Yemen: How much is it about Saudi Arabia vs Iran?

Read few comments.

Questions:

1. Do you see any real strategy in Saudi led attack on Houthis rebels in Yemen that could lead to some prospect of solving the conflict?

2. How do you perceive quite widespread view on conflict in Yemen that it is basically a Saudi-Iran proxy war?

Answers:

Paul Aarts, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, University of Amsterdam

1. Yes, of course, I see such a new strategy. Some speak about the “Salman doctrine” (which might be an overstatement). Nonetheless, it’s true that the KSA has found new self-confidence (starting already some time ago when the government refused the seat in the UN Security Council, and later by not pleading for a lowering of oil production, whereby prices tumbled). But now it’s “real”, i.e. the Kingdom has taken the military lead against what it perceives as the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. Will it lead to solving the conflict in Yemen? That’s difficult to imagine. Without “boots on the ground” it will not be easy to defeat the alliance between former president Saleh’s army and the Houthis; on the other hand, with boots on the ground this adventure might turn into another “Vietnam”, both for the KSA and (most likely) Egypt.

2. I do NOT share that view, and actually there is very little proof for substantial Iranian involvement in Yemen. I realize that’s the dominant discourse, and perceptions can turn into “realities”, but that’s another matter. Gradually it might become a self-fulling prophecy, i.e. the Houthis asking for help from Tehran. Generally speaking, Iran’s foreign policy is “realpolitik”, i.e. not so much based on sectarian principles (supporting Hamas, Armenia in its conflict with Azerbeijan, Bashir in Sudan – till recently). But true, it’s a struggle for regional supremacy and Riyadh is afraid it is losing the battle (in particular after the recent “deal” between Iran and the P5+1).

Erwin van VeenSenior Research Fellow Security & Justice, Clingendael – Conflict Research Unit

1. The military operation, organized and led by Saudi Arabia, represents a significant shift as much for Saudi Arabia as it does for Yemen itself. Saudi Arabia and the GCC are being forced to own up to their support for President Hadi, whose Presidency they all but engineered. Worryingly they are framing the current crisis in thinly-veiled sectarian terms, overplaying the Houthi-Iran connection and operating the operation under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council with the addition of Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Sudan: all states with heavy Sunni majorities. The stated objective of the operation at its outset was to force the Houthis back to the negotiating table, although this has shifted to ‘removing the Houthi threat’ – a possible sign of strategic drift. At the moment, the operation is consisting of air strikes against Houthi targets, supplanted by a naval and air blockade of the country. That may change, as the Houthi forces continue to advance on Aden and have taken up strategic positions overlooking the Bab al-Mandeb, a strategic waterway for global oil supplies and cargo traveling through the Suez Canal. In addition there have been fierce clashes at the Saudi-Yemeni border. Continued Houthi advances into Aden and intensified fighting at the Saudi Arabian border may tip the scales even further and trigger a ground invasion by Saudi-led forces. However, this would probably represent less a result of a well thought through Saudi strategy and be more dictated by events on the ground that are ´forcing´ the hands of the Saudi´s.

2. The Houthis have reportedly received weapons and training from Iran, despite denials by both. However, Iran seems to have historically given minimal support to the Houthis as a way to create a distraction for Saudi Arabia. Moreover the Houthis likely have little need for arms shipments from Iran, as Yemen is already awash with arms and they have been picking up arms (some of it supplied by the United States) asYemeni forces abandon them. Yemen is less of a strategic interest to Iran and the Houthis have only recently looked to Iran for material support. Their respective versions of Shia Islam are fairly far off from one another, although the danger now is sectarian framing will inflame tension across the Muslim world. At the same time Iran may see an opportunity to further antagonize Saudi Arabia at little cost to itself, especially while it and the U.S. are engaged on several strategic levels (nuclear talks, Iraq, Syria).

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