Get Ready for Still Another Middle East War
It started the way most recent Middle East conflicts have begun: with a popular rebellion against an authoritarian ruler - in this case former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, induced by internal threats and external pressures in November 2011 to cede power to his deputy, former field marshal Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The resulting political transition failed to satisfy the rebels, especially Yemen's Shia Muslim minority, which had been fighting the Saleh regime for nearly a decade, and which thereupon seized effective control of Yemen's northern Saada province, supported not only by fellow Shi'ites, but also by many Yemeni Sunnis.
Styling themselves the Houthis, officially Ansar Allah, "Supporters of God," in September 2014 they invaded Yemen's capital, occupying key government facilities and effectively incarcerating Mr. Hadi and his cabinet ministers in the presidential palace.
In February, 2015, Hadi managed to escape to Aden on Yemen's southern coast. Then, as Houthi forces threatened seizure of the port, Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia. Believing the Houthis merely Iranian surrogates, the Saudis then helped Hadi recapture Aden, drive the Houthis from the south, and mount what has become a vicious and destructive air campaign.
Like other recent civil conflicts in the Middle East from Libya to Syria, the war in Yemen since has become a multi-sided fight, involving not only Ansar Allah and its Hadi government antagonists, but also Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and a volatile roster of rival jihadist groups.
But the underlying contest is between the two elephants facing each other from opposite sides of the Persian Gulf: Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran. The former's participation is explicit: since 2015, the Saudis have led a coalition of nine Sunni Arab states, chiefly those along the Gulf, in a campaign combining limited ground combat, airstrikes, and a naval blockade.
For their part, the Iranians have denied aiding the Houthis, but in April 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry accused them of attempting to ship supplies through the blockade, and in September 2015, Saudi Arabia announced that coalition forces had intercepted and seized an Iranian fishing boat loaded with weapons, presumably headed for Yemen.
Meanwhile, if the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran has done little if anything to resolve Yemen's civil dispute, it has very effectively managed to produce a mounting humanitarian disaster in one of the world's most impoverished nations. According to the U.N., it has killed or injured at least 12,000 civilians, a third of them children, and internally displaced another 3 million. Fourteen million risk starvation, including 370,000 children under the age of five.
And what, you may ask, is America's role in all this? Since March, 2015, the U.S. and the U.K. have served as Saudi Arabia's de facto arsenal, furnishing everything from air-delivered munitions and mid-air refueling to intelligence and command-and-control, to the point where U.S. government lawyers now worry that the U.S. could be considered a "co-belligerent," hence legally accountable for Saudi actions that some have begun to label war crimes.
Just such an event occurred last weekend, when a Saudi airstrike killed more than 140 civilians at a funeral in Yemen's capital, Saana, prompting rare condemnation by the White House. Almost certainly in retaliation for that outrage, last week saw two successive albeit happily unsuccessful missile attacks on U.S. warships off Yemen's southwestern coast.
Despite Houthi denials of involvement in those attacks, on Thursday, U.S. cruise missiles from the U.S.S. Nitze destroyed three Iranian-operated radar sites in rebel-controlled coastal areas, sites presumed although not proved to have furnished targeting data to the missiles fired last week.
Justifying the attack, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook insisted that, "These limited self-defense strikes were conducted to protect our personnel, our ships and our freedom of navigation in this important maritime passageway." That claim unsurprisingly failed to mollify the Iranians, who now have dispatched two of their own warships to the area.
So the stage is being set for still another military confrontation in a region that already has cost the U.S. thousands of lives and trillions of dollars for no discernible benefit - this, in aid of a quasi-religious proxy war in which we never should have allowed ourselves to become involved in the first place.
Of course, that wouldn't be the first unnecessary Middle East fight in which we've indulged during the past two decades. Moreover, there are those in the neo-conservative commentariat - and in the U.S. Senate, unfortunately - who would like nothing better than an excuse to engage in an all-out war with Iran, never mind that the only likely winners of such a pointless contest would be Russia and China.
The Obama administration clearly has no such desire. But as usual where the Middle East is concerned, it seems helpless to govern its own impulses. And we, who should enforce strategic prudence electorally, are busily proving ourselves no more capable of doing so.