Smackdown: The Houthis Will Crush Saudi Arabia in Yemen – The National Interest
For the better part of its independent history Yemen has been plagued by conflict and turmoil. Since the September 11 Attacks, al-Qaeda’s robust presence there has alarmed Washington policymakers. Today, however, a more conventional conflict threatens its stability and that of the larger Middle East. It has become the epicenter of the Iranian-Saudi Arabian proxy war that has gripped the region. The Yemeni theater is one that the Saudis cannot afford to lose. But unless the Saudis conjure up a heretofore absent genie, the Iranian juggernaut will likely prevail.
The Saudis are backing embattled President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. In January, a rebel group known as the Houthis overthrew him. Drawing on their common Shia roots, the Iranians have come to their aid, setting up the latest Iranian-Saudi showdown.
From Lebanon to Syria via the Palestinians, Iranians proxies have defeated groups backed by the Saudis. The preferred Saudi strategy of showering surrogates with cash has been no match for the Iranians, who prize combat prowess. Iranian proxies are seasoned in guerrilla warfare. Groups such as Hizballah, which have fought Israel to a standstill, have much to offer the Houthis.
What will likely determine the outcome of this battle is the Iranian dedication to the cause. They are latecomers to Yemen—they only started aiding the Houthis in recent years—and do not have the same strategic interests there as the Saudis. Syria is a much more important asset in the Iranian constellation, because it provides a land-based lifeline to Hizballah, and it prevents the regional isolation that the mullahs dread most. Because Syria is taxing Iran’s capabilities, Tehran might not believe that squandering resources in Yemen is wise.
Yet, in past conflicts with the Houthis, the Saudis fared poorly. In 2009-2010, the Saudis launched an air campaign against them that resulted in more than a hundred casualties and dozens of prisoners of war. This time, to shore up their military shortcomings, the Saudis assembled a ten-nation coalition, with Egypt as its head. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has pledged to send ground troops to aid the Saudi air campaign. Though Egypt has the most powerful Arab military force, that is a low bar in a region where an Arab-led army has not defeated a non-Arab army since the 9th century.