Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis have claimed a spectacular attack on Saudi Arabian forces raising more questions about the Saudi appetite for war.
Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi alliance claims that they dismantled three Saud-led coalition brigades in the country last week, imprisoning some 2,000 fighters and killing or wounding 500 ‘soldiers’.
While the Houthi claims have not been independently verified, experts believe that if the claims are true, the tide of the war is turning towards the Iran-backed tribal alliance.
Riyadh has neither denied nor confirmed the Houthi claims.
“If they were able to inflict these kind of attacks to Saudi-led coalition, that would be a big blow [to Saudis],” said Mithat Rende, Turkey’s former ambassador to Qatar, who was the country’s permanent representative for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
But Rende was cautious about Houthi claims thinking that this might be part of a campaign of information warfare against the Saudi-led coalition after Riyadh’s biggest oil facilities in the kingdom were recently struck by missiles and/or drones, disrupting the global oil supply for several days.
While the Saudis and their American backers blamed Iran for the attacks on Aramco, Yemen’s Houthis claimed responsibility right after the shocking attacks. Iran denied any direct involvement in the attacks.
As a result, US President Donald Trump, who is facing an election, could make the choice that his administration cannot handle another crisis right before the upcoming elections and instead seek to meet the Houthis at the negotiating table, Rende viewed.
“If the Houthis can damage Saudis as much as they claimed, it could be a game-changer [for the future of the Yemen conflict],” Rende said.
Saudis in the hot seat
While it’s clear who the Houthis and their Iranian backers are, there are no definite answers for who makes up the Saudi-led coalition rank and file.
The Saudis are not conducting their Yemen fight with their own troops, Rende said. They will use mercenaries and Sunni Yemenis to do their fight in Yemen, according to Rende.
“But even the political situation regarding Sunni Yemenis is complicated because Sunni Yemenis are divided into two camps,” Rende said.
The division also led to a split between the Saudis and the UAE, which supports the South Yemen faction based in Aden, the country’s important port city. The two groups recently clashed with each other ending in multiple casualties.
When you look at who the Houthis are, “you will see Zaidis in their ancestry” said Rende. Zaidis, who have defended a moderate Shia version of Islam, are descended from Zaid, one of the great sons of Prophet Mohammed.
“Back in 900s, the Zaidis established two great states, one is located in Tabaristan in south Caspian region and another is located in Yemen,” Rende said.
“Despite the fact that nobody wants to talk about, the Zaidis or Houthis had led Yemen until 1962. It’s true that in the past the Ottomans defeated them, subduing their leadership, but they always come up with an imam [who would continue to fight for their cause],” Rende said.
In the face of the country’s complicated history, Rende sees no possibility that the Houthi leadership could be uprooted from Yemen.
“Even the Ottomans could not uproot them. The Saudis could never ever uproot them,” Rende concluded.