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 asymetric 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 !