The Saudi assault on Yemen is an integral part of a comprehensive strategy to halt the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East. The military plan was devised several weeks ago after Saudi King Salman was appointed to the throne, ushering in a new, more aggressive policy. The core of that policy consists of building a Sunni axis comprised of most of the Arab states plus the moderate and less-moderate Sunni organizations, the establishment of a 40,000-strong Arab intervention force that draws from the militaries of the Gulf States and Egypt, and an aggressive persuasion campaign to get the countries with close ties to Iran to switch sides and join the Sunni axis.
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The United States supports these moves and also gave its blessing to the military action that began last night. American forces are not directly participating but they are providing critical intelligence and technological support. The military preparations over the past two weeks and more included direct coordination with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi; ensuring support from Pakistan, which has close ties to the Saudi regime and receives major financial support from the Saudis (millions of Pakistani citizens are also employed in Saudi Arabia); and the surprising addition of Sudan to the military force. Saudi Arabia also recently upped its diplomatic efforts in Iraq, a country considered to be under Iranian sway, and invited Iraqi Prime Minister Khaider al-Abadi to visit Saudi Arabia.
In charge of all this coordination is the king’s son, Mohammad bin Salman, who is also the Saudi defense minister and, as such, in direct contact with the American administration. The speed with which this Arab coalition has formed shows just how fearful Saudi Arabia and its allies are that Yemen has now become part of the Iranian sphere of influence and control. Specifically they are concerned that a new uprising could occur in the kingdom, that the Shi’ite minority could be stirred up, that a Shi’ite revolt could begin in Bahrain where there is a Shi’ite majority – giving Iran strategic control of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and dividing the Middle East into two spheres of influence: Arab and Iranian. This concern is particularly acute now that Syria and Iraq, and Lebanon too to a large degree, have essentially become Iranian protectorates. Saudi Arabia is also frustrated by U.S. policy, which is pushing for the nuclear accord with Iran – an accord, that if signed, would bestow upon Iran a new strategic standing, not just in the region but in the world. The Saudis are frustrated that Washington sees Iran as a partner in the war on Islamic State — also known as ISIS or ISIL — and thus is not perturbed by Iran’s deepening influence in Iraq, that the Houthis in Yemen are liable to be considered partners in the war on Al–Qaida, and by the Americans’ haplessness on the Syrian front.
But the combined offensive in Yemen is not without danger. For if Iran decides to send auxiliary forces to Yemen, and if Iran foments violent subversion in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the Arab coalition could find itself bogged down on several fronts at once. The Yemenite front alone is very complex, and even massive airstrikes cannot guarantee an ouster of the Houthis from the cities they have seized, or make them come to the negotiating table, as they’ve already torpedoed negotiations numerous times. As on the Syrian and Iraqi fronts, without direct ground intervention, the Houthis, in concert with the forces of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and tribesmen loyal to him, could wage a protracted and exhausting war without any clear resolution. Saudi Arabia did announce that it was allocating 150,000 troops to the war, and Egypt also said it would be ready to send ground forces, but in Yemen, where citizens are armed with all types of weaponry and tribes have their own private armies, the regular forces arrayed against them may not always have the upper hand, as Egypt has been learning in its war on the terrorist organizations in Sinai.
But military victories are not the sole aim in the war against the Houthis. On the diplomatic side, Saudi Arabia was able to get Sudan to break its traditional ties with Iran; Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Court for crimes against humanity, was received with great pomp and fanfare by King Salman, and at the end of his visit announced that his country was joining the coalition. He also ordered the expulsion of all the Iranian delegations from his country, handing Saudi Arabia another important asset in the balance of power against Iran. Qatar also joined the coalition despite being considered an Iranian ally. More importantly, Saudi Arabia and its allies gave themselves free license to operate in any other Arab country that chooses to join the Iranian sphere.
Arab state versus Arab state
This isn’t the first time that Arab forces are fighting against another Arab country. In 1991, most Arab states joined the coalition against Saddam Hussein, and just a few week ago, in February, Egypt attacked in Libya after ISIS executed 19 Egyptian Copts. But Yemen is not just a bilateral front threatening only Saudi Arabia or Egypt. It has become a strategic front even though it is one of the world’s poorest countries. This is not only due to the fact that Yemen sits on a vital passageway to the Red Sea, but also because Yemen is another example of the successful Iranian strategy that relies on local organizations to obtain influence in and control over countries, as it has done with Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Shi’ite militias in Iraq. By forging an alliance of interests with Iran, the Houthis, whose Zaidi faith is not the same as the Shi’ite faith of Iran, were able to gain strategic significance. It is this Iranian strategy that the Saudis are seeking to halt.
At this point in the campaign, it’s hard to predict what will ultimately occur in the negotiations. The Houthis’ victory has been quite impressive and convincing, but absent the ability to make good on their gains – to produce oil and sell it and win recognition, they could lose their partners from the large tribes who expect compensation for their assistance. In the coming days, the Houthis may find that they bit off more than they can chew and consent to negotiations that, though they might anger Iran, will give the Houthis due standing and a significant slice of the government.