Monthly Archives: April 2015

Yemen – A Saudi Failure

For the past month the Air Force of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni allies have been conducting a bombing campaign against Yemeni Houthi Shiite militia.  The Houthis over the past half a year or so have taken control of Yemeni capital and if the news outlets are correct then, in some way they control at least a third of the county.  The direct result of their takeover, with the help of military units loyal to the ousted president Saleh, has been the collapse of Saudi Arabia supported Sunni government led by president Hadi.  Who at this time is hiding out in Saudi Arabia. For Saudi Arabia whose king no doubt sees the Sunnis losing the current Islamic Civil war, the specter of another Shiite victory, this time by Houthis was just too much.  And so the bombing begins.

While by itself Yemen does not represent a core interest to the United States, the Saudi involvement is interesting with regards to their strategic goals.  Specifically, trying to figure out what they are trying to accomplish with their bombing campaign.  Given their stated goal of restoration of the Hadi government, it is impossible to see how the bombing campaign will accomplish that.  The Houthis are clearly in charge despite continuous combat against Sunni opposition.  The bombing is unlikely to change that, and will only solidify their supporters will to fight.  An external aggressor such as Saudis tends to do just that.  The Hadi government collapsed not because they did not have an Air Force, but rather because he lost the support of the elites and the people who were not willing to fight and die for him.

The Saudi intervention is also interesting because of the possible blow back it could initiate against the Kingdom.  Lest we forget Houthis have successfully attacked the Saudis before.  As history teaches, think of Vietnam War, a motivated and combat hardened militia can defeat a technologically superior force that is plagued by incompetence and low morale.  While the internal Saudi politics are hard to discern, I would be very surprised to find true support for the unelected house of Saud among the Saudi armed forces.  The exception being the National Guard.  Saudi Arabia better hope that the bombing campaign does not lead to a ground incursion from the Houthi side, which at its worst could lead to the fall of the House of Saud.

Strategically the air campaign is a failure.  By itself it will not accomplish much given that Air Power is typically only decisive when used in conjunction with other forces or is applied against leaders who influenced by the damage caused by such strikes.  It is hard to see how a guerrilla force from the Northern Mountains of Yemen will be reduced by such means.  As US and USSR before them discovered in Afghanistan, Air Power in counter-insurgency campaign does not equal success.  Air Power can for a time in such situations limit the insurgent success, but without local forces and governing structures that have people’s trust, it will not by itself lead to victory.  What former president Hadi and Saudis lack is a local force that is willing to fight for them in Yemen.  Without that force the bombing campaign for Saudi Arabia is a waste of time and could actually lead to unintended consequences which will be tough to control.

Instead of stopping Shiite progress, the air campaign could instead lead to complication for the House of Saud.  If the Saudi leaders had any strategic thought, they would instead let the Yemeni crisis be resolved on its own.  As Shiites in Iraq and Syria discovered, their influence stops where the Sunni population areas begin.  Houthis as an insurgent force are only effective in areas of Shiite population.  Outside of that area they will become an occupier, faced with their own Sunni insurgency, until such time as both sides achieve equilibrium.

For the US the conflict in Yemen is an interesting side note.  The Houthi success and Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) hatred of them could prove interesting international relations case.  The only thing AQAP hates more than the US is Shiites and their mutual hostility could serve as a useful containment of both sides for the US.  Neither Houthis nor AQAP are strong enough to control the whole country and mutual standoff could benefit US interests if the AQAP is firmly focused on Houthi militia.  As such it would actually be more beneficial to the US interests if the Houthis were strong enough to confront the AQAP directly, unintentionally serving US interests. However, currently we are providing support to Saudi Arabia’s campaign, which strategically is actually weakening the force which could be the counterbalance to the AQAP, our enemy.  Either way the bombing campaign is another example of poor strategic thought.  It will be interesting to see what unintended consequences it will lead to in the future…

Iran – A New Dawn?

With nothing game changing happening until the past week it has been a slow month in the strategic arena.  I guess I could have examined the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, but all it would have been is just rehashing what I have previously said.  However, last week’s agreement between United States and Iran does present a significant potential in game changer in the Middle East international relations arena.  All, despite the tremendous opposition of those who don’t seem to grasp the significance of the deal and are stuck in the good guy/bad guy mentality. Or the Star Wars international relations theory as I explain in one of my previous post.  The deal that will be finalized this summer does truly present both an example of a strategy that is pursued with an achievable goal in mind and could serve as a stepping stone to altering the relationships US has pursued in the Middle East for the past fifty to sixty years.

Overall, the region currently is engaged in the Islamic Civil War, between competing Sunni and Shiite factions.  From Syria to Iraq to Yemen, all across the region Iran supported Shiites on one side and Saudi Arabia supported Sunnis on the other side are engaged in pursuit of a regional dominance. For the past half a century or so, especially after the fall of Shah in 1979, and the United States has been implicitly backing the Sunni interests.  With billions in aid for the Sunni states.  Unfortunately for us, our support of the Sunni governments has produced not gratitude, but push back.  Lest we forget, Al-Qaeda is a Sunni Muslim extremist group.  While the first of its kind, it did spawn a myriad of other similar organizations such as ISIL.  All of which are determined to harm U.S. interests and all are composed of Sunni Muslims. Most of which also adhere to the Wahhabi Islam.  The champion of this movement above all a Saudi Arabia, given its support for the Wahhabi strain of Islam both in Saudi Arabia and abroad. However, what we forget being as self centered as we are, the Sunni extremists hate Shiites more than they do us. What that means strategically for us is that the enemy of our enemy can be an useful helper.

On the other side is the issue of trust that some of our decision makers bring up.  However, what we should be concerned with is not trust, but rather understanding the interests Iran is trying to pursue. As demonstrated through negotiations, Iranians act out of self interest.  Therefore given our goal of defeating Sunni Islamic groups such as ISIL, Iranians could be a natural help.  While I wouldn’t go as far as calling them allies, both countries have the same goal of defeating Sunni extremism and associated groups. That doesn’t mean that we can’t limit Iranian influence in other areas of international relations, but it does mean we can use them as the counterbalance to the Saudi Arabian led Wahhabi movement.

While it might seem, that we’re could only be exchanging Sunni extremism for Shiite extremism, there are differences.  Iran and its proxies would have an extremely hard time dominating the other 90% of Muslims who are Sunni. As seen in Iraq and Syria, the best Iran can accomplish at this time is to create a semblance of equality.  With neither side gaining the upper hand. As the recent Iraqi offensive in Tikrit showed, Shiite militias have an extremely hard time in advancing into the areas populated by Sunnis.  That’s the same lesson that the Assad’s forces and Hezbollah learned in Syria.  The benefit to the United States of Iranian involvement is that the Sunni extremists have another adversary to worry about. This would force them to dissipate their resources, which could only help us.

That’s why this nuclear agreement is so important.  Despite and because of Saudi Arabian opposition it is imperative that the agreement gets done. With the nuclear issue resolved for the foreseeable future it will be possible for us to concentrate on the current threat of Wahhabi Islam.  Given that the threat of Sunni extremism impacts Iran directly we should let them primarily deal with it. While I don’t believe that in every case is the enemy of my enemy is my friend, in this case we should use the Iranians to rein in the Sunni extremist threat. This could work well in a short term, in the long term, who knows. My gut feeling is that the borders of the Middle East will have to be redrawn to accommodate both Sunni and Shiite population concentrations at some future date.  How long that will take, unknown.  The Lebanese civil war took more than 15 years to run its course. While we can’t know when the conflict will end we can use it to advance US interests for the time being and keep the threat manageable.  Which is what the nuclear agreement with Iran is all about.