The United Stateslaunched its first strike on Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen in retaliation for days of attacks on a navy warship, becoming an active combatant in a brutal war led by Washington’s ally Saudi Arabia.
The Pentagon announced late on Wednesday that it struck and destroyed three radar sites controlled by the Iranian-backed Houthi movement in Yemen. The sites were described as being involved in two missile attacks over the past four days on the destroyer USS Mason, operating out of the Bab al-Mandeb waterway between Yemen and east Africa.
The US has conducted lethal attacks in Yemen against al-Qaida forces throughout Obama’s presidency, killing civilians as well as US nationals, Wednesday’s reprisal strikes were Washington’s first against the Houthis. They raised the prospect of deeper US involvement in what many in the region and Washington see as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Anthony H. Cordesman analyses the US war sitation for the Center for Strategic and International Studies
The United States is at war in varying degrees in four different countries in the Middle East and North Africa—Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen—as well as continuing its “longest war” in Afghanistan. All five of these wars now involve ISIS to some degree—ISIS is the central focus of the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Libya—and probably to a degree that seriously threatens the future stability of the MENA region and U.S. strategic interests.
In each case, the United States may be succeeding to the point where it is tipping the balance enough to achieve the narrow strategic goal of “defeating” ISIS to the point where ISIS no longer controls major cities or blocs of territory.
There is no prospect in any such war, however, that the United States will win a near term victory in either the broader strategic sense of fully defeating ISIS, or in the grand strategic sense of ending a war with a stable and desirable outcome.
Once again, the United States does not seem to be learning from its past. The real test of victory is never tactical success or even ending a war on favorable military terms, it is what comes next. World War I was a military victory that became a grand strategic disaster.
It is critical to look beyond the current U.S. obsession with ISIS and look at the broader threat. If one looks at the most recent START statistics on terrorism in the State Department annual report on terrorism, and only considers the top five threats, three are clearly Islamist extremist: ISIS (in Syria and Iraq), the Taliban, and Boko Harum. There are more than 40 Islamist extremist groups listed in the START database, but if one looks only at these top three, ISIS was responsible for only 37% of the attacks and 38% of the deaths.
Yemen is a military and civil strategic nightmare. Yemen’s elected (one candidate) government, the remnants of the Saleh regime, the Houthi Shiite rebels, the separatist factions in the south, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and various tribal factions have no clear reason to reconcile or stop fighting. Any peace is almost certain to be temporary and unstable. Worse, Yemen is so poor, so limited in water, lacking in economic development, so tied to a narco-economy, and so highly populated that it has no clear path towards nation building its various factions can agree upon.
The issue is simplest in Libya. Libya has cooperated to some degree in fighting ISIS. Libya will need a decade of rebuilding and reform to produce true stability and raise its per capita income and income distribution to acceptable levels. This requires both stable internal politics and leadership, and serious international aid.
The fight against ISIS in Iraq has to some extent led both Arab and Kurd to focus on ISIS instead of their own ethnic power struggles, and led Turkey to accept the fact that the United States is using both the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds as lead elements in its fight against ISIS. Any defeat of ISIS in Iraq will also will trigger greater Sunni demands for a better solution to ensuring the protection and status of Iraqi Sunnis in Iraq’s major cities and mixed areas, and for resolving the future “federal” status of the Sunni-dominated portions of Western Iraq.
The end result could well be a U.S.-led military “victory” over ISIS that adds up to a serious U.S. strategic defeat. Without some effective civil-military effort to bring unity and recovery, the best outcome could be a hopelessly unstable mess. If the Obama Administration has such plans or such a strategy, it is one of the few well-kept secrets in Washington. Its absence, however, is a good way to leave office and ensure the next President gets most of the blame.
Syria is also an obvious mess with many factions, poverty and long term instability.
BBC and Critical Threats summarize the Yemen Situation
Who is fighting whom?
In recent months Yemen has descended into conflicts between several different groups, pushing the country “to the edge of civil war”, according to the UN’s special adviser.
The main fight is between forces loyal to the beleaguered President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those allied to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Mr Hadi to flee the capital Sanaa in February.
Yemen’s security forces have split loyalties, with some units backing Mr Hadi, and others the Houthis and Mr Hadi’s predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has remained politically influential. Mr Hadi is also supported in the predominantly Sunni south of the country by militia known as Popular Resistance Committees and local tribesmen.
Both President Hadi and the Houthis are opposed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has staged numerous deadly attacks from its strongholds in the south and south-east.
The picture is further complicated by the emergence in late 2014 of a Yemen affiliate of the jihadist group Islamic State, which seeks to eclipse AQAP and claims it carried out a series of suicide bombings in Sanaa in March 2015.
After rebel forces closed in on the president’s southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Mr Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets. The coalition comprises five Gulf Arab states and Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Sudan.
What happens in Yemen can greatly exacerbate regional tensions. It also worries the West because of the threat of attacks emanating from the country as it becomes more unstable.
Western intelligence agencies consider AQAP the most dangerous branch of al-Qaeda because of its technical expertise and global reach. The US has been carrying out operations, including drone strikes, against AQAP in Yemen with President Hadi’s co-operation, but the Houthis’ advance has meant the US campaign has been scaled back.
Yemen is strategically important because it sits on the Bab al-Mandab strait, a narrow waterway linking the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden, through which much of the world’s oil shipments pass. Egypt and Saudi Arabia fear a Houthi takeover would threaten free passage through the strait.
Hostilities are escalating in Yemen after Saudi-led coalition airstrikes killed civilians in Sana’a, which scuttled a planned humanitarian ceasefire and provoked a response from al Houthi-Saleh forces. Coalition airstrikes killed approximately 155 civilians and wounded more than 500 others at the funeral for an al Houthi-Saleh military commander on October 8. Al Houthi-Saleh forces fired ballistic missiles toward Taif city, Saudi Arabia and Ma’rib governorate, Yemen in retaliation. Al Houthi-Saleh forces may have also fired two missiles toward a U.S. Navy destroyer north of the Bab al Mandab Strait on October 9, six days after an al Houthi-Saleh missile struck an Emirati ship in the same region
Al Qaeda is exploiting the current counterterrorism focus on the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) to build up a resilient Salafi-jihadi base in Libya. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emir Abdelmalek Droukdel gave an audio speech, titled “Benghazi and the Battle of Patience,” in which he frames jihad as the alternative to foreign invasion and destruction in Benghazi. AQIM, along with al Qaeda-linked groups currently operating in Libya, seeks to exploit conflict between secular forces and Islamist militants in Benghazi to position itself as a defender of the Libyan people and establish strong relationships with local armed groups. International attention remains focused on the U.S.-backed counter-ISIS campaign in Sirte.
SOURCES- CSIS, BBC News, Critical Threats, The Guardian UK