Saudi war in Yemen makes little headway

Saudi Arabia has been hosting unprecedented military exercises on its Northeastern frontier with the objective of projecting a united Sunni front against Shia Iran at a time Saudi and allied forces are stalemated in their 11 month air and ground campaign against Shia Houthi tribesmen in Yemen.

Dubbed “Northern Thunder,” the manoeuvres have involved 1,50,000 troops from 20 countries including Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Pakistan, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and, even, the Maldives. 
 
The exercises are intended to highlight the role of Saudi Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, 30, as the man in cha-rge of the defence of the kingdom and the worldwide Muslim community although there are said to be serious doubts about his judgment and competence among princes sidelined by his father King Salman who ascended to the throne a year ago.

Prince Muhammad's first policy decision was to go to war in Yemen where the Houthis had seized control of the north, the capital Sanaa, a broad band of territory to the south, and the port city of Aden.  Saudi-backed President Abu Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his cabinet were forced to flee to Riyadh.

The Saudi coalition includes 10 countries, several of which have large military machines but Riyadh has made little headway against Houthi irregulars who have armed themselves from the country's arsenals and enjoy the backing of units of the regular army loyal to deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh. 

In spite of the Saudi air and naval campaign, the use of heavy weapons and banned cluster munitions, the Houthis still hold the north and Sanaa and continue to attack pro-Hadi forces in Aden and elsewhere. While the Saudis and their allies have focused on the Houthis, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Islamic State have conquered fresh territory. But this does not seem to disturb the Saudis, perhaps, because they are Sunni movements.

Although the Saudis have received logistical and targeting support from the US and Britain, airstrikes have largely been on civilian targets, wreaking death and destruction. The Saudi air war and invasion has displaced 2.3 million Yemenis and killed 5,700 and among them 2,500 were civilians.  Two-thirds of civilian fatalities have been from air strikes.

While the world has focused on civilians starving due to government sieges of insurgent-held areas in Syria, the Saudis have blockaded and bombed Yemen's ports provisioning the populace and blasted convoys carrying food and medical supplies to Houthi-held areas. The Saudis have also flattened hospitals and schools, targets protected by the Geneva convention. The US and Britain, which not only back the war effort but also continue to sell arms to the Saudis, are co-culprits in this conflict, a “war of choice” rather than self-defence or necessity.

Hadi’s regime had ample time to reach a deal with the Houthis who had demanded an end to corruption and reversal of federal redistricting (gerrymandering) which had deprived them of fair representation in Parliament. The Shia Houthis rightly argued they suffered discrimination because Riyadh had, over the years, converted many Sunni Yemenis to the Saudi puritan ideology which considers Shias to be heretics.

Iranian proxies

Riyadh claims falsely the Houthis are Iranian proxies seeking, ultimately, to attack Saudi Arabia. This is an absurdity as the Saudi armed forces consist of 2,35,000 troops armed with the latest Western weaponry while the Houthis field a rag-tag militia bearing light weaponry. Since the US has long been committed to the defence of Saudi Arabia, the kingdom should have no fear of being overwhelmed by the Houthis.

Riyadh launched its air war on Yemen last March in the expectation that the Houthis would be defeated in short order. Prince Muhammad, who may not have read regional
history, clearly did not know that wars fought in Yemen are never or almost never won by external attackers.

The Saudis are absolutely paranoid about Iran, with which the US, their powerful ally, signed a deal last year to dismantle Tehran’s nuclear programme and lift punitive sanctions which have crippled Iran’s economy and, allegedly, contained drive for regional hegemony.  
Saudi paranoia was born in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution when Tehran tried and failed to export its Shia ideology to a region where 85% of Muslims are Sunnis. Saudi fears were stoked by the US installation of a pro-Iranian Shia fundamentalist regime in Iraq following the 2003 US occupation. 

Governed for decades by secular Baathists, Iraq had been until then a bastion against Iranian penetration of the Arab world despite Iraq's Shia majority. Indeed, Iraq’s army, with a majority of Shia soldiers, fought Iran to a standstill during the two countries' 1980-88 war. 

Arab blood ties meant more to Arab Shias than religious connections to Shia Iran. If Riyadh had remembered this, Yemen, the poorest West Asian country, might have been spared  a war by the wealthiest.

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