A week ago on this blog I wrote: “There is simply not a strong enough interest for the US, Arab League or Iran to want to protect in Yemen or Libya.” Turns out I was completely wrong. Over the last few days Saudi Arabia has led an Arab coalition in airstrikes on the Iranian backed Houthis in Yemen. Planes from nine Arab countries have been involved, Egypt, Jordan and even Sudan are prepared to commit troops to a ground offensive, and the US is providing intelligence. So what are the short-term and long-term aims of this attack? Will it be successful? And why did I get things so wrong?
For a summary of Yemen’s Game of Thrones like struggle for power, see here.
In the short term the aim is to stop the Houthi advance on the official government’s stronghold in the southern city of Aden. After fully taking over the capital Sana’a and the second city of Ta’izz, the Houthis advanced on Aden’s airport, and even bombed the presidential residence, forcing President Hadi to flee. The airstrikes have hit the capital as well as the advance on Aden. At this stage the strikes have failed to stop the advance – but the coalition appears to have ground troops ready to invade.
But if the Yemeni conflict was only about the Houthis and government, Saudi Arabia wouldn’t have intervened. This is also about Iran. Iran supports the Houthis politically, and possibly militarily as well, though this is hard to determine. With this intervention, Saudi Arabia wants to return power in Yemen to the former transitional government, and force a Houthi surrender. This will halt Iran’s advance through the Middle East, and strengthen the Kingdom’s regional position and prestige.
Unfortunately for Saudi Arabia, this triumph over Iran will be tricky to achieve. Iran would like to see the Houthis survive in Yemen, and it’d be a bonus to have their political and religious allies in power on the Kingdom’s southern flank. But as analyst Michael Stevens points out, they will also be happy to see the Saudis get sucked in to a long and difficult war in Yemen. It would sap Saudi strength, create divisions in the wider Arab world, and could possibly test the US’s commitment. There might even be a chance a truly difficult war would lead to discontent at home. Iran has a lot to gain, and not much to lose in this situation, as it still holds its cards in the more important Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.
It’s for these reasons that I didn’t really expect the Arab world to get involved in the Yemeni conflict. It’s so unbelievably messy, and there is so little to gain, that I truly doubt Saudi success is around the corner. However, I underestimated a few things. The first of these are the importance Saudi Arabia places on its southern flank, and its fear of being encircled by Iranian proxies. More importantly though, I underestimated their desire to draw a line in the sand for Iran. Saudi Arabia has watched as Iran increases its influence in Damascus and Baghdad, and approach a nuclear deal with the US. Saudi Arabia’s new king appears to be saying ‘here, and no further’.
However, the chance of a wider Middle Eastern war is still small. Iran is unlikely to risk its strong position in Iraq and Syria, as well as the negotiations with the US, just for Yemen. However, the Kingdom is playing a dangerous game – and the next few weeks will tell whether Iran will have the last laugh.