THE BLOG

Yemen Betrays US Military Decline in a Chaotic Middle East

04/07/2015 10:49 am ET | Updated Jun 07, 2015

The last time a significant Arab coalition came together with great resolve and fiery rhetoric, the target was Israel in 1967. The outcome was a decisive victory for Israel and global humiliation for the chaotic coalition.

Forty-eight years later, a new coalition led by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has begun launching airstrikes in neighboring Yemen against the Iranian-backed Shia Houthi group. The latter has reaped significant benefits thanks to Iran's military and financial support. And it's exactly this kind of support that the coalition of 10 Arab nations seeks to break.

Current thinking suggests the coalition is considering ground troops next. That convinces security analysts that this conflict in Yemen is much deeper than it appears on the surface -- certainly more significant than many Western media indicate in their fleeting news coverage. Some analysts argue the conflict could escalate into World War III.

Let's boil all this down: Like so much conflict in the Middle East (at least when it doesn't involve Israel), this display of hostilities is mainly focused on followers of two main denominations within the faith of Islam: the Sunnis and the Shiites.

Saudi Arabia, which represents the ultraconservative strain of Sunni Islam, is not willing to accept Iran's Shia (or Shiite) ideology's gaining traction in Yemen and the surrounding region. And even though two crucial Islamic holy sites -- Mecca and Medina -- are located in Saudi Arabia, Shiites don't grant the kingdom pivotal leadership over the entire Muslim world. There's no seeing eye to eye between these two branches of the faith.

Result: Saudi Arabia sees in any expansion of the Houthis a direct threat to its influence in the Muslim world. Worse, an unlikely but troubling scenario presents itself: Iran could deny the kingdom access to two main avenues of power : the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Doing so would disrupt global commerce and compel major powers to embark on full-scale intervention.

What strikes me most is the speed at which the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia opted to conduct airstrikes against the Houthis' locations in Yemen. One must wonder why this coalition did not act with similar urgency when Islamic States emerged or the civil war in Syria erupted. What is crucial for U.S. policymakers to understand is that the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia has heightened regional instability.

All this leaves the United States in an awkward spot. On one hand, the U.S. is supporting Iranian-backed militias in Iraq fighting against Islamic State terrorists. On the other hand, the U.S. opposes the Iranian-backed rebels now in power in Yemen. One could conclude either American foreign policy has a glaring double standard or simply lacks an in-depth understanding of those dynamics in the region.

Whatever the case, the United States must be very careful how it formulates foreign policy involving not only these two countries but also the greater Middle East. This region is a powder keg and is no place for reckless, chest-thumping American politicians on the left and right to be tossing politically lit matches.

To acquire a better understanding of this emerging conflict and the confusion it generates, consider the description Liz Sly of The Washington Post presents: The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt are part of the Saudi-led strike in Yemen but are also bombing Libyan factions backed by Qatar and Turkey, who fully support the Saudi offensive in Yemen. Similar conflicting interests are in play in the ongoing civil war in Syria.

With so many different pieces and so many different motivations in so many fields of battle, enormous danger looms. Geopolitical calculations by warring nations and the major powers seeking to manipulate them can lead to perilous, unintended consequences. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 is a case in point.

Consider the dark irony: In a matter of a few weeks, Shiite militias fighting Islamic State alongside the United States in Iraq now find themselves fighting the United States in Yemen. This suggests how quickly loyalty and allegiance can shift in the Middle East. For all its advances, this stretch of the world is still subverted by a long-standing tribal mentality resistant to change and suspicious of outsiders.

Saudi Arabia's airstrikes could not come at a more critical time. Of interest are the outcome of Iran's negotiations with the West and the Arab emergency summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The two events offer a pair of pressing questions. First, will the conflict in Yemen turn into a wider clash between two different alliances: Russia and Iran on one side, the United States and Saudi Arabia on the other?

Second, would a preliminary agreement with major powers over Iran's nuclear ambitions translate into a proxy war in Yemen between Shiite dominant Iran and archly conservative Sunni Saudi Arabia? What Saudi Arabia wants to prevent at any cost is not only the expansion of Iran's influence in the Middle East but also Iran's rapprochement with the United States.

Before regime change in Iran in 1953, in which the United States orchestrated the overthrow of democratically elected Premier Mohamed Mossadeq (paving the way for the Shah of Iran to be reinstated), Iran and Israel were the only two pillars that U.S. foreign policy in the region depended on. Saudi Arabia wants to prevent that situation from re-emerging.

To complicate matters, Russia has issued warnings that it will assist Iran in attacking the kingdom of Saudi Arabia if the United States provides heavy weapons to Ukraine against Russian-backed rebels in eastern Europe. This explains why the Obama administration refuses to arm Ukraine despite calls from the Republican-run Senate to do so.

A possible win for the Saudi-led coalition in the current Operation Decisive Storm -- which I do not foresee -- would certainly introduce new geopolitical considerations in the region. The conflict also highlights the fading military role of the United States in the region, especially after its own stinging failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Odds are this coalition will be short-lived, given that Arab summits seldom amount to much. The United States shouldn't hope too much and must be vigilant to avoid being pulled into this ideological spat between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It's a different sort of cold war that has been going on for many generations -- and will continue for generations to come.