The Saudis go to Yemen

Ex Yemeni President Saleh and King AbdallahFew days ago, Saudi planes, along with “a coalition of the willing” started bombing Yemen, after the Hawthi’s militias where closing on Aden, the commercial capital and the old capital of the southern Yemen. The complexity of the Yemeni tribal and sectarian mosaic made it hard for most analysts to catchup with the news and to make meaningful meaning from the unusual Saudi actions.

The Hawthi’s militias are weak, despite their rapid expansion. However, suddenly everyone woke up to the Hawthi’s controlling Sanaa, the capital, with some 20,000 fighters. While the (allegedly) 500,000 soldier Yemeni army all but disappeared. This fact remained a puzzle until last week when it became apparent that the former Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh allied himself with the Hawthi’s, and is using them as a tool to regain control over Yemen. Most of the Yemeni army units remained under his control and are now allied with the Howthi’s. The reality is that the Hawthi’s are a Trojan horse for Saleh to regain power.

The second element is Iran. Now that they are about to cut a deal with the West, which would include letting go of their nuclear weapons project in exchange for normalization of relations with the west, Iran is playing all its cards to strengthen its negotiating position, and also to establish the “truth line” after the deal. They are controlling most of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Yemen is the remaining Shiaa stronghold in the region that they want to control. Saleh proved to be a mercenary – selling his life long allegiance to the Saudis to the Iranian in exchange for power (rumors that he offered the Saudis to get back to their side in exchange for putting his son in power).

What happened last week is that the Hawthi’s, along with Saleh were close to controlling most of Yemen. If the complete control of Yemen falls to a pro-Iranian Shiaa regime, with the full Yemeni army intact, this would create a real threat to Saudi. The regions north of Yemen, Jazan and Abha, have substantial Yemeni populations, many of their roots extend to the same regions of the Hawthi’s. It is very easy for a new unfriendly Yemen to have territorial claims to these regions, and to create a serious threat to Saudi.

The Saudi choice was to engage early. First, to destroy most of the capabilities of the Yemeni army through concentrated air strikes. The goal is that whatever is left of the Yemeni army will have limited capacity to threaten the southern Saudi borders. Second, to try to stop the Hawthi’s progress towards Aden, and possibly to stabilize the country into two competing regimes (which was the case prior to the unification of Yemen). Third, to prevent weapon and logistical support from Iran. News that Iran started flying 28 daily civilian flights between Tehran and Sanaa last week, after the Hawthi’s control of Sanaa airport. Not sure who would be traveling on 28 daily flights between the two countries!

The big question is whether the Saudis would escalate this war into a land battle. Yemen is known to be a tough country to control; the people are heavily armed, especially in the north, and the terrain is rough. The best the Saudis can do is to protect Aden and the south to maintain a friendly regime there, and to protect their southern borders. Anything beyond that would be a serious adventure with bad consequences. The Egyptians tried it in the 1960s and paid a hefty price.

The Saudi army is not battle tested, and a big part of it is composed of Pakistani and other nationalities, rather than Saudi nationals! It is not clear how it will perform through an extended ground battle.

The other dimension that is not clear is the internal Saudi family politics and how it relates to this conflict. The new minister of defense, mohamed bin Salman, is the 30 years old son of the new King. Many speculate that the new king is likely to remove his half brother, crown prince Muqren, and replace him with a Sudeiri. This could be the King’s brother, Ahmed, or the next in line mohamed Ibn Nayef, or, one of his own sons. It is not clear how this military campaign may relate to thermal family politics, but it may end up strengthening the king’s son’s position.

If Saudi, for whatever reason, decides to have a full ground invasion to Yemen, this will likely be a historical mistake that may end in a big disaster.

What is interesting to observe is the Egyptian position. Egypt has supported the Saudi campaign in full force; however, it is unlikely that egypt would engage in a ground war in Yemen for many reasons. First, the current government in egypt has stayed away from getting deeper into the Libyan conflict, despite the immediate security risks coming through Egypt’s western borders. When 21 Egyptian citizens were beheaded in a barbaric scene that traumatized the whole country, the army acted in swift air strikes against select terrorist camps. However, the government resisted the temptation of getting involved beyond these air strikes. They preferred to act through allies and proxies in eastern Libya, rather than getting caught in a guerrilla war. It is likely that they would take a similar posture in the Yemeni conflict. They may join a Saudi air and sea campaign to show solidarity; and they may commit to defending the Saudi borders from any external attacks; but it is unlikely that they would engage in a ground invasion against the Houthi’s.

Another important question is how the Saudi entanglement on their southern front will affect their campaigns on the northern front. For several years, Saudi (along with Qatar and turkey) have been arming the anti-Assad militias. These militias turned into Isis, as well as many factions that are fighting the Syrian regime. The strong Saudi meddling in Syria and Iraq resulted in the quagmire that we see today (although it is unfair to blame them solely for this mess; many others share the responsibility). Today, as the American attention move towards Isis, as the worse enemy than Asad; and as they sign a deal with the Iranian, it is unlikely that the Saudis will have the free hand to support the Sunni factions in the levant, which would strengthen the Shiaa regimes in both Iraq and Syria, and pause a stronger threat to the Saudis from the north.

As it seems today, Iran will come out of this deal/battle in a very strong strategic position. The Saudis will be contained to say the least (it is unlikely that their direct territory is threatened, due to American protection; however, their dependence on American (and Egyptian and Pakistani) protection will be heightened. And their ability to maneuver will be constrained.

Amin Elmasry
30 March 2015.

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