Making sense of Yemen

By Zac Rogers

What strategic stake does the US have in the vicious proxy war in Yemen?

On 8 October a funeral hall in southern Sanaa, Yemen, was hit by air strikes that reports say killed at least 155 people and wounded more than 525. The casualties included senior officials from Yemen’s Shia Houthi militias and their allies, as well as civilians. The Saudi-led coalition has acknowledged responsibility for the attack, with the state-run Saudi Press Agency citing incorrect information and non-compliance with rules-of-engagement as the reasons for civilian deaths and injuries. The White House, in turn, says it has begun an immediate review of its support for Saudi operations in Yemen. The attack came only days after the UN and US have condemned Russia and the Assad regime in Syria for attacks on civilians in Aleppo.

The Saudi intervention in Yemen began in March 2015, targeting the Houthi rebels who had two years earlier seized the capital and later ousted Saudi-backed President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, driving him into exile. Widely recognised as a proxy war, the Kingdom sees itself pitted against the encroachment of Iranian influence in the region. The Saudis and other Arab capitals see the Houthis, along with Hezbollah, as marauding terrorists at the vanguard of Iranian revivalism, seeking to gain a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula directly bordering the Kingdom. They, along with Israel, count the US-Iran nuclear deal among the critical enablers emboldening Tehran.

Operationally, the United States has provided the Kingdom with extensive logistical and intelligence support, mostly in the form of ship-and-air-borne radar targeting and aerial refuelling for the Saudi’s mostly US made jets. Over the last eight years, moreover, the Obama administration has approved more than US$115 billion in arms sales to the Saudis, outstripping any administration prior. Unsurprisingly, however, in Riyadh and other Arab capitals, the United States is seen as a strategic actor with one foot clearly out the door of the Middle East. Cite US energy independence, OPEC’s political weakness, the Obama Doctrine, Iranian rapprochement, the political failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the quagmire in Syria and the complete absence of a viable solution. For America’s regional allies and partners, all these trends point in the same direction. Russia and China clearly see an opening also.

It’s a fair question then to ask what is America’s strategic interest in supporting Saudi Arabia in this particular war, and indeed, more broadly? If the Obama Doctrine really is about avoiding unnecessary regional entanglements, particularly over sectarian fissures, what are they doing? Many have rued what they pass off simply as strategic incoherence. US strategic calculus for the Middle East has for some time now been lacking a Cold War context and an energy security context. The Obama Doctrine has put to bed the concept that America must display credibility and will by engaging in small wars. The petro-dollar system has faded as a strategic pillar of US dollar primacy due to diversification of oil supply and the lack of a serious alternative as global reserve currency. On intelligence matters, the US-Saudi relationship has been extremely rocky since the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, but the Iraq invasion of 2003 forced the Kingdom into a more meaningful contribution in the hunt for Al Qaeda. But incoherence aside, how do we make sense of any continuing strategic alignment?

The problem is this is the wrong question. Anything close to alignment faded with the Cold War. The United States is strategically disengaging from the region for all the above reasons, but it seeks to retain the capacity to influence events so that where the chips fall still more or less meets their strategic preferences. It is best understood in the context of the strategic intent of the 2003 Iraq invasion. This was a decision taken by the Bush administration to fundamentally disrupt the balance of power in the Middle East. At the time, the intent of such a disruption was to coerce Saudi intelligence, which had become increasingly opaque to the Americans since 1996, into the War on Terror. The means by which this disruption took place was the destruction of the Iraqi buffer zone, the inevitable encroachment of Iranian influence, and restoring some fear in Arab capitals of the presence and unpredictability of American power.

By 2010, Al Qaeda was deeply degraded and in a period of strategic inactivity. The Arab Spring, Syrian civil war, and ISIS flooded into this space, utterly complicating but not entirely overturning US strategy, which is still visible beneath the disarray. The encroachment of Iranian influence in the region was a strategic instrument wielded by the US in pursuit of a certain strategic end. Having largely achieved that end after 2004, US strategy has reverted to a longer, post-Cold War trend line predicated on extracting itself from burdensome entanglements by seeking to manipulate regional power balances at arm’s length. Iranian encroachment was never an open-ended invitation, and US support for Saudi operations in Yemen is a reflection of this. Allies in name only, the Saudis now are just another piece in the regional puzzle.

It seems increasingly clear that having succeeded in disrupting the regional balance of power in 2003, but utterly failing in envisioning a viable aftermath, the default US strategy is to pursue a balance of power with the cards it has been dealt. Namely, one built along the sectarian divide. It amounts to an admission of failure by the Obama administration that any viable regional order is possible in the Middle East based on a preferred Western model of functioning nation-states. In other words, the collapse of Sykes-Picot. Instead, the fundamental trip-wire undermining such a model – the region’s sectarian fissures – has become the basis for a regional power balance. As a result, the Iranian revival is being met with the most proactive and ambitious Saudi ‘defence’ doctrine ever envisioned. This is likely to keep weapons manufacturers in the United States busy. The US now appears to view an enduring strategic gridlock between these two forces as the least worst outcome for the region.

In addition, Russia’s plan to replace a disengaging US as the region’s key power broker has become dangerously complicated in Syria. As Michael Kofman explains, Putin has been caught selling something he didn’t have in Syria. Namely, a cease-fire plan that left Assad’s forces capable of taking and holding territory in Aleppo and elsewhere, eventually without Russian support. Assad’s forces are significantly weaker than that, and Putin hoped to improve the situation on the ground with Iranian help while the American’s stalled at the negotiating table, preferably until after the US election. America’s acquiescence to Russia’s plan came too early. Now Putin is caught between having to do more heavy lifting for Assad, which includes mass bombing of civilians in Aleppo, and the prospect of more significant American intervention. Political pressure in Washington builds as Aleppo’s atrocities continue. The American’s have a demonstrated preference for lobbing cruise-missiles at targets in these circumstances. If this occurs, US forces will be at war with their Russian counterparts, who have recently added advanced S-300 VM missiles to its arsenal in Syria, providing it with an integrated air-and-missile defence capability. Such a conflict would have a high risk of escalating horizontally in Ukraine or the Baltic states drawing in NATO, and vertically across the nuclear firebreak.

The role of broker in today’s Middle East is a mug’s game. If Putin didn’t see this before he almost certainly does now. Nonetheless, Russia is moving ahead with establishing a permanent naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast at Tartus, increasing its military capability across the Middle East. For the US, support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is one of many ongoing costs of inviting the Iranian revival back in 2003. How high these costs go, however, is now inextricably linked with the outcome of what was surely a nonessential strategic confrontation with Moscow.

Feature image: JABERGHURAB/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY 

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