Lobe Log | James Spencer: The Washington Post reports that “The Pentagon is looking to increase support for Saudi Arabia’s two-year-old war against Houthi rebels in Yemen[. …] The Pentagon views increased support for the Saudi-led coalition as one way of potentially pushing back against Iran’s influence in Yemen, as well as shoring up ties with an ally that felt neglected by the previous administration.”
The policy is apparently not completely decided. “The Trump administration has yet to make a final decision and Defense Department officials are locked in a debate over the issue with the White House, with some senior aides to Trump favoring confronting Iran elsewhere, one advisor said.” However, the Secretary of Defense’s subordinate commander, CENTCOM chief Army Gen. Joseph Votel told Congress this week that “there are vital U.S. interests at stake” in Yemen, which is both vague and remarkable–military doctrine used to define “Vital Ground” as “Ground of such importance that it must be retained or controlled for the success of the mission.” The current DoD Dictionary no longer has such an entry, but it does raise the question of what the U.S.’s mission in Yemen is.
In terms of economics, Yemen and the Bab al-Mandab / Straits of Perim are a key choke-point on the normal East – West trade route via the Suez Canal. Yet the World did not stop turning while the Suez Canal was closed in the 1960s and 1970s. Shipping went via South Africa (and, increasingly, can now go via the Northern Sea Route.)
In terms of regional politics, Yemen is unimportant to the Iranians, except to goad and divert Sa‘udi attention from Syria and Iraq – which are Iran’s Vital Ground. The Shi‘a in Yemen are Zaydis, very different from Iranian Shi’a, and have their own, independent agenda. Similarly, the Kingdom of Sa‘udi Arabia is actually concerned with the potential of a genuine democracy in its backyard, not Iranian expansion.
Geo-politically, Yemen is of little and declining importance. More widely, while the Sa‘udis may have “felt neglected by the previous administration”. In fact, what Obama was trying to do was balance the Shi‘ism-exporting Iran with the Wahhabism-exporting Sa‘udi Arabia, and thus reduce the cost in blood and treasure to the U.S. tax-payer; surprisingly thrifty for a law professor. Geo-strategically, backing the Sa‘udi side in this struggle renders the U.S. vulnerable to the potential shock of a Sa‘udi revolution as happened when the Iranian Empire fell in 1979.
The problem with the U.S. “pushing back against Iran’s influence in Yemen” is that Iran’s influence in Yemen is minor, and so intangible that the U.S. and the Sa’udi-led Coalition have struggled to produce (publishable) evidence of it. Most of the weaponry used by the Huthis and Salihis has come from domestic (many U.S.-supplied) sources, as does the financing. The UAVs and anti-tank guided missiles possibly sent from Iran are not game-changing in either quantity or quality, so cutting off that supply will have limited impact on the battle for Yemen. The Coalition already has a tight blockade against Yemen, and CTF-150 has been in place countering terrorist weapons moves for 15 years.
It is difficult to see how “Pressing ahead with stalled arms shipments to the Saudi government; using drones to help gather intelligence for strikes on Houthi targets; and assistance in planning the recapture of the critical Red Sea port city Hodeidah from Houthi forces” would tip the balance much in the Coalition’s favour: the U.S. has already provided advanced military equipment, and supplied extensive intelligence. So far, with that U.S. assistance, the Coalition have captured most of the level terrain close to the coast / Sa’udi border. Such further U.S. assistance to consolidate the Coalition’s conquest will have no impact on the really hard fighting – the battle to break into the mountains and seize Sana’a.
One humanitarian reason suggested for U.S. military assistance is that “the recapture of the critical Red Sea port city Hodeidah from Houthi forces … would allow humanitarian supplies to flow into the famine-wracked country.” Yet while there are Huthi / Salihi obstacles in Hodeidah, the main limitations on getting “humanitarian supplies to flow into the famine-wracked country” are the Coalition blockade and the lack of bulk-handling equipment, since the Sa’udis refused to let the UN land replacement cranes. Inland, there are also major problems distributing the aid, some of which are Huthi / Salihi checkpoints / shakedowns, but many are due to damage to infrastructure by Sa’udi airstrikes, the limited quantities of fuel available for trucks to distribute the aid – and indeed, the fighting itself.
There is one mildly optimistic note: since the IRI – Huthi relationship is tenuous, there is little risk that “seeking to checkmate Iran’s influence in Yemen could provoke retaliation from Tehran against the United States”. Just as Yemen is unimportant to the Iranians, so, too, are the Yemenis.
If there is no coherent mission, the potential for mission creep is frightening. Yemen has been called Nasser’s Vietnam; Washington was sucked into its own Vietnam incrementally, starting with “advisors” and Foreign Military Sales ….
Photo: CENTCOM Commander General Joseph Votel (C) inspects troops with President Donald Trump (L) during Trump’s February visit to CENTCOM HQ at MacDill Air Force Base
James Spencer is a retired British infantry commander who specialized in low-intensity conflict. He is an independent strategic analyst on political, security and trade issues of the Middle East and North Africa and a specialist on Yemen.