Why the US confronted Iranian-backed militants in Yemen, and the risks that lie ahead
The US fired in retaliation to previous incidents where missiles fired from Iranian-backed Houthi territory had threatened US Navy ships: The destroyers USS Mason, USS Nitze, and the amphibious transport dock the USS Ponce.After more than two decades of peaceful service, this was likely the first time the US fired these defensive missiles in combat.
According to Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, an expert on Yemen and Iran from the Foundation for Defending Democracies, the US's response fell "far short of what an appropriate response would be.""Basically, the US took out part of the system that would allow for targeting, protecting themselves but not going after those who fired upon them," Schanzer told Business Insider.
But even the limited strike places the US in a tricky situation internationally and legally. The Obama administration has desperately tried to preserve relations with Iran since negotiating and implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to ensure Iran doesn't become a nuclear state.On the other hand, the pivot towards Iran, a Shia power, has ruffled feathers in Saudi Arabia, a longtime US ally and the premiere Sunni power in the Middle East.
By taking direct military action against the Houthi rebels, a Shia group battling the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, the US has entered into, even in a limited capacity, another war in the Middle East with no end in sight.
Iran and the Houthis
Phillip Smyth of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy told Business Insider that Iran views Shia groups in the Middle East as "integral elements to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)."The Houthi militants in Yemen "are firm believers in Iranian ideology and adherents to their supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei," said Smyth.
Smyth confirmed to Business Insider the strong bond between Iran and the Houthi uprising working to overthrow the government in Yemen.
According to Smyth, in many cases Houthi leaders go to Iran for ideological and religious education, and Iranian and Hezbollah leaders have been spotted on the ground advising the Houthi troops.These Iranian advisors are likely responsible for training the Houthis to use the type of sophisticated guided missiles fired at the US Navy.
Yemen presents an extremely attractive goal for enterprising Iran. Yemen's situation on the Bab al-Mandab Strait means that control of that waterway - which they may have been trying to establish with the missile strikes - would give them control over the Red Sea, a massive waterway and choke point for commerce.
The risk of picking a side
The Saudi's stand accused of war crimes for bombing schools, hospitals, markets, and even a packed funeral hall.
Internal communications show the US has been very concerned about entering into the conflict for fear that they may be considered "co-belligerents," and thereby liable for prosecution for war crimes, Reuters reports.Lawrence Brennan, an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School and a US Navy veteran, told Business Insider the "limited context in which these strikes occurred was to protect freedom of navigation and neutral ships," and therefore likely doesn't "rise to the legal state of belligerence."
Yet Russian and Shia sources are quick to lump the US and Saudi Arabia together, said Smyth. Just as the US and international community look to hold Russia and Syria accountable for the bombing of a humanitarian aid convoy in Syria, the indiscriminate Saudi air campaign in Yemen makes it "very easy to offer a response" to the cries of war crimes against them, said Smyth.
Gone too far? Or not far enough?So, while the US has now entered the murky waters of the conflict in Yemen, where some 14 million lack for food and thousands of civilians have been murdered, Schanzer says the US may not have done enough.
The US Navy "didn't hit the people who struck them. They're not looking for caches of missiles, not looking for youth hideouts, not looking to engage directly," said Schanzer.For Schanzer, this half measure "seems like it's not even mowing the lawn."
But with just three months left in President Barack Obama's term, there is good reason to question if the US's objective is to help the people of Yemen and end the war, or to simply sit out the festering conflict as it balances delicate regional alliances.
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