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Iranian regime apparently believes that the fighting in Yemen will have an impact on the greater narrative surrounding Iran's ability to deflect Saudi-American cooperation, educe their influence in other Middle East arenas, liike Syria and Lebanon

Yemen after Saleh: Microcosm of a Regional Struggle


By -- Yoel Guzansky, Eldad Shavit —— Bio and Archives--December 14, 2017

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Yemen after Saleh: Microcosm of a Regional Struggle
When embarking on the war in Yemen, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman promised a rapid decisive victory over the Houthis and the Iranians (Operation Decisive Storm). So far, however, and was proven again with the assassination of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Saudi Arabia has encountered serious difficulties in defeating a determined enemy on its own doorstep. Even if the internal and external pressures on the Houthis grow stronger, their determination and that of their Iranian allies to continue the military campaign against the Saudis is clear. For its part, the Iranian regime apparently believes that the fighting in Yemen will have an impact on the greater narrative surrounding Iran’s ability to deflect Saudi-American cooperation and reduce their influence in other Middle East arenas, with the emphasis on Syria and Lebanon.

The assassination of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh by Houthi rebels on December 4, 2017 was a response to his announcement a few days prior that he was ready to start negotiations with representatives of the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE on ending the fighting in Yemen. Clearly, notwithstanding some 10,000 fatalities, the millions of refugees and displaced persons, starvation, and plagues, the war in Yemen, another arena for the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia over influence in the Middle East, will continue and perhaps even intensify.

Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have led a coalition of Arab states that aimed, so far with little success, at a withdrawal and disarming of the Iranian supported Houthi forces and the restoration of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, whose appointment as President instead of Saleh was welcomed by the United States and other Western countries. In addition to the military campaign, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were working to drive a wedge into the alliance formed by the Houthis in 2014 with Saleh, whose power had weakened in recent years but who still had considerable influence among central tribes and the elite units of the army.

Without the military assistance of Saleh’s loyal followers it is doubtful whether the Saleh-Houthi alliance would have achieved what it did, including control of the northeast of the country and the capital Sanaa. However, in recent weeks disputes over the division of territory and political jobs escalated to the level of military conflicts that have claimed hundreds of lives so far. Saleh’s call to turn over a new leaf in relations with the Arab coalition in return for lifting the siege on Yemen brought the alliance between the parties – and his life – to an end and symbolized the failure of the Saudi attempt to sway the balance against Iran. It was preceded by a process in which the Houthis strengthened their military capabilities and their political influence until they were no longer so dependent on Saleh in their struggle against the forces loyal to President Hadi and the Arab coalition. Nevertheless, Saleh granted significant legitimacy to Houthi rule and brought them considerable political support.

In the days following the assassination, the Houthis strengthened their grip on Sanaa, despite increasing air attacks by the Arab coalition, but it is not at all certain that killing Saleh will benefit them in the long run. The departure of Saleh, the strong man of Yemeni politics over the last four decades, will make it hard for the Houthis, who follow a strict interpretation of the Shia-Zaidi stream of Islam, not to be perceived as obeying Iran’s orders. Their brutal rule, their involvement in corruption, and the humanitarian disaster in Yemen – for which they are partly responsible – have not earned them support among the public and could subsequently even arouse opposition to their control.

Yemen’s importance lies mainly in its location – close to Saudi Arabia, with whom it shares a border of 1,800 km; and the fact that it overlooks the strait of Bab el-Mandeb, the southern gateway to the Suez Canal in the direction of Israel. If Iran succeeds in establishing its influence in Yemen, it can wage a war of attrition on the southern border of Saudi Arabia and more easily stir up the Zaidi Shiites in the kingdom itself. In fact, the Iranian involvement in Yemen is similar to its behavior in other places: Iran provides money, weapons, and training for local Shiite militias, with the aim of turning them into the main fighting force in the target state that will be dependent on it.

When embarking on the campaign in 2015, Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince and acting ruler, took on something of a gamble, since he cannot allow himself to lose a struggle with Iran on his own doorstep. For over two and a half years he has been unable to record sufficient achievements in fighting that, according to estimates, costs Saudi Arabia about $5 billion a month, a sum that includes payment to Sudan, the main supplier of the ground forces. The most expensive military campaign in the history of the kingdom is still far from achieving its declared objectives, which include disarming the Houthis, and it seems likely that Yemen will continue to be a significant security challenge for the Saudis, even though Saudi Arabia has the most advanced weapons in the world and the world’s fourth largest security budget.

In addition, the Houthis are firing rockets and ground to ground missiles – some apparently of Iranian manufacture – into Saudi territory (and they claim also into UAE territory) and the kingdom is having difficulty intercepting them with its air defense capabilities. A rocket fired from Yemen on November 4, 2017 toward Riyadh Airport drew a strong Saudi reaction and an accusation that Iran had committed “an act of war” against the kingdom. There is also growing international criticism of Saudi Arabia for its conduct of the war – the extensive collateral damage and the worsening humanitarian situation in Yemen – and even some criticism within the kingdom itself of the conduct of bin Salman, who is seen as responsible for the war.

In the short term, Saleh’s assassination will not bring greater stability to Yemen, and will aggravate the military conflict. However in the long run the events could be a trigger for the application of internal and external pressure on the Houthis to return to the negotiating table, and on Saudi Arabia and the UAE to seek a political settlement, even if this means giving the Houthis greater influence, in order to cut their losses and extricate themselves from the Yemeni quagmire.

Continued below...

Increased pressure to promote a political solution to the war in Yemen is also expected from the international community, in particular the United States. However, the US administration faces a dilemma over its policy in Yemen. On the one hand, the administration is committed to continue assistance to its Saudi allies, particularly since the fighting in Yemen is an important element in the struggle between the Saudis and Iran for control of the region. On the other hand, the administration is under growing internal and external pressure, particularly in view of the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Yemen. It has stressed repeatedly that Saudi Arabia must lift the siege on Yemen and allow regular supplies of humanitarian aid.

The US continues to conduct an aerial campaign, mainly against al-Qaeda targets in Yemen, but unlike the Obama administration, which restricted military aid to Saudi Arabia out of concern for harm to civilians, the Trump administration has extended military aid to Saudi Arabia in arms and intelligence. In view of the situation on the ground and with no sign of a military victory on the horizon, the US administration may want to pressure the parties to work for a political solution. However, in the current circumstances it is hard to pressure Riyadh, particularly as the Saudis as seen as the element leading the campaign against Iran. For the US, any solution that fails to limit Iranian influence in Yemen will cement the image of Saudi weakness with consequences for US stature and the ability to loosen Iran’s grip on the region.

When embarking on the war in March 2015, bin Salman promised a rapid decisive victory in Yemen over the Houthis and the Iranians (Operation Decisive Storm). So far Saudi Arabia has encountered serious difficulties in defeating a determined enemy on its own doorstep. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi placed great hopes on a breakthrough in which Saleh would cross over to their ranks in the struggle against Iran, and in this sense his assassination is a failure. Even if the internal and external pressures on the Houthis grow stronger, in spite of the achievement of the assassination, the events of recent days illustrate their determination and that of their Iranian allies to continue the military campaign against the Saudis. For its part, the Iranian regime apparently believes that the fighting in Yemen will have an impact on the greater narrative surrounding Iran’s ability to deflect Saudi-American cooperation and reduce their influence in other Middle East arenas, with the emphasis on Syria and Lebanon.


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