Middle East Ticker

The United States Escalates in Yemen, the U.S.-backed Rebels in Syria Cut Raqqa’s Lifeline, and the Saudis Try a Charm Offensive

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, March 7, 2017, 9:00 AM

The United States is Escalating One of Its Wars in Yemen

The January 29 raid on an al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) site in Yakla, Yemen that resulted in the deaths of several civilians and a U.S. Navy SEAL was just the start of an escalation of U.S. involvement in the country. Defense officials told ABC News last week that the administration is deploying more Special Operations Forces to the Middle East and that more raids are expected. "Authorities have changed in special operations' favor with the new administration,” one anonymous commando told ABC. The freer rein allotted to special operations coincides with a dramatic spike in the number of airstrikes targeting AQAP in Yemen—more than 30 last week and through the weekend. Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said the strikes have targeted AQAP fighters, equipment, and infrastructure, but there has not been reporting on their effectiveness so far. As the Council on Foreign Relations’ Micah Zenko notes, the reporting suggests Trump is now approving an average of one drone strike every 1.25 days, far outpacing the frequency of drone strikes approved by President Obama.

This escalation has focused entirely on one of the two wars the United States is fighting in Yemen: the counterterrorism fight against AQAP, which is a continuation of operations that extend back before the Arab Spring to target the group since its founding in 2009 (or, arguably, back to 2002, when the United States conducted its first ever drone strike against AQAP’s predecessor organization). Since the Gulf intervention in Yemen’s civil war in 2015, the United States has been partnering with Emirati troops to target AQAP, but it has also been helping the Gulf state fight the other war in Yemen: the civil war against Houthi rebels and loyalists to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country’s former president ousted in the Arab Spring, who together seized the capital in 2014. The United States is providing intelligence and logistical support to the Saudi-led intervention force, which is backing troops that are trying to restore the internationally-recognized government of President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi.

As the Trump administration settles on new policies to confront Iran’s involvement in the region, it is expected to escalate the U.S. role in the fight against the Houthis, which are perceived by the Gulf states and some U.S. analysts as Iranian proxies. (Many experts refute this claim, though, noting that the Houthis appear to be receiving only limited patronage from Iran and are acting independently and consistent with the organization’s history.) That war has resulted in more than 11,000 civilian casualties, the majority of which were caused by Saudi airstrikes, and Houthi forces are conscripting child soldiers and stepping up attacks on ships blockading the Yemeni coast.

Here’s the thing: These two conflicts are largely being fought separately, and the alliances in the war against the Houthis and Saleh are not the same as the alliances in the war against AQAP. That complicates U.S. war efforts, and the January 29 raid brought that complication into sharp relief. While the primary target, AQAP leader Qassim al-Rimi, escaped the raid, U.S. Special Operators did take out Abdulrauf al Dhahab, a brother-in-law of of Anwar al-Awlaqi with deep ties to AQAP. But Dhahab was also a Hadi supporter on the Saudi-backed government’s payroll. Also caught in the January 29 crossfire were local tribal leaders asking Dhahab to mediate a dispute with between them and AQAP. It’s hard to talk about any of these people being on one “side” of the conflict; they’re doing their best to manage local interests and have been caught between competing powers in the area. Their allegiances may be questionable, but they certainly will not be sympathetic to U.S. or Emirati forces after the raid.

Anyone who studies civil wars can attest to how complicated and fungible alliance structures can be; that’s all the more true when the conflict is really two intersecting civil wars.

How muddled is the Yemeni battlespace? The Houthis fought a series of wars with Saleh’s government from 2004 through 2010, but now they’re allies governing jointly from Sanaa. AQAP has been fighting the Houthis since those wars began to wind down because they consider them apostates because of their Shia identity, and has continued to fight them in parallel with pro-government forces. AQAP also opposes the Hadi government, but local leaders caught between AQAP and Saudi-backed pro-Hadi forces have worked with both. Anyone who studies civil wars can attest to how complicated and fungible alliance structures can be; that’s all the more true when the conflict is really two intersecting civil wars.

 

U.S.-backed Syrian Forces Cut off the Islamic State’s Retreat from Raqqa

Fighters with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces coalition advanced toward Islamic State-occupied Raqqa in eastern Syria over the weekend. After a weeklong hiatus in the offensive, SDF troops captured several towns from the Islamic State on Sunday along with a strategically important road connecting the Islamic State’s stronghold in Raqqa to its fallback position in Deir al-Zor. The gains bring the forces fighting the Islamic State closer to a complete siege of the city, though the battle plan for attacking the city—especially the role of Kurdish and Turkish-backed forces—remains the subject of debate.

The SDF is advancing near Raqqa, but it is withdrawing from areas near Manbij, where Turkish-backed rebels are contesting areas held by Kurdish peshmerga fighting under the banner of the SDF.

The Islamic State knows the showdown is coming, though, and is preparing for increased strikes on Raqqa. To disguise the movements of the Islamic State’s foreign officials in the city, authorities have mandated that all Raqqa residents wear “Afghan-style” clothes. Locals who violate the ban face fines or imprisonment, the journalist-activists at Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently report.

The SDF is advancing near Raqqa, but it is withdrawing from areas near Manbij, where Turkish-backed rebels are contesting areas held by Kurdish peshmerga fighting under the banner of the SDF. Turkish-backed rebels pushed the SDF out of two towns near al-Bab last week. The Manbij Military Council, a Kurdish SDF militia, said last week that Russia had mediated an arrangement between Turkey and the SDF; under the terms of the agreement, the SDF would withdraw from certain areas and cede the control to Assad regime forces, which would form a buffer between Turkish-backed rebels and Kurdish peshmerga in Manbij. That seems to have satisfied Turkish officials for now—Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said yesterday that its forces will not move on Manbij without the support of Russia and the United States because the operation “wouldn’t have much of a result and things could get more complicated.” But the United States has deployed U.S. forces to the area around the city as a "visible sign of deterrence and reassurance” just in case, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said.

 

What Will Trump and the Gulf States Do about Iran?

Iran is continuing to push the envelope in the Gulf and gauge the Trump administration’s response. In addition to recent missile tests, which prompted new U.S. sanctions, Iran has become more aggressive at sea. It has provided drone boats to Houthi rebels to attack Saudi ships patrolling Yemen’s Red Sea coast and mines that may have been deployed in the port of Mokha. (These weapons don’t seem to have helped the Houthis tactically, but have further reduced the delivery of humanitarian aid to the country, much of which is on the brink of famine.) And over the weekend, Iranian swift boats approached USNS Invincible, a U.S. radar ship equipped to monitor Iranian missile launches, and three British naval vessels in the Strait of Hormuz, stopping 600 meters from them and forcing them to alter their course.

So far the Trump administration’s response has been remarkably measured, and limited to enacting sanctions that may have been prepared but never implemented by the Obama administration. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who has previously advocated a tougher line on Iran, seems to be more focused on reassuring partners, the fight against AQAP and the Islamic State, and the tensions between U.S.- and Turkish-backed forces in Syria. And after meeting U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week, Yukiya Amano, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said yesterday that he is confident the United States will abide by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. "The new administration of the United States just started and they are looking at various issues—not just this issue but many other issues, so it is very early for them to give their assessment,” Amano said, but reported that he is “confident that we can have very good cooperation with the United States in the future.”

The Gulf states, meanwhile, are going on the diplomatic offensive. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir traveled to Baghdad last week for a surprise visit in a country that Saudi Arabia has largely written off as an Iranian vassal. “The Saudis have apparently decided to try a different approach to Iraq,” Brookings senior fellow Bruce Riedel wrote. “They hope engaging with the Abadi government at a higher level will provide some counterweight to the Iranian influence in Baghdad. Riyadh is unlikely to ever have the influence Tehran enjoys with so much of the Shiite community, including militias and politicians—but it can have some influence.”

If Gulf diplomats are sincere about a conference to resolve its disputes with Iran, the penultimate paragraph of an editorial in the Wall Street Journal...seems like a strange place to convince Iranian officials about the idea.

Meanwhile, the Emirati ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba took to the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page to propose a more conciliatory approach to Iran. The editorial mostly argues for the United States to take a more assertive role confronting Iran’s activity in the Middle East. Otaiba writes that this “does not necessarily mean we are seeking boots on the ground. It is more about determined leaders in Washington providing clear intentions and consistent policies.” But when he’s not exhorting a hard line on Iran, Otaiba reiterates the Gulf states’ proposal to convene a strategic dialogue with Iran to resolve the region’s preeminent geopolitical rivalry. Iran would just have to recognize three principles, Otaiba writes: “noninterference in other countries’ domestic affairs, a halt to exporting the revolution, and a commitment to reducing Sunni-Shiite sectarianism.”

The time clearly isn’t ripe for such a conference. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed the idea out of hand on Sunday. “We do not see positive behavior by the Saudi officials in area of politics and they continue spreading tension in the region instead of using the current situation to hold dialogue and interact,” he said, though he left the door open to discussions in the future. While Iran is also guilty of ratcheting up tension in the region, Zarif has a bit of a point. If Gulf diplomats are sincere about a conference to resolve its disputes with Iran, then the penultimate paragraph of an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, the previous 600 words of which railed against Iran’s indefatigable hostility, seems like a strange place to convince Iranian officials about the idea.