Late in the day on March 25, a Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen with airstrikes against the Houthis.
The Iranian-backed Houthis (a.k.a. Ansar Allah) took over Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in September, and forced the resignation of the Saudi-backed Yemeni ruler, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in January. Hadi escaped house arrested in Sanaa and retreated to Aden with the remnants of his regime. On March 21, the Houthis had called for a “general mobilisation” and by the next day had pushed south toward Aden. The Houthis said they were combatting “terrorist forces”. As in Syria, Iran’s allied forces cast a narrative where there were no Sunni moderates, nobody with whom a deal might be struck.
Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose resignation was compelled in early 2012 after the “Arab Spring,” stands accused not only by Hadi but by the United States of supporting the Houthis. “We specifically call on the Houthis, former President Saleh, and their allies to stop their violent incitement and undermining President Hadi, who is Yemen’s legitimate president,” said a State Department communiqué on March 20.
The Saudi-led intervention, Operation DECISIVE STORM, is the first deployment of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) Joint Military Command, which was set up in November 2014. The Saudi coalition reportedly includes the assistance of thirty fighter jets from the United Arab Emirates, fifteen each from Bahrain and Kuwait, ten from Qatar, and six from Jordan—the only GCC State not involved is Oman. Egypt has four warships on the way to Aden and is prepared to commit ground troops if need-be. Turkey is considering providing logistical support. And Pakistan and the Sudan are also assisting in the anti-Houthi effort. Morocco has expressed “complete solidarity” with the Saudis’ intervention.
Sudan is a very interesting case: Khartoum is one of Iran’s closest allies going back decades, including the joint production of chemical weapons of mass destruction and transiting arms to HAMAS, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hizballah. Now, however, with the secession of South Sudan and the breakdown in revenue from the oil industry, Sudan is faced with the fact that “Saudi Arabia can solve [the Omar al-Bashir] regime’s problems with a single stroke of the pen. Iran can’t do that.” This would explain why Bashir, under indictment by the International Criminal Court for allegedly committing genocide in Darfur, has visited both the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia in recent weeks. To have peeled the Sudan away from Iran and brought Qatar and Turkey in from the cold—even if only temporarily—has to be reckoned quite the diplomatic coup for the Saudis.
There is a disagreement about how much Iranian support the Houthis actually receive. While the Gulf States surely overstate Iran’s control of the Houthis, the evidence is strong that Iran provides meaningful battlefield capabilities, including weapons through Hizballah and, according to the Houthis themselves, “logistics, intelligence and cash,” amounting to tens of millions of dollars. After the fall of Sanaa, the Houthis looted U.S. intelligence documents and handed them “directly to Iranian advisers“. The Houthis signed a deal with Iran for fourteen direct flights per week to take place between Iran and Yemen, and on March 1, the first direct flight since the Houthi takeover landed in Yemen. Though the plane was said to include Red Crescent workers, this is a well-known cover for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC). On the same day, the Houthis’ first State visit was to Tehran. Iran’s control of the Houthis might not be as direct as the Shi’ite proxy militias in Iraq, or the Shi’ite jihadists and National Defence Force militia which are all that remain of Bashar al-Assad’s State in Syria, but Iran’s influence is still considerable.
In conjunction with the growth of the Houthis’ power has been the growth of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Yemen. Last November, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi accepted baya (pledge of allegiance) from an unspecified group in Yemen. The conditions for ISIS’ expansion in Yemen—with the longstanding and entrenched presence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the pro-ISIS sympathies of much of AQAP’s rank-and-file, the chaos, the sectarian faultline, and the Iranian bid for influence—were second only to Libya, and now that presence is moving into the open. On March 20, four suicide attacks at two Zaydi Shi’a mosques in Sanaa associated with the Houthis massacred more than 130 people, and ISIS claimed responsibility, the first such claim for its Yemeni branch, “Wilayat Sanaa”.
The United States, which had to evacuate the last of its personnel from Yemen on March 21, has voiced support for the Saudi-led operation. Many people pointed out the strangeness of supporting a move to check Iran in Yemen at the very moment the U.S. had launched airstrikes in support of the Iran-led offensive against ISIS in Tikrit. Still, does this not undermine the thesis of people like Michael Doran and—several rungs down—me, that the Obama administration is pursuing a regional partnership with Iran that would allow the U.S. to pull back from the region? Not really.
The U.S. has provided intelligence to the Houthis against AQAP, for example. And when one looks at the details of the Saudi-led Yemen intervention it becomes clear this was done without U.S. involvement. The U.S. was informed of the operation by Riyadh one hour before it began, and unlike in Iraq, where the U.S. is providing airstrikes to ensure the success of Iran’s offensive in Tikrit, U.S. support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen amounts to “providing refueling for Saudi jets and overhead imagery from drones and satellites“.
Moreover, when faced with what Obama’s former Iraq ambassador, James Jeffrey, called a “goddamn free fall” in the Middle East, Obama’s staff said: “You can dwell on Yemen, or you can recognize that we’re one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord on Iran”. This is a perfect ratification of the argument I made several months ago that the pro-Iran tilt in the region, which the nuclear deal is intended to facilitate, is “a bet …, which is why it is invulnerable to specific, factual refutation; the expectation is that this is merely a bad patch, but if the U.S. ploughs-on then the good will emerge in the fullness of time.”.
Opposition to the Saudi-led intervention has taken the form of saying that without reliable ground forces the military action cannot achieve lasting political results. Some take this further and say that a political solution is needed, and military action is counterproductive to this end. Egypt’s presence in the anti-Houthi coalition has given the chance to wheel out “Egypt’s Vietnam,” the calamitous intervention in Yemen by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s to prop up the putschist republican regime of Abdullah al-Sallal, which had deposed Muhammad al-Badr, the absolutist monarch who was the last of the Zaydi Imams to rule Yemen.
(Ironically, the Saudis supported Badr’s monarchical forces, despite them being primarily Zaydi Shi’ites, the very community that now forms the Houthis. The republicans would carry the day in Yemen, but not before Nasser joined the select club of dictators—Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Bashar al-Assad—who have used poison gas against civilians. Nasser began using chemical weapons in 1963 and escalated up to 1967, the year Egypt’s forces withdrew from Yemen, against the tribes on north Yemen that had sided with Badr.)
It is true that airstrikes alone do not lead to productive outcomes, but to have stayed out of Yemen is a de facto pro-Iran policy. Without action to oppose Iran, it leaves Tehran a free hand for its intervention. The heightened sectarian tensions as Iran tries to secure primacy in Yemen for a minority community was helping al-Qaeda and the Islamic State pose, as they have in the Fertile Crescent, as the saviour of the Sunnis against a sectarian Shi’ite theocracy. As in Syria and Iraq, allying with Iran does not hinder, but greatly helps Salafi jihadism.
The Saudis have begun outreach to the Islah Party, an Ikhwani outfit. With Qatar involved, the Saudis softening position on the Muslim Brothers, and the Brethren’s strength among the tribes, there is reason to think that Riyadh has recruited some allies on the ground in addition to the remnants of Hadi’s regime. And power has a logic of its own: military action is not inimical to a political solution; it is part of a political solution.
The Saudi-led intervention gives the Sunnis an option other than AQAP and ISIS for resisting the Iran-backed bid for untrammelled power by the Houthis. If the strengthening of the Sunni moderates gives them the power to negotiate a more favourable national accord with the Houthis that marginalises Iran’s influence and the Sunni jihadists, then it will have succeeded.
Iran’s de facto conquest of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon is seen by the Gulf States as a threat, but an Iranian conquest of Yemen is a threat of a different order. Yemen has historically been the Saudis’ backyard, and to have an Iran-allied regime in power there is seen in Riyadh as encirclement. One reason why the equivalence between Iran and Saudi Arabia doesn’t stack up is that the Saudis do not have the structures—like the Quds Force—to project power the way the Iranians do. The Saudis could not effectively act in Syria or Iraq, and whether they can effectively act in Yemen remains to be seen. But the Saudis have a means to act in Yemen, and the Arab States have drawn a red line they intend to enforce on Iran’s imperial ambitions.