By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Saudi Arabia and the GCC launched airstrikes in the first hours of March 26 and have announced an intervention in Yemen. Updates of this development story follow at the bottom. As of March 27 the operation was expanding with Egypt sending four naval vessels and reports that more than 100 Saudi jets are involved and 150,000 troops are stationed at the border. Hezbollah and Iran have condemned the intervention. By April 7 Houthi forces were in Aden and Saudi Arabia’s air campaign was failing to halt the advance as the Kingdom reaches out to allies in South Asia.
The battle for Aden
With the backdrop of the Iran deal on April 5, Chinese ships evacuated their own citizens and those of other countries. The news on April 7 is that much of Aden, including the Presidential palace was firmly in Houthi hands and that Saudi and GCC airstrikes were not halting the advance. Houthi armored vehicles were in the city. There were reports of food and water shortages and the Red Cross and others were saying they could not reach those lacking services. There have been calls for a ceasefire, but to no avail.
Saudi likely weakened its condemnation of the Iran deal because Washington has so far turned a blind eye to the Yemen crises. News media are reporting 53 dead in clashes on April 7, but the number is far more. Aden will likely fall to the Houthi “rebels” within the day or so. The reports of “troop landings” on April 2 turned out to be nonsense, and were just ships evacuating personnel.
Saudi Arabia is in talks to bring in Pakistani soldiers, warplanes and warships. If Pakistan agrees this will make it the first direct involvement of Pakistan in a Middle Eastern war since the 19th century when it was involved in Oman. Why is Saudi reaching out to Pakistan? Because Saudi cannot rely on the US in the wake of the Iran issue (Obama was critiquing the GCC on April 6); so the Yemen crises has precipitated a new Saudi policy of reaching around the back of Iran to create a Sunni “containment” of Iran’s “near abroad” strategy, as I wrote about at Al-Jazeera and at The Jerusalem Post.
Updates before April 7
On April 2nd after Houthi tanks and forces had poured into Aden and taken parts of the outlying areas of the city, it was reported that troops were landing in the port of Aden. The reports note that they are either Egyptian or Saudi. The likely scenario among some commentators was that they are Egyptian troops. Initial reports of the 10 country intervention noted that Egypt was sending naval vessels and troops. Then suddenly we heard nothing for five days. But numerous sites are reporting that the troops are Egyptian. Others claimed they were Chinese who had disembarked to aid in evacuations of foreign nationals. Either way the presence of the foreign troops isn’t likely to yet play a role in pushing back the Houthi forces who have captured the Presidential palace in the city. Witnesses reported that the city was a “total war zone” and photos confirm the heavy fighting.
The 10 nation intervention has not dulled the Houthi sword. It was precipitated by the fears of the conquest of Aden and those fears are coming true. Whatever the case of the “intervention” and ground troops and landings, this Yemen conflict is still going Iran’s way.
Saudi Arabia began massing its forces on the border of Yemen on Wednesday March 25, according to reports. Prince Saud Al Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, said that the Kingdom would, “take necessary measures if needed.” It would be the first test of the new king Salman. At the same time Yemen’s official President Abd Rabbou Mansour Hadi had officially requested that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) joint forces – the Peninsula Shield Force (PSF), intervene to save his country from an Iranian-backed Shia advance on Aden. The last time the GCC went into action to protect one of its own was over a similar, but much smaller emergency, when a Shia rebellion seemed imminent in Bahrain.
Al-Jazeera analysts are skeptical. “Yemen is a very large country with a total land area of more than 527,968sq km, whereas Bahrain is an island of only 760sq km.” But there is no doubt there is growing support for doing something in Yemen; the UAE, Qatari and Saudi press are all filled with stories warning about the Shia influence and Iranian soft-conquest of the country. AlArabiya has claimed that more than 185 tons of weapons have been unloaded from an Iran via a boat. Docking at Al-Saleef it was said it was “known” that arms were being moved ashore. Iranian promises to build a power plant and other boasts and meddling do not sit well. Why would they? Iran has already taken over most of Iraq, and its tentacles are deep into Syria and Lebanon. Saudi, the traditional guarantor of the Lebanese peace after Taif in 1989 is watching as its border looks more and more in danger. Saudi Arabia is a cool and calculating actor, and it has long warned, quietly, that the Americans are abandoning it to the fate of other countries. It has expressed concern over the nuclear deal, over Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. And the dominos all fell. What is it to do, especially as nowadays the Kingdom has the strongest army of its GCC allies.
It is a strange reversal for Saudi Arabia. In the 1960s is helped support the the Mutawakkilite Kingdom in its civil war against Egyptian backed leftist fighters. It began when Abdullah as-Sallal launched a coup that dethroned the newly crowned Imam Muhammad al-Badr and declared Yemen a republic under his presidency. The Imam sought Saudi support and they were happy to provide it because they fear the role of Egypt and the Arab nationalist officers in Yemen. It was a different time then, the royalist Zaidi Shia were seen as allies and in the hill country of North Yemen they proved capable of resisting Gamal Abdel Nasser’s modern weapons being supplied to the Yemenite Republican faction. However in 1970 Saudi reversed course and recognized the Yemen Arab Republic and Yemen became a single state eventually.
The Shia insurgency remained quiet for years until in 2004 the government attempted to raid and capture Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi. He had been a prominent figure for years and was accused of stirring up religious strife. He had also created a relationship with Iran, having lived in exile in Qom, and had expressed admiration for becoming a figure akin to Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah. He was killed eventually by the Yemen army and in the next ten years the government would launch six major offensives to destroy the supporters of Badr, who became known as the Houthis. Religiously they are connected to the Zaidi imam dynasty that had been so prominent in the Civil War before 1970. They are sometimes called Shabab Al Mu’mineen, commonly known as Houthis.
Saudi Arabia supported the Yemenite government in its attacks on the Houthi rebels, including an incursion into Saada in 2009. The failure of Yemen to come to grips with any of its problems, including the fact that part of its country had been taken over by Al Qaida, has to be laid at the feel of Ali Abdullah Saleh, president of the Yemen Arab Republic and then of the united Yemen after 1990. When he abdicated in 2012 he left behind an empty carcass. Hadi, who filled that void proved worthless and ineffectual, much like the government of Iraq. And into the chaos, aided by the Arab Spring and post-9/11 environment, step Iran and its Houthi friends; much as Hezbollah which had been a Lebanese movement has taken over parts of Syria and Iran’s militias have taken over parts of Iraq.
So we are faced with the situation, what will be done in Yemen. Like Syria and Iraq, it is an ancient civilization that is being destroyed; eaten up by modern chaos. It won’t be rebuilt again in fifty years; if that. Saudi interests is to not allow another Iranian proxy develop and allow Iran to consolidate its control. On the Saudi side are the Sunni extremists, of which ISIS has even claimed responsibility for blowing up mosques in which 142 were murdered. Yemen’s Al-Qaeda have also played a key role in radicalizing several terrorists who attacked western targets, including the Paris massacre perpetrators and Anwar Awlaki who aided Major Hassan. Thus Yemen is not just a chaos eating itself, it has aspiration to spread terrorism. ISIS has aspiration to spread its tentacles there, as it has into Nigeria.
But ISIS and the local Houthi fighters are more a menace than an organized force that can sustain a country. They are agents of chaos; whereas Iranian backing presents another level of competency. I’ve argued that Iran has an interest in destabilizing and turning Arab states into chaotic wastelands. The Gulf sees this as a crucial threat. But Saudi’s army, well equipped with US arms, is untested. In Bahrain all it had to do was topple some protestors. Here it is confronted with the real thing and it has proved reticent in the past to truly fight its enemies. We all recall that Saudi was happy to sit in the second seat during the war with Saddam.
But the US isn’t coming to the GCC’s aid. It will have to go alone. Already the UAE’s air force is stretched bombing ISIS. But at least it has some experience doing that. It will take more than bombs to dislodge Iran and tame Al Qaeda, although taming Al Qaeda probably doesn’t matter so much to the Saudis.
In the early hours of Thursday, around 1am, it was reported Saudi warplanes were striking Houthi targets and had likely already been striking them Wednesday. Reports claimed that much of the “air defenses” of the Houthis were destroyed. One assumes if the Iranians are smart they will have already dispatched other items to help repel a Saudi assault.
Now we are learning that Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington has announced that the GCC and Saudi Arabia are intervening to drive the Houthis out of power. Adel al-Jubair said a coalition consisting of 10 countries, including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), had begun airstrikes at 7pm Washington time (2am in the region). “The operation is to defend and support the legitimate government of Yemen and prevent the radical Houthi movement from taking over the country.”
This is a big developing story and the beginning of an attempt to roll back Iranian influence by the GCC. It may presage greater muscular diplomacy and foreign policy by Saudi in the Gulf and Iraq. Not only must it work with the UAE to defend the straits, but it has interests in monitoring the US backed Shia militias fighting in Tikrit. On March 25 the US began airstrikes to support the Iranians and General Soleimani in the battle there. The Saudis can read a map, just as the Iranians can. And Iran’s influence is bordering on reaching what it was at its zenith thousands of years ago under the Sasanids. If you were in Riyadh you’d be worried also.
Saudi Arabia has clarified that US is not participating, which was already clear. Yemen’s official foreign minister says the strikes began at night to limit casualties. Al-Arabiya tweets that four Houthi airplanes have been hit as well as SAM batteries.
Interesting to note Egypt has reportedly announced at 2am March 26 that it is joining the coalition against the Houthis and will “offer air and navy support.” First time Egypt has been involved in Yemen also since the 1960s, ironic to see them on the same side with Saudis now.
The announcement of the intervention which has been given the name Decisive Storm, although another translation given was “Steadfastness Storm”; was greeted with an outpouring of controversy online. On Twitter some claimed it was a new “US and allies war” and others claimed the intervention was “illegal.” But other Yemenis tweeted that the hopes Saudi would target former leader Saleh who was accused of working with the Iranians. Video showed anti-aircraft fire.
Other interesting reports that emerged overnight were that the Houthi rebels had “plundered US intelligence files”, The US had evacuated their embassy in February 2015 in a hurry. The “looted” intel files, reports noted, had been “handed directly to Iranian agents.” This provided evidence not only of Iran’s involvement in Yemen but also potential embarrassment for the US that is “working” with Iran in Iraq.
On March 27 it was revealed Egypt is considering invading Yemen from the sea and has dispatched naval vessels to patrol the waters. While Iran and Hezbollah have condemned the attack, it seems this indicates that a regional war could develop.