Washington’s 2 Air Wars: alongside Iran in Iraq, Saudis in Yemen

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

The United States is now involved in two air wars in the Middle East, not to mention more widespread drone actions.

US fighter jets have, at the request of the Iraqi government of Haydar al-Abadi, begun bombing Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) positions in Tikrit, according to al-Hayat (Life).

Initially, the US sat out the Tikrit campaign north of the capital of Baghdad because it was a largely Iran-directed operation. Only 3,000 of the troops were regular Iraqi army. Some 30,000 members of the Shiite militias in Iraq joined in– they are better fighters with more esprit de corps than the Iraqi army. Some of them, like the Badr Corps of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, have strong ties to Iran. The special ops unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Jerusalem Brigade, provided tactical and strategic advice, commanded by Qasem Solaimani.

The campaign deployed tanks and artillery against Daesh in Tikrit, but those aren’t all that useful in counter-insurgency, because they cannot do precise targeting and fighting is in back alleys and booby-trapped buildings where infantry and militiamen are vulnerable.

The campaign stalled out. The Shiite militias didn’t want the US coming in, but have been overruled by al-Abadi. US aircraft can precisely target Daesh units and pave the way for an Iraqi advance against the minions of the notorious beheader “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi” (the nom de guerre of Ibrahim al-Samarrai, who is apparently wounded and holed up in Syria).

US air intervention on behalf of the Jerusalem Brigades of the IRGC is ironic in the extreme, since the two have been at daggers drawn for decades. Likewise, militias like Muqtada al-Sadr’s “Peace Brigades” (formerly Mahdi Army) and League of the Righteous (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq) targeted US troops during Washington’s occupation of Iraq. But the fight against the so-called “Islamic State group” or Daesh has made for very strange bedfellows. Another irony is that apparently the US doesn’t mind essentially tactically allying with Iran this way– the reluctance came from the Shiite militias.

Not only US planes but also those of Jordan and some Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Saudi Arabia? the UAE? Qatar?) will join the bombing of Daesh at Tikrit, since these are also afraid of radical, populist political Islam. But why would they agree to be on the same side as Iran? Actually, this air action is an announcement that Iraq needs the US and the GCC, i.e. it is a political defeat for Iranian unilateralism. The US and Saudi Arabia are pleased with their new moxie in Baghdad.

Then in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has begun bombing the positions of the Shiite Houthi movement that has taken over northern and central Yemen and is marching south. One target was an alleged Iranian-supplied missile launcher in Sanaa to which Saudi Arabia felt vulnerable. That isn’t a huge surprise. The Saudis have bombed before, though not in a while. The big surprise is that they have put together an Arab League anti-Houthi coalition, including Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, and the GCC. Even Pakistan has joined in. (Sudan and Pakistan are a surprise, since they had tilted toward Iran or at least had correct relations with it formerly). The US State Department expressed support for this action and pledged US logistical and military support. It remains to be seen if this coalition can intervene effectively. Air power is unlikely to turn the tide against a grassroots movement.

About a third of Yemenis are Zaidi Shiites, a form of Shiism that traditionally was closer to Sunni Islam than the more militant Iranian Twelver or Imami branch of Shiism. But Saudi proselytizing and strong-arming of Zaidis in the past few decades, attempting to convert them to militant Sunnism of the Salafi variety (i.e. close to Wahhabism, the intolerant state church of Saudi Arabia) produced the Houthi reaction, throwing up a form of militant, populist Zaidism that adopted elements of the Iranian ritual calendar and chants “Death to America.” The Saudis alleged that the Houthis are Iranian proxies, but this is not likely true. They are nativist Yemenis reacting against Saudi attempts at inroads. On the other hand, that Iran politically supports the Houthis and may provide them some arms, is likely true.

The Houthis marched into the capital, Sanaa, in September, and conducted a slow-motion coup against the Arab nationalist government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. He came to power in a referendum with 80% support in February, 2012, after dictator Ali Abdallah Saleh had been forced out by Yemen’s youth revolution of 2011-12. Hadi recently fled to the southern city of Aden and tried to reconstitute the nationalist government there, with support from 6 southern governors who, as Sunni Shafi’is, rejected dictatorial Houthi Zaidi rule (no one elected the Zaidis).

But the Houthis, seeking to squelch a challenge from the south, moved south themselves, taking the Sunni city of Taiz and attracting Sunni tribal allies (Yemeni tribes tend to support the victor and sectarian considerations are not always decisive). Then Houthi forces neared Aden and Mansour Hadi is said to have fled. The nationalist government appears to have collapsed.

The other wrinkle is that elements of the old nationalist Yemen military appear to be supporting the Houthis, possibly at the direction of deposed president Ali Abdallah Saleh. So in a way all this is a reaction against the youth revolution of 2011, which aimed at a more democratic nationalist government.

The US support for the Saudi air strikes and the new coalition makes the Yemen war now the second major air campaign supported by the US in the region. But the one in Iraq is in alliance with Iran. The one in Yemen is against a group supported in some measure by Iran. This latter consideration is probably not important to the US. Rather, the US is afraid that Houthi-generated chaos will create a vacuum in which al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will gain a free hand. AQAP has repeatedly targeted the US. On the other hand, the Houthis are sworn enemies of al-Qaeda and have fought them militarily. The US also maintains that in each instance, it is supporting the legitimate, elected government of the country.

A lot of the online press in Yemen appears to have been knocked offline by the turmoil, by the way.


Related video:

Reuters: “Saudi Arabia launches air strikes on Houthi fighters in Yemen – Saudi envoy”

16 Responses

  1. this is bad. we need to disengage in iraq. accept reality. stop contributing to the destruction. spend the money on paying teachers back home.

  2. Lindsey Graham will be beside himself. This news isn’t just “ironic in the extreme,” it means the U.S. has allied with the Iranians trying to drive Daesh out of Tikrit. If Graham is on the Sunday morning talk shows perhaps a courageous reporter will ask him why didn’t Iran just drop one of their NUCLEAR BOMBS on Tikrit instead of calling on U.S. airstrikes?

    • Jack, cause we don’t have any nuclear bombs, we don’t have the technology of it yet for love of God. Stop saying we have nuclear bombs. Having nuclear bomb for a country is like having an expensive car, you have to show off with it to get respect on the street !
      If we had, you would have seen it in action in yearly practice sessions. (just like North Korea or back in the day in USA)

    • Besides, using nuclear bomb is going to cost Iraq millions of dollars, so I don’t think they would allow any country to drop nuclear bomb on ISIS positions…… What are they going to do with the fall out? How many years should they not live in there ? Who is going to clean that mess up? Bet ISIS won’t !

    • i saw the movie. we already captured fallujah like ten years ago. why are we still bombing tikrit? i don’t understand.

  3. Since the unnecessary and immoral US invasion of Iraq this part of the world does appear to be in total chaos and “on fire.” Death, destruction, refugees. Was this the PNAC’s intention?

    This morning on BBC’s World Service a long report about Saudi Arabia’s decision to bomb Yemen. Linked that this may partially be an attempt to add to Israel and the 47 Republicans Senators efforts to undermine P5+1 negotiations? What can you say about this Prof Cole?

  4. Houthis shot themselves in the foot by choosing to go with a full coup and extending themselves forcefully to the South.

    The US doing the bombings in principle for supporting the national unity govt is one thing, but taking out the anti-Al Qaeda Houthis will not stop Al Qaeda and would rather end up helping them.

    Pakistan and Sudan’s roles shouldn’t be surprising. Pak has always worked for the Gulf or non-Gulf Arabs militarily regardless of whatever relations with Iran, who matter less when it comes to petro-dollars and slight edge in sectarian affinity since Pak is mostly a Sunni nation. Sudan was being strong-armed by Saudi Arabia for quite a while with pulling out needed investments and freezing Sudan out politically for their relationship with Iran.

  5. Hadi was the only candidate, so not much democracy there. So in Iraq the Shia persecuted the Sunni and in Yemen it’s the opposite. All we need is one more match to light the flame and we got a regular conflagration over there. (It might even happen without that match.) All this is the legacy of the U.S. intervention over there, both the invasions and supporting corrupt and dictatorial regimes!) Something for the jingoists over here to be proud of!

  6. Something similar to the “coalition” in Yemen theoretically could be assembled one day for action in the West Bank. They would cite nationalism, “national security,” and “stability” as words with which to dull outside opposition to the strategy. Depending on whether or not the Yemen conflict ends up setting what they deem an acceptable precedent, it would become impossible to rule out another such operation in the future. Middle Eastern leaderships, alliances, and goals change frequently and sharply.

    However, it is likely that the Yemeni plan will be an extremely rock and risky course.

  7. There is something I am not understanding here.
    Depending on the source, Saudi Arabia is either the third or fourth nation ranked by military spending, ahead of Israel, France or the UK, with 300 modern strike aircraft. The Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan and Iran all have strike aircraft so the total airforce available to bomb ISIS forces must be near 500 combat aircraft.
    With all those planes available in the region why then does the US have to be involved? If these states are truly worried about the threat wouldn’t even 10% of their strike force be more than enough to bomb Tikrit?
    One of those situations where what is said does not match up with the actions.

    • Well, if Uncle Sucker in all his parts (military self-expanding bureaucracy, all those “contractors” and armaments makers, US taxpayers and our little bits of residual wealth) is willing to be the barbarian mercenaries, why expose the little princelings who get to fly those sexy aircraft to dangerous hostile fire, some of it in the form of US- or Israeli-made missiles and projectiles? Remember, so much of this game is just wealth transfer that the players assume won’t involve exploding the entire board.

      And it appears the “president” of Yemen has “fled by sea.” link to huffingtonpost.com Given how easy it is to produce instability and regime change by all kinds of means, and how national borders and sovereignty are so very ’80s, and clearly indefensible or exclusive, and wondrously mutable too, what does it mean to be a “president” or “prime minister” of any nominal country, any more?

      Looks like the “we make our own reality to give you something to study” folks are now running wild, and somewhat reduced to looking for interstitial opportunities, often of a very personal nature, rather than maintenance of structures that might avoid meltdown and conflagration.

  8. steerpkie
    Answer is simple… It is not that simple !
    Iran and Saudi are as willing to conquer the world as USA is. Saudi wants its radical extremist sunni ideas everywhere, and Iran Wants to have more Shia be around it, some even say they still dream of getting all the nations back which they lost since persian empire !
    See? So no one is there to help them, its politics, its about gettig more influence !
    Iran army is enough to take care of ISIS, they dont even need Saudi newly bought aircraft from USA !
    Its an indrect war f Sunni on Shia sparked by Americans and English Empire (not the current english government)

  9. One only has to look on middle east map to see why the Saudis would have concern if the terrorists(?) take over Yemen. It’s the fear of them taking over the entrance/exit to from the Red Sea where the Saudi oil tankers route is.

    I remember President Obama saying that these countries need to step up to the plate and fight their own wars. Not USA. Now they are doing so. What’s the problem….

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