The Middle East got even more complicated this week as Saudi Arabia launched air strikes across Yemen as parts of that country fall into the hands of a Shiite militia group known as the Houthi. The implications of this new campaign go far beyond Yemen's borders and it could be just a preview of a regional standoff over Iran's nuclear program.
Many other nations, including UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan and even Pakistan have pledged direct military support for the Saudi-led campaign. This includes providing aircraft and naval assets and even troops for continued military operations. Another six nations, including the US, have pledged other support, such as logistical and intelligence sharing, to help this new Arab-centric military coalition.
The operation came quite suddenly, shortly after the US rapidly withdrew its remaining special operations and counter terror teams from Al-Anad Air Base in Yemen earlier in the week. This installation was presumably a major nerve center for the US drone assassination and intelligence gathering campaign against Al Qaeda and IS forces that have infested the failed state. After American assets were evacuated, the base quickly fell to Houthi Rebels. It was subsequently attacked by Saudi fighter aircraft during the opening attacks of the new air campaign, leaving its aircraft, most of which were not airworthy to begin with, and the base's facilities shattered.
Currently, Houthi rebels control the Capital of Sanaa, as well as other major cities throughout Yemen, with the country's embattled President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi initially fleeing to the sprawling port city of Aden and naming it his defacto Capital. He has since left the country.
Both the Shiite Houthi and President Hadi's backers, which are largely Sunni, are by and large against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State. Still, there is no love-lost between staunchly Sunni Saudi Arabia and the Shiite Houthi Rebels, with a spokesman from the group recently stating:
"We have already proved to you in 2009 how easy it is to invade the territory of the Kingdom. Your army is weak. Today we are more skilled. When we decide to invade, we won't stop in the city of Mecca, but will continue on to Riyadh to topple the government institutions."
Saudi Arabia has said it will focus its efforts to see that Aden does not fall into Houthi, Al Qaeda or IS hands. They have made true on part of this statement when Saudi fighter aircraft struck a large armored column making its way from the Capital of Sanaa to Aden, destroying what appeared to be the core mechanized force of Houthi Rebels that would have assaulted the embattled port city.
Losses have already occurred on both sides of this new air war, with reports of multiple deaths on the ground and multiple aircraft claimed to have been shot down. These include a Saudi F-15, presumably an F-15S (a slightly downgraded export version of the F-15E Strike Eagle) with two pilots aboard and a Sudanese Su-24 Fencer attack jet. The F-15 did indeed go down in the Red Sea, with USAF HH-60 Pave Hawks based out of Djibouti plucking both pilots from the water safely, while Sudan has flat out denied that one of their aircraft was shot down.
The key take away from these rapid developments is multi-fold. On one hand, you have an Arab-centric coalition finally leading the way against extremists and instability in the region. Yemen has largely been an "American problem" over the last decade or so, with local Arab states, especially neighboring Saudi Arabia, providing logistical and intelligence support. These roles have now switched drastically, with the US only playing a supporting role in this new military coalition.
So, could the near total fall of Yemen to Shiite militia and known terrorist groups be the wake up call to Arab states that many have longed for? Yes and no. Undoubtedly, there are hardcore extremist groups that have infested Yemen over the last couple of decades, and that infestation will only grow as long as a power vacuum exists, but some would say that Saudi Arabia is getting involved in what is more of a civil war than an anti-terror campaign. Such a description, although convenient, is a simplification of the reality on the ground.
There appears to be a very strong tint of proxy warfare in regards to Saudi Arabia's leap into this new front on the war against Islamic Extremism. The Houthi Militias are Shiite. The Arab states involved in this new air campaign are predominately Sunni. Iran is a known supporter of the Houthi, and some say the group is just a puppet force for Iranian interests in the region.
Currently, Iran is actively supporting and even fighting in Iraq against sunni-dominated ISIS alongside Shiite militias, and has enjoyed quickly growing influence in that country since America withdrew its forces from earlier in the decade. Iran also has huge influence over Syria's rickety but still intact Assad regime. There is also its proxy, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. As a result, Saudi Arabia, and the other Arab states for that matter, see themselves as slowly being surrounded by increasingly powerful Iranian influence. So, by taking on Houthi militias in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and friends are attempting to stop the spread of Iran's power in the region.
Then there is the nuclear issue. The so called P5+1 talks have been ongoing for years now and have not resulted in an agreement to stop Iran's uranium enrichment program. With a deadline for a final agreement looming, and seemingly little support for further extensions on negotiating timelines, at least outside of the Obama Administration, the Iranian "issue" among Arab states may very well turn into one with much higher stakes. If an agreement is not reached, a nuclear arms race in the region, with Saudi Arabia already exploring its nuclear options outside of American control, is a real possibility if not a certainty.
If the P5+1 nuclear negotiations fail, this young Arab led coalition against 'extremism' in Yemen could very well be a precursor to what a standing coalition against Iran could look like. In that context, Saudi Arabia and its allies' intervention in Yemen works as both a set of 'training wheels' for what could come and as a show of force that sends a clear message to Iran as to what they would be up against should they move to achieve nuclear breakout capability. In addition, there is a chance that the US would become part of the air war in Yemen should the P5+1 nuclear negotiations fail, which would be another major challenge to Iranian interests there.
When it comes to punching power, Saudi Arabia has a military that can only be rivaled by Israel in the region. Their air combat forces consist of a relatively vast fleet of F-15C and F-15S Eagles, Eurofighter Typhoons, Panavia Tornadoes and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. Not to mention their pockets are notoriously deep when it comes to keeping their gear and crews in top fighting condition.
In addition to their direct combat-related air forces, they have organic command and control assets that are historically only found in NATO operations, including their own E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft used for coordinating large strikes over a massive amount of airspace. They also have their own aerial refueling and surveillance aircraft, as well as a fleet of Black Hawk helicopters for moving troops and material around rapidly.
In addition to air power, Saudi Arabia has pledged 150,000 ground troops to the cause and is said to be massing forces along the Saudi-Yemeni border. Whether this is prelude to some sort of an invasion remains unclear. The Saudi Army is the best equipped in the region, once again having only Israel as a true peer state competitor, and mirrors the US inventory on a smaller scale. This includes M1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks, M2 Bradley Fighter Vehicles, M113 and LAV-III armored personnel carriers and a capable array of artillery that is well suited for desert warfare.
Many of Saudi Arabia's coalition partners who have pledged hard military assets are armed with state-of-the-art fighter aircraft and have been trained by the US in how to use them very effectively. In other words, Saudi Arabia going it alone would be an incredibly formidable force, but this coalition, if it materializes as stated, could provide impressive firepower over the long haul.
So currently the state of affairs in the Middle East goes something like this: The US is fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria in tacit conjunction with Iran to some degree. The US is not directly fighting against, but wants to depose the Assad regime in Syria which is backed by Iran. Iran is fighting via Shiite militia proxy against a pro-US established and Sunni dominated government in Yemen, while Saudi Arabia, our closest Arab ally, along with other Sunni Arab nations, the majority of which are close US allies as well, are now fighting this Iranian backed Shiite militia. Meanwhile, mostly everyone in the region is hoping that Iran is not allowed to reach nuclear breakout capability. The whole situation is a total mess, where murky intentions abound and the real chance of deepening hostilities exists around every bend. Even worse, this all could be just a weak preview of what is to come should Iran move forward with its nuclear program.
As for trying to identify a firm US foreign policy in the region, you can't, unless we are just going to go with the age old and dangerous adage: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com