The place to start in bringing you this update is with a report from early September. The gist of the report is that Houthi rebels and Iraqi “militias” – that is, the Iraqi Shias trained and supported by Iran – agreed to train together in Yemen.
The linking entity between the two groups is, of course, the Iranian Qods Force.
This doesn’t necessarily mean anything specific about who literally manned the Iran-supplied cruise missile systems that were used to attack the UAE-leased HSV-2 Swift on 1 October, and make attempts against U.S. warships on 9, 12, and now 15 October. That’s not the point.
The point is that Iran is fighting regionally, with an interlinked regional strategy, and not just in little boresighted tactical pockets here and there.
As it might be put in military jargon, Iran is “fighting the whole theater.” That means Iran is developing the entire area as a battle space, viewing it in terms of territorial, logistic, and weapons-defined dimensions, and not just political or ideological ones. This, in turn, is as good a reason as any to get our heads around the reality that this is a real war, and it’s already started.
Iran is training and backing the instigators of the civil war in Yemen. Without the Houthis, there would be no civil war. There would be no Saudi intervention, and nothing like the security alarms being felt by the other Gulf Arabs, or on the Horn of Africa.
And Iran is training and backing the Iraqi militias that are massing, with Sunni Iraqi National troops and Kurdish forces, to retake Mosul from ISIS – a tremendous battle whose overture began on Saturday, and whose main effort has reportedly just started. These same militias are the ones that fought to retake Iraq’s Diyala Province from ISIS, and then Tikrit, Ramadi, and Fallujah.
Iran is also backing Qods-trained forces fighting alongside Assad in Syria, as well as sponsoring Assad directly, and backing Hezbollah. Hezbollah, in turn, is assisting in Yemen with the Houthis.
But the focus of this update will be on Yemen and her environs, and Mosul.
The third missile attack on U.S. warships
On Saturday 15 October, reports emerged that USS Mason (DDG-87) had fought off yet another missile attack launched from the Yemeni coast, apparently late on 15 October. It’s not quite clear if Mason had to use missiles to shoot down an incoming missile; one report alluded to Mason firing, but others said the destroyer deployed countermeasures, which could mean the incoming missile was deflected with a decoy or chaff.
In any case, this would make the third time the U.S. warships have been fired at. What hasn’t been apparent to most Westerners is what was going on before all this started. And you won’t regret taking a moment to get up to speed. This puts the events in perspective.
For our purposes there’s no need to go back for years, or even months. Many readers will be aware that the Arab coalition has been using the Eritrean port of Assab for logistics support for a little over a year. UAE leased the port for this purpose starting in 2015. (Links below.)
Arabs making major muscle movements around the Bab El-Mandeb
The use of ports in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden has actually been a drama and source of regional shake-ups; when the Saudis initiated their intervention in Yemen, the Arab coalition was kicked out of Djibouti (which they had been able to use for years as participants in the antipiracy coalition), and thus sought other accommodations. Besides the UAE arrangement with Assab, the emirate of Dubai – with the assistance and approval of the Saudis, and even, apparently, the Egyptians – just contracted in September 2016 to manage the port of Berbera in Somaliland. This is expected to give the Arab coalition tacit permission to use the port for logistics.
Somaliland fancies itself an independent nation (and really, considering the inability of Mogadishu to exercise real control of it, might as well be one). Dubai Ports World (DPW) making agreements directly with the government of Somaliland is a significant political move, portending realignments in geopolitical patronage and expectations, if not necessarily wholesale destabilization. The Gulf Arabs, in making these port arrangements for military and influence purposes, are cutting a new political swath in northeastern Africa, courtesy of the civil war in Yemen.
Iran isn’t going to take that sitting down. She didn’t help the Houthis start the war so that the Sunni Arabs could take advantage of it.
There’s a lot going on behind the scenes, but the big kinetic event preceding the missile attack on HSV-2, which occurred 1 October, was an attack by the Houthis on the port of Assab in Eritrea, and the nearby airport. This raid, which has been confirmed by multiple sources in the region, was mounted on 19 September.
There is also a report that 5,000 “Yemeni militants” – in this case, Sunni sympathizers of the officially recognized Hadi government and its Saudi backers – were taken to Eritrea at the same time, to train for operations in support of the Saudis and the Hadi government. Without discounting that report, I don’t know of anything to verify it. Nor is it quite as important as the Houthi raid on Assab.
The latter certainly explains why HSV-2 and other UAE or Saudi vessels would have been conducting military operations off the Houthi-held coast in the days afterward.
It was into this fray that the U.S. deployed our warships – after the attack on HSV-2.
And here’s an important point that hasn’t really been highlighted. The ships that send the biggest signal about our presence – whether we intend that signal or not – aren’t the USS Mason. They’re the USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15) – the former amphibious transport dock now operating as a unique afloat forward staging base, with a helicopter contingent embarked – and USS San Antonio (LPD-17), which is still an amphibious transport dock ship, and has a bunch of U.S. Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (22 MEU) embarked.
Ponce apparently wasn’t in the Bab El-Mandeb area when HSV-2 was attacked on 1 October, although San Antonio may have been. San Antonio had transited the Strait of Hormuz on 24 September, and could have arrived near Bab El-Mandeb/Djibouti by 26-27 September. Ponce reportedly got underway from homeport – Manama, Bahrain – on 28 September, and held a steel beach picnic, obviously in a non-alerted state, on 29 or 30 September.
For context, recall that the Houthi attack on Assab, Eritrea, took place 19 September. HSV-2 was attacked on 1 October, and according to news reports, USS Ponce deployed to the hot area after the attack, along with the destroyers USS Mason and USS Nitze, heading for the coast of Yemen in the same area where HSV-2 was attacked.
Then, on 8 October, the Saudi coalition conducted an air strike on the funeral home in Yemen, in which some 140 people were killed.
So, if you were Iran or the Houthis, you’d have good reason to suppose that the U.S., by sending in these ships, had some intention of actively backing the Arab coalition and possibly intervening.
On 9 October, when the first missiles were launched at the U.S. warships, USS San Antonio was reported to be on-scene with the others (Mason, Nitze, and Ponce).
The point here is not that there are no circumstances in which we might justifiably want to intervene. The point is that it really looks like we have once again backed unwarily, with no apparent plan, into someone else’s war, and now they’re torqued off about it.
(This next update from a widely read Facebook account is unconfirmed by a corroborating source, but it indicates that F-16s from Aviano, in northern Italy, have deployed to Djibouti within the last few days. It isn’t clear if this was a previously scheduled deployment.)
If we’re going to actually do something about the situation in Yemen, it sure is well past time for the president to be talking to Congress about that. And if he has done so, and Congress is publicly mute on the topic, then that’s a whole other can of worms. But the bottom line is that this is increasingly just…ridiculous.
The American people have a right to know why our ships are sitting off the coast of Yemen, looking like a big provocation to the most ill-behaved terror-sponsoring despotism on earth, while doing no one will say what, and having missiles fired at them every few days.
“Gulf of Tonkin” certainly comes to mind here. But the real concern is that some new ground is being plowed, and a whole new touchstone of geopolitics and military misadventure is being generated.
Which brings us to the just-launched action in Mosul. The shortsightedness of the Western media is really a handicap here. It has obscured the most important aspect of the fight for Mosul, which is that it’s a clash of interests between Iran and Turkey. And our troops are smack dab in the middle of it.
Iran, as mentioned already, is fighting the whole theater now. The mullahs and their military leaders see it as an interrelated region-wide battle space. Whatever they are doing in one part of the theater is consciously meant to affect the other parts of it. So the battle for Mosul may not be the main thing on their minds when they look at U.S. warships in the Red Sea – but it is on their minds. It’s a grave mistake to ignore that (or its potential implications for the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, for that matter).
The U.S., meanwhile, is behaving as if all the different moving parts in the region are separable. We seem to not understand that the various armed actors there have transformative geostrategic goals they’re trying to achieve. They’re not just motivated by political abstractions, as the Obama administration seems to be. (A good example is Aleppo, where the Russia-led coalition is fighting an actual “war,” and gradually changing the facts on the ground, while the U.S. keeps talking about atrocities and the possibility of no-fly zones as if none of that reality on the ground is real.)
This matters because Iran’s reasons to try to undermine –and now snipe at – the U.S. are amplified by every Iranian fight that Tehran perceives we’re both in. I note that this multidimensional thinking is a talent Russia has as well. Moscow and Tehran may be partners in various enterprises, but they’re also circling and jockeying against each other, which just makes it all extra fun.
For decades, the U.S. spent most of our time flailing and barely holding on in such situations, except for brief interludes of will, when we just overrode these regional dynamics with superior power. That’s not an option anymore, and Donald Trump can’t bring it back. Too much of the substructure of our superior power has been dismantled now.
It’s essential to understand that we have military force deployed into the whole network of local fights that animate the theater aspirations of Iran (and Russia). But our forces in any one place are too limited to prevail against the concerted force that can pose a threat to them. That calculus isn’t going to change in our favor, because we don’t have a plan. Obama is just offering our military up to the plans of others.
Thus, we find ourselves playing the overture to the battle for Mosul, without taking into account what the real implication of the battle is.
The real implication is who will control the great city that dominates all of northern Iraq, if ISIS will not. It isn’t going to be Baghdad or the Kurds. They’re too weak to conquer Mosul, impose their will, and make it stick.
That’s why Iran has been angling for months now to be in this fight. It’s why many of the Kurds in northern Iraq have become resistant to Iranian encroachments and influence. It’s why Russia has been arming the Kurds directly for months – and it’s why Turkey has suddenly decided that the 93-year-old Treaty of Lausanne and its provision for modern Turkey’s border were all screwed up, and need to be reworked, and meanwhile Turkey needs to participate in the fight for Mosul too.
If the battle didn’t promise to be so horrific, and no laughing matter, it would be almost funny that the entire “Atlantic West,” as Russia likes to call us, sees it in a single, simplistic dimension as a battle to kick ISIS out.
Obama has chosen to be there in pieces and parts, without an overarching strategic objective. That’s the crime against responsible state policy.
It’s Sunday, 16 October, in the U.S., and just a couple of hours ago, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the fight has begun.
As of early Sunday, local reporting in Iraq indicated that coalition aircraft, led by the U.S., had ramped up air attacks significantly in the last 48 hours.
The Iraqi national forces dropped thousands of leaflets on Mosul on Saturday, advising residents that an all-out assault is imminent.
— Said M. Dahir (@SaidMDahir) October 16, 2016
The U.S. has reportedly been pounding ISIS positions in eastern Mosul with artillery since Saturday evening (yes, we have artillery in country, to go with all those boots that aren’t on the ground there, and we’re using it to start the fight).
— tahtakuslar (@taylieli) October 15, 2016
And a coalition of 30,000 troops has massed on three sides of the city: Kurds, Shia militias backed by Iran, Sunni fighters backed by Turkey, Iraqi National Army troops, and embedded advisers from the U.S. and other Western coalition partners (e.g., Canada and France).
Mosul is starting out messy
It could hardly be less auspicious. Besides the very real concern about how ISIS has the place booby-trapped, and the possibility that chemical agents will be used against the populace and the attacking coalition, the battle is starting with serious disagreements among those purporting to all be on the same side.
One of them is a reported decision by “the U.S. coalition” to allow ISIS fighters safe passage out of the city, if they’ll go to Syria. This is a talking point being flogged by the Russians; its veracity hasn’t been confirmed. It may be that the U.S. is encouraging Iraq to let fighters leave Mosul if they will give up their positions peacefully – which the Assad regime has done repeatedly in Syria, with rebel fighters of various stripes.
But since Obama’s public posture on these matters is invariably coy and uncommunicative, we don’t have a way to judge what’s really going on. So there’s a whole media-sphere out there in which the Russian talking point is holy writ, and everyone believes it – and believes the U.S. is cynically trying to undermine the Russian coalition by flooding Syria with ISIS thugs.
For what it’s worth, the Al-Abadi government in Baghdad has said it won’t allow ISIS fighters to flee to Syria.
Another, equally problematic source of friction is the vertical pervasiveness of distrust among the 30,000 soldiers in the coalition to liberate Mosul. The natural distrust of the Kurds for the Turkey-backed Sunni units has gotten most of the press in the last couple of weeks. But the Kurds are also divided as to how they feel about Iran: some of them OK with Iran’s role, and others determined not to accept it.
Inside Mosul, the highest-profile resistance organization has sworn to treat all Turkish-backed forces just as if they were ISIS. So we’ve got that going for us.
— Mosul Eye عين الموصل (@MosulEye) October 15, 2016
And Turkey’s Erdogan has given the Iraqi government every reason to be distrustful of his intentions, by being his usual charming self.
But there’s more. The Iran-backed Shias are full of zeal about the eschatological import of what they’re doing. And the meaning of that for their determination to stir up centuries-old grievances mustn’t be overlooked.
A local observer made this report on the Islamic holiday of Ashura, which fell on 12 October this year, noting that a Shia factional leader in Iraq made quite a bloodthirsty call against Sunnis in his Ashura commemoration. Shias hold Sunnis responsible for the death of Imam Hussein some 1,400 years ago, and the Shia leader related the Ashura remembrance of his death specifically to the battle for Mosul, implying clearly that Shias in the fight should be seeking revenge against all Sunnis (i.e., not just ISIS).
The author of the post asks why the Americans don’t see that we have aligned ourselves with Iran-backed Shias slavering for Iraqi Sunni blood.
At the same time, Russia and Iran accuse us of unleashing vicious Sunnis to make war on them.
And don’t forget: that’s what Iran says we are doing, sitting off the coast of Yemen.
We backed into this without a plan. That’s why it’s so bad
You, Joe and Jane American, probably didn’t think you were doing any of this. I certainly didn’t.
No situation is actually “impossible.” But for an outside, expeditionary, sheriff-role power like the United States, a situation like this one requires irreducible purpose, firm will, and practical judgment. All three are lacking in our posture in the region today.
The one overriding principle is not that we should never “get into a land war in Asia” – although that’s very rarely a good idea.
The overriding principle is that we must never use force without having a decisive, well-defined objective of our own. We can respect other nations’ objectives. We should never, ever subordinate our own purposes to them, or deploy force where others have clear ones and we don’t.
Obama may say he has objectives in Iraq, Syria, etc. But they are manifestly not decisive or well-defined.
And that’s why Iran is in the driver’s seat, with the strategic initiative in this dynamic. It’s why Iran’s reasons to stalk us in the Bab El-Mandeb Strait, at the moment the battle for Mosul is getting underway, are making the decisions for our forces – instead of the intentions of our own commander in chief. We’re being jerked around by someone else’s initiative, because that’s what always happens in a war zone when you don’t exercise your own. You end up in the wrong place, getting shot at.