Saudi Yemen Operation Proves Iranian Meddling Not Under Threat

The on-again, off-again campaign, supported by Arab countries, has shown that Tehran is not facing a military threat in Yemen or in Damascus.

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In the wake of Saudi Arabia's military operation in Yemen, the Iranians can calm down. One of the goals of the Saudi-led offensive, which is continuing despite the announcement that it has been wrapped up, has been to curtail Iranian influence. But the offensive has proved that Tehran’s involvement in Yemen and Syria is not under threat.

The hero of the war that has been waged by the Arab coalition in Yemen is the Saudi spokesman for the “joint” forces, Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri. On a daily basis, Asiri, who speaks both English and French, appeared before the assembled media. He explained the progress of the 27-day operation, and also answered questions, as American spokespeople did during the two Gulf wars.

Last week, Asiri surprisingly announced to the world that the war had ended and claimed that this was because all of its objectives had been achieved. Operation Decisive Storm, as the offensive had been dubbed, would be replaced by Operation Renewed Hope, which, most notably, would involve a diplomatic campaign to restore political stability to Yemen.

That’s how wars should end. You just declare victory and that’s that. Similar to Israel’s declaration of victory following last summer’s war in the Gaza Strip, Asiri provided details regarding targets that had been damaged and destroyed, including military bases and missile sites. He described damage to the infrastructure of the Houthi rebel forces and the rout that they had suffered.

One statistic was missing from the briefings, however: the number of Yemeni civilians who had been killed. Moreover, two days later, the offensive resumed, nothing remained of the ostensible cease-fire or even of any talk of the war’s aims, and the Houthis were not forced out of the cities that they had taken control of.

To date, no diplomatic solution has been found to the conflict involving the Houthi rebels who are fighting the regime of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Yemen remains embroiled in a bloody civil war while its president attempts to recruit members of his tribe to fight the Houthis. The forces supporting him look more like a collection of militias, however, than an organized army.

If Saudi Arabia had aspired to put a halt to Iranian influence in Yemen and prove to Tehran that a determined Arab military force was capable of delineating the limits of Iranian influence in the country – such a goal appears to be far from being achieved. And the excuse provided for the cease-fire, that it was the Yemeni president who had asked for a halt to the fighting, is not terribly convincing.

The military offensive simply faded out when it became clear that with aerial attacks only – absent involvement of ground forces – it would be impossible to achieve a decisive outcome.

On paper, 10 Arab countries declared their readiness to join the war or provide logistical support, but in practice, it was mainly a Saudi offensive. In Egypt, which was quick to support the war, pointed criticism was voiced over the war, directed particularly at the proposal to introduce ground forces. Pakistan, which is Muslim but not Arab, announced that it would not send troops, while non-Arab Turkey mostly paid lip service.

For its part, the United States flexed its muscles and even provided intelligence and logistical support to the Arab forces, but concerns over an Iranian-American naval confrontation on the Yemeni border – at all times, during the nuclear talks with Iran – became a significant factor in the waning of the military campaign. Iran was aware that the fighting was coming to an end even before the cease-fire was declared, and it appears that the step was coordinated directly with Tehran.

But the campaign had another strategic goal: to issue a threat to Iran on the Syrian front as well, meaning that after the objectives were achieved in Yemen, the joint Arab force might also act in Syria to bring about a military solution to the civil war there.

On that score, however, it has turned out that the Arab countries are not of one mind over the prospect of such action against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, has said that a solution to the Syrian civil war must be diplomatic and not military and that Assad needs to be part of the solution. In other words, the Syrian president should be a party to negotiations over political change in the country.

Lack of consensus

Qatar, on the other hand, is pushing for a military solution of the war in Syria, while Saudi Arabia is not yet sure what resolution is possible in light of the lack of consensus on the issue within the Arab world. Furthermore, it looks like such a consensus is even lacking within the Saudi royal court itself.

While some of King Salman’s advisers and ministers oppose an army operation in Syria, others believe that a such an operation could succeed ־ on condition that a strong Arab coalition is established, separate from the Western coalition that has been operating against ISIS (the Islamic State group also known as ISIL) but not against Assad.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia are also in disagreement over the issue of a replacing the regimes in Syria and Yemen. While the Egyptians oppose the prospect of a reformist government in Yemen representing the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia, where the Brotherhood has been declared a terrorist organization, has recently shifted position and now views the reformist political party as a force with which ties should be forged to strengthen the position of Yemeni President Hadi.

Egypt sees Assad as an important element in stopping activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, while the Saudis support armed Muslim Brotherhood militias operating against the regime. Saudi Arabia and Egypt could perhaps eventually agree that there is no alternative to including Assad in negotiations on the future of Syria, but disagreement could surface between them on the desired nature of the regime that would replace the current one.

Amid these disagreements, for the time being, Iran can relax. Any political solution in Yemen will from this point on require that the power of the Houthis be taken into consideration, as well as the stance of Tehran. And following the offensive in Iran, which was nipped in the bud, it’s clear that at the moment, there is no Arab military threat to Iran’s deep involvement in Syria.