
— With inputs from agencies