Washington and Tehran alike are smarting over the success of the new Saudi rulers to pull the wool over their eyes and surprise them by launching a general offensive against the Yemeni revolt in their southern back yard. This operation was planned in total hush by the new monarch, King Salman, Defense Minister and Royal Court Chief, Prince Muhammad bin Salman and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammed bin Nayef.
The failure of US and Iranian intelligence services to pick up on Riyadh’s intentions was all the more inexplicable when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt had already been deep in operational planning for three months.
This secrecy was all the more remarkable in the notoriously leaky Arab world and the Middle East. Indeed, on Wednesday, March 25, the day before the Saudi operation began, debkafile’s military sources reported: Saudi Arabia has moved significant mechanized infantry forces with heavy military equipment including artillery to its southern border with Yemen… The Saudis appear poised to intervene in the civil war.
Saudis suddenly emerge as independent operators
Tehran in particular was still haring off on the wrong track. Just hours before the Saudi Air Force went into action over Yemen, Iran’s national television channels were still reporting that Houthi factions were in control of the city of Aden in the south and that President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi had fled the country.
Neither claim was accurate. Iranian intelligence services had clearly not taken the trouble to find out what was going on, relying on the easy availability of information in a country over which they exerted dominance through the Houthi rebels they championed. Up until then, the Houthis had held the upper hand in their anti-government insurgency.
The Iranian government also relied on the Obama administration, its ally in Iraq, to look after Tehran’s interests in Yemen too, by extending support to the Yemeni Houthis as their shared gun for containing Al Qaeda in Arabia (AQAP).
No one in Tehran imagined that Riyadh would flout Obama administration’s policies and launch its own independent venture in Yemen, or be able to quietly muster a coalition of 10 Sunni Muslim nations for the effort.
No intelligence heads-up for US or Iran
The CIA was no less taken aback. And so, there were no heads-ups on the coming Saudi intervention in the Yemeni conflict for President Obama, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, or the US Central Command chief, Gen. Lloyd Austini.
Washington was given notice of the event just one hour before it started – and only then, politely and formally, by the Saudi Ambassador to Washington, Adel Al-Jubeir, in person.
By then, it was too late for the Obama administration to intervene and hold the Saudis back and, not least, too late for Washington to tip off Tehran in time to forewarn the Houthis.
Our Saudi experts point out that the action taken by the new king in Riyadh and the advisers closest to him was totally at odds with the royal house’s traditional wary, non-proactive style of conduct. Two younger-generation princes Muhammad bin Nayef and Muhammad bin Salman, suddenly emerged as key players at the court of King Salman. What’s more, they handled a crisis in a manner that was quite new to the House of Saud. The two princes were clearly ready to gamble their future on the success of the Yemen expedition to support heir claim for prominence in the heavily overcrowded princely dynasty.
The anti-Iran coalition in the Mid East gathers adherents
In the first five days of the operation, the Saudis employed electronic surveillance to evaluate the military capabilities and electronic equipment in the service of the Houthi forces and the military units loyal to Yemen’s ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which had joined the rebel cause.
Our military sources report that the Saudi military plan was accordingly organized into seven unfolding stages: (1) Destruction of Yemeni air power and air defense systems; (2) Demolition of air bases; (3) Control of Yemeni air space; (4) Control of the war arena; (5) Hunting down and apprehending rebel leaders;
(6) The redeployment of national Yemeni army forces; (6) The deployment of Yemeni Army Special Forces for ground combat in conjunction with the tribes and factions loyal to President Hadi; (7) The intervention of Arab coalition forces with air support for ground operations.
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As a counterweight against the regional coalition against the Islamic State headed by the United States and Iran, Riyadh enlisted a Sunni bloc, which numbered, in addition to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Sudan and Pakistan. This project snowballed for months – again without either the US or Iran paying heed.
Even Sudan’s breakaway from its close alliance with Iran escaped their notice.
Since February, President Omar Al-Bashir , who gave Iran naval bases last year, has had a change of heart and moved into the Gulf Arab sphere. It was Sudan’s role in the anti-Houthi operation in Yemen which was discussed during Al-Bashir’s visits to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh last week.
Turkey is another candidate for the Sunni coalition against Iran. President Reccip Tayep Erdogan has taken to inveighing against Iran’s imperial pretensions. He too has turned to the Gulf from which he distanced Turkey during the years he backed the Muslim Brotherhood.
Last minute war developments:
Heavy Saudi air bombardments Wednesday and Thursday slowed the advance, but failed to prevent, Houthi rebels and the Yemeni army’s 11th Brigade fighting under ex-president Ali Saleh from entering the key Red Sea port town of Aden. The brigade’s tanks reached the town center. By late Thursday, after heavy fighting with forces loyal to President Hadi for control of the city, the rebel forces were forced to retreat from the town center under massive Saudi air bombardment, but held onto the presidential palace.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that the Saudis had to delay their plan to land ground forces from the sea to save Aden because of a shortage of landing craft to drop their marines units ashore. Subsequently, there were unconfirmed reports of some Saudi and Egyptian troop landings.
Our sources do confirm that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sent four warships to the Red Sea as back-up for Saudi-Egyptian operations against the Iranian-backed Houthis.