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Middle East Aflame
Why Trump May Escalate in Yemen

Several reports this week indicate that the Trump administration might be at a strategic inflection point in Yemen. The Pentagon appears to be pushing for more aggressive backing of the Saudi campaign against the Houthi rebels.

First with the scoop was the Washington Post:

In a memo this month to national security adviser H.R. ­McMaster, Mattis said that “limited support” for Yemen operations being conducted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — including a planned Emirati offensive to retake a key Red Sea port — would help combat a “common threat.”

Approval of the request would mark a significant policy shift. U.S. military activity in Yemen until now has been confined mainly to counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda’s affiliate there, with limited indirect backing for gulf state efforts in a two-year-old war that has yielded significant civilian casualties.

It would also be a clear signal of the administration’s intention to move more aggressively against Iran.

Subsequent reporting by the Wall Street Journal confirmed the news. Not only is Mattis pushing to support an Emirati operation to retake the port of Hodeida, the U.S. has already been increasing its logistical and intelligence support to its Gulf allies—and is moving to resume the sale of precision-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia.

Why this apparent enthusiasm for a beefed-up role in Yemen? For Mattis, the calculation is all about Iran. Unlike President Trump or advisers like Sebastian Gorka who have prioritized the fight against ISIS, Mattis has spent his career fixated on the longer-term threat from Tehran. And if Mattis wants an early chance to roll back Iranian gains, Yemen must look like a tempting target.

Dislodging Iranian proxies in Yemen could achieve a number of objectives: It would take an Iranian pawn off the chessboard, prove that the U.S. is still capable of organizing the Sunni Arabs, and send a signal to the Russians that the United States is still a vital player in the Middle East. Mattis may be calculating that he can achieve these objectives with only limited exertions. It’s not such a crazy idea: Tactically speaking, unlike Syria or Libya, Yemen is an “island” in that the United States can project force into any part of the country without having to put boots on the ground permanently. And the Emiratis—by far our most reliable Gulf military allies—would take the lead in the campaign anyway, with U.S. providing sea-based support. Furthermore, though one is loath to call anything a “cakewalk,” especially given how challenging Yemen’s terrain can be, the Houthis are not a very sophisticated adversary, even with Iranian backing.

The big question is what happens when the shooting stops. This most recent war has exacerbated divisions in a country historically known for relatively harmonious relations between Shi’a and Sunni. A successful U.S. military campaign will need to be accompanied by serious diplomatic efforts to work out a post-war settlement, and above all will require the U.S. leaning on the Saudis to prevent them from over-reaching. That said, it’s doable. Yemen, once again, is not Libya or Syria.

The fact that the Trump Administration is still far behind on staffing up its State Department suggests that even a comparatively low-hanging diplomatic fruit like this may be out of reach. But for a Pentagon eager to give the Iranians a black eye, the benefits of turning up the heat against the Houthis may well outweigh the costs.

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  • Pait

    Getting into a war just to make a point. Doesn’t seem enough justification.

    • Proverbs1618

      I agree. Obama and Hillary’s Lybia adventure was a disaster, wasn’t it?

      • Pait

        Nothing good came of it.

        In Libya the reason was the Qaddafi was about to destroy whole cities and kill hundreds of thousands. Even if the result of the intervention was no good, not doing anything would be at least as bad.

        Yemen seems to have no justification whatsoever. “State is unstaffed so let’s start a little war”, how does that sounds?

        • Proverbs1618

          I think you must have missed this sentence. “Dislodging Iranian proxies in Yemen could achieve a number of objectives: it would take an Iranian pawn off the chessboard, prove that the U.S. is still capable of organizing the Sunni Arabs, and send a signal to the Russians that the United States is still a vital player in the Middle East.” Comprehending it is fairly critical to this whole piece. So there’s plenty of justification for it.
          The State staffing is irrelevant to this. The Pentagon takes care of war related functions. Plus, I think you are underestimating, perhaps severely underestimating, how much an example of effective hard power usage can help the flowers of diplomacy bloom.

          • Pait

            Yes, prove a point a send a signal, by getting into a war we have no connection to, because the Army is available and naming ambassadors requires work.

            I understand that war is a continuation of diplomacy but this makes no sense.

          • Proverbs1618

            You are advocating for what BHO was doing for 8 years which is what got us into this mess in a first place. Since a definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different result we can all agree that a course correction is needed. Every action has costs and benefits associated with it. This Post seems to argue that the strategic and humanitarian benefits outweigh the costs.

          • Pait

            I am stating that escalating a minor war with which we have very little connection is unlikely to be good policy, especially so if it is done just because we can, just to send signals and prove points, which are functions of a functioning diplomacy.

            I suppose we will see. The Army is certainly able to get going faster than this do-nothing congress and administration.

          • Proverbs1618

            “The Army is certainly able to get going faster than this do-nothing congress and administration.” Yes, Democrats’ blind partisanship and obstruction to everything and anything are indeed a problem. But so what? We are here to solve problems. Nobody said it was going to be easy.
            By your definition, diplomacy under BHO has been anything but functioning. So we are changing it up a little bit. Apparently being all talk and no action is not that persuasive when you are dealing with people who back up their talk with action(like your favorite super-villain Putin).
            You disagree with the premise of this post while I agree with it. I hope we go through with it.

          • Pait

            I don’t doubt that you hope this happens.

            The fact remains, getting into a war with very little national interest just because one can is a rather silly idea.

  • Proverbs1618

    i may disagree with Mattis on a lot of things, but the man has balls of steel, and that is not nothing. It’s just so refreshing to see true American grit after the nightmare of Obama. Now excuse me as I softly chant USA!!! USA!!! (I’m at work, after all).

  • FriendlyGoat

    The ordinary people whose lives get shot-up from the shooting must always wonder why so many shooters have no plan for what to do when the shooting stops.

    • Proverbs1618

      Which is why we must stop the shooting by putting an end to this horrible war. The article mentions that this has been going on for at least 2 years. Surely you are not suggesting we should abandon all these innocent Muslims to just be shot up. And if by doing such a great humanitarian endeavor we also give Iran a little painful shove, well, so much for the better. So if you are against pushing back in Yemen against Iran, you are Islamophobic.
      Man, I love arguing the Left does. Once you no longer care about intellectual honesty, you can paint your opponent as some kind of racist 100% of the time. I will see how long I will argue like this with you. Hey, I may like it.

      • FriendlyGoat

        I didn’t express a policy opinion on what the USA should do in Yemen. I didn’t even imagine the USA as the only shooter who/which has no idea what to do when the shooting stops (or more likely, pauses.) Somewhere in Yemen today, there are some guys who really would just like to earn a living and some gals who really would just like to raise their kids—–or maybe gals who just want to earn a living and guys who want to raise the kids. Mostly because of religion, their hopes, dreams and lives willl be shot up.

        • Proverbs1618

          Yeah dude. I think we genuinely agree here. Outside of Israel, Middle East is definitely the closest we come to Hell on Earth. Made me wonder more than once why the Promised Land wasn’t some island in Fiji but instead a little piece of desert with absolutely no natural resources whatsoever in the absolute worst place on Earth.
          Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour. – Isaiah 45:15
          http://biblehub.com/isaiah/45-15.htm

          • FriendlyGoat

            The “Promised Land” is wherever people make themselves sensible promises and attempt to fulfill them. Lots of people live in their own versions of the promised land. The older we get, the more we realize how this works.

          • Proverbs1618

            Maybe. Self-delusion is a powerful drug and we are all addicts to some extent. The Promised Land I was referring to however, is the Promised Land described in the Bible. THAT promised land, unfortunately for all of us, has very well defined geographical boundaries. And they suck. They really do. But what can we do? We are all just bookmakers to a King, in one way or the other.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Several decades ago, I decided that the Bible is useful for helping us decide to treat other people in more kindly ways—–AND—-that any other use of it is questionable or worse. The same could and should be true of Islam, depending on what individual Muslims decide to do with their religion (and what their neighbors “permit” individuals to do with it.)

          • Proverbs1618

            That’s the beauty of the Bible I guess. Everybody gets something different out of it. And since we get to decide what more kindly ways means in practice, any and all behavior can be, and indeed has been, excused. I personally prefer to take it a bit more literary. The world seems to make more sense that way.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Using the Bible to excuse “any and all” behavior is one of those other uses I call questionable or worse. Unfortunately, as you point out, a lot of people have tried in many times and places to do that.

          • Proverbs1618

            Oh my God, please tell me that you are not so blinded by Pride to think you are not guilty of that sin. I mean, it’s like one of those “we are obviously all guilty of this” statements. but if you think you are that Holy, well….. What can you say to that?

          • FriendlyGoat

            I can say what I already said. The Bible is useful for helping each of us decide to treat others more kindly (than we would if we didn’t have it), or it is not useful for anything positive at all.

          • Proverbs1618

            I hope Bible is teaching you to be kind to me and not steal my money.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Unless and until you meet someone on the street who says “I am FriendlyGoat from the Comment Section and I have come to steal your money”, you can be certain that I am not stealing your money.

          • Proverbs1618

            You want the State to do it for you.

  • Rodney

    There are plenty of good strategic reasons for eliminating an Iran proxy from Yemen. Iran already has control of one side of the Straights of Hormuz. An Iranian proxy in control of Yemen would mean Iranian control of an entire side of the Gulf of Aden and the Bab-el-Mandeb. The ability of Iran or a proxy to significantly disrupt traffic through both of these strategic water ways is a credible danger to America’s interests and those of its allies. I wish Mattis luck in this effort.

  • D4x

    From 03 25 2017 National Post, better background than USA media: “… Rather than accepting America’s outsized military burden in the Middle East, he pressed the Arab NATO plan with Arab diplomats in Washington through Flynn, who had become his national security advisor, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. …

    The “much bigger deal” involves something for all the Sunni Arab states in the region. Saudi Arabia needs help fighting the Iranian-backed Houtis in Yemen, Egypt needs help countering threats from Libya, all are at risk from ISIL. As a down payment on the deal, the Trump administration launched a commando raid into Yemen. To seal the deal, Trump must overcome Arab fears of being accused of entering an alliance with Israel. Arab leaders have asked Trump to hold off moving his embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and to prevent Israel from building new settlements, requests with which Trump is complying.

    In short order, Trump has begun to realign the Arab armies, at the same time indicating he has their back against a nuclear-powered Iran
    bent on hegemony over the Middle East. Judging by the reaction of Iran, Trump’s approach is working.

    Iran is now on its back foot, concluded an analysis by the Middle East Media Research Institute, saying “These developments have given rise in Tehran to a sense that it is besieged and under an emerging existential threat, in light of the crystallization of a comprehensive U.S.-Russia-Arab (including Israel) front against the Iranian revolutionary regime.”

    Trump, in contrast, is leaning forward, his assertive Middle East diplomacy, two months into his presidency, showing astonishingly
    promising results.”

    http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/lawrence-solomon-with-an-arab-nato-and-a-contained-iran-trump-is-changing-the-middle-east

  • Jayson DeBrune

    Iran’s support of the Houthis is leading to the creation of another Syria and will bring the Saudis in a growing proxy war. Iran is a master of using terror proxies in Hamas, Hezbollah and Shiite militias to do its dirty work

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