The Saudi-led Operation DECISIVE STORM began in Yemen on March 25 as a campaign of airstrikes against the Iran-backed Houthis, to weaken them and re-install the president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was overthrown by the Houthis last September.
In April, I wrote in support of the Saudi-led operation for: (1) having drawn a line against Iran’s imperialism after Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq; (2) potentially decreasing the growth of the Islamic State (ISIS) by providing Sunnis, in Yemen and beyond, with an alternative form of resistance to Iran’s encroachments; and (3) offering a chance for more stability in Yemen, which was then in free fall with Iran, al-Qaeda, and ISIS capitalizing on the chaos.
The first point still holds. Without the Saudi-led intervention, Iran would have been able to work toward consolidating its revolutionary model in Yemen; that has been disrupted. Despite the equivalences made between Saudi Arabia and Iran as sectarian and destabilizing powers, the fact is that Saudi effort in Yemen is to pacify the country, not inflame it, which both Iran and ISIS are trying to do, and the Saudis don’t have a Quds Force.
At the foredoomed Camp David meeting with the Gulf States in May, Obama, “with more than a hint of admiration for the skill and professionalism of Qassem Soleimani and the IRGC’s Qods Force,” told the Gulf States that they ought to up their game and form these asymmetric structures. But the Gulfies are unable to project power in this way; they have money and influence. (This episode, incidentally, strengthens the argument that Obama is betting on Iran’s extremists in his détente. The rapprochement-facilitating nuclear deal, which lifts the sanctions on Suleimani, is not about strengthening the moderates but seconding Iran’s hard men as the U.S.’s Persian JSOC force.)
The second point was also vindicated. At the very moment the Arabs intervened in Yemen, the U.S. was providing airstrikes for Iran in Tikrit, ratifying ISIS propaganda about a U.S.-“Safavid” conspiracy against the Sunnis, and setting ISIS up as the only bulwark for the Sunnis against Iranian domination. The Saudi-led coalition’s decision to act in Yemen damaged ISIS probably more than the U.S. airstrikes directly against them in “Syraq”.
The third point was always the more speculative. As I wrote at the time: “the Saudi-led operation could easily end in debacle,” and the lack of a ground force to accompany the airstrikes was the key reason why. Cautious optimism was then-possible:
Riyadh has begun outreach to the Islah Party, the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and with the Brothers’ strength among the Yemeni tribes, there is reason to think that Riyadh has recruited some allies on the ground in addition to the remnants of … Hadi’s regime, potentially assisting in coordinating the airstrikes, reducing harm to civilians, and setting the stage for a political settlement.
That is now looking doubtful. Despite initial reports that the construction of a Yemeni security force was being considered, one has not even begun to emerge. Likewise, early reports that Egypt or Pakistan would supply a ground component have been falsified.
Recently, the Saudi-led coalition has been accused of indiscriminate airstrikes and the Houthis claim that 1,500 civilians have been killed. There is no reason to believe the Houthis and the accusation of indiscriminate airstrikes is very difficult to judge: evidence-gathering in Yemen is not an exact science. The kernel of truth in the accusation is that without a ground force the chances for mistakes are much greater—and some terrible errors have already occurred, notably the Saudi airstrike on a Yemeni refugee camp.
It is difficult to know where to go from here. Stabilizing Yemen entirely is a pipedream, but some kind of compact can be reached between its principal communities, namely the Sunni Arabs, urban and tribes, and the Zaydi Shi’ites. The key to that is expunging Iranian influence, which radicalizes all sides and sows disorder—and is intended to, since this is Tehran’s most advantageous operating environment. The U.S. call for “dialogue,” i.e. including Iran in a settlement, might seem reasonable, but because of the above-mentioned differences in asymmetric capabilities, any attempt for equilibrium will result in disequilibrium—against an American ally.
The Saudis might be a rancid ally in many ways, but they have cleaned up their act since 2004 after terrorism came home and they had to fight to put down a serious insurgency. There is much myth-making about Riyadh’s role in Iraq and ISIS. Unlike (say) the Bosnian jihad in the 1990s, Saudi Arabia was not the principal financier of the Salafi-jihadists in Iraq. As I have documented—see here, here, and here—the rise in Salafism among Iraq’s Sunnis was not because of Saudi policy, but Saddam Hussein’s. ISIS has been self-funding since at least 2005; no more than five percent of ISIS’ budget came from Gulf donors. In July 2005, ISIS was so well-funded, Ayman az-Zawahiri wrote to Abu Musab az-Zarqawi to say that if ISIS could send al-Qaeda “central” $100,000 “we’ll be very grateful to you.” The ally that really did assist the Iraqi insurgency was “moderate” Jordan with its relentless political/media agitation against the New Iraq, the funding that flowed to the insurgents from the exiled ex-Saddamists, and the open hosting of insurgents as legitimate spokesman for Iraq, including as recently as last October. Amman’s lax policy, however, pales next to the deliberate funnelling of ISIS fighters, especially suicide bombers, into Iraq by Assad’s Syria, and Iran’s assistance, by commission and omission, to ISIS’ growth from Mesopotamia to the Levant.
The Iranian bid for power in Yemen is responsible for this round of fighting. Iran was behind the coup last September. After the Houthis overran Sanaa, they handed looted U.S. intelligence documents “directly to Iranian advisers“. And Saudi Arabia has a legitimate security concern about an Iranian beachhead on its borders, able to penetrate its borders (see Khobar Towers). Still, the airstrikes are reaching diminishing-returns: they are keeping Iran off-balance, but, while force is often a necessary part building to a political settlement, continuing the airstrikes without a reliable ground force is accomplishing little beyond stopping Iran entrenching.
There is little choice but to support Saudi Arabia, while encouraging more scrupulous aerial targeting and the building of some kind of Yemeni security force. Gulf assistance is needed on other matters, such as against ISIS, to avoid a massive, unilateral U.S. action, so the U.S. has to assist Gulf allies when they confront what they see as existential security concerns. At the most fundamental level, diplomacy is about rewarding friends and punishing enemies. Whatever the problems of Saudi Arabia as an ally, the demand to be even-handed as between Riyadh and Tehran misses the insight of Ibn Hazm, given a millennium ago: “If you treat your friend and enemy the same, you will arouse distaste for your friendships and contempt for your enmity and you will not be long for this world.”