October 14, 2016

Escalation in the Red Sea: Yemen's Civil War, Iran, and Saudi Arabia

Ethan Beaudoin, Maher Farrukh, and Hamsa Fayed contributed significant research to this piece.

The United States military struck and destroyed three radar sites in Yemen after two missile attacks against U.S. navy ships in the Red Sea this week. U.S. Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook characterized the U.S. response as “limited self-defense strikes” to protect American personnel, American ships, and freedom of navigation in the Bab al Mandab Strait. The U.S. Navy had just increased its presence in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden after al Houthi-Saleh forces claimed the October 1 destruction of an Emirati catamaran off Yemen’s coast.

The deliberate targeting of U.S. Navy vessels from al Houthi-Saleh–controlled territory is a significant inflection in the Red Sea and a sign that Yemen’s civil war is becoming tangled in regional dynamics and conflicts. It does not make sense when seen in the context of only one of the conflicts—the Yemeni civil war, the Iranian-Saudi conflict, and Iran’s more aggressive posturing in the region. The reasons for these attacks emerge from the increasing interaction between those overlapping conflicts.

Missile attacks targeting vessels in the Red Sea. Click to enlarge. Produced with Ntrepid Timestream.

The al Houthi-Saleh faction, an alliance of sorts between an Iranian-backed Zaydi Shi’a armed movement and former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, was almost certainly involved in the attack. Yet that faction does not benefit from further drawing the United States into the Yemeni civil war. Al Houthi-Saleh officials, in fact, have repeatedly denied that their forces conducted the October 9 and October 12 attacks against the USS Mason in the Red Sea. Senior U.S. administration officials asserted in an October 14 background briefing that they were confident the al Houthi forces were involved in the attacks, though they could not state with confidence who exactly fired the missile and whether Saleh’s forces, or Iranian forces, were involved. It hard to conceive of a situation in which actors—internal hardline factions or even Iranian or Lebanese Hezbollah operatives—were able to operate in Yemen without the al Houthi-Saleh faction’s knowledge and facilitation and that operatives were able to use the radar sites under al Houthi-Saleh control twice without the al Houthi-Saleh faction’s consent in some form.

Targeting U.S. Navy vessels in the Red Sea would have strategic value for Iran as the Iranian regime pursues a hard line against Saudi and American influence in the region. Iranian-Saudi tensions are high, and Iranian regime officials continue to make barbed comments about the Saudi regime. A powerful Iranian brigadier general levied a thinly veiled attack against the Saudi defense minister on October 4 and called the Kingdom Iran’s “main threat,” for example.[1] The Iranian regime is also posturing against American intervention in the region, calling for the U.S. to leave the Middle East. The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Navy Commander called for the U.S. to “end [its] presence in the Persian Gulf” in mid September. He denied that IRGC vessels had harassed U.S. Navy vessels operating in the area. American and Saudi interests align against Iranian interests in Syria, but also in Yemen. Iran sees American support for the Saudi-led coalition as another sign that the United States is acting as an adversary.

The United States risks getting drawn unwittingly into the Yemeni civil war and further into regional conflicts even by taking limited, defensive action in the Red Sea. Regional and Yemeni actors perceive American actions through the lens of their conflicts. American missiles destroyed three radar sites in al Houthi-Saleh territory in Yemen, a perceived attack against the al Houthi-Saleh faction. It furthers the al Houthi-Saleh narrative that the U.S. is backing Saudi Arabia against it because of continued American intelligence and logistics support to the Saudi-led coalition. It also furthers the Iranian narrative that the U.S. is intervening in regional affairs. More dangerous, still, is the very real probability that the multiple conflicts spinning in the region will become so entangled that undoing the Gordian knot is near impossible.

U.S. responses to developments in the Red Sea. Click to enlarge. Produced with Ntrepid Timestream.

The challenges facing the United States in the Red Sea and the region will continue to multiply rapidly. Iranians or their proxies are now challenging the U.S. Navy’s ability to operate freely in one of the world’s most important maritime chokepoints. American responses risk drawing the U.S. further into a complex regional and internal Yemeni war. The U.S. must stop compartmentalizing challenges and conflicts that are increasingly intersecting. A strategic and comprehensive view of these problems must replace the tactical and ad hoc approach that has characterized U.S. policy in the Middle East for so long.

[1] The head of Iran’s Passive Defense Organization, IRGC Brigadier General Gholam Reza Jalali, said Saudi Arabia was Iran’s “main threat” and said “inexperienced Saudi leaders,” probably referencing Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, have implemented “offensive strategies against Iran.” Bin Salman is widely assessed to have been the Saudi official who pushed for a military intervention in Yemen in early 2015.
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