When a country commits the cream of its youth and the very best it has to offer to war, it is the most serious policy decision that can be undertaken by the leaders of that nation. The German thinker Carl von Clausewitz famously stated: “War is regarded as nothing but the continuation of state policy through other means.” This is the case for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners in Yemen.
The Kingdom made the decision to intervene in its neighbor based on a combination of factors, chiefly a direct attempt by a foreign government to place a hostile entity directly on its border, the need to prevent the deployment of lethal weaponry against Saudi military personnel and civilians by said entity, and to address security concerns threatening international shipping lanes in the Red Sea as a result of these maneuvers.
This is the second time Iran has tried to directly intervene in the affairs of a sovereign country which shares a border with Saudi Arabia. The first was in 2011 in Bahrain, where an internationally recognized government faced internal security threats directly sponsored by Tehran. Had they been successful, a threat on the opposite end of a causeway providing direct access to the Kingdom would suddenly have become very real. Subsequently, the Peninsula Shield Force, consisting of 800 soldiers from the UAE and 1,200 commanded by Riyadh, eliminated the threat.
Iran has referred to Bahrain as its “fourteenth province,” a curious position for one country to take over another, effectively not even recognizing its sovereignty. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not use fifth columns and terrorist proxies to spread its influence throughout the region. Iran does, and it has used this nefarious model in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Yemen was just the latest installment in a familiar pattern, something that, for Riyadh and the Gulf Cooperation Council, was intolerable.
The justification for removing the threat was provided by the rocket and missile attacks coming from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. Najran suffered large-scale artillery fire which caused civilian casualties, and the southern border village of Al-Tuwal was also targeted. Scud missiles were aimed toward the city of Khamis Mushayt, but were destroyed en route. Long-range ballistics targeted cities as far north as Taif. Makkah itself came under attack when scud missiles were fired by the Houthis from Saada, their base of operations.
These weapons were sent from Iran, as verified by the seizing of ships at sea containing cargoes while in transit to Yemeni ports. Their purpose was to target Saudi cities and civilians inside the Kingdom. Cease-fire attempts, meanwhile, proved futile, with one agreement violated some 180 times in less than 24 hours by the militias.
Would the US tolerate hostility from, say, Mexico, if it harbored, sponsored and armed terrorists firing short, medium and long-range missiles into San Diego, Phoenix and Albuquerque along its southwest border? Would it be casually indifferent to Mexico City allowing lethal weapons to be imported into its domain? No, it would not, and neither would any other country that took the lives and well-being of its citizens seriously. Had Yemen not been addressed, the strategic threat to the Kingdom would not only had been considerable, but would have continued to grow.
There are eight critical chokepoints for the transit of oil in the global marketplace, of which one is at Bab Al-Mandeb in Yemen. This area sees some 3.8 million barrels per day pass through it. At its narrowest point it is only 18 miles wide, connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and beyond to the Indian Ocean. Should this be closed off, the only alternative route would force tankers to have to travel around the southern tip of Africa. Rerouting oil around the Cape of Good Hope would massively increase costs and would also add some 2,700 miles of transit from the Kingdom to the US.
The vast majority of shipping traffic moving south from the Suez canal must pass through Bab Al-Mandeb, so any closure would have severe repercussions for the region and the global economy. Suez alone represents roughly 8 percent of global sea-borne trade, and Bab Al-Mandeb is the door that opens to Asia. On March 31, 2015, the Houthis took control of a key Yemeni military base very close to this choke point. In October 2016, a UAE civilian ship carrying supplies and aid was attacked by Houthis with weapons provided by Iran. Later that month, they fired two missiles targeting a US Navy destroyer operating off the coast of Yemen. This area has since been retaken, but lethal surface-to-ship armaments provided by Iran to the militias could still threaten coalition naval units.
Today we can say that Aden, Zinjibar, Lahij, Al-Houta and Mukalla have all been recaptured, and coalition forces are at the very gates of the capital Sanaa. A strategic foothold has been established inside Saada, the home of the Houthis, and their base for mounting their attacks.
Faisal Al-Shammeri is a political analyst. Twitter: @Mr_Alshammeri