Reports over the weekend that Houthi rebels had crossed into Saudi Arabia from Yemen and killed three Saudi border guards have renewed speculation about whether the Saudi-led coalition is looking for ways to launch a ground invasion in an effort to thwart the rebels’ advance.
The refusal so far by Egypt and Pakistan, which field the Muslim world’s largest militaries, to contribute land forces to the Saudi-led military coalition has forced the kingdom to conduct the war primarily from the air.
But the aerial campaign has done little to roll back the Houthi forces, who still control the capital, Sanaa, and wide swaths of Yemen, and the next step, say analysts who specialize in Middle East security, is for Saudi Arabia and its anti-Houthi allies to find a way to conduct a ground campaign.
To that end, Saudi Arabia has again asked Egypt and Pakistan to contribute elite special forces to the next phase of the anti-Houthi operation in Yemen, which has been dubbed Operation Restore Hope.
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“Operation Restore Hope must include these elite forces in tactical clean up,” said Theodore Karasik, a United Arab Emirates-based analyst who specializes in Saudi Arabia.
The leaders of the six nations that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council and that form the bulk of the anti-Houthi coalition are scheduled to meet Tuesday for an extraordinary summit in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. In a rare break with tradition, the GCC has invited French President Francois Hollande to attend, a move that may foretell a French role in any ground combat; French commandos played a key role in 1979 in beating back extremists who’d seized the Kaaba in Mecca.
Pakistan declined to join the coalition after its Parliament unanimously voted against participating in the Yemen conflict. Egypt is a member of the coalition, and has contributed warplanes to the Saudi-led bombing campaign against Houthi rebels and Yemeni military units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah al Saleh.
But Egyptian President Gen. Abdel-Fattah el Sissi, like the Pakistani government, has been under enormous public pressure not to send land forces to Yemen, where it lost thousands of troops in the 1960s to support a rebellion against the government of what was formerly North Yemen.
Arif Rafiq, president of Vizier Consulting, which offers advice on political and strategic risk advice in the Middle East, said the refusal of Egypt and Pakistan to provide troops was likely “the decisive factor in dissuading the Saudis from a Yemen ground invasion.”
Sissi met last month with Saudi officials to discuss a proposal for joint military exercises in the kingdom, but in a televised speech then assured Egyptians, “Our forces…are naval and air forces only, there is nothing else.”
The Egyptian public would be informed if he decided to send troops to Saudi Arabia, he said.
The Egyptian and Pakistani decisions not to commit land forces was “not so much reluctance as it is realism,” Karasik said. He noted both countries have significant aremed conflicts unfolding within their borders.
Egyptian special forces units are currently deployed in the Sinai Peninsula to fight al Qaida-linked militant insurgents near the border with Israel. Egypt also has had to bolster defenses along its western border with Libya, where two parallel governments and militants loyal to al Qaida and Islamic State are fighting a chaotic civil war.
Pakistan has deployed thousands of troops to its northern tribal territories to combat Pakistani Taliban guerrillas.
Pakistan also has said it would reconsider its refusal to send troops if Saudi Arabia came under direct threat from the Houthis. In March, some 300 Pakistani commandos took part in joint military exercises in hilly terrain near the western Saudi city of Taif, which is similar to much of Yemen’s topography; they may still be in the kingdom.
Still, Pakistani government officials remain adamant that parliament’s decision not to send troops to Yemen would be upheld.
That means Saudi Arabia now must decide its next step.
“The fact that the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution almost unanimously…lends legitimacy to the Saudi claim that this is a regional coalition and not simply a unilateral Saudi operation,” said Fahad Nazer, a former political analyst at the Saudi embassy in Washington, and terrorism expert at JTG, a global intelligence consultancy. “While the Saudis have welcomed contributions of all coalition member countries, they have also made it clear that the operation is going ahead as planned.”