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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Is Yemen, 2015, a renewal of the Battle of Karbala, 680 AD?

Links: A. Saudi military on Yemeni border.
           B. Is conflict in Yemen a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

No need to get out your history books or almanacs, unless you really want to.  The Battle of Karbala was fought in central Iraq in 680 AD, with most religious scholars agreeing that the
violent clash went a long way to settling the question of The Prophet Mohammed's succession.  This is important because the two opponents came to represent the Sunni and Shia elements within Islam.  Until recently, the two groups seemed to co-exist within an awkward kind of avoidance, although on a few occasions, the international community has been given a glimpse of the emotions involved in the Sunni-Shia schism.  Following the first Gulf War, once it became apparent that President George H. Bush was not going to force Saddam Hussein from power, Saddam fired-up what was left of his war machine and butchered thousands of Shia in areas south of Iraq.  Saddam was legitimately concerned that the "Marsh Arabs", as these particular Shia were called, were rising up to possibly threaten his hold on power.  This was the moment in life that I went over to an Encyclopedia and educated myself on the Sunni and the Shia.  Having spent time in Iraq within the last decade, I became familiar with the two groups and the antagonism that basically defines their relationship.  Simply put, since Karbala in 680 AD, the Shia have been looking for a little respect.  For the most part, the Sunni are considered better educated, more intelligent, and wealthier.  The Shia are more the "manual laborers and farmers" of Islam, and they have a tendency to carry a chip on their shoulder as big as Manhattan.

In the last fifty years, the Shia, who are the majority in only two countries (Lebanon being a plurality, folks), have fought fiercely for causes that they support.  Following the revolution in Iran in 1979-1980, which deposed the Pahlavi Dynasty, the Shia-led government of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini threw everything but the kitchen sink at Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War.  Since then, the Shia seem to be more comfortable standing up for their interests.  In Iraq in 2005, the Shia were quick to create militias to defend Shia communities and Holy Sites, when it became apparent that certain anti-U.S. groups were going to incite various causes to violence.  The Iranians were more than happy to provide training and equipment to these militias, who are even more powerful and active today than they were during the insurgency.  The Iranian government, and the Guardian Council in Qom, must be pleased by the expression of free will exhibited by the Shia Houthis of Yemen.  The Houthis have been around for sometime, and to their credit, they tried a number of non-violent approaches to the former government over the years, in an attempt to end discrimination against the Houthi community.  Eventually they were compelled to resort to violence, and the Yemeni government, already under siege from Al-Qaeda, was a bit of an easy target.  Today, as April passes us by, The Houthis are in control of the capital city of Sana, and are strategically positioned to move against Yemen's second city (and port/economic lifeline), Aden.  Interestingly enough, just to the east of Aden lies a reasonably large area which is controlled by (Sunni) Al-Qaeda.  And just when things couldn't get any more confusing, the Royal Saudi Arabian Air Force, which continues to recognize the legitimacy of the recently removed Yemeni government, has started bombing Houthi forces. 

Why do the Saudis care if the Houthis run the table in Yemen?  Who knows, they may do a better job than the last few thugs that sat in Sana.  Actually, the answer is simple: the Saudis cannot continence a Shia government on the Arabian Peninsula (Bahrain is an island, so it doesn't count), and certainly not with a common border.  Publicly, the Saudis claim that they are only trying to restore peace and the democratically elected Yemeni government.  The truth is, the Saudis and the Iranians can't stand each other, and the Houthis have been heavily supported by Iran since the beginning.  Mark my word, the Saudis will do whatever is necessarily to guarantee that the Iranians do not have a presence on the Arabian Peninsula.  Just as I was starting this post, I noticed a news report come across the wire (yes, folks...I'm so cool and important that I have one of those "news wires") that Iranian warships were headed for Yemen.  Now that would be an
escalation along the lines of Kennedy and Khrushchev back in 1962.  Then, as I was looking for an additional article, I came across The Times Of Israel piece titled, "Iran sends battleships to Yemen amid standoff with Saudis".  I had to take a break, I was laughing so hard.  A journalist actually WROTE that header, and then added a photo of a warship the size of a shrimp boat flying the Iranian flag!  I guess "battleships" ain't what they used to be.  Regardless of my welcome moment of humor, be assured that the Iranian navy only has a handful of ships that are capable of sailing as far as Yemen.  The people of Aden need not lose any sleep; I can categorically guarantee that tomorrow morning when they wake up and look in the direction of the Indian Ocean, they will not see Iranian battleships on the horizon.

Which brings me to my next point of interest.  This is something my friend Jennifer and I have been discussing for a few weeks now.  Occasionally the media will release a story that mentions "Saudi ground forces", or "Saudi armor being moved to the Yemeni border".  For the moment, this is the most important issue that comes to my mind.  The Saudis have committed themselves to some level of conflict by conducting air operations against Houthi targets in Sana and other strategic locations.  If the Houthis were to go head-to-head against the Saudi military, the result would be beyond ugly.  It would be a monumental mismatch.  As far as I know, what was the Yemeni Army is still making noise in and around Aden (Houthis on one side, Al-Qaeda on the hell of a spot to be in).  If so, then in all likelihood the Houthis have not taken possession of the most modern and useful military vehicles and equipment.  So we are talking about Abrams tanks, state-of-the-art Artillery (trained in the Iraq war), fully-equipped infantry and special forces, support from helicopter gunships and guided missiles, etc., on one side, and the Houthis on the other.  A few months back I commented that I had seen a video of the Houthis storming some government building in Sana, and actually saw a guy on a camel, with a musket. Holy Lawrence of Arabia, folks.  Well, at least, historically, we are on the right continent.

The Saudis should make short work of the Houthis, and then what?  Clean out Al-Qaeda from eastern Yemen?  Now here is the potential complication that I have been discussing with Jennifer.  Everyone keeps talking about a Saudi ground invasion as if its a simple operation.  No way.  The Saudi armor is normally home-based in the north of the country and around Riyadh (I'm sure some units are also deployed in the Mecca/Medina/Jeddah triangle).  Would the Saudis transport their armor and artillery down west, to the coast, then down the coast road to Yemen?  Or is there another route that skirts the Rub al-Khali?  Whatever the case, for Saudi Arabia to relocate a military force large enough to finish the job at hand (the destruction of the Houthis), it would involve the mobilization of multiple divisions.  All of this activity should be visible for the world to watch on satellite.  I have yet to hear any media announce that a full-scale Saudi military build-up is taking place near Najran or Abu Arish.  So if it hasn't been noted, then how can it be taking place?  Now I'm taking a big chance with this post, because I'm writing it four days before it will see the light of day.  Many things can happen since then which would resolve the issues I have pointed out.  But as things stand today, from the perspective of this armchair general, I do not believe Saudi Arabia is preparing a full-out ground invasion of Yemen.     

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