Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has a new mission. He’s trying to recruit states and friendly forces in the Middle East to form a coalition of naval forces to patrol strategic waterways such as the Persian Gulf and the Bab-el-Mandeb, the outlet of the Red Sea.
The immediate candidates for joining such a group are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and possibly Egypt. These countries are used to operating in coalitions. Once it was the Arab coalition set up by Saudi King Salman in 2015 to fend off Iran, another time it was an Arab-American coalition against the Islamic State, and other times it was international coalitions in wars against Afghanistan and Iraq.
Usually facing these Western-Arab groupings are coalitions such as the Russia-Iran-Turkey axis. The forming of a coalition to police the Persian Gulf and Red Sea may indicate that an attack on Iran in reprisal for the attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf – attributed to Iran – isn’t in the cards.
The protection of ships is part of the new strategy. The United States has learned lessons fighting terror groups like Al-Qaida, the Taliban and the Islamic State, finding out that a heavy strike may work against a state but not against shoulder-held missiles or terrorists sticking a mine on a ship’s hull or firing missiles at an airport.
These wars have also shown that it may have been easy to form coalitions among big powers, but they all had to rely on local forces, usually militias or other irregulars.
In Syria, the Arab coalition failed to recruit enough militias for the long haul; the militias fought each other instead of the Assad regime, and thus lost. It was the same in Iraq, where the government had to seek the help of pro-Iranian militias, which then became part of the regular forces. They fought well against the Islamic State but increased Iran’s hold on Iraq.
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Yemen is now demonstrating a similar picture of local rivalries that make it difficult to fight the Houthi rebels. Ostensibly, the war zone in Yemen clearly separates the pro-Western from the pro-Iranian forces. But actually there are at least 30 fronts across the country. In the more consolidated north, these are the Houthi forces, relying on Iran; they’ve captured most of the north, including the capital Sanaa, which fell into their hands in 2016.
In the south there’s a melange of forces that include ones loyal to the government, with others that have taken over the Port of Aden, and the Tihama militia, whose recruits include residents of the port city of Hodeida through which most goods enter Yemen.
These militias are also fighting against Al-Qaida in the southeast, and against a Yemeni militia headed by Tareq Saleh. With the formation of the Arab coalition, it was decided that local militias would operate under the coalition’s supervision, headed by Saudi commanders and UAE officers, with the air forces of these two countries providing support.
The Saudis and Emiratis train the militias, pay their salaries and buy their equipment. Sudan and Egypt sent token forces at first but Egypt soon sufficed with naval patrols and “advising.” Pakistan, which joined the coalition under Saudi pressure, gave the Saudis well-trained pilots who take part in airstrikes. It didn’t send ground troops.
In the meantime, a dispute over strategies has broken out between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Saudis want most of the effort directed at the north, from where attacks on two Saudi air bases are launched.
The UAE attributes greater importance to controlling the south, especially the Port of Aden. As a result, the UAE, ruled by Emir Mohammed bin Zayed, has started directly supporting not only southern militias but also the political leaders under the Southern Transitional Council headed by Aidarus al-Zoubaidi.
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This council was built on the foundations of the Southern Movement, which was established in 2007 as a protest against Yemen’s previous ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh. He was deposed during the Arab Spring and was later killed by Houthi forces after trying to forge an alliance with the Saudis.
The Southern Movement is striving to resuscitate southern Yemen as an independent state, and the Southern Transitional Council has the same goal. Yemen’s recognized president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who is in Saudi Arabia apparently under house arrest, decided to depose Zoubaidi as the governor of Aden, claiming that he was disloyal and undermining the country. In response, Zoubaidi’s forces took over Aden and turned it into their capital.
The Southern Movement currently has 26 members and receives aid and support from the UAE. There are suspicions that the UAE wants to establish an independent state in southern Yemen, thus ensuring its control over the Bab-el-Mandeb and oil traffic in the Red Sea, a route carrying 4 million barrels of oil a day.
The strategic dispute between the Saudis and the UAE resulted in the statements over recent weeks that the UAE would partially withdraw forces from Yemen. This was immediately perceived as a total withdrawal from the country, leaving the Saudis on their own. UAE officials have denied this and strongly refuted suggestions of a rift with Riyadh, but it seems bin Zayed is fed up with the hopeless situation in Yemen, which is threatening his country.
According to reports by Gulf media outlets, bin Zayed is being pressured by his partners, the rulers of the seven Emirates, to leave Yemen, based on fears that a violent confrontation between the United States and Iran could make the UAE the target of Iranian attacks.
Also, the Emirates don’t want to be tightly linked to the Saudis while Saudi Arabia is in the eye of the American political storm. The confrontation between President Donald Trump and Congress around arms sales to Riyadh reached a climax when Trump bypassed a congressional resolution to freeze an $8 billion deal. He’s now facing legislation designed to block his move.
Crown Prince Mohammed's war
According to the new proposal, based on an initiative to reexamine U.S.-Saudi relations by Sen. Jim Risch, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the president will have to impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia for human rights violations and for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as for the war in Yemen and its giant humanitarian crisis.
The intention is not to impose heavy sanctions such as those on Iran or Syria, but to stress declarative sanctions such as denying entry to senior Saudi officials. UAE states are worried that their deep involvement in the Yemen war will make them a target of American sanctions. They’d rather that the war in Yemen looked like Prince Mohammed’s private war.
The tense web of relations between Trump and Congress and between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the internal rivalries between the recognized Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council, and the struggle between the various militias fighting the Houthis leave very little hope for a diplomatic solution to the war. Already 50,000 to 100,000 people have been killed from the fighting or disease, with a quarter of a million left homeless.
The American-Saudi goal of deposing the Houthis, cutting off Iran’s arm in Yemen, looks more remote than ever because there is no agreement on a comprehensive American assault such as the one against the Islamic State. This would have no international legitimacy since, in contrast to Iran, the situation in Yemen isn’t perceived as an international threat.
The U.S. administration and Congress believe that even further military aid to the Saudis and the UAE won’t lead to a decisive victory and that the solution, if it exists, lies at the United Nations. But so far all that has been achieved is the cease-fire in Hodeida signed last December.
To succeed, the United Nations or any other mediator must redefine the war in Yemen so that it no longer resembles a war of prestige between Iran and the United States and Saudi Arabia, but rather a war over the just distribution of representation in government and resources. These were the real reasons for Houthis’ struggle against the government before it was painted in Iranian colors.
The problem is that any solution that grants the Houthis some political or economic achievements will immediately be perceived as an Iranian victory, and it’s doubtful the U.S. administration would agree to this.