By Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Contributor for In Homeland Security
Jack A. Goldstone, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University, correctly wrote: “What has happened in Yemen, although predictable, is about the worst outcome imaginable for U.S. policy. That America ever deluded itself into thinking airstrikes were enough to deal with the problems of failing states in the Middle East and North Africa — and the crisis of ISIS — is a notion that could only be made more frightening if it keeps on doing it.”
Instead of stability, the U.S. focused on al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) as the threat, completely ignoring the socio-political fragility and lack of necessary institutions there. America is becoming more tactically proficient at becoming strategically deficient in the complex socio-political landscape of the Middle East.
The U.S. is at a loss as to wielding substantial power beyond its economy or its military. It is failing to readjust to new power dynamics and finding alternatives. Washington is losing its old allies through a natural shift of divergent interests, values and wars.
The U.S. is caught in the middle of a climaxing regionwide sectarian war. Iran has been the winner of what on the surface seems like territorial influence but lacking absolute territorial control; preferring proxy or encountering resistance. Saudi Arabia has been the loser through a betrayal of former jihadists in Syria and Iraq and cumulating state rival actions. These can be looked at on pure sectarian terms and or traditional geopolitical ones.
The U.S.-led coalition is becoming the Saudi-led coalition. Operation Decisive Storm is being led by Saudi Arabia. Yesterday 100 planes struck Houthi Shia rebels in Yemen. This joint effort included: the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and Pakistani Navy ships, according to a Saudi adviser.
The crisis in Yemen threatens the involvement of some 150,000 ground troops from Sunni majority states (with the exception of another fragile state: Bahrain). The U.S. has officially announced that there will be no American military intervention on its part in Yemen but did admit to sponsoring the action and providing intelligence. The Islamic State and al-Qaida are also in the fight against the Shia Houthi.
There is strategic importance with the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and thus oil and commerce flow. Iran is likely not in any position to hold Yemen against eight Sunni majority states and the American supplied weapon systems and intelligence to the Saudis and Egyptians in particular.
Iran’s role to guide the Houthi or direct Yemen might be greatly exaggerated in comparison to other actors such as former strongman and President Ali Abdullah Saleh. He is suspected of playing a very diabolical game in working with both al-Qaida formerly and the U.S. and now the Houthi. Regardless of Tehran’s ability to influence Shia Houthi and Yemeni political outcomes, Riyadh is convinced that they are strongly involved. Tehran may decide its best letting the Houthi fall and concentrating its efforts where they have an already stronger position, like: Syria, Iraq and Lebanon or even Bahrain. For example, Tehran holds more power through its militias in Iraq than Baghdad. Why risk the momentum elsewhere to steer a sinking ship? Moreover, Yemen is faced with an even greater threat by non-state terrorist factions.
In the absence of U.S. leadership, Saudi Arabia has been hard at work to unite the region against the Iranians. Sunni states are finally making a statement of action: push Iran back. A bigger question for Yemen might be, what will happen to the Shia there when the rebels in power lose to the opposing sectarian forces as the civil war opens up to two strong international Sunni jihadist groups and over 10 Sunni states military forces? The U.S. is not in a position to stop them or to direct them.
Of the many traditional aspects of how Tehran operates, there is a looming larger war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which had previously been limited by a balance of power, but is now seeing greater fragmentation and instability through increasing religious fundamentalism. The culprit may in the end shift beyond the matrix of geopolitics and into a far more precarious apocalyptic jihad of sectarian Islam. The spark can fly off soon with Sunni terrorist groups lighting the match. The polarizing feeling also threatens the upper echelons of conventional Sunni forces when they meet on the battlefield, where it will be Allah deciding their fate rather than the U.N. or the Geneva Conventions Protocols.
Beliefs quickly become the most important thing in any holy war. In spite of secular Arab nation-states traditional geopolitical methodology, jihad is not about reason but truth. Beliefs are far more important than nationalism (e.g. Iraq militia and government forces). Secondly, death to your enemies becomes more important than the defeat of your enemies; or they cannot be defeated unless they are annihilated. This is seen in both the language and determination of Sunni and Shia fighters and leads to the intensification of war crimes.
It may not be too far of a stretch of the imagination to see an extremist variants from the Islamic State in the future fighting alongside the once and former secular Arab nationalists to eliminate the Shia. Saudi Arabia might wonder why it was fighting the Islamic State at all, if it was not for the fact that Riyadh could not control the entity or the direct threats waged against them that undermine the Kingdom. For many in Tehran, the sectarian war has already begun. Iraqi militias and Houthi rebels are everyday partnering with more Iranian “advisors”. It is present in Syria and in Yemen.
How can America engage in a sectarian holy war between Muslims? Can America afford to choose sides? What would a holy war look like between these two regional power centers? What is the end result of a sectarian jihad? Does victory mean the loss of more U.S. influence in the region by a determined group of Sunni states? Is sectarian victory genocide?
The nation-state concept is giving way to more antiquated forms of governance throughout the Islamic world. The once strong pillars of 1960s Arab nationalism are falling to theocratic regimes. As the conflict between the Arab states and Iran worsens, each party, which is highly fundamentalist anyway, becomes even more involved with greater intensity and the feeling a drive that necessitates the divine mission. They find themselves going beyond an already complex rubric of geopolitics in order to protect their diasporas from sectarian massacres stretching from Africa to the Far East.
Iran has the most to worry about. It is but one state and small minority in the Muslim world. This is evident with their erratic and outrageous behavior. It is evident in their seeking of nuclear weapons to defend their theocratic variant. But fear can quickly turn into opportunism, which it has. The Iranians have always had to be cleverer to survive in a Sunni dominated world. The best they can hope to gain is a larger buffer through Iraq, for example, and a greater number of proxy influence in the region: Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Consolidating their power is seen as a sort of defensive opportunism. It seems Iran has been too aggressive and too impatient by lashing out too far and headed for a potential showdown that unites the entire region against it. If this were simple geopolitics this would be fine.
Tehran’s particular national and religious interests are based on politically controlling large enclaves of Shia in coordination with a geopolitical buffer. Nevertheless, the more they win, the more confident they become. Which is bad. This has been observed. On the other hand, the more they lose, the more unpredictable and extreme they become. This has also been observed in 2012 with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. pushing for and contemplating military strikes against Iran.
Iran’s severe losses might be worse for everyone in the region. If Tehran believes it is facing a large enough defeat, they might associate that incorrectly and prematurely as to perceive a threat to their entire survival.
The bigger short term concern is preventing the wider sectarian geopolitical escalation across the region and holding Sunni states responsible to international law in their conduct of Operation Decisive Storm.
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