Yemen insurgency shows the danger of the lack of a coherent US Middle East strategy

Yemeni Huthi rebels stand at a checkpoint in Saada

In Yemen, which was not exactly a stable country let alone an advanced or democratic one, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have marched in and taken over in a coup that has caused an outcry in Yemen and has seen local Yemenis protesting loudly.  The takeover has also caused great anxiety in Washington.

However, despite this anxiety, it is instructive to note the United States Administration’s response to the Yemen insurgency.  In normal times we would have presumed that the Americans would have objected to the Houthis takeover, even though the original Yemeni government was not exactly a world leader in human rights and democracy, simply because the Houthis are agents of Iran and represent the mindset, tactics and strategy of ISIS – total takeover and immediate imposition of extremist Islam.

But these are not not normal times and the Administration appears to be floundering around with no coherent Middle East policy.

In fact, the US appears to have drawn closer to the “rebels”, aka the Iranian-backed Houthis, and distanced itself from the government:

The U.S. has formed ties with Houthi rebels who seized control of Yemen’s capital, White House officials and rebel commanders said, in the clearest indication of a shift in the U.S. approach there as it seeks to maintain its fight against a key branch of al Qaeda.

American officials are communicating with Houthi fighters, largely through intermediaries, the officials and commanders have disclosed, to promote a stable political transition as the Houthis gain more power and to ensure Washington can continue its campaign of drone strikes against leaders of the group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, officials said.

“We have to take pains not to end up inflaming the situation by inadvertently firing on Houthi fighters,” a senior U.S. official said. “They’re not our military objective. It’s AQAP and we have to stay focused on that.”

Did no one consider that one can be against Al Qaeda AND against the Houthis? It’s not a zero sum game and the enemy of my enemy is not only not my friend, he is yet another deadly enemy.

… Washington’s outreach to the Houthis, who in January routed forces loyal to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a close American ally, represents a contrast from years of U.S. support for the Hadi government, which the Houthis have opposed.

The shift also could place it on the same side as Iran in the Yemen conflict. The Houthis are drawn from their country’s Zaidi population. Zaidis, who by some estimates make up roughly a third of the population, practice a form of Shiite Islam and are concentrated in northwest Yemen. U.S. officials believe the militia has received considerable funding and arms from Shiite-dominated Iran, something Houthi leaders have variously confirmed and denied.

White House and State Department officials confirmed to The Wall Street Journal the contacts with the Houthis, but stressed they were focused on promoting political stability in Yemen and safeguarding the security of Americans.

Surely stability is not the be-all and end-all of politics and counter-terrorism. As for the security of Americans, they can be evacuated out of the country until the situation stabilizes.

… One Houthi commander said the U.S. provided logistical aid to the militants and exchanged intelligence on AQAP to support the Houthis’ operations against the group and pinpoint drone strikes. The Americans passed on all this information, the officer said, through Yemeni counterterrorism officials. The commander said the Houthis have pressed the Americans not to fly drones over rebel-controlled territories and to get clearance before launching strikes on AQAP.

Senior U.S. defense and State Department officials said Washington isn’t providing intelligence directly to the Houthis. They said the communication largely is an effort to “deconflict” its military operations from the Houthis’.

The Obama administration increasingly has sought to describe the Houthis as a potential partner of Washington’s ever since the militia gained control of San’a in January. The U.S. has continued to cite Mr. Hadi as the rightful leader of Yemen, but it has also appeared to accept the Houthis as a legitimate part of a new government in San’a.

President Barack Obama in recent days cited the goal of maintaining counterterrorism cooperation against al Qaeda as one of his two top priorities in Yemen, along with protecting Americans on the ground there.

The level of Iranian support for the Houthis is in dispute.

Mr. Al-Emad denied major funding or arms were coming from Tehran. But a Houthi official in San’a who deals with Iran says assistance comes in the form of logistics, intelligence and cash. He said Houthis have received tens of millions of dollars in cash from Iran over the past couple of years.

The Obama administration says it believes Iran’s support for the Houthis is significant, but that it isn’t overseeing the current military command. They said Tehran’s involvement in Yemen is nowhere near its role in Lebanon, where it closely coordinates military activities with Hezbollah, the Shiite militia and political party.

“We don’t see any command and control in Yemen,” said an American diplomat.

And if you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell to you.

U.S. cooperation with the Houthis could further complicate its relationship with Saudi Arabia and the leading Sunni states in the Persian Gulf.

Washington and Riyadh have been partnering in trying to stabilize Mr. Hadi’s government. But Arab officials have voiced alarm about the Houthis control of San’a, viewing it as a major regional victory for Tehran.

Map of Yemen and its provinces

In response to this confused American strategy Obama’s critics have accused him and his Administration of having no strategy in the Middle East:

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, warned Sunday that Mr. Obama has shown little ability to confront Shiite Iran or the growing threat of Islamic State militants, a group of Sunni extremists who have taken over a wide swath of Iraq and Syria.

“So there is no strategy,” Mr. McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, told the CBS program “Face the Nation.” “It is delusional for them to think that what they’re doing is succeeding.”

Iran’s influence and backing are very clear, despite the Administration’s obfuscations:

… The Iranian-supported Houthis have long battled for influence among a host of armed factions in Yemen, including the Sunni Muslim group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The Yemen struggle also has become a proxy fight for Iran with Saudi Arabia, which has bankrolled Sunni Muslim groups in the country along its southern border.

The Houthi offensive ousted Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who worked closely with the Obama administration in the battle against AQAP. Whether the emerging government in Sanaa will be as accommodating is a giant question mark.

Congressional sources say the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force has been smuggling AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and other weaponry to the Shiite Houthi rebels since at least 2012. Some analysts now assert that Tehran’s goal has been to shape the Houthis into an Iranian proxy, much the way Hezbollah is in Lebanon.

“Initially, the Houthis had very real and local grievances in Yemen, but over the last few years the Iranians have reached out and co-opted them,” said Michael Rubin, an analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Other observers warned of the Iranian connection when the Houthi militants began advancing on Yemen’s capital months ago and said the Hadi government failed to follow through on promises to share power.

Tehran may be eyeing through its influence in Yemen control of a key waterway in the Persian Gulf known as the Bab-el-Mandeb straight, which links the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean, analysts said.

“It serves as the world’s main oil transit waterway and main shipping lifeline through the Suez Canal,” Amal Mudallali, a Middle East analyst with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, wrote in Foreign Policy in October.

“If the Houthis secured Bab-el-Mandeb and the sea in Al Hudaydah governate, another strategic waterway, they would control the traffic from the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf, a sobering prospect for those worried about increased Iranian influence in the region,” Ms. Mudallali wrote.

More immediately, Mr. Rubin said, Yemen threatens to become a kind of “Syria 2.0,” with a proxy war between Shiite-dominated Iran and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia likely to escalate.

It’s not just that the Americans appear to be siding with Iranian-backed terrorists. It’s that they are antagonizing their main Middle East ally, the one they go crawling to in order to coordinate everything from oil to cash to arms to counter-terrorism – Saudi Arabia.

Now I’m no fan of Saudi Arabia at all, but if the Obama Administration wants to preserve their relationship with the Saudis, they are going completely the wrong way about it by empowering Iran and ISIS in a neighbouring country

It might well be that the lack of a coherent Middle East strategy is more dangerous than a wrong Middle East strategy. At least with a mistaken policy, Israel and its Arab allies (Egypt, Jordan, even the Saudis on the quiet) know what they are dealing with and can take steps to counter it. But with this muddled, incoherent lack of strategy, there is no way to tell what will be the Americans’ next step, making the world a whole lot more volatile and perilous.

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20 Responses to Yemen insurgency shows the danger of the lack of a coherent US Middle East strategy

  1. Pete says:

    Anne … thanks for the very nice article about Yemen, and the layout of the regions inside the country. As you know, the Iranians have gone on record – quite publicly. They have stated that they will “get even” with the Saudis for lowering the price of oil. And the Iranians have also stated that they will respond to the attack in the Golan heights that killed their General. Although it was Israel who conducted the attack, I am sure the Iranians see this attack as a product of “US influence” in the region, because that is simply their point of view.

    Tehran did not waste much time! Now there is a coup in Yemen, and the stability of the Middle East is reduced. Or at least, Yemen has become a “fulcrum” where the Iranians can exert their own power against western interests.

    Pete, USA

    • anneinpt says:

      Yep, the Iranians are out for blood and revenge. Then again, this coup or revolt or whatever has been in the works for a long time now. It actually started back in 2004! That’s over 10 years ago! It’s just that the world hasn’t really been paying attention because Yemen is not a big player on the world stage: no oil, no major exports, and not a popular tourist spot either. We’re only paying attention now because Iran has gotten involved via the Houthis. And of course Yemen is next door to Saudi Arabia.

      So I don’t think that minor attacks like the Israeli one on the Golan last week or even the Saudis reducing the price of oil – which is not only their doing of course, it’s a function of the oil glut on the world markets as more sources are found and more energy substitutes – are the reason for Iran to get involved or to cry revenge.

      Of course they’ll always pin a certain action on revenge for some act or slight, and of course there’s never any shortage of slights that can claim victimisation for. But that’s only for show, to make the West feel guilty. Iran has a strategy of world domination and is going about it in domino fashion. Yemen is a good place to start for the very reasons I stated above – no one has been paying attention to it until now, but it’s very strategically placed.

  2. Fay says:

    Sorry to go OT Anne but I seem to have lost your email. If you still have mine could you fire me off yours please. I want to let you know the dates of our trip to Israel and to see if we can arrange a get together 🙂

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