US Military Strikes Radar Sites in Yemen Involved in Recent Missile Launches Threatening USS Mason
WASHINGTON (NNS) — The following is a statement released Oct. 12 by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook on U.S. military strikes against radar sites in Yemen:
“Early this morning local time, the U.S. military struck three radar sites in Houthi-controlled territory on Yemen’s Red Sea coast. Initial assessments show the sites were destroyed. The strikes–authorized by President Obama at the recommendation of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford–targeted radar sites involved in the recent missile launches threatening USS Mason and other vessels operating in international waters in the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandeb. These limited self-defense strikes were conducted to protect our personnel, our ships and our freedom of navigation in this important maritime passageway. The United States will respond to any further threat to our ships and commercial traffic, as appropriate, and will continue to maintain our freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandeb and elsewhere around the world.”
By Paul R. Pillar
We are seeing today in Yemen a demonstration of how easily a supposedly limited U.S. involvement in an armed conflict becomes less limited, and how such involvement creates new enemies of the United States.
The deleterious entanglement of the United States in civil war in Yemen was already a major problem even before the events of the past week. The United States has associated itself with, and been providing indirect support to, the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. That intervention, especially through largely indiscriminate aerial bombardment, has been responsible for most of the severe civilian suffering in Yemen.
Since the Saudi air assault began last year, civilian casualties have been averaging 13 per day. Total civilian deaths in the war are approaching 4,000, with many more injured and still more homeless. The Saudi role in causing most of this damage and the U.S. role in facilitating it certainly undercut any criticism by those governments of Russia’s role in causing civilian suffering in Syria.
The newest step in the U.S. entanglement in Yemen is the direct application of U.S. firepower. On Thursday the United States fired cruise missiles at radar installations in territory controlled by the Yemeni rebels known as Houthis. The missile strikes were in response to a couple of unsuccessful firings from that territory of missiles evidently aimed at a U.S. warship.
The leadership of the Houthi movement denies involvement in the targeting of the U.S. ship. Whether or not there is any validity to that denial, the result is the same: U.S. involvement in the Yemeni civil war has escalated. That involvement previously consisted of behind-the-scenes but nonetheless obvious support to the Saudi offensive. Now it includes the U.S. Navy directly firing its weapons at Yemeni targets.
The Logic of War
Several aspects of the logic of war often cause external intervention to escalate beyond what was originally intended or desired. One involves making additional effort to achieve objectives that were declared at the time of the original intervention but have still not been achieved. Another involves responses to escalation on the other side that in turn was a response to the original intervention.
Yet another, very much in play in this week’s events, involves the desire to protect and defend one’s own forces. The Pentagon described this week’s cruise missile strikes as retaliation necessary to protect U.S. vessels and their crews that were legitimately operating in the waterways of the Bab el Mandeb strait and the Red Sea. That is a valid explanation, but it carries little weight with Yemenis who simply see the United States firing deadly weapons at their nation.
The Pentagon said nothing about human casualties at the receiving end of the cruise missile strikes, but as Micah Zenko notes, the last time that the United States fired cruise missiles at a target in Yemen (in 2009), 41 civilians were killed.
The Houthi advances during the past couple of years are only part of a long and complicated story of armed strife in Yemen, the poorest of Middle Eastern countries. The issues and lines of conflict have involved contests for resources among different regions and tribes.
There also has been a sectarian dimension to the internal warfare: the Houthis are champions of Zaidi Shias, a large minority in a country with a Sunni majority. The identities of the contenders in the current round of civil warfare do not give any reason for the United States to be more against the side of the Houthis than for them.
The Houthis are allied with longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was America’s man in Sana before he stepped down in 2012, amid popular protests and an assassination attempt that left him severely injured. The most threatening anti-U.S. element in Yemen has been Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is on the Sunni side of the sectarian divide; the Houthis are among the staunchest opponents of AQAP.
In short, the United States did not previously — before getting involved in this war — have an enemy in the Houthis. Now, as a result of getting involved in the war, it does.
The usually cited rationale for opposing the Houthis is a relationship with Iran. The Iranians evidently have supplied the Houthis with some munitions, although most of the Houthis’ arms have come from within gun-saturated Yemen itself. That’s about as far as the relationship goes, beyond the partial religious affinity that may have been one of the motives for Iran giving some aid.
The Houthis are not proxies of Iran. When they seized the capital city of Sana it reportedly was against the advice of Iran — which in that respect was acting as a force for restraint, not destabilization. In any event, whatever aid Iran may have given the Houthis is dwarfed in size and destructive impact by the direct Saudi armed intervention.
What is being demonstrated in Yemen, besides being a serious problem in its own right, carries important lessons for policy toward internal conflict and external interventions in other places, such as Syria. One lesson is that supposedly limited interventions are likely — for reasons that include the need to protect one’s own service members — to become much less limited. (This dimension is routinely overlooked in discussions of establishing a no-fly zone or “safe zone” in Syria.)
Another lesson is that U.S. military interventions in this region have created more adversaries of the United States than they have eliminated.
Yet another lesson concerns the folly of defining Middle Eastern politics in terms of some grand alignment of opposing forces and then getting directly involved in any conflict that can be construed as being a clash of such forces. Even if the Yemeni civil war were a front in some kind of Iranian-led regional offensive — and as noted above, it isn’t — getting dragged into that war is less likely to serve U.S. interests than Iranian ones.
Letting its regional rival Saudi Arabia bleed in the quagmire that the Saudi intervention has produced may have been another motive for whatever aid Iran has given the Houthis. There certainly is no advantage for the United States in being involved as well.
What if the United States went to war and nobody here even noticed? The question is absurd, isn’t it? And yet, this almost perfectly describes what actually happened this past week.
While many Americans, myself included, were all hypnotized by the bizarre spectacle of the Republican nominee for president, a US navy destroyer fired a barrage of cruise missiles at three radar sites controlled by the rebel Houthi movement in Yemen. This attack marked the first time the US has fought the rebels directly in Yemen’s devastating civil war.
The Trump show has managed to bump all serious and necessary policy debates not just off the table but out of the room
The cruise missile salvo ramps up the already significant US military involvement in deeply divided and desperately poor Yemen. While it’s true that the US has launched drone strikes on al-Qaida targets in Yemen for years, sometimes killing civilians and even US citizens, this particular military engagement has the potential to drag the US straight into a protracted and escalating conflict. And, as everyone knows, America has an uncanny ability to enter protracted and escalating military conflicts.
Yet we’ve heard absolutely nothing about this from our presidential candidates.
If we investigated, we would find that the Pentagon justified this attack as retaliation. Last week, missiles were fired on two separate occasions at another navy destroyer off of Yemen’s southern coast. Those missiles fell harmlessly into the water, but they were enough of a provocation that the navy responded with its own bombardment.
But we would also find that immediately prior to those incidents, on Saturday 8 October, a 500lb laser-guided US-made bomb was dropped on a funeral procession by the US-sponsored Saudi-led coalition fighting the rebels who, the Saudis say, are backed by Iran. This bomb killed more than 140 people, mostly civilians, and wounded more than 525 people. Human Rights Watch called the incident “an apparent war crime”.
That heinous attack led to a strong rebuke from the US, which has sold the Saudis $110bn worth of arms since President Obama assumed office, and recently approved the sale of $1.15bn more. The US also supplies the Saudis with necessary intelligence and logistics to prosecute its war. According to Reuters, the US government is also deeply concerned that it may be implicated in future war crimes prosecutions as a result of its support for the Saudi-led coalition.
This worry might explain why National Security Council spokesman Ned Price stated that “in light of this and other recent incidents, we … are prepared to adjust our support so as to better align [the Saudi-led coalition] with US principles, values and interests, including achieving an immediate and durable end to Yemen’s tragic conflict”. Sounds good. Then again, the US bombed Houthi positions days later.
The situation in Yemen is already catastrophic and largely out of view. Since the conflict began 18 months ago, more than 6,800 people have been killed. Both rebels and the regime have committed atrocities, though most of the dead are civilians and most have been killed by Saudi-led airstrikes. Almost 14.4 million people are now “food insecure”, according to the UN’s World Food Program, and 2.8 million people have been displaced. In 2015, there were 101 attacks on schools and hospitals. After two Doctors Without Borders hospitals were bombed resulting in 20 deaths – one in Taiz on 2 December 2015 and the other in Abs on 15 August this year – the humanitarian group was forced to withdraw from its six hospitals in northern Yemen.
The Trump show has managed to bump all the serious and necessary policy debates not just off the table but out of the room. Presidential foreign policy discussions, for example, are now basically limited to who hates Isis more, who said what 13 years ago, and who believes Vladimir Putin is in charge of a roomful of hackers.
It’s not enough. All the current polls point to Hillary Clinton winning the presidential election, and there’s a desperate need for substantive answers regarding her policies. Will she merely continue Obama’s Yemen strategy, which has not only failed to end the war but could also soon escalate it? The prevailing wisdom among many Democrats has been to focus first on defeating Donald Trump before moving on to what’s next, but that’s no longer fair to voters nor, really, to the people of Yemen. We need to know not only what we’re voting against, but what we’re voting for. As the last few days have shown, the world doesn’t stop spinning while the US holds elections.