Yemen’s political-military mess cannot be solved now, or anytime in the foreseeable future, despite the UN announcement of another negotiated deal to halt the fighting – for now. Iranian-backed Houthi rebels will continue their assault on the Saudi/UAE-backed Yemeni government in what appears to be a horrendous quagmire in a strategic place at the narrow bottom of the Red Sea.
Yemen is a corrupt, ungovernable, backward, warlike country. A military victory by the Saudi/UAE/Yemen government “coalition” over the Houthis wouldn’t fix that and would leave the “victors” with an occupation that would necessarily last indefinitely and bleed the occupiers.
The US has already done that – in Afghanistan, which is probably only marginally better than Yemen. But the Taliban is, in fact, rising again and if the US withdraws, it is clear that the US-backed government will collapse. We have been there 18 years at a financial cost of $1.1 trillion. But more importantly, almost 2,500 Americans have been killed and over 20,000 wounded, not counting the thousands who have returned with serious psychiatric conditions such as PTSD. There is no “victory” to be had in Afghanistan.
This may be why the Trump administration has refused to increase the US military participation in the Yemen war by inserting ground troops, despite increasing pressure from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to do so. We are in far enough. America is supplying smart weapons and other munitions to the Coalition. US assistance includes refueling Coalition aircraft on bombing missions, providing intelligence and probably guiding Saudi and UAE aircraft to targets – not always successfully.
They have succeeded only in deepening the misery of a miserable country – more Yemeni civilians are being killed than Houthi fighters. The blockade of Yemen’s ports has generated a humanitarian disaster, including starvation, disease, and appalling lack of medical care. From news reports it is clear that only a fraction of the aid needed is getting through, and what happens to that is unclear.
Hawkish Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) has blocked the sale of additional smart weapons both on humanitarian and strategic grounds.
If there is a case for doing “something” in Yemen, it is that the country sits in a strategic position – the nexus of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and in the “heel of the boot” of Saudi Arabia. Iran would love to have a base on the western side of the Saudis – its arch-rival. Thus, Iran has been supplying the Houthis with military “advisors” and weapons including ballistic missiles. An Iranian political and military takeover of Yemen would allow it to have naval and air bases that can threaten the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, threaten Israeli, Saudi, Egyptian, and Jordanian shipping, and curtail America’s ability to operate freely in the region.
It is Iran that must be dealt with, not Yemen. The US must make its strategic interests and its position absolutely clear – that the United States will not tolerate a highly armed Iranian proxy state in Yemen. And it must be prepared to enforce red lines. The US must:
- Make it clear to Iran that any attempt by the Islamic Republic to set up bases in Yemen will be blocked by US air strikes.
- Interdict Iranian and neutral cargo ships carrying contraband cargo to Yemen. Specifically, this means stopping the transfer of long-range weapons – primarily ballistic missiles and anti-ship missiles. The UN has already banned Iranian arms exports, but Iran has flouted the UN without penalty. This would mirror the Proliferation Security Initiative.
- Quarantine Yemen the same way the US quarantined Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis.* The quarantine will be aimed at Iran and any other power operating on behalf of or financed by Iran to deliver missiles or objectionable weapons or equipment to Yemen.
- Make it clear that Iran is engaging in acts of war when it supplies long-range weapons used against other countries – such as the missile strikes on both civilian and military targets in Saudi Arabia
- Destroy launch sites and missile stockpiles just as Israel is destroying Iranian weapons going to Hezbollah in Syria. Israel has avoided direct participation in the Syrian civil war but protects its interests. Because the proposed air strikes in Yemen would be furthering the American objective of keeping Iran out of Yemen, they should be carried out by the US Air Force, not the Coalition (whose performance has anyway been erratic, to say the least).
- Block communications between Iran and Yemen using national means such as shutting down Internet links, blocking PTT (Post, Telegram and Telecommunications) nodes, and other steps intending to isolate Iran from Yemen.
- Step up radio, TV and Internet broadcasts to the Iranian people with clear and unambiguous messages that Iran’s leaders are risking the well-being of the Iranian people in another overseas war. The Iranian people have been demonstrating against such adventurism.
These steps constitute the imposition of actionable red lines focused on American policy toward Iran – not against Yemen and not in the name of the Coalition. They will make it hard for Iran to declare victory. They will also protect American and allied interests in the Red Sea region while keeping American boots out of Yemen, providing a viable way to deal with an unfolding threat in a vital part of the world.
*John F. Kennedy sent a letter to Nikita Khrushchev declaring that the United States would not permit offensive weapons to be delivered to Cuba, and demanded that the Soviets dismantle the missile bases already under construction or completed, and return all offensive weapons to the Soviet Union.
Stephen Bryen is a regular contributor to Asia Times. Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center in Washington DC. and is a leading specialist in US defense policy and Middle East affairs.