NEW YORK (Dispatches) -- For four years, the United Arab Emirates have been the military linchpin of the Saudi war in Yemen, providing weapons, money and thousands of ground troops. Now they have decided they can go no further.
The Emiratis are withdrawing their forces at a scale and speed that all but rules out further ground advances, a belated recognition that a grinding war that has killed thousands of civilians and turned Yemen into a humanitarian disaster is no longer winnable, the New York Times reports.
Emirati officials have been saying for several weeks that they have begun a phased and partial withdrawal of forces estimated at 5,000 troops a few years ago.
But Western and Arab diplomats briefed on the drawdown say a significant reduction has already occurred, and that the Emiratis are driven mostly by their desire to exit a war whose cost has become too high, even if it means angering their Saudi allies, the newspaper reported on Friday.
In the past month, the Emiratis have cut their deployment around Hudaydah, the Red Sea port that was the war’s main battleground last year, by 80 percent to fewer than 150 men, according to four people briefed on the drawdown. They have pulled out their attack helicopters and heavy guns, effectively precluding a military advance on the city.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in Yemen in 2015 to restore Yemen’s former president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi who resigned and fled later to Riyadh. The war, the signature initiative of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and backed by the United States, would be over in a matter of months, they said.
Four years later, the Saudi war has failed to achieve its goals and turned Yemen into what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Mike Hindmarsh, a retired Australian major general who commands the Emirati presidential guard, recently told Western visitors that Yemen had become a quagmire where the Houthis were the "Yemeni Viet Cong.”
The drawdown "is going to expose the Saudis to the reality that this war is a failure,” said Michael Stephens of the Royal United Services Institute, a research group in London. "It tells us the two main protagonists on the coalition side, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, don’t have the same idea of what success looks like.”
Diplomats said the Saudis were deeply disappointed by the Emirati decision, the Times reported. Top officials with the royal court personally intervened with the Emirati leaders to try to dissuade them from the drawdown, said a Western diplomat familiar with the matter.
Several people briefed by the Emiratis said that they have avoided announcing their decision publicly in part to minimize the unhappiness of the Saudis.
Command of the fractious Yemeni forces is passing to Saudi Arabia. A senior Yemeni official said Thursday that Saudi officers had taken charge at the two main Emirati bases on the Red Sea, at Mokha and Khokha.
The Times said the Saudis have little experience on that front, and the sudden changes have stoked fears that without the heavily armed Emiratis to keep the peace, the Yemenis could start to feud among themselves.
The Saudis and Emiratis have endured growing international criticism for the consequences of their air campaign, which has killed many civilians, and for policies of economic warfare that have constricted the food supply in much of the north.
The Emiratis "have simply tired of the stalemate and dim prospects for victory on the battlefield,” said one American official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal government assessments.
According to the Times, there are signs that the Saudis are also changing their calculations.
The Houthis have recently fired missiles at Saudi airports in retaliation for the Saudi blockade of airport in the capital Sanaa. In June, a missile hit the arrivals terminal of an airport in Abha, Saudi Arabia, wounding 26 people.
These developments may have persuaded Saudis to reach for peace with the Houthis, the Times quoted a Western official who has met with the Saudis as saying.