Q&A: Saudi military official discusses Arab coalition’s fight in Yemen
Every evening since a mostly Sunni Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia began airstrikes against Shiite Muslim rebels in Yemen, journalists have been invited into an air base in the Saudi capital for a briefing on the day’s battlefield developments.
The made-for-TV event features models of Saudi military hardware and grainy cockpit video of missiles hitting military bases and ammunition stockpiles held by the Iranian-allied rebels known as Houthis and troops still loyal to Yemen’s deposed strongman, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Despite nearly two weeks of airstrikes, fierce clashes persist between these insurgents and forces loyal to the country’s exiled president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, fueling speculation that the coalition may decide to send in ground forces.
Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, who presides over the nightly news conferences, has said the coalition’s priority is the security of the Yemeni people and neighboring countries, including Saudi Arabia, which shares a long border with Yemen. The Times sat down with Asiri after a recent briefing to ask him what the coalition plans to do next.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
We are now nearly two weeks into the air campaign in Yemen, and the Houthi militias show no sign of abandoning their advance across the country. How much longer do you expect the campaign to continue and under what conditions would you consider sending in ground troops?
We knew before we started the campaign that we will have a very hard task. When you address a regular army, you know where are its logistics, where are its units, where are its command and control [centers]. But you cannot attack a hotel because in its basement there are munitions or there is a communications center.
The Americans, they spent 11 years in Afghanistan, plus NATO, plus all the supporters. At the end of the day they left, and the Taliban is still working in Afghanistan. So we have very clear objectives. The first is to support the legitimate government when they asked for help. Second, to make sure that those militias do not have capabilities to harm the population. The third objective is that the neighbors of Yemen, the borders, will be safe.
We [accept] as a country to have a neighbor with a very strong regular army. But we do not accept to have militias using Scud missiles and having fighter jets, and having cannons, artillery. They are not a state.
Tomorrow when one of those fighter jets flies from [Yemen’s capital] Sana toward a country and hits a building, what are we going to say? This is why Saudi Arabia and those countries joined the coalition, to make sure that threat will be addressed.
Is it possible to achieve your security objectives solely through military action?
Military action is a part of the political process. The choice to go to war is not an easy choice, but sometimes it’s important to make sure that your opponent understands what you are trying to do. The armies, they are created for this, to set the conditions, to help the political part of the process. But who refused to talk? It was the [Houthi] militias and their allies.
The militias are a group that tries to implement their agenda by force. When we ask them, do not go to Sana, they go to Sana. We ask them, do not dismantle the government, they do it. They put the legitimate president in jail. When he left Sana, they used fighter jets and they bombarded his house. We cannot accept this in the 21st century.
How much longer can the campaign go on?
We are working in Aden to make it safe, so the government can get back to work. Once they are able to run the country, there is no more threat coming from those militias, I think it’s done.
[The conversation shifts to the role of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s rival.]
In Lebanon, they create militias. In Syria, they help [President Bashar Assad] to kill the Syrians. In Iraq, they create militias. In Yemen, they create [militias]. You remember, once the [Houthis] got control of Sana, they signed a contract with an Iranian airline, 14 flights a week. To do what? We did not know that there was tourism coming from Yemen to Iran or from Iran to Yemen. They bring a lot of armaments, of explosives, of missiles.
Iran denies this. What evidence have you seen that Iran is sending large quantities of weapons to support the Houthis in Yemen?
The Yemeni government, they showed for all the media a ship with Iranian weapons. We have Saudi intelligence.
These are the militias, not the army. If the army does this, this is their right. But militias creating a ballistic missile site, bringing artillery? You know, before we started two weeks ago, they were doing a military exercise, a big military exercise. Do you think any country can accept that a militia has an exercise at their border?
There are people in Yemen who are against the Houthi militias, but who say they can’t support a president who brings foreign troops into their country. Are you worried that you might be turning the population against President Hadi?
Even in democratic countries, you can never have 100% [support]. Always people are divided according to their interests. But they elected Mansour Hadi, so we should respect the majority choice. Mansour has the responsibility to protect Yemen and the population against these militias, and he called for help. History will show the Yemenis that when they were hijacked by the militias, their brother Arab countries for once said no, we will go and help Yemen to get out of this situation.
The States joined the first and second world wars, not because they asked the European population for their opinion, but because they found out that the international order and the national security of the states and their allies was in danger.
Al Qaeda, a Sunni Muslim extremist group, appears to be taking advantage of the situation to seize more territory in Yemen. Is the coalition willing to intervene against their forces as well?
Al Qaeda is operating in this area since a long time. Unfortunately, the international community didn’t help to get those terrorists out even when we are sure that most of the operations conducted by Al Qaeda are coming from Yemen. The dismantlement of the government by the Houthis made the government very weak against Al Qaeda. So if we create a very strong Yemeni government, they can address this kind of challenge.
So you aren’t considering helping them with that objective?
We are examining the situation, but for the time being we are focusing on our objectives.
What do you say to those who see this as a sectarian fight?
It is easy to make this kind of [claim against] the Saudis or the coalition. But no one in all these years can give us any evidence that we created a militia in other countries. More than $10 billion of our aid went to Yemen. We never said this is for Sunnis. We gave it to the government. Who created the situation of sectarianism? The Iranians. They created the militia in Lebanon, Hezbollah; they created the militias in Iraq. They are using this leverage to promote an ideology which they have. So I think it is a very weak argument that the Iranians use, actually.
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