The chance of US military Mission Creep in Yemen as well as Iraq and Syria appears to be ratcheting up with the departure of the Obama Administration. The further deployment of US Forces in both Iraq and Syria, aiming to destroy ISIS in the Levant and support Syrian rebel forces, has seen a constant incrementalism over the past 2 years as numbers grow. Now the US forces deployed in Yemen also appear to be ratcheting up, as the US is drawn deeper into the stalemated Yemeni civil war. Comparing Yemen’s belligerent forces over the past two years shows almost no movement in core territorial gains for any side.
YEMEN :March 30, 2017
The US Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed between the US and Iran by the outgoing Obama administration, to reduce the chances of direct US-Iranian armed altercations in the Middle East, was part of the de-escalation process that also saw the roll back in US sanctions against Iran. The obverse of this policy was a rise in Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) concerns about US future commitment to their defence. Especially so after the recent meeting between the Iranian Quads Force Commander Qassem Soleimani with rebel Houthi forces in Yemen. The Yemen Civil War has reached stalemate with both the Yemeni forces under President Hadi, the al-Houthi rebels in the NW and the al Qaeda/ AQAP / ISIS aligned bedouins holding almost the same regions today, as at the outbreak of the civil war. Meanwhile the ‘peace talks’ in Switzerland drag on with no side in any hurry to compromise.
With both the Saudi and GCC deployed air and ground forces having only a marginal effect in supporting Yemeni Government forces, and with stalemate a fact of life, the Arab forces fear that the US commitment is wavering. Especially so after the beligerant Iranian meddling in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait incident. The US push back, including the destruction of Iranian radars supplied to the al-Houthi used for guiding anti-ship missiles that damaged a Saudi frigate and unsuccessfully targeted US naval assets, notwithstanding.
The Saudis and GCC want further US forces deployed in Yemen to help guarantee no further loss in territory to rebel a-Houthy forces. The key to the Yemen Civil War is the Red Sea port of al-Hudaydah, Iran’s al-Houthi rebel surrogate’s resupply port. Iran flies in some support to the al Houthi but much of their logistics comes by way of that strategic port.
Current Saudi and GCC airstrikes are supporting modest government advances in the northern Nehim and Sirwah Districts to the NE of the National Capital Sanaa, whilst al-Houthi forces have encroached into government held territory near the al-Houthi’s main city Saada near the Saudi Border.
Stalemate is in the air in Yemen, with Yemen’s President Hadi refusing to countenance any suggestions that Yemen settle the civil war by reverting to the previous borders of Sunni South Yemen and Shi’a Zaidi sect al-Houthi’s, North Yemen. Talks suggesting that the past president Salah might break the deadlock are totally non negotiable with the Yemeni Hadi administration because of Salah’s support of al-Houthi territory held around the capital Saana.
With al-Houthi holding most of the arable land in NE Yemen, as well as the port city of al-Hudaydah through which 80% of commerce flows, and controlling territory that is almost totally ethnically al-Houthi, of the Shi’a Zaidi sect. They hold most of the cards. Currently there is a modest Yemeni offensive in progress with government forces attempting to advance up the SW ‘Tiaz district’ coast of Yemen, towards the strategic al-Houthi port of al-Hudaydah. This force has taken a few small centres like Mukalla, Mokha to the NW of Aden, the only other viable port with just 20% of trade, but they are still at least 140 Km short of al-Hudaydah and their logistics lines are already stretched. There is little chance that this force will successfully take the port and they will be met with the al-Houthi main force, defending their key strategic logistics centre.
The stalemated Yemeni Civil War poses significant strategic risks for the US. Further ‘mission creep’ could tie up more US forces in an intractable war between Shi’a Iran and their surrogates, and the Sunni led by the Saudis and GCC Arab States. The same religious war that is raging in Iraq between the Iraqi Shi’a government and the Sunni Wahabbists of ISIS. As well as the multi polar civil war in Syria, between secular Shi’a sect Allawite Syrian government forces backed by Shi’a Iranian surrogate forces of Hezbollah, fighting Sunni forces of Turkey, ISIS, and various separatist forces such as the ethnically distinct Kurds.
The Trump Administration must tread carefully, lest the US forces get drawn back into what is a Muslim religious war raging across three nations, that is dressed up as civil wars. Wars that have raged on and off for the best part of a millennia. What we are experiencing in the Middle East is the inevitable shake out of national foundries, drawn during the colonial period in the 19th. and 20th. Centuries, that paid little heed to tribal and more importantly religious boundaries.