Thursday, March 26, marked the day that the Sunni Arab camp embarked on war against Shiite Iran and its allies. Hostilities were instigated by Saudi King Salman, Jordan’s King Abdullah, Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El–Sisi, United Arab Emirates Crown Prince and military commander Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, and the Qatar ruler Sheikh Tabib bin Hamad al-Thani. They were joined by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was conspicuous by his absence, shortly before he paid a formal visit to Tehran.
They sought to cut short Shiite Iran’s drive for expansion across the Middle East, focusing initially on three main arenas: Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Up until Wednesday night, March 25, five armies were involved – most of Shiite denomination. They were: Syria’s armed forces, the Lebanese Hizballah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Iraqi and Yemeni armies
Thursday morning, this figure jumped to twelve when the Saudi, Egyptian, Pakistani, UAE, Qatari, Jordanian and Bahraini armies – all Sunni – entered the fray. The balance now stands at 7 active Sunni armies versus 4 Shiite forces on the march.
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Obama sides heavily with Shiite contest against Sunni regimes
The United States has come down heavily on the Shiite side of the inter-Muslim contest, led there by the Obama administration’s zeal for a breakthrough to a nuclear deal, for which Iran is to be rewarded with nuclear threshold status and anointment as boss of the Middle East.
Washington made a show of its ties with Tehran by ordering the first US air strike over Tikrit to be launched Thursday, to pull the Iranian-led and commanded Iraqi military out of a hole. Their offensive for retaking the Iraqi city from the Islamic State was still stuck after two weeks of combat, and the US was called on for help. By providing this help, the Obama administration was telling the world that America stands foursquare behind Iran’s military efforts to defeat ISIS in Iraq.
The first US air action in Tikrit coincided with a separate, no less momentous, event sprung that Thursday morning on the Arabian Peninsula’s southern tip: Saudi, Egyptian and UAE Emirate warplanes carried out their first bombing missions against the pro-Iranian Houthi rebels, to halt their conquering march across Yemen’s cities, including the capital, Sanaa.
Off Yemen’s western coast, Egyptian naval and marine units seized the opportunity to pre-empt an Iranian grab for the strategic Bab el-Mandeb Straits. Its blockage would cork up the maritime highway from the Red Sea to and from the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf, which is used by some 20,000 oil tankers and commercial vessels each year.
Yemen: Opening shot of Sunni-Shiite contest
The twin offensive was just the opening shot in the Sunni Arab contest against Shiite Iran and its allies. It is already showing signs of spinning out into a long haul. Saudi and Egyptian ground operations are yet to come in Yemen.
President Barack Obama’s master plan provides for Iran, after being allowed to keep nuclear threshold status, undertaking to supply the boots on the ground for the battle against the Islamic State, leaving the US free for air combat and intelligence surveillance tasks.
The surprise Saudi and allied strike in Yemen turned this strategy on its head, putting Iran in a different place from that conceived by the US president and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran’s Sunni Arab neighbors and rivals had started drawing a strong line against Tehran’s regional aspirations, in defiance of Washington’s plans and before the Islamic Republic had obtained an operational nuclear weapon.
This rush of events in one morning raised five salient questions:
1. Is the Sunni alliance’s operation in Yemen a one-off, or is it the prelude to intervention in other trouble spots, where the Iranian imprint is large, like Iraq and Syria?
DEBKA Weekly’s military experts estimate that this is possible, if indeed the Yemen operation marked the onset of a broad Sunni-Shiite conflict.
Iran warns Saudis to back off from Yemen, hints at walkout from nuclear talks
2. Is the Saudi-led alliance capable of fighting on two fronts – both against Iran and its Shiite legions and against al Qaeda and the Islamic State?
That too is possible, provided that the large Egyptian army carries the brunt of the military effort and acts as the Sunni Gulf nations’ primary fighting force.
3. The Sunni alliance’s intervention in Yemen reshuffled Obama’s scale of priorities. Whereas the struggle to crush the Islamic State had topped that scale for the US-led coalition, which included Saudi Arabia and Gulf nations, the latter grouping has now made the containment of Iran’s nuclear and imperial plans its first order of business.
4. Is the impact of this reversal powerful enough to impede or even sink the six-power nuclear talks with Iran? The threat is in the air, raised in Lausanne, straight after the news of the Saudi-led air strikes over Yemen, by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif. He warned Riyadh that it was taking a “dangerous step” and must stop its air strikes immediately. He threatened Iran would make “all efforts to control the crisis in Yemen.”
Zarif’s subtext was that if the United States could not control Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Tehran would act.
Is an Israeli military strike back on the table?
Iran’s walkout from the nuclear talks may well follow, on the reckoning that, without guaranteed Middle East hegemony, Tehran would gain nothing from accepting a compromise on its nuclear aspirations.
5. With diplomacy off the table, might the Sunni powers’ strike against Iran’s interests in Yemen lead in turn to coordination with Israel for its long-threatened military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities? This would make the Yemen operation the opening shot of a much broader conflict.
The infrastructure of military and intelligence collaboration between leading Sunni Arab nations and Israel is far broader and more elaborate today than it was at its inception after the Arab Spring. Today, it is a smoothly-functioning machine, available for a decision to cripple Iran’s nuclear program by force for some years.
Today, this sounds like a long shot, but yesterday, so too did a combined Sunni assault on Iranian interests in Yemen.
Obama has been hard at work to impose his military and intelligence partnership with Iran on the Middle East as a regime its governments would have to live with. Thursday morning, those governments unexpectedly joined forces to cast it out.