If you listen to Tehran, you will hear harsh criticism aimed at Riyadh for launching a war on Yemen and if you listen to Riyadh, you will hear similar criticism regarding the military involvement of Iran in Syria. There are quite a few similarities and some major differences in both cases.
The biggest similarities can be found in the circumstances surrounding the wars: Both Tehran and Riyadh are supporting governments in one war and rebels in another and both wars are, in many ways, proxy wars in which Tehran and Riyadh are really trying to weaken each other. The motives of Tehran and Riyadh are mainly sectarian in nature and are the result of the regional conflict surrounding the strained relations between the two countries.
The biggest differences between the two wars are the number of civilian casualties (400,000 in Syria compared to 9,000 in Yemen), the nature of the of the coalitions used by both sides (the three-state “axis of resistance” in Syria and the ten-state coalition in Yemen) and the differences in the definition of the involvement (Tehran continues to claim it is in Syria on a purely advisory status while Riyadh openly admits to waging a war against the Houthi rebels). Furthermore, Tehran’s agenda is clearly focused on “Exporting the Revolution” to Syria, Yemen an dto whichever country is willing to accept it while Saudi Arabia is working hard to stop Tehran from achieving this goal.
The bottom line remains that the involvement of Tehran and Riyadh in both wars are leading to hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties in what are basically proxy wars in a larger power play by both countries in the region.
Let’s start with the similarities:
- Both local governments are contested locally and are suffering from civil wars: Bashar al-Assad’s inheritance of his title and power from his father without an election resulted in a civil war in Syria in 2011 while Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi had to flee Yemen in 2015 following a civil war instigated by Houthi rebels.
- Tehran and Riyadh were invited by the governments of these countries to help fight the civil wars: Syrian president Bashar al-Assad requested the help of Tehran to fight his civil war while Yemenite president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi requested the help of Riyadh to return to power after being ousted by Houthi rebels in a civil war.
- Tehran and Riyadh support the rebels in each country: Tehran supports the Houthi rebels to overthrow the Yemenite government while Riyadh supports many Syrian rebels to fight Assad.
- Tehran and Riyadh blame each other’s support of rebels as an excuse to wage a proxy war: Tehran used Riyadh’s support of the Syrian rebels and ISIS to support Assad in his civil war while Riyadh justified its war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen because Tehran helped the Houthi rebels to overthrow the Yemenite government.
- Both wars are tainted by sectarian and religious overtones: Shiite Tehran supports Assad who is an Alawite, a religious minority in Syria closely related to Shiism, and supports the Houthi rebels who are Shiites while Riyadh supports Sunni Syrian rebels who are a majority in Syria and the Sunni Yemenite government.
- Both wars serve as proxy wars between Tehran and Riyadh: The wars in Syria and in Yemen serve as proxy battle fields for the intense rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh which has always been a rumbling undertone in the region but has increased dramatically following the negotiations and the signing of the JCPoA.
- In both wars, the majority of the victims are civilians: As in most wars in the last few decades, the battlefields are within cities and neighborhoods and civilians find themselves in the frontline with soldiers leading to the indiscriminate victimization of civilians.
- In both cases, Tehran and Riyadh have warned each other to not interfere: Tehran has warned Riyadh to stay out of Syria and Riyadh has warned Tehran to stay out of Yemen but in reality, both Tehran and Riyadh continue to support the rebels in each country.
- Both Tehran and Riyadh blame each other for supporting terrorism and are self-acclaimed champions against terrorism: Tehran blames Riyadh for supporting Sunni/Tafkiri/Wahabbist terror and claims that it is the biggest champion against terrorism while Riyadh blames Tehran’s support and use of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels while claiming to lead a 34-state coalition against terror.
- The peace processes in both wars are hampered by Tehran and Riyadh: International efforts to bring peace to Syria and to Yemen have been unsuccessful so far largely due to the preconditions which Tehran and Riyadh are demanding, preconditions which make any prospect of peace deplorably insignificant.
Now some of the differences:
- The official nature of the support of Tehran and Riyadh is different: Tehran continues to claim that its role in Syria is only “advisory” which is partly true judging from the frequent visits of Qods chief Qassem Suleimani but it also finances Assad’s war to the tune of $10 billion a year, supplies Assad’s forces with weapons, deploys its proxy Hezbollah to fight for Assad and has sent its own IRGC and Afghan troops to fight in Syria as well. The Saudis, on the other hand, do not even try to hide the military nature of their war in Yemen. Tehran’s insistence on the advisory nature of its involvement in Syria becomes even more ludicrous as the number of Iranian casualties in Syria rises (official estimates are at 600 for now).
- The number of civilian casualties in Yemen is only 2% compared to Syria: To date, the number of civilian casualties in Yemen is estimated at roughly 9,000 people while the number of civilian casualties in Syria is estimated to be 400,000. Even if you factor in the length of the war, the civilian casualty rate is Syria is ten times larger than in Yemen. This fact is not relevant to the families and friends of the victims but it does need to be factored into the amount of blood on the hands of Tehran and Riyadh.
- The three-state “axis of resistance” vs. the 10-state “coalition”: Tehran remains very possessive of its influence in Syria and has warned all countries to stay away, all countries except for Russia of course. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand opted for a wide coalition of Arab states. The difference between both cases is strategically significant: In Syria, Tehran is trying to maintain its power over Assad while strengthening its ties with Moscow. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand wants to make it clear to the world, and specially to Iran, that it has the backing of the Arab world.