Saudis face existential fight against Yemeni rebels
The deployment against the Houthi indicates an all-out Saudi offensive
Yemenis gather beside a burning vehicle allegedly belonged to Houthi fighters following clashes with tribal militiamen loyal to Yemeni president Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Sunni Saudi Arabia’s “Operation Defensive Storm” against Shia Houthi tribesmen in Yemen could become the kingdom’s first full-scale military campaign across its borders.
The aim of the campaign is to reinstate Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, crush the Houthis and tackle Islamic State and al-Qaeda elements in Yemen.
Riyadh’s first step was to take control of Yemeni air space and bomb positions held by Houthi militia at the airport near the southern port of Aden and in the capital Sanaa.
The Saudis have announced the deployment of 100 military aircraft – a third of their fleet – and 150,000 troops, two-thirds of their active front-line army personnel. If the figures are correct, this amounts to all-out deployment by the kingdom in a fight the Saudis consider existential as the Houthis enjoy the support of Shia Iran, the Saudis’ chief competitor for regional dominance.
A source recently in Riyadh who met a senior member of the royal family told The Irish Times: “The princes are absolutely paranoid about Shias.”
Shia crescent Since the 2003 US installation of the Shia fundamentalist- dominated government in Iraq and the 2011 uprising by Shias in Bahrain, the Saudis and their Sunni Arab allies have expressed concern that a “Shia crescent
” including Syria and Lebanon could form.
The seizure of Yemen by the Houthis, tribesmen who belong to the Zaydi branch of Shiism, is regarded by Saudis as another threat to the Sunni powers that fear Iran, a country of 77 million which, since the overthrow of the shah in 1979, launched an effort to export its revolution to neighbouring countries.
Riyadh has provided political cover for its offensive by securing the approval of Arab foreign ministers meeting at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and forming a coalition of 10 with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Morocco, Jordan, Pakistan, Sudan and Egypt.
Several of these allies have dispatched fighter aircraft to Saudi airfields while Egypt has deployed warships in the Red Sea. US president Barack Obama has given the Saudi-led operations approval by authorising the provision of logistical and intelligence support to Saudi- led operations.
Test of leadership
Defence minister Mohammad Bin Salman is in charge of the campaign. The son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz, who rose to the throne in January, the offensive will serve as a major test of Prince Mohammad’s leadership as well as Saudi military prowess after decades of training by US forces and the expenditure of billions of dollars on weaponry from the US, Britain, France and other countries.
Success in this campaign is essential for the Saudis, who are seeking to recover from the humiliation of being defeated by the Houthis during a 2009 ground offensive against tribesmen who had crossed into Saudi territory in a bid to outflank the Yemeni army during an earlier campaign.
While Saudi intervention has been welcomed by Hadi and loyalists, fiercely independent Yemenis reportedly resent interference in their affairs from any quarter and fear their country will be devastated by a semi- proxy war between Iranian- supported Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition.