Confronting Iran ? President Trump entering uncharted waters in Yemen (1)
By Patrick Bahzad
“I need not tell you, Sir, that the
Red Sea is as much closed as the Gulf”
(from 20 000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne)
So this is where President Trump apparently decided to make his first significant foreign policy move. Not in Iraq or Syria, as part of the fight against ISIS and other Jihadi groups, not in Ukraine, which has seen a recent flare-up in combat. But in Yemen, at the Strait of Mandeb, the “Gate of Tears“. Push back against Iran is the scent of the day in D.C. and the new administration has picked the most unseemingly place for it. American concern for what is going on in Yemen is understandable and may call for closer monitoring. Aggressive moves in the Red Sea however, or in Yemen itself, bear tremendous risks. The Bab-el-Mandeb, as its name indicates, has always been treacherous waters.
During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump had already hinted at his determination to take on Iran. He had stressed the need for a more confrontational approach and condemned the nuclear deal that the Obama administration had signed with Tehran, literally threatening to tear it up. As President, he has now backed away from such drastic measures, but heightened tensions with Iran became apparent as soon as he took over at the White House.
Twitter warnings by “The Real Donald Trump” were followed by Iran test firing a ballistic as well as a cruise missile, which may or may not constitute violations of the Nuclear Deal and UNSC resolution 2231. Additionally, in what might be considered an unrelated incident, Houthi forces in Yemen launched an attack against a Saudi frigate, killing two sailors and seriously damaging the ship.
This combination of events triggered National Security Advisor Mike Flynn into putting Iran “on notice“, an expression devoid of any meaning in international diplomacy and therefore probably all the more dangerous. The escalation is pretty obvious and additional US sanctions against Iranian individuals and entities only added to it.
But it is not just White House executives like “National Security Advisor” Mike Flynn and “Chief Strategist” Steve Bannon who seem on board with the tough talk about Iran. James Mattis, the newly appointed Secretary of Defence and presumably a voice of reason within the new administration, recently dubbed Iran “the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world“. With statements by senior members of the White House and the Cabinet being that unanimous, a feature not necessarily obvious when you look at the short track record of the new Presidency, it is pretty clear that there is now a very deliberate policy shift towards Iran.
Where this is going to take us is hard to say, most likely, not a good place judging by the people in charge and the measures they are contemplating. The most striking thing however about this renewed fixation on Iran is the country chosen to confront the Mullahs. Indeed, why pick small, impoverished and war-ridden Yemen to put the squeeze on Iran ? The answer to that question may already give insights as to what the future has in store for us in that part of the world.
Chaos in Yemen
Yemen has mostly been in the headlines since the Saudis and the GCC began their “Operation Decisive Storm” in 2015. Interfering in their Southern neighbours’ business is nothing new for the Saudis, even though in this case, they chose to go in with military force. But Yemen had already been a mess since at least 2004, when the Zaidi Houthis – named after their founder, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi – rose up against local strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh.
In 2011, Saleh lost his grip on Yemen’s presidency as a consequence of the “Arab Spring” which also swept away the regime in Sanaa. In a reversal of alliances that Saleh was customary to, he then sided with the Houthis and parts of the army. In 2015, Saleh’s army and Houthis forces finally were in a position to overrun much of Central Yemen, almost pushing as far as Aden in the South and Mocha in the South-West (on the coast to the Red Sea).
This was probably too much for the Saudis to stomach, given that there were already rumours about Iranian weapons and advisors helping out Houthi forces at that point. Contrary to the Shia of Southern Lebanon however, the Houthis do not belong to the same branch of Shiism as the Iranians. Branding them as “Iranian proxies” for that reason alone, as seems to be the argument put forward by some think tankers, only points to fundamental ignorance about diversity in beliefs and culture. The Houthis, or rather their Zaidi forefathers, were certainly not considered Iranian proxies when the Saudis supported them in the bloody civil war against Egyptian backed opponents, back in the 1960s.
Operation “Decisive Storm“
In 2015 however, things had changed and the battle for regional hegemony was in full swing between Saudi-Arabia and Iran, or from a broader sectarian perspective, between the Sunni and Shia of the Middle-East. Inexperienced Royals in the Saudi cabinet thought they could make an example of impoverished Yemen, achieving a quick victory and showing their lukewarm allies in D.C., as well as their foes in Tehran, that they were now a force to be reckoned with. Their operation however quickly turned into a P.R. disaster.
Saudi ground forces do not exactly have a fearsome reputation, and this showed time and again in their unsuccessful attempts at driving back the Houthi warriors into their mountainous homeland. Other than the Saudi airforce’s reckless airstrikes, which have cost many civilians their lives and brought the country closer to humanitarian disaster, the Saudi military intervention has proven futile. On the ground, in Central and Northern Yemen, the Saudis will never muster a force capable of any significant advance.
Not even allied troops and private mercenary armies will do the trick. Meanwhile, anarchy has taken over parts of Yemen that were reasonably quiet before the Saudis went in. Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula managed to extend its area of influence and even ISIS has taken a foothold in South-Eastern Yemen.
As for the US, their footprint got lighter with Yemen descending into chaos. Al Anad Air Base, which served as a launch pad for many US drone strikes against AQAP over a number a years, was closed when the last US special forces left in March 2015. Ever since then, US camps in Djibouti have taken over the task of hitting the Jihadis. Recent developments however, like the botched SEAL Team 6 raid in January, as well as increased US Navy presence in and around the Red Sea, are indicators of a gear shift in the fight against AQAP and Co.
The Houthis, an Iranian proxy ?
The presence of the local AQ franchise, considered the most effective and most advanced one in a number of areas, may also be one of the reasons why the Trump administration decided to make a move in Yemen. By putting a marker there, the President and his advisors want to show their determination to fight radical Islamism of any credence, which is very much in line with various reports and statements made by a number of current WH officials and advisors.
However, as far as Iranian influence on Yemeni Houthis is concerned, the case is not easy to make. There are most definitely Iranian advisors in Yemen, but their numbers are unknown and in all likelihood, there would be very few of them. On several occasions, Anti-Houthi forces in the South claimed to have arrested Iranians, during the fighting around Aden in particular, but the evidence trail is thin.
And making any case about Iranian meddling in Yemen will take much more than a borderline incompetent interpretation of the Houthis chanting “God is great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam” as they take on a Saudi frigate with remote controlled torpedo drones. Admittedly, the slogan is not exactly testimony to the Houthis wish for peaceful coexistence.
But inferring from it that the Houthis may actually have been targeting US ships, possibly through seaborne suicide attacks, reflects sheer ignorance about the slogan’s genesis and Houthi goals in the current conflict. They certainly are not doing themselves a favour if they want to avoid confrontation with the White House, but those within the administration who have been looking for an excuse to step up military efforts, certainly have one now. In this regard, sending in the “USS Cole” down there is probably not a coincidence either.
Strategic importance of the Mandeb Strait
To be fair, Yemen and the Mandeb Strait certainly feature in good place in Tehran’s regional strategy. This is probably where we need to look at, more than at any move made by the Houthis themselves, if we want to understand strategic thinking behind Washington’s recent decisions (assuming of course, there is something like a strategy at work here, which is not a given).
From an Iranian point of view, President Trump’s first statements as far as they are concerned revolve along two lines: on the one hand, making sure the Iranians comply with every provision of the nuclear deal they signed, and on the other, rolling back Tehran’s “nefarious” influence in the region. It is in this context that Iranian moves need to be analysed.
The test firing of missiles is certainly one way for the Iranians to probe American limits and red lines, should there be any. Presumably, they also want to find out what kind of reaction the crossing of any line in the sand might have. Trump has proven he can back away from boastful statements with relative ease, when he realizes that delivering on what he promised might actually not be such a great idea. The Iranians are clever, proficient and subtle operators. Discounting their abilities as well as their duplicity might be ill advised. Yemen in that regard will prove a good test both for the Iranians and for Trump.
Undoubtedly, there are a couple of sharp brains in the new administration (well, at least one), albeit some of their thinking on Iran may still be a legacy from past experiences in Iraq, not necessarily helpful in the present days. Flynn, Mattis, but also other senior personnel like Rayburn and Harvey seem convinced of the Iranian “uber“-influence in the US military’s failure in Iraq. How much of their resentment about US casualties at the hands of Iranian proxies or IRGC members plays into their current posture is difficult to assess.There certainly is a subjective, emotional component to it, but there are also tangible indicators to back-up their claims.
Long term Iranian efforts
Put in simple terms, the Iranians have now committed to not developping any nuclear arsenal. There is strong reason to believe they will abide by those rules, considering that they would have much more to lose than to gain if they decided otherwise. Additionally, they have a much easier option at hand, one that offers nearly as many guarantees as a nuclear device pointed at Washington, Riyadh or Tel Aviv for that matter.
For a number of years, the Iranians have systematically extended their area of influence in the Middle-East, way beyond anything they had managed to achieve since the days of emperor Darius III (roughly 330 B.C.). Theirs is not an empire anymore, not in the traditional sense, but an “empire by proxies“. In an painstaking effort that took them several decades, they managed to establish a strong foothold in Lebanon, through Hezbollah, and in Gaza, through Hamas. Both organisations have a domestic agenda but also work as force projection tools of Iranian foreign policy towards Israel in particular.
During the US intervention in Iraq, Iranian agents had a field day infiltrating various levels of government, setting up sectarian armed groups and parties that were friendly to their interests, while at the same time making sure American forces got bogged down in the fight against various factions of Sunni insurgents, among them the predecessor group to Baghdadi’s “Islamic State“. Finally, in Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria, they managed to cultivate a client State that had no allies left after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Yemen’s Houthis fit into this picture as something intermediary between a proxy militia and a client State. Again, it needs to be stressed that the Houthis are by no means an Iranian pawn, but they cannot dismiss the help that Tehran is offering them. Iran also made similar moves towards the Shia majority of Bahraïn and has extended an olive branch to Oman, the only GCC country that is not participating in Saudi intervention in Yemen.
The “choke point” strategy
These Iranian efforts however are not random. They follow a long term logic and rationale that is fully apparent in Yemen as well. Short of launching a ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead against any enemy force threatening vital Iranian interests, what is the next best thing Tehran could do ? Well, for one thing, they might interrupt international shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, as they have threatened to do time and again ever since the mid-1980s.
They certainly do have the ability to do so temporarily, and in particular they could interdict transit of oil and gas tankers for a period long enough to send the global economy into deep recession. That they would finally be on the losing end of such a move does not make a difference, because their main foe in the region, i.e. the Saudis, would probably not be able to recover from such a disaster. The US too would be seriously affected, either directly (through effects on the American economy itself) or indirectly (through the impact on US’ main trading partners in Europe and the Far East).
Iranian strategists realized however that holding the key to the Hormuz “choke point” might not be enough to have a dissuasive effect on their adversaries. Saudi-Arabia in particular has access to the Red Sea and manages to ship a significant part of its oil production through the Yanbu port infrastructure there. To choke off the Saudis, the Iranians needed to get a hold either of the pipelines that carried Saudi and Gulf oil to its recipients in the West and Far East, or they needed to be in a position where they interrupt shipping routes used to carry those fuels to the aforementioned recipients.
Looking at a map of the wider Middle-East, it appears the Iranians have managed just that, or almost. Their grip on the Strait of Hormuz is as strong as ever, at least they are still in a position to temporarily check any effort of the US forces to break it. They also improved their ballistic missile capabilities and could therefore target Saudi oil installations at Abqaiq or Ras Tanura for example, or even the Fifth Fleet HQ in Bahraïn. They also have control over Iraqi militias and parts of the government, which allows them to interdict any Saudi oil from transiting through Iraq if they wished to do so. As mentioned above, they can count on Hezbollah in Lebanon and have made sure Assad’s government will remain in power for as long as the conflict in Syria goes on.
To be continued: part (2).
Confronting Iran ? President Trump entering uncharted waters in Yemen (2)
By Patrick Bahzad
“Morality is the weakness of the brain. It can be dangerous
when it is not alleviated by thought and reason”
(from A Season in Hell, by Arthur Rimbaud)
As explained in part (1) of this piece, President Trump is facing some tough challenges if he intends to unsettle the “empire by proxies” that Tehran has established in the Middle-East. By chosing Yemen as the starting point for his roll back policy of Iranian influence, his team has picked a country that is going down the road other failed States have taken before in the region. But even though Yemen might be the weak link in the Iranian chain of “choke points” spread all around the Arabian peninsula, there is no guarantee of success for the new US administration.
A close advisor to President Trump recently said the President would take on Islamic radicals, whether they are “Jihadists or Khomeinists“, meaning whether they are ISIS/AQ or the IRGC and its surrogates. Taking the morale high ground and wanting to confront Evil is nothing new in American politics. From that point of view, the administration’s statements do not exactly come as a surprise. There has been the “Empire of Evil” and the “Axis of Evil” before. In both these cases though, there was a strategy – however flawed and misguided – underpinning the moral claim, which seems to be totally lacking today.
Revenge is a dish best served cold
It is hard to imagine an administration that has already shown its lack of preparation on such basic issues as immigration law having a well thought through strategy for any kind of US intervention or operation. If the recent SEAL Team 6 raid is any indication to go by, we are in for a rough ride.
Taking risks is in the nature of military arts, but when giving the green light for anything like this, you need to carefully weigh the prospective gains against the risks incurred. Getting the scalp of a senior AQAP may certainly justify putting US operators at risk. Does it necessarily mean you try and have a go at the next best occasion, getting into something that has potentially serious implications in case anything goes wrong ?
I surely can’t make that call, but it seems the first raid authorized by the President has already lost the US some good will among the Saudi backed “legitimate” government of Yemen, as well as among Central Yemeni tribes that were not overly hostile to US interests. This is a game where patience trumps bravado, and you’ll have to bite your lip more often than not, missing out on a good chance to get a bad guy out of the way.
Does Donald Trump understand this ? Do his closest advisors ? Only time will tell. But if they think “intelligence fusion cells“, “combined joint task forces” and “kill lists” alone are going to get us anywhere near the goal the President is contemplating, they are deeply mistaken. Kinetic actions have their place in any overall strategy mixing military assets and foreign policy efforts. However, they are only means to an end. They are not a self serving purpose as such, even less so in Yemen.
The Yemeni Quagmire
Looking at the situation on the ground, there is no doubt that of all the players involved, the Saudis are probably the ones in the most uncomfortable situation. They have already played their trump card with very mixed results and are at a dead end. Overall, they have achieved very little, despite considerable resources dedicated to their operations.
Recent diplomatic efforts aimed at rallying the whole GCC will not fundamentally change the equation.The Saudi air force has been flying air strikes ever since the start of the war. Despite deliveries of precision guided weapons by a number of Western countries, they did not have a significant impact on their adversaries. This is all the more relevant, as both the US and the UK have been sharing intelligence with the Saudis regarding target acquisition and identification.
Other than occasional hits on HVTs and recurring instances of civilian infrastructure destroyed (and innocent people killed in the thousands already), there is not much to take away from this campaign. Considering the “low tech” profile of their adversaries, the Saudis could bomb Yemen back into the stone age anyway and not get much more result.
Their ground offensive, involving both Saudi and allied troops as well as local allies, has made some ground over time, but the area it managed to win back from Saleh and his Houthis basically coincides with the limits of the Northerners area of influence. Aden is not under threat any more, there is serious fighting going on around Taiz, but the Houthi heartland and most of the Red Sea coast north of Perim Island is out of reach for the Saudi coalition.
According to the “official” Saudi backed Yemen government, the port of Mocha has now finally fallen into GCC hands, after about six weeks of intense fighting. This would be confirmation that the 300 miles of Read Sea coastline are indeed considered of vital interest to the Saudis. It is unclear however how much control they have over Mocha at this point and how long they will be able to maintain it unchallenged. Suffice to say, Mocha is the easiest target on Western Yemen shores.
Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis
The Houthis on the other hand are stuck with their cumbersome ally, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and parts of the army loyal to him. Saleh is his own man, playing his own game. For now, his interests are in line with those of the Houthis, but it may not always be the case. From a US point of view, it would make sense finding out it if there is any modus vivendi that could be achieved with Saleh, in order to drive a wedge between him and the Houthis for example. A man hungry for power, Saleh’s goals are not too difficult to read. He wants a seat at the table, and most probably a large slice of the cake as well …
This is an area where diplomacy and shrewd politics would undoubtedly get the US further than brute force. Convincing the Saudis that they will have to swallow their pride and accept a number of Saleh demands will not be easy though. Tillerson’s State Department might have its plate full in that regard. As for the Houthis, they are anything but the Iranian puppets some officials are trying to turn them into. Their demands have been as much social as economic and political in nature.
If the US decides to go after them, the Houthis will fight, and fight relentlessly. History should not be disregarded and what it teaches us about them is that this is not a people that gives up easily. Isolated minorities in rough mountain lands do have a tendency to hold a serious grudge once they’ve been antagonized. Generally, they also turn out to be resilient warriors, who won’t back down from a fight. If the new adminitration plans to launch raids, airstrikes and drone attacks against the Houthis in the same way as against AQAP, we are probably all in for a tough awakening.
The stretch of red Sea Coast under Houthi control extends for miles and miles and there is no way international shipping lanes can be consistently protected, unless you control the shores as well. Furthermore, areas North of the Saudi border in Jizan, Asir and Najran have already proven vulnerable to Houthi incursions. Besides, and this is a more basic question, why would the US escalate a situation militarily, with no guarantees of success, if there is a less risky road to achieve the same result ?
Splitting up the circumstantial alliance between Saleh, the Houthis and Iran
There is probably a danger in having military technicians rather than genuine strategists in charge of national security policy. That danger is closely linked to the cognitive bias and experience these people bring to the table. Having contributed to serious revamping of military intelligence in Afghanistan is a good thing, but believing every international issue the US is confronted with can be solved through “find, fix and finish” would be a serious problem.
The US is still engaged in Afghanistan, in a war that is about to be lost, while at the same time taking the fight to ISIS in its strongholds in Iraq and Syria. You have to really wonder if and why this should be the time to pick another fight against an adversary that has not threatened US interests in any significant way ? This is all the more relevant, as Yemen’s East is another hotbed of Jihadism and it would surely not do us any harm trying to find more local allies against AQAP, rather than making new enemies !
Any objective analysis of the triangular alliance between Saleh’s army, Houthi forces and their alleged Iranian supporters clearly indicates that there is plenty of room for negotiating with at least two of these players and peeling away two layers of the problem by doing so. Has there been any attempt at doing so ? I surely hope so !
This brings us back to the core issue at stake, because splitting the Houthi-Saleh joint venture needs taking into account the Iranian ghost presence in the room. As already mentioned in part (1), there is not much evidence currently pointing to an increased or significant Iranian presence in Yemen. It does not mean the Iranians aren’t there and most likely, they are indeed, for all the reasons previously explained.
Preventing further Iranian expansion ?
The choice of Yemen as the starting point for a US policy aiming at rolling back Iranian influence in the region does certainly make sense, depending on which military and foreign diplomacy assets the administration is willing to use. But it is undeniable that should they want to go for a weak spot in Tehran’s strategy, there is no better place than Yemen.
Looking at the overall situation in the Middle-East, it is clear that the battle of Aleppo, which ended in total defeat for the insurgents, has far reaching consequences. There isn’t much that the Saudis in particular can hope to gain any more. They can make sure the war drags on, but they won’t be able to break the lock Iran has closed in on them in that part of the Levant, and neither will the US. The so-called “Shia Crescent” will stand, there is no way around this.
However, to fully implement its “choke point” strategy, Tehran also needs to be in a position where it can threaten to interrupt naval shipping through the Red Sea, which is the only viable lifeline the Saudis have left in case things go sore in the East, around the Strait of Hormuz. Achieving the same degree of militarization as in the Strait of Hormuz is out of the question for the Iranians. They have neither the capabilities nor the resources. But the remote prospect of shipping through the Mandeb Strait being seriously interfered with – or worse, interrupted – by Yemen proxies, with the help of Iranian advisors, is the kind of nightmare scenario nobody in Riyadh is willing to entertain.
It does not take that much equipment and technology to mine the Strait, deploy mobile missile batteries capable of hitting at least civilian ships, or send out a swarm of attack speed boats – or torpedo drones – that could also do some damage to Western military vessels. If you add to that, the ageing stock of ballistic missiles that the Yemeni army has in its possession, using them to good effect against the Saudis every now and then, and you get an idea of what is potentially at stake here.
Potential for Iranian Retaliation
Implementing such a strategy however requires the Iranians to rely on local forces in Yemen, whether that is the Houthis, Saleh’s army or both. This is all the more reason not to play into their hands by unnecessarily antagonizing these players. On the contrary, it would definitely make more sense to try and bridge the gap, gradually undercutting Tehran’s alleged influence on them. Agreed, easier said than done, but “doing stupid sh*t” certainly is no winning strategy either.
By singling out Yemen, the Trump administration has chosen to go after the soft spot in the Iranian “choke point” strategy. Whether or not this move was well prepared is another matter. Recent events would tend to prove otherwise. It is one thing to make claims about wanting to roll back Iran in the region, or even drive a wedge between Iran and its Russian ally. It is a totally different matter to develop a viable strategy to achieve such goals without incurring significant blow back. The balance of power has shifted in the Middle-East over the last 15 years and it has shifted towards Tehran.
There are many asymmetric responses the Iranians might resort to if they feel they are threatened or under attack in Yemen or elsewhere. In that regard, the Trump administration might soon find itself in a situation where it would have to choose between continuing with the promising offensive against ISIS or shifting the effort towards containing Iran. The current battle of Mosul, the coming fight for Raqqa, the offensives that will be needed to expunge ISIS of its sanctuaries along the Tigris and Euphrates cannot be thought without Tehran’s agreement.
Such is the Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria that US troops there would be at serious risk should the situation escalate beyond breaking point in Yemen. Short if invading Iran itself, there is not much anybody can do to leverage those asymmetric assets the Iranians now firmly hold in their hand. As for full-on invasion, a prospect that would be dear to the few the Neo-Cons who made it into the Trump administration, it would probably make “Operation Iraqi Freedom” look like the cakewalk Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said it would be !