Thursday, April 23, 2015

Iran, Yemen, and US History in the Middle East

(photo credit: New York Post)

What follows is a conversation with "Mr. Smith", a former Army intelligence member. readers may recall that Mr. Smith have me the interview last year regarding Bowe Bergdahl.

He has some insightful, and alarming, commentary regarding the current military situation in Yemen, our history in the region, and our dealings with Iran.


Me: Please describe briefly the military actions which have been going on in Yemen recently, and the backstory behind them.

Mr S: Yemen has been at critical mass for roughly half a decade now. And long before that it served as a crucial counterterrorism (CT) logistical and operational base. Yemen was, of course, the location of one of Al Qaeda's most brazen attacks on America when AQ attacked the USS Cole at the port of Aden. While the brooding conflict in Yemen has never really stopped, it increased in intensity over the last 2-3 years. You could point to our departure from Iraq, the "pivot" to Asia, and any number of historical events that lead us to lean away from supporting the Yemeni government. 

Me: So prior to this, we were very involved with the Yemeni government, for counterterrorism purposes?

Mr. S: Next to the KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) they were the biggest ally we had, in my opinion. While we never retracted support, and in fact maintained a heavy intelligence presence in the country, we seemed to not really care about our second largest partner's, in the global CT fight, own internal security issues and how they impacted our operations. not only in the Arabian Peninsula, but the Horn of Africa, and our anti-Piracy efforts. 

Which is why the KSA backed the Saleh presidency and then Hadi's rule when he took over after Saleh went to KSA for medical treatment. That's when the Houthis, the "southern insurgency", and AQ in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), took to fighting the Yemeni government in earnest. Had we been more concerned we could have sent a few thousand troops to shore up our base there and ensure Sana'a didn't fall. But Obama was letting the Arab Spring take over and this included a Yemeni Revolution in 2011. I mean "take over" to mean not doing anything about it except giving tacit support to populist movements which came with deleterious effects.

During this time I had a close friend in country who was tasked to gather what we call "force protection" information. When the Yemeni uprising started, our ability to collect tactical intelligence in the city was shut down for a while. I can't say for certain when or if we started up again, but I assume we did at some point after he left, he told me the last four months of his tour were pretty boring.

Me: "Force protection"- i.e., information used to provide protection to US personnel?

Mr. S: Yes, it's a blanket way of saying tactical intelligence instead of saying it. Primarily meant to determine threats to US forces, operations, and allies. Beyond that it gets into more offensive human intelligence work which requires a bit more approval.

So all this is occurring while the Shi'a are gaining power in Iraq and Obama leaves al-Maliki (former Iraqi PM) to his own devices. Even Slate put it at Obama's feet. Bottom line is, nothing is happening in a vacuum and Iran is behind the scenes pulling a lot of strings, playing the long game that it's very good at. Before our withdraw they were involved in Iraq. But the IRGC-QF lead the Shi'a insurgency in Iraq and leads its militias now. They've been instrumental in harming their military and political opponents in Iraq. Maliki allowed Iraqi Police and Army to segregate, he purged it of Sunni officers, the Sunnis began to get frustrated especially after they helped defeat AQ in Iraq, the predecessor to ISIS. Maliki also allowed the MEK to be attacked, the MEK was and is an anti-Iranian force/political movement that Saddam used against Tehran during the Iraq/Iran War and all trough the 90s. We put them on a terror list a while ago, took them off after we invaded. 

Me: Not to interrupt your narrative, but is there a connection between Iran and ISIS?

Mr. S: There is, to some degree. Michael Weiss & Hassan Hassan wrote about the connections that Iran had with Ansar al-Sunna's (which became AQI, then ISIS) founder, Musab al-Zarqawi. I highly recommend their book "ISIS: State of Terror" to get a good background understanding of what ISIS grew from and where it got support from but also who its original targets were. 

Iran plays a game with the Shi'a Arabs. Stands up for them in Lebanon, Israel, Syria, but assists Sunni groups when it feels they're beneficial and those Sunni groups murdered thousands of Shi'a in Iraq. Iran wanted instabaility in Iraq and it got it in spades when we effectively left Iraq alone to it's own devices. 

So 2011, Arab Spring is in full swing in Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Qatar, you name it. In Yemen, Bahrain, and Qatar that meant "oppressed" Shi'a and many Iranians working as migrant workers for the GCC. This really started to come to a head when KSA backed the Bahrain government.

They weren't all Shi'a. Much of Africa's uprising was Sunnis who weren't in power. Same thing that happened here in the US in Ferguson and other places. Out of power minorities sense an abuse of power (like NYC and North Charleston) and they take the streets. Instead of government responding with civil order protection, Middle Eastern governments responded brutally. So in some cases it was legitimate uprisings, in others, I imagine there's an Iranian dirty hand at work, all trying to unseat KSA as the major power broker in the Middle East. 

After the KSA intervention, things did settle and were settling down except for Syria. Assad did what dictators do" He sparked greater unrest among the Sunni population this time. Those same Sunnis were the ones who were pissed off about the rise Shi'a power in Baghdad and they saw the Syrian regime's efforts as more of the same. So, the Sons of Iraq, the former insurgents against us who became our allies against what was then Islamic State of Iraq (former Al Qaeda in Iraq), now turned to ISIS, Al Nusrah, and the other Sunni insurgent groups in Syria and Iraq.

Me: It sounds as though you're describing a continuous domino effect, propelled by US actions in the region.

Mr. S: Yup. 

Sadly, we caused it when we invaded Iraq. But there was a way to stop it. so long as we could prevent Iraq from becoming a sectarian government, which it did when Obama abandoned it. I was in Iraq in 2005-2006 before ISI and Zarqawi attacked the Golden Mosque in Samarra which ignited the civil war. The Iraqi Army was doing just fine after we rebuilt it and started integrating it. So there was a template for success even in hard times. 

So all in all the Yemen fight is continuing around our SOF and intel guys who are not equipped nor tasked to support the Yemen government. Their main mission was to attack Al Qaeda and they did that primarily through drone strikes. The Yemeni government was fighting a well entrenched insurgency/civil war on basically three fronts: southern rebellion, Houthis in the north, and Al Qaeda in the west. 

By the time anyone cared to notice, it was too late and Iran was backing a winning team, the Houthis.

Me: So, Iran is supporting the Houthis, and other governments in the region are sending military forces to fight in Yemen.

Mr. S: Iran is supporting the Houthis and I doubt they're supporting anyone fighting them. They are probably giving tacit support to the southern insurgency, though that's just a guess on my part.

Iran's goal is to create chaos for KSA and since KSA backed the Yemeni government (kind of in our stead). That's why KSA had to do something to finally counter the Iranian backed Houthis, the same way it did in Bahrain. Iran plays the silent hand very well, they don't like forcing themselves out in the open, which is why the announcement of the ships being sent to Yemen was such a big deal. 

Think about Iran's rather abrupt change when KSA started bombing Yemen. That followed Iraq's retaking of Tikrit, initially with Iranian support, but with our air power assisting. Then the Iraqis kicked the militias out and back to Sadr City/Baghdad and their Iranian handlers. 

Something to keep in mind are the GCC's. Qatar was effectively challenging the KSA for the mantel of "Mr. Money Bags" when it comes to Sunni groups who aren't too damn crazy but want to attack Iranian influence agents and Iranian-backed governments. Which is why Qatar is so invested in Syria. But Qatar shares oil and natural gas fields with Iran, who accuse Qatar of not staying on its side of the Gulf a lot. 

Me: What's the importance of the recent US/Iran talks on this situation?

Mr. S: The talks are probably the last thing on Iran's mind now. They've survived this long with sanctions and will continue to do so in the future should they stay in place. Which is why I believed the Cotton Letter was a blessing for our side in all this. It forces Iran to consider that Obama didn't have the final say and sanctions weren't going to be lifted without Congressional approval. 

The nuke talks are, in my opinion, window dressing. Obama/Kerry care more about them than Iran does... a la Clinton/North Korea, same thing will happen. 

I think the talks were a way to make Israel an outcast. It's no secret Obama has no love lost for Israel, certainly not Netanyahu. But there was always this talk of Israel attacking Iran somehow. I think the talks were a way for us to backhandedly distance ourselves from any potential Israeli actions. 

Me: To give Israel the impression they'd be on their own if they attack.

Mr. S: They would be. All her Western allies would be party to a deal with Iran. So any preemptive strike by Israel, no matter the method, makes them an unsupported aggressor.

Me: It's fairly well-known that Iran wanted sanctions lifted immediately as part of the talks. Cotton's letter told Iran that wouldn't happen without Congressional approval. What changes do you think Iran made, or what would they have liked to do but weren't able to, as a result of the fact that the sanctions wouldn't be lifted as they desired?

Mr. S: They would probably demand aid, which we seem more than ready to give them. We're so ready for a deal as if we're the ones who need it so badly. All the while, Iran couldn't care less about the deal. All in all, I think we made concessions on the nuke talks in exchange for encouraging KSA to back down for Iran to pull some support from Houthis, so long as Hadi agreed to power sharing. 

I think Iran was more than willing to risk seeing if we'd shoot at one of its ships or even board it. 

Maybe we did it as a way to get more time at the table to regather our strength but seeing how weak we've been in these talks so far? I doubt it. 

Me: What do you see happening in Yemen within the next, say, 90 days? And what should we be watching out for?

Mr. S: Well, I have no idea. It'll depend on what's on those Iranian ships and if we're willing to hold a line against them. Imagine USA/USSR at START II and if we had troops on the border or Afghanistan and Reagan had said "if you invade, we step in". Those nuke talks disappear and it'll be a shoot out. 

But now we have Ambiguous Obama and I have no idea what orders our Navy has been given. Nor if there's any coordination with the KSA led coalition and its vessels in the waters around Yemen. 

It'll also depend on the Houthis and if the Yemeni President, Hadi, can convince them to give up the fight and turn on Al Qaeda... but that means fighting a well established Iranian influence. 

It could play out that the deal is done and Iran gets everything it wanted while the civil war in Yemen dies down. Iran could just as easily pull the plug on the Houthi machine and either let them wither on their own or tell them to stand down for another day, thus giving us the appearance of peace while Iran now has little-or-no sanctions and we have a few years to figure out what to do next. 

Meanwhile, it won't stop building it's influence arms in Iraq and the GCC states. Forget forcing Iran to recognize Israel. Make Iran stop supporting insurgencies.

Me: Would you consider it an accurate assessment that Iran's position in the Middle East has strengthened in the last five years?

Mr S: Oh most definitely. Like I said, long game with a silent hand. 

What would be interesting is, if we get a Republican in office in 2016 who doesn't abide by the agreement. What then...

Me: Can you think of any way in which the Obama administration's policies haven't benefited Iran in some way, or at least, been more beneficial to Iran than previous administrations?

Mr. S: Nope. Even in Afghanistan, Iran is filling out the void. Luckily, we have India there to counteract some of that, but its not going to be enough and the farcical "pivot" to Asia Obama pushes meant that he wasn't going to care about Iran's efforts in the ME.

Our foreign policy is so bi-polar even we don't know how to address what is going on. But like I said on Twitter and others have said, so this isn't an original thought of mine, there is a coming regional war between Sunni and Shi'a. Israel and Jordan may be the only safe places in that whole mix when it happens. 

Me: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Mr. S: Watch the Gulf and listen for what Iran may be doing in Iraq. All of that will be connected to see what more they can get at future talks, but also done to see how far Obama will tolerate Iranian aggression. 

Me: Thank you for your time!