Iran’s Brutal War in Yemen Threatens the Entire Middle East

April 30 2018

During Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s confirmation hearings, Senator Rand Paul voiced objections—shared by a handful of other senators and congressmen—to U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, which is fighting alongside local forces to defeat the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Irina Tsukerman argues that Paul and likeminded figures in the government and the press have fallen victim to Tehran’s disinformation about a brutal and complex conflict with major strategic implications for the region:

[T]he Houthis have been waging a very successful propaganda war that plays off of international confusion over the complicated ground campaign in Yemen. They have focused the world’s attention on Saudi airstrikes while entirely omitting their own widespread war crimes, such as their use of child soldiers, their positioning of troops in hospitals and schools, their use of civilians as human shields, their abuse of religious minorities, and their merciless use of missile strikes against “adversary” civilians in both Yemen and Saudi Arabia. And while Riyadh has taken responsibility for its mistakes, . . . Houthis have issued no apologies for their ruthless tactics.

It was the Houthis, not the Saudis, who first imposed a humanitarian blockade against Yemen. They then used humanitarian-aid shipments to their own population as a disguise for smuggled weapons, which ultimately led to many deaths from starvation. The Saudis were forced to impose their own naval blockade as a defensive measure to counter ballistic-missile strikes and increased attacks on coalition [forces] on the ground—yet the Houthis have succeeded in painting the kingdom as the villain. . . . [T]he main [goal] of the widespread, tenacious, and largely successful pro-Iran propaganda campaign in the West . . . has been to get the U.S. out of Yemen. . . .

The stakes here are high and numerous. Endangering the Saudi kingdom’s physical security is but one of the Iranians’ goals. Their wish to control significant portions of Yemen, if not the whole country, also reflects their desire to monopolize the strategic Bab al-Mandeb Strait (an effort that mirrors similar attempts in Syria) and thereby be in a position to threaten the safe passage of all international vessels attempting to reach Djibouti and the Horn of Africa. Tehran is building a naval base in Yemen, creating new routes for smuggling, and mobilizing Houthis into yet another standing semi-formal army [along the lines of Hizballah] that can be called upon for military or terrorist operations anywhere in the world at any time. . . .

Another unwelcome byproduct of Tehran’s destabilization of Yemen is the growing involvement of Russia, which is both Iran’s ally and its competitor for influence. In both Syria and Yemen, Moscow—on the coattails of Tehran—is seeking to become a legitimate power broker, and has managed to do business with all sides.

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More about: Iran, Middle East, Politics & Current Affairs, Russia, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy, Yemen

What Egypt’s Withdrawal from the “Arab NATO” Signifies for U.S. Strategy

A few weeks ago, Egypt quietly announced its withdrawal from the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), a coalition—which also includes Jordan, the Gulf states, and the U.S.—founded at President Trump’s urging to serve as an “Arab NATO” that could work to contain Iran. Jonathan Ariel notes three major factors that most likely contributed to Egyptian President Sisi’s abandonment of MESA: his distrust of Donald Trump (and concern that Trump might lose the 2020 election) and of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; Cairo’s perception that Iran does not pose a major threat to its security; and the current situation in Gaza:

Gaza . . . is ruled by Hamas, defined by its covenant as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.” Sisi has ruthlessly persecuted the Brotherhood in Egypt. [But] Egypt, despite its dependence on Saudi largesse, has continued to maintain its ties with Qatar, which is under Saudi blockade over its unwillingness to toe the Saudi line regarding Iran. . . . Qatar is also supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, . . . and of course Hamas.

[Qatar’s ruler] Sheikh Tamim is one of the key “go-to guys” when the situation in Gaza gets out of hand. Qatar has provided the cash that keeps Hamas solvent, and therefore at least somewhat restrained. . . . In return, Hamas listens to Qatar, which does not want it to help the Islamic State-affiliated factions involved in an armed insurrection against Egyptian forces in northern Sinai. Egypt’s military is having a hard enough time coping with the insurgency as it is. The last thing it needs is for Hamas to be given a green light to cooperate with Islamic State forces in Sinai. . . .

Over the past decade, ever since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, Israel has also been gradually placing more and more chips in its still covert but growing alliance with Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s decision to pull out of MESA should give it cause to reconsider. Without Egypt, MESA has zero viability unless it is to include either U.S. forces or Israeli ones. [But] one’s chances of winning the lottery seem infinitely higher than those of MESA’s including the IDF. . . . Given that Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest and militarily most powerful state and its traditional leader, has clearly indicated its lack of confidence in the Saudi leadership, Israel should urgently reexamine its strategy in this regard.

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More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy