Saudi Arabia is the world’s top weapons importer, eclipsing India in 2014 – those weapons will now be put to the test against Iran-backed Houthi Shi’ites in Yemen in its widest-reaching military campaign since the first Gulf War.
Yiftah Shapir of the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS) spoke to Arutz Sheva about what can be expected in the operation.
“The Saudi Arabian air force’s capability on paper is very great: they’ve got Typhoons and specially-modified F-15s and the best ammunition in the world,” said Shapir. “How much they’re capable of doing though depends on the intelligence on their targets.”
This is the third anti-Shi’ite intervention Saudi Arabia has made in the last seven years: a previous Houthi incursion into Saudi Arabia resulted in a small-scale war and ground invasion in 2009. Protests in Bahrain during the “Arab Spring” frightened the Saudis into thinking the country’s Shi’ite majority would topple its Sunni elite, drawing Saudi tanks to Bahrain to police the streets.
For now, it is unknown if there is a plan for a ground invasion. As many Israelis might recall from the most recent war with Gaza, air strikes cannot accomplish the things infantry can.
“We know from experience from virtually everybody that airstrikes don’t do much, especially on the first day,” says Shapir. “Successful operations last longer, at least a month. It’s tough to say what they’re achieving. The capability of air strikes is very limited. If you don’t enter with ground forces or the enemy expects you don’t have the will to send those forces, it can have a negative effect on the campaign.”
It should be noted that the Saudi military buildup was only widely reported within hours of the first Saudi airstrikes. Ground invasions are also more likely following a sustained air campaign making that invasion easier.
Shapir says the other capabilities that will be getting attention in this war are those of a largely untested Saudi navy.
“They have a strong navy in two theaters: the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. They have quite a strong force with French-made frigates. But in practice, they have not been involved in any war.”
Saudi Arabia has 50,000 personnel between the country’s two coastlines, including some 12,000 marines. The Saudis are using that navy now to block resupply from the Indian Ocean straight to Houthi forces on the western coast of Yemen. It was in fact the Houthi advance on the port city of Aden and their threat to major shipping lanes by the Red Sea that added to the urgency of military actions.
Egypt has already sent four warships to the area, apparently forcing Iranian ships in the area to retreat according to one report from Arab News.
The fact Egypt is involved at all might be surprising, and is likely only because Saudi Arabia has such a disproportionate leadership role in the fight that the Egyptians feel they can make the token contributions that other Arab states are making. But that is not because Egypt does not pack a punch of its own.
“Egypt has a lot to offer. They have a strong air force but the real question is how involved they really want to be with wars on two fronts of their own: Libya and the Sinai.”
On top of those fights, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s regime seems more focused on domestic security and holding down the Muslim Brotherhood.
“This is the main preoccupation of the Egyptian military,” says Shapir. “The Egyptian military is much more interested in internal war, with Egyptian security and the economy. The military also has their own interests.”
It would not be the first foray for Egypt in Yemen. Between 1962 and 1967, Egypt became bogged down in fighting an insurgency there when Gamal Abdul Nasser was in the midst of asserting Egypt as the leader of the Arab world. According to Shapir, a greater deployment in Yemen would not necessarily conjure up the same sorts of memories that Americans might have of Vietnam, but they would be similar.
As for the possibility that Saudi Arabia might be making a dry run at attacking other Iranian-backed groups in the region, Shapir does not see it. This is likely not as much a practice campaign for future conflict as it is the opportunity to send a message to the Iranians.
Yemen provides Saudi Arabia with problems regardless of the Houthi connection with Iran. Were the Houthis to be much less intimate with Iranian aid, they would still be viewed as a threat to an allied Sunni state right on Saudi Arabia’s own border.
As much as the rest of the world is watching the conflict as an outgrowth of the rivalry with Iran, Shapir wanted to emphasize that there are still numerous issues exclusive to Yemen that Iran has no bearing on.
“I think it’s a mistake to say it’s a war against Iran. Yemeni forces act on their own interests. The may get a lot of support from the Iranians, but they operate on their own.”
This should have bearing on the way Israelis see things. While it might be important to note Iran’s influence in Yemen, there are separate conflicts there. For the Saudis, according to Shapir, there will still be an end-game when “they will have to come to terms with the Houthis because they are their neighbors.”