Saudi Arabia has agreed to a partial ceasefire in its conflict in Yemen. The ceasefire will take effect in four regions of the war-torn country, including the area around San’a, Yemen’s capital city. If the ceasefire is successful, it will be expanded to other parts of Yemen. The somewhat unexpected move by Riyadh comes in response to Houthi forces declaring a unilateral ceasefire last week. Following the 14 September attacks against Saudi oil facilities, Houthi leaders claimed responsibility. This claim was seen as a move to obscure Iran’s role in the attack and was dismissed by Saudi, US, and European military officers and diplomats. Internally, however, the claim caused a rupture between Houthis who want to cool ties with Iran, and those who want to strengthen the relationship. Some Houthi leaders have even gone as far as to warn Riyadh about Iran’s intention to launch follow-up strikes against targets in Saudi territory.
The ceasefire, should it hold, gives Saudi Arabia’s military a period of time to catch its breath. Operations in Yemen have taken a toll on Saudi forces, especially the Royal Saudi Air Force. Given the direction relations with Iran are going in, it’s very possible the RSAF will be needed soon. At present, the air force’s combat readiness is marginal following four years of conflict in Yemen. Saudi air crews, and commanders need to relearn the tenets of modern air warfare in order to be of use in the coming weeks and months. Even if the Saudis decide not to retaliate militarily against Iran, there’s a strong likelihood that Tehran will launch another overt attack against Saudi Arabia at some point in the future.
As Iran’s role in the ARAMCO attacks becomes clear Saudi Arabia finds itself at a critical moment. Iran was responsible for the attacks against Saudi oil facilities over the weekend. Drones and missiles were launched from sites inside of Iran. US sources have confirmed it, and provided more detailed information on the locations of the sites. There is no question.
Now, the Saudis must decide how to respond to a clear act of aggression on the part of Iran. Understandably, Riyadh is moving cautiously. However, given the circumstances of the moment, it may need to pick up the pace and reach a decision sooner than it would like. Iran and Saudi Arabia’s biggest ally are engaged in a high-stakes geopolitical chess match and for better or worse the Saudis are positioned right in the middle. Iran can needle the US by launching attacks against Saudi Arabian targets, either through its Houthi proxy, or on its own, as we are seeing. The United States cannot launch an attack against Iran on Saudi Arabia’s behalf. Especially not now with the UN General Assembly week beginning today. Timing is everything.
This might explain why the Saudis have elected not to respond militarily yet. Retaliating against Iran as the world meets in New York would be a mistake, plain and simple. Riyadh is buying time, claiming it needs to examine the evidence and reach its own conclusions regarding the attack. But if it waits too long to respond, Tehran will be emboldened, and assume it will not be held accountable for its actions. Another attack will be made against the kingdom, inevitably forcing the United States to respond with military action. Where the crisis goes from that point is anyone’s guess.
General Assembly week also provides Saudi Arabia the opportunity to quietly prepare its forces for a military option, should one be ordered. At present, the Royal Saudi Air Force is oriented towards operations in Yemen. Given that the RSAF would be the main force used in a military effort against Iran, it requires time to shift its focus and prepare for operations against Iran. Those preparations could be underway right now, quietly of course. Should this be the case, expect any Saudi military response to occur within hours of the General Assembly drawing to an end on 30 September, 2019.