by Austin Bay
March 31, 2015
A pan-Arab military coalition has begun waging war in Yemen, ostensibly on behalf of deposed Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Is this Arab League-approved "joint army" a credible combat force?
That depends on who emerges as the joint army's central actor and commander.
So far, Saudi Arabia has served as the coalition's most prominent public advocate and actor. The Saudis contend Iran backs the Houthi insurgents who overthrew Hadi. Strong evidence supports their contention.
Yemen's war involves sectarian sympathies. Ayatollah-led Iran, the world's great Shia Muslim power, supports the Shia Houthi movement. Saudi Arabia's Wahabi-sect leaders have concluded that Iran intends to use a Houthi-infested Yemen to harass and destabilize their Sunni kingdom.
In concept, Iran's Yemen proxies would attack the Saudis in somewhat the same way Tehran uses its Lebanon-based Hezbollah proxies to harass and distract Israel. The Arabian Peninsula, rife with tribal factions, gives the Iranians numerous volatile human targets to rile and exploit. Fracturing these often delicate tribal political arrangements would be a major step toward achieving a beloved Iranian goal: toppling the Saud family regime.
Israel, a nation state rather than tribal confederation, presents Iran's ayatollahs with a much harder and more ferocious target. Nation states vary in strength, but the Israeli nation state is a high-technology, highly trained warrior nation state. Iran needs nuclear weapons to destroy the Israeli nation state. Unfortunately, ayatollah Iran's nuclear weapons quest, thanks to feckless western governments, including the current one in Washington, appears to be on the verge of succeeding.
The sectarian analysis of Iranian ambitions stresses Shia regional hegemony as Tehran's goal. It's there, but don't buy it as a sufficient answer. A "golden age" myth of Aryan divine and ethnic right to rule, circa Persian Empire 500 BC, seduces Tehran's ayatollahs. Yes, Aryan. Iran is "Aryanistan." If you didn't know that, well, now you do. Arabs are Semitic peoples. So are Jews. If you didn't know this ethnic dimension is in play, well, it is.
Now to the pan-Arab military force.
Money talks, and the Saudis have the bankroll. The Saudis also have an air force (flying U.S.-made jets) capable of conducting a credible air campaign. On March 26, the coalition's Operation Resolute Storm began with air strikes against various Houthi targets. The question is how long can they keep it up before logistic and maintenance deficiencies emerge? They can hire private contractors to provide these services.
At the moment, naval operations are secondary, though that could change if the Iranian-Houthi coalition takes complete control. Yemen's Southwestern edge borders the strait connecting the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. However, coalition naval operations indicate the centrality of the Arab world's strongest nation state: Egypt. Egypt's Al-Ahram reported that Egyptian warships shelled Houthi fighters advancing on the Yemeni port of Aden. Egyptian officials did not comment, on the record.
Ground operations will determine Yemen's winner, and Egypt's large and comparatively capable army is the pan-Arab coalition's decisive force.
Bankrolls matter, but the quality of generals, captains, sergeants and privates matters as well. At times their quality matters more than cash. Egypt and Jordan both have fair-to-good military reputations. Every regime can field a small elite force, but the Egyptian and Jordanian armies field larger units (brigades) with comparatively higher training standards than other Arab states. Last year, Egyptian forces conducted some cursory training exercises with countries now participating in the coalition, so that coalition's formation may not be as sudden as the headlines suggest. Egyptian advisers are reportedly in Saudi Arabia, on both the Iraq and Yemen borders.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi adds credibility to the coalition. Al-Sisi has the military skills. He also understands the ideological component. He has shaped his own country's fight as one against militant Islam, whether Sunni or Shiite. If al-Sisi has the final decision in the pan-Arab army's operations against Iranian proxies and -- potentially -- Iran itself, there is a very good chance it will prevail. If the Arab force fails? The Israelis won't.