Yemen War: Where US and Iran Jockey for Regional Primacy

The latest paroxysm of Yemen’s five-year war with the rebel Houthis has left more than 2,000 dead in less than a month and up to 150,000 homeless. Yemeni government troops are battling around 15,000 Iranian-armed and trained Houthi rebels dug into the northern Sadaa mountains on the Saudi Arabian border. Saudi air force bombers are pounding the rebels and the Egyptian air force and navy are ferrying ammunition to the Yemen army with US encouragement and funding.
This is the second war in less than a year in which US allies are pitted against Iran-backed forces. The first was Israel’s three-week campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which ended last January.
This strategically-located, poor Red Sea country, for years a critical stage for the war on Islamist extremists, has now become a key arena where the United States and Iran jockey for regional primacy. In that respect, the Yemen conflict compares in importance with the 2006 Lebanon War and the Gaza conflict. Its outcome will bear heavily on the relative strategic positions in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea regions of the US – as well as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and indirectly Israel too – vis-a-vis Iran.
debkafile‘s military sources point to eight salient features of the ongoing Yemen conflict:
1. Two weeks ago, president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s army launched the sixth round since the year 2000 of his war with the Houthis, deploying about 20,000 troops for a major offensive to dislodge the 15,000 Houthis from their mountain fastnesses (12-18,000 feet tall) in the northern province of Saada.
2. The Houthis are Zaydis who claim they adhere to the purest form of Shiite Islam. They are fighting to bring the true faith to Yemen by restoring the Zaydi imamate overthrown in 1962. Their name derives from the movement’s founder, Badreddin al-Houthi, who was killed by the Yemeni army in 2004. The Houthi Shiites and Iranian Shia have nothing in common barring Tehran’s exploitation of the Yemeni rebels as a proxy force (like the Lebanese Hizballah) for gaining Iran a military foot through the door to the Saudi Arabian border and the southern Arabian peninsula.
3. The sheer quantities of hardware the Iranians managed to transfer to the Houthis in two weeks amazed Washington, Sanaa, Riyadh and Cairo, even through Iran had previously displayed this capability by the speed with which it replenished and augmented Hizballah losses after the 2006 war against Israel. The Yemeni army is therefore hard put to quell the heavily-armed insurgents or even prevent the battles from spilling out of the Saada region into other parts of the country, including the capital.
4. Fearful that the conflict and Zaydi influence may seep across Yemen’s northern border into the southern Saudi regions of Najran and Asir, Saudi Arabia has sent its air force to help the Yemeni army by pounding the Houthi strongholds in Saada’s mountain villages.
5. The small 66,000 Yemeni army, lacking organized military stockpiles, soon began running out of ammunition and military equipment. The Egyptian army is running these necessary supplies to Yemen through a naval and aerial corridor.
6. The Obama administration has pitched in with financial assistance for the Saudi and Egyptian efforts to help Yemen. This was agreed at the meeting the US and Egyptian presidents held at the White House last Tuesday, Aug. 18. In this fashion, US president Barack Obama is making a stand against Iran alongside Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah.
7. Just as the US and Israel were taken by surprise by the Iranian surrogate Hizballah’s military capabilities in the 2006 Lebanon War, so too were the US and its allies astonished by the Houthi rebels’ command of the battlefield. The Yemeni army’s First Mechanized Infantry Division, fortified by every one of its six paratroop and commando brigades and Saudi air support, has proved unable in two weeks of combat to break into the rebels’ mountain strongholds.
8. Without this breakthrough, the conflict threatens to spread and escalate into the biggest and most dangerous war to strike any part of Arabia in the last 18 years, ever since Saddam Hussein ordered the Iraqi army to invade Kuwait in 1991.

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