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Misreading the Middle East
Saudi Troops Amass Along Yemeni Border

Saudi Arabia has started massing troops along its border with Yemen, as the Houthi forces continue their rapid advance towards the southern port of Aden. Meanwhile, Western-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has fled Aden with Saudi help. The WSJ reports:

Over the past week, the Houthis advanced on the south of the country and closed in Wednesday on Aden. Yemen’s ousted dictator,Ali Abdullah Saleh, has aligned himself with the Houthis against Mr. Hadi and forces loyal to the Mr. Saleh have aided the group’s advance. […]

The Houthi advance has raised the prospect of military intervention by Yemen’s northern neighbor Saudi Arabia, Mr. Hadi’s most important ally. U.S. officials said Wednesday that they had detected a buildup of Saudi military forces near the border with Yemen.

The Houthis are believed to be backed Shiite Iran, Saudi Arabia’s rival for power and influence in the Middle East.

The situation on the ground is worsening by the day. And Riyadh, faced with an Iranian-backed uprising next door, fears a spillover into its oil-rich Eastern Province, home to a large Shi’a population.

With a civil war brewing, Saudi Arabia gathering its troops, and the U.S. pulling out its special forces and rolling up anti-terror efforts that the President once touted, Yemen is quickly becoming yet another black mark on the Administration’s already spotty foreign policy record.

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  • solstice

    “Yemen is quickly becoming yet another black mark on the Administration’s already spotty foreign policy record.”

    I’m no fan of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, but purely from the perspective of American interests, why are the events in Yemen a bad thing? Both the Houthi Shiites and their Sunni Muslim opponents are reactionary, pro-Shari’a, and deeply hostile to the United States and Israel. So if they bleed each other white, it would be a gain rather than a loss for the United States.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Oh, lets see….a pro-Iranian group gaining control of a key port controlling the entrance/exit of the Red Sea? What could possibly go wrong?

      • solstice

        The Sunnis who are fighting them are so much more palatable, aren’t they?

        • f1b0nacc1

          More palatable than the Iranians, certainly yes. No sane person prefers EITHER of these groups, but the truth of the matter is that that the Iranians are far, far more of a problem than the Sunnis, who are considerably less capable at empire-building. Pretending that we can just let them fight it out amongst themselves and everything will turn out happily is a dangerous bit of wishful thinking. One side WILL win, and hoping that will happen at the end of a long and debilitating struggle might sound great, but it is only one (and not a likely one) scenario, the others are far less favorable.

          • solstice

            The Iranians and their allies are far more palatable than ISIS and al-Qaeda-type Sunnis who have carried out almost all of the jihad terror attacks on Western targets and who (as in Syria) constitute the strongest and most disciplined fighting forces against the Shiites? Iran is not an empire and is far less powerful than you are suggesting. It exerts significant influence in areas with large Shiite populations but it is overwhelmingly despised and rejected in the larger Muslim world. It also suffers from severe internal problems and weaknesses (a stagnant economy, endemic corruption, a birthrate implosion, rampant drug abuse and prostitution etc.). Our so-called Sunni allies in the Gulf have been harming American interests for decades by funding and propagating fundamentalist, Salafi ideology in Sunni Muslim communities throughout the world. Letting the Yemeni warring factions fight it out does not mean that things will turn out happily. Yemen is a hopeless cause and has been for a long time. It merely means that our enemies’ guns will mainly be pointed at each other rather than at the United States and its allies. My main problem with the foreign policy analysis on this website is its regular claim that the United States has the power to prevent or fix the crises that erupt in this region. It does not. This kind of thinking is delusional and arrogant.

          • f1b0nacc1

            You seem to be working under the mistaken assumption that I am suggesting that the US intervene against the Houthis. I am not doing so (they are repellant), but at the same time, to suggest that the administration’s policy in Yemen (which has been to ignore the growing Shia insurgency, actively aided and abetted by Iran) has been anything other than a complete debacle (which was the point of the article) is silly. Equally foolish is to argue that ISIS, vile and barbaric as they might be, is anything remotely as dangerous as Iran reveals a gross ignorance about the region. Iran certainly has its weaknesses, but they have the largest and most effective military in the region, are aggressively developing nuclear weapons, and have made it abundantly clear that they harbor designs on most of their neighbors. ISIS, on the other hand, while aggressive and nasty, possesses very little in the way of an economy, economic base, in fact anything that would fuel long term expansionism in the region. Like it or not, when comparing the Shia (really Persian revanchist) threat in the region with that of the Sunnis, it is fairly clear who is the more immediate problem. One need not support EITHER side in order to recognize that one side is a bigger issue than the other. Giving Iran the option of developing a foothold which could be used to interrupt trade on the Red Sea (i.e. the Suez Canal) is dangerously irresponsible, not for the region, but for our own interests.
            Regarding American arrogance, I might suggest that rather than ‘prevent or fix the crises’ in the region, a simpler approach is to identify the problems and neutralize them. Our host here (WRM) seems like a good man, but I question his wisdom when it comes to taking steps to do more than ameliorate the problems. I am utterly uninterested in ‘fixing’ the problems in the Middle East. I felt differently in the past, but experience has demonstrated quite conclusively that the inhabitants don’t want fixes, they want their own delusions. A better strategy seems to be ‘rubble don’t make trouble’, i.e. merciless punishment for aggression, and proactive destruction of the means for such aggression, but non-interventionism otherwise. We have an ally in the region (Israel) that deserves our support, but the rest are little more than a group of surly neutrals. We would be wiser to treat them that way, and make it clear that we are willing to do business with them, but only on the basis of the primacy of our national interests, and that a violation of that principle on their part will have distinctly negative consequences for them. In a practical sense, this means that they are welcome to kill each other off, but we reserve the right to take sides when our interests are threatened.

          • solstice

            I did not claim that you were calling for US intervention against the Houthis–I was merely refuting your statement that I claimed that letting the warring Yemeni factions fight it out would result in a happy ending. You argue that the Administration’s neglect of the Houthi insurgency is what led to the current situation in Yemen. What do you suggest the Administration should have done to prevent these events from transpiring? Carry out drone strikes and special operations raids on the Houthis in addition to AQAP? The Administration was providing Yemeni government forces with training and large amounts of material assistance and they were still unable to take on the Houthis. That is because the Yemeni regime was composed of corrupt thugs who did not control much territory beyond Sanaa. The United States also poured billions of dollars into training and equipping the Iraqi army and Iraqi Sunni tribes with the goal of stabilizing that country and look how that turned out. We have far less ability to influence events in this region than we think.

            Iran’s influence in the region is highly limited mainly because it is overwhelmingly despised and rejected in the Sunni Muslim world. It cannot exert influence beyond its Shiite proxies in the region, who are small in number compared to the Sunni population. I agree that its nuclear program is a major problem that needs to be dealt with, but beyond that, the threat that it poses is minor. It’s conventional army is third-rate and not even close to being capable of carrying out “long-term expansionism in the region.”

            I doubt that the Houthis are capable of disrupting oil shipments in the Red Sea. Even if they do this at some point in the future, the economic harm would be temporary and moderate. U.S and Saudi forces would be more than capable of restoring ship movement and dealing with the problem. You are ignoring the benefits of a full-blown Sunni-Shiite sectarian war to U.S. national security. Both sides would incur massive losses in blood and treasure as they tear each other’s guts out. They would also be preoccupied with fighting each other rather than fighting the West. From the point of view of U.S. interests, how is this a bad thing?

          • f1b0nacc1

            You suggest that a full blown Sunni-Shiite war will be beneficial to American security. This makes several very dubious assumptions:
            1) Nobody escalates that war over time
            2) No third parties (i.e. the US, Israel, etc.) are drawn into that war
            3) Neither side in that war acquires weapons/capabilities (nukes, truly dangerous cyber weapons, etc.) that have an impact outside of the combatants themselves
            4) Neither side wins
            Unfortunately pretty much all of those things are quite likely to happen, or in fact are happening already. If this was just simply a scrap between some inbred tribes, I wouldn’t disagree with your assertions (they don’t really rise to the level of analysis), but we are talking about large states that sit on top of critical resources that most of the world’s economy (fortunately not that of the US) depends upon. Eventually those outside forces will be compelled to involve themselves one way or the other.
            American policy in Yemen has been a disaster, essentially ignoring the Houthi threat and then pointedly refusing to take any steps against it. The central government is corrupt and unpopular…wow…that is a unique situation in the middle east! The threats to that government could have been blunted with a few drone strikes (not as if there weren’t any in the area, and not as if the Saudis, the real power in the area wasn’t pleading for us to do just that) while pressure (including veiled threats) couldn’t have been used against the existing regime. Simply ignoring it, which is what we did (our involvement there was running our own operations and our forces were explicitly forbidden to interfere in local affairs) wasn’t going to solve anything and only made matters worse in the long run.
            You blithely wave off the Iranian threat in the area, ignoring that they are doing quite a nice job of stirring the pot at the moment, and don’t seem to be collapsing anytime soon. Is this the same sort of predictive capacity that led you to suggest two days ago that the Saudis wouldn’t be sending troops to Yemen?

          • solstice

            I did not say that the Yemeni regime was “corrupt and unpopular”–I said that it was corrupt and weak and barely controlled any territory outside of Sanaa. Do you always put words in the mouths of people you debate? A few US drone strikes would have blunted the Houthi advance? Really? The United States has launched hundreds if not thousands of airstrikes on ISIS in Iraq and Syria and it still controls a landmass larger than the size of Great Britain. You are vastly underestimating the amount of force it would take to dislodge this group.

            The Saudis have not launched a ground invasion of Yemen. If they do, I will admit that I was wrong (and I did acknowledge that I could be wrong). A large-scale Saudi ground invasion would certainly take heavy casualties and is not guaranteed to succeed. The last time the Saudis launched a ground incursion in 2009 to take on the Houthis, they took heavy casualties and withdrew in humiliation. If you were a Saudi or Egyptian soldier, how willing would you be to fight and die for Yemen? A ground invasion would entail mediocre and poorly-motivated soldiers facing off against a battle-hardened, well-armed enemy fighting on its own territory.

  • Corlyss

    Saudi Troops Amass Along Yemeni Border
    Well, that should be more amusing than March Madness. Wish I had the popcorn concession.

  • solstice

    I could be wrong, but I highly doubt that Saudi Arabia will send ground forces to Yemen to take on the Houthis. The Saudis are cowards who always seek get others (namely, the United States) to fight their own wars and they would certainly take heavy casualties at the hands of heavily armed, battle-hardened, and highly motivated Houthi fighters who know their territory well. And they wouldn’t want to sacrifice large amounts of blood and treasure for an irredeemably hopeless and failed basket-case like Yemen. Saudi Arabia will likely continue supporting the Yemeni Sunni population with arms and funding and use its own troops to quell internal unrest if its domestic Shiite population becomes unruly.

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