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Saudis Step Up in Yemen, but at What Cost?

Winston Churchill once said, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” Look around the Gulf region today and history is certainly being written, and in powerful ways. Although the way ahead remains hazy and very dangerous, it is clear that the Middle East region is again at a strategic inflection point. We need to take stock, analyze current events and determine what the future may hold. We must do this right now if we wish to manage the change.

Saudi Arabia has recently launched airstrikes into Yemen. Certainly these Saudi attacks are supported by a GCC coalition, with some American logistic and intelligence support, while Oman remains absent at least until the negotiation stage that will hopefully follow. Unlike previously in Bahrain where the Saudis just drove in, this action has huge implications, and not just for casualties though there will certainly be many of those. The GCC has pulled together in an unprecedented way; reports are that the UAE has sent 30 fighter jets, Qatar 10, Kuwait and Bahrain 15 each to Saudi Arabia to participate in the operation some are calling the “Storm of Resolve.” It is a whole new dimension.

The Houthis will likely be toppled by Saudi action, and of course there remains Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has yet to play his card. Saudi Arabia has previously paid Yemeni tribes to behave, working around Saleh and most recently it appears that the Saudi Defense Minister has warned Saleh’s son – Ahmad Saleh – from approaching Aden to secure what Saleh believes to be his legacy and the destiny of the family dynasty.

If there should be a ground offensive coming to hold ground and set conditions for putting Yemen back on track and also to resist the Saleh junta rising from the ashes, it will have to deal with Yemen Army elements still loyal to him; it is high risk.

Some say GCC military action in Yemen represents a failure of U.S. effort. Certainly the wind has changed direction for President Hadi now that he has requested and secured widespread Gulf support. The days of Saleh “dancing on the heads of snakes” appear to be over, but he is a distinguished survivor, and may not be counted out yet. Some say that the events of the past three years have likely been broadly to his design and he has meddled from the margins expertly to destabilize the country sufficiently to justify his necessary return. That was, until the Saudis intervened.

Saudi Arabia supports Hadi and Iran supports the Houthis. Yemen is the battlefield of a proxy war for those conflicting interests which some have described as a Sunni-Shia nexus or schism. It is clear that Yemen will not settle down until power has shifted and there is as yet no indentified way ahead. The international community has shown no gut to act. America has not seen fit to intervene to counter Daesh in Syria, despite the atrocities, and some have questioned the logic of driving headlong into a Yemeni mess; but the GCC has acted. Some viewed the GCC military instrument as limp, but now those views must be adjusted. The GCC nations have a complex task ahead and there are some hard nuts remaining to be cracked, namely the Houthis, Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), maybe Daesh and also a Yemeni military with questionable loyalty; it will not be resolved easily.

Saudi Arabia had been worried about the Houthi rebels on their border and also their motion south to threaten Hadi, but they are also worried about Yemen exporting revolution across the border and thus they have until now focused only domestically. The Saudis promise thousands of troops and hundreds of warplanes. Preliminary reports foresee that this Saudi engagement will render the Houthis quiet and remove their better weapons. Rumors are that some senior Houthi leaders are already dead and that the movement will soon be a headless band on the run. The thought is once the fighting ends that people will come to the table to talk. AQAP remains quiet, so far.

The worry now is about Iran. Iran is de-stabilizing Lebanon through Hezbollah and also Syria. The Shia belt is expanding and if Yemen had remained in the hands of the Houthis, they could then have moved to new challenges. Saudi Arabia and its GCC coalition partners simply had to act.

But what will Iran do next? Maybe they will try to destabilize Oman to link to the Arabian Peninsula and maybe rally Arab sympathizers against a perceived Israeli hegemonic prime minister. Iran may stop playing nicely in nuclear negotiations with the U.S. Maybe they will try to support the Houthis; there were over 20 flights from Tehran to Sana’a Wednesday alone. Maybe they will strike Saudi Arabia, maybe try to close the Bab el Mendeb, to threaten Egypt or even try to close the Strait of Hormuz!

Churchill once said that, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” The end of the beginning shows regional fissures playing out in plain sight. If the U.S. acts it must do so boldly and the major single contribution the U.S. can make right now is to stop Iran from responding. The GCC has taken the initiative and the U.S. now has a clear choice to contribute to the making of history, or stand by and witness it made by others.