Token attacks on Yemen mean the US now risks getting entangled in a regional war in the Middle East. Priorities must be set as the aging American hegemon cannot chase squirrels all across the globe.
After stoically holding out for several weeks in the face of a naval blockade by Yemeni rebels, the US finally took the bait and launched airstrikes. Early in the morning on January 12th, an ad hoc international coalition, led by the US and UK, fired at least 100 missiles towards targets in Houthi-controlled areas.
For the aging US hegemon, launching volleys of Tomahawk missiles at sandal-wearing jihadis brought back reassuring remembrances of the full spectrum dominance once fleetingly achieved in Iraq and Afghanistan. A dirt poor country like Yemen doesn’t have sophisticated air defense systems and so the missiles surely hit their mark. Unfortunately the target selection was apparently taken from air raids half a decade before, and Yemeni officials mocked these low-energy attacks. Empty shacks and abandoned airfields seem to have been the primary targets.
The attacks were ordered by the elderly and frail President Biden while media reports claim that his invalid Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin managed the battle from his hospital bed. However, unverified Russian accounts claim Austin was killed during a Russian missile strike in Ukraine at the beginning of this year. Similar reports have turned out to be wrong in the past, but the story of Austin’s secret hospitalization is indeed strange. Perhaps Seymour Hersh will fill us in on the truth of this strange story in a couple months.
The depleted health status of these two senior leaders, combined with the feeble nature of the air strikes, allegorically demonstrates that the glory days of Shock and Awe over Baghdad are well behind Uncle Sam. It’s not even clear if the Houti leadership was awakened by the strikes. Bumbling Britain was polite enough to telegraph the strikes to the Houthis hours before they occurred. Such chivalry brings back fond memories of Donald Trump’s hollow attack on empty airbases in Syria.
The difference is that the self-aware Trump knew he was engaging in blatant hucksterism by bombing Syria. While he was happy to provide cheap dopamine highs to his neoconservative entourage, Trump avoided climbing any escalation ladders in Syria. In Yemen the reverse is true. As soon as the Yemenis target any stray shipping that dares enter the Red Sea, the US will be obligated to escalate. As global hegemon the US mission statement is to keep the seas free for commercial trade. Each and every Yemeni missile launched at random Israeli-bound cargo ships is a contemptuous display of lèse-majesté to American naval authority. Continued disrespect will require an increasingly shrill US response.
All the Houthis have to achieve is area denial to selected shipping, which is easy in a naval choke point. An indecisive US bombing campaign only makes the area more dangerous, as witnessed by several major shipping companies that announced they will be avoiding the Red Sea in wake of the US attacks. Moreover, Qatar suspended deliveries of liquified natural gas (LNG) through the Red Sea. This hurts the EU but benefits America, who can now raise prices on their LNG deliveries to Europe.
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Red Sea Zugzwang
In the annals of unwinnable wars, this Yemeni adventure must rank at the top. Sure there may have been some pleasurable muscle memory felt while launching those $2 million Tomahawk missiles at dusty desert shacks. But now the Houthis have the initiative. In chess, the concept of Zugzwang describes a situation where any subsequent moves by a player worsens his situation. The US is now stuck in such a loop. The Houthis can bide their time and if any Western shipping companies re-enter the Red Sea, even a weak symbolic attack will merit a US response. In the meantime BRICS shipping passes through the “Gates of Grief'“ unmolested.
In addition, the Houthis have a decent arsenal of anti-shipping missiles. They may even get lucky one day and hit an American warship if it gets caught lacking, although this scenario is unlikely in these early stages of escalation. In the later stages, Iran, Russia and China may provide more powerful missiles to the Houthis.
In the wake of the attacks, the weak and spent UK has been the most flamboyant in their threats against Iran. Despite the fact that their aircraft carrier cannot even enter the region due to a lack of sailors, the British Defense Minister Grant Shapps sent a rather butch message to Iran:
You must get the Houthi rebels, others who are acting as proxies for you, Lebanese Hezbollah are obvious examples, (and) some in Iraq and Syria, you must get these different organisations to cease and desist because we are, the world is, running out of patience. We see you, we see through what you're doing. We see how you're doing it, particularly the Houthi rebels, and no good can come from it.
On second thought, perhaps it is exactly because Britain cannot send aircraft carriers to the region that Shapps feels so frisky. Britain yaps but counts on America to clean up the mess?
The Houthis will obviously not lift their blockade, despite the stern warning from Britain. In fact the Houthis recently announced that their blockade now extends to American and British shipping. The US will no doubt respond with more airstrikes but the hardened Houthis have thrived under air assault for nearly ten years. They long ago moved their sensitive infrastructure underground.
These attacks on the Houthis will act like a weak vaccine. The targeted viral mass as a whole only gets stronger with each attack it survives. The Houthis will innovate and mutate into an even more virulent form of resistance to the West.
The escalation ladder leads to Iran. There has been talk of US bombing runs against Iran for the past 20 years. In turn, Iran has been preparing during this time. Perhaps their intelligence agents are in Yemen studying how the Houthis protect and prepare for air attacks. Iran is much more technologically advanced than Yemen; an attack there will be much more complicated.
Strategy of Tension
The only way the Western attacks on Yemen can succeed on a strategic level is if in the ensuing chaos, the fragile Saudi - Iranian rapprochement is broken. After years of feeling disrespected by the various US Administrations for not supporting their brutal war against Yemen, the Saudis threw in the towel and turned to China. Middle East unity is the key to BRICS integration of the region into their global network and so KSA and Iran have embarked on a journey of peaceful relations together. The Saudis have not totally left the US camp, they occasionally tease US policy makers with hints of Israeli recognition.
So the only intelligent motivation for the airstrikes is as an attempt to unravel the BRICS peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and more generally Sunni / Shiite collaboration. It’s existential for Israel that the Middle East be divided to the extent that Muslim violence be dispersed among themselves. If Arabs and Persians are killing each other, they probably will not have the energy to kill Jews. The current trajectory of a unified Middle East, all focused on Israel, is a death sentence for the Jewish State.
From the BRICS point of view, the concrete goal of this round of escalation is a reinforcing of Middle Eastern unification, a further weakening of Israel’s global standing, and crucially, an eviction of US troops from Iraq and Syria. China and Russia will be coaching Iran and Saudi Arabia to ensure that no red lines are crossed between them. The recent terror-bombing in Iran, presumably by an Israeli-backed Sunni terror group, did not achieve its goal of shattering Iranian-Saudi peace.
So far, while it’s not clear if they allowed their airspace to be crossed for attacking planes, Saudi Arabia has refused to join the coalition to attack Yemen:
U.S. and Mideast officials said Saudi Arabia and the UAE would be particularly important partners for any operation against the Houthis, given their extensive knowledge of the militia and Yemen. Both nations fought a brutal war against the Houthis over the past decade to try and dislodge its army from controlling the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. But the Biden administration opposed the war upon taking office in 2021 and initially banned the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen. The White House also stopped designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization, despite strong opposition from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. And it helped broker a formal ceasefire between the Saudis and the Houthis.
Arab officials said neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE is interested in supporting renewed military operations against the Houthis in any major way. Other key Arab states, such as Qatar and Egypt, are also reluctant to join any operation, in part because they could be seen as siding with the West in Israel’s war against the militant Palestinian group Hamas. The Houthis have publicly described their attacks as aimed at undermining Israel’s ability to conduct international trade and restock its military.
Afterwards the Saudis issued a weaselly message that seemed to denounce the attacks while calling for no further escalation. The Houthis have a proven ability to hit Saudi energy infrastructure but so far there are no signs of renewed tension between the two bitter foes.
The BRICS very much want the US to get dragged into a proxy war in Yemen and so the multipolar alliance would do nothing to stop the attacks on Yemen. As speculated on in Potent Proxies, a US war in Yemen would help further deplete already low American ammunition stocks as well as give Iran (and perhaps China and Russia) a chance to test anti-ship missiles against US naval forces in the Middle East. All this is in preparation for the final showdown in the Taiwan Straits.
Some American policy makers seem to still exist in a narcissistic fantasy world of grandiose global power the US experienced in the days following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Top White House official Brett McGurk is quietly floating a controversial plan to reconstruct Gaza after Israel’s assault concludes, HuffPost has learned, despite serious concerns from some officials inside the administration that it would sow the seeds for future instability in the region.
In recent weeks, McGurk has been pitching national security officials on a plan suggesting an approximately 90-day timeline for what should happen once active fighting in Gaza ends, three U.S. officials said. It argues that stability can be achieved in the devastated Palestinian region if American, Israeli, Palestinian and Saudi officials launch an urgent diplomatic effort that prioritizes the establishment of Israel-Saudi ties, the officials continued. Such a development is widely referred to as “normalization,” given Saudi Arabia’s refusal to recognize Israel since its founding in 1948.
McGurk’s plan would use the incentive of aid for reconstruction from Saudi Arabia and possibly other wealthy Gulf countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to pressure both the Palestinians and the Israelis, per the officials. In this vision, Palestinian leaders would agree to a new government for both Gaza and the occupied West Bank and to ratchet down their criticisms of Israel, while Israel would accept limited influence in Gaza.
Foreign policy experts in the U.S. and global governments say that they understand the logic of uniting U.S. partners in the region who share a deep skepticism of Iran, a U.S. foe. Given Arab solidarity with Palestinians and its stature as the most influential country in the Muslim-majority world, Saudi Arabia would find it hard to publicly embrace Israel without being able to say that it helps the Palestinians. Meanwhile, building closer ties with historic enemies has long been a top Israeli objective, and the Palestinians have few options for and limited leverage over their international backers.
In this dream scenario, BRICS members Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are going to expend their own wealth repairing Israel’s destruction of Gaza and at the same time commit political suicide by embracing the nation currently in the UN dock for genocide? No, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will instead continue to deepen their ties with Iran and unite against the international pariah Israel.
The British arch-neoconservative Simon Tisdall, who just six months ago pleaded for NATO (meaning America) to intervene in the Ukrainian War, surprisingly takes a much more realistic view of the current situation in the Middle East. It’s possible he is simply being rhetorically provocative, hoping to hurt America’s pride and thus incite a US reaction. But on the surface, Tisdall is calling for diplomacy towards Iran.
The fact the US, backed by Britain, was obliged to use force in response to trade-strangling Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping reflects an unpalatable reality: Washington’s political leverage is waning, its diplomacy ineffectual, its authority scorned. Undaunted, the Houthis vowed attacks would continue.
This fraught, open-ended escalation highlights another unwelcome fact. The dominant power in the Middle East is no longer the US, western-aligned Egypt, Saudi Arabia or even Israel. It is the Houthis’ main ally, Iran.
It’s facile to talk of winners and losers amid the terrible Gaza slaughter – which the Houthis say triggered their campaign. Yet strategically speaking, it’s clear who is coming out ahead in this crisis. Fighting by proxy, Iran’s standing is reinforced by each Palestinian casualty, Hezbollah missile, Iraqi and Syrian bombing and Houthi drone.
US president Joe Biden alienated global (and much American) opinion by rashly pledging unconditional support to Israel after the Hamas atrocities and vetoing UN ceasefire plans. His Middle East policy looks outdated and out of touch. The US, never popular in the Arab world, was tolerated as a necessary evil. No longer. Non-Arab Iran is in the driving seat now.
Israel, too, has suffered a strategic wake-up call since 7 October, although its more extremist politicians still don’t get it. Gaza’s horrors have permanently changed, for the worse, how the country is viewed – witness the unprecedented genocide allegations levied in The Hague. The Saudi ambassador to London, Khalid bin Bandar, told the BBC last week the Jewish state must no longer be treated as a special case.
Because of its hysterical overreaction in Gaza, the Chosen State is getting relegated to the same level as any other nation. To their horror, Israelis are realizing that in the future they will be judged by the standards everyone else is subject to. Their “Holocaust Pass” is being revoked. This is an extremely bitter pill to swallow for those who steadfastly believe their imaginary friend in the sky believes that their nation and people are the most special. But coming back down to earth may actually create the conditions for some sort of peaceful coexistence. The problem is that the October 7th attacks have exposed Israeli weakness and an increasingly united and powerful Middle East may test them severely.
Tisdall, who a decade ago was stoking the Syrian civil war and pleading with President Obama for America to intervene, ends his piece with a surprising call for negotiations:
Since Xi Jinping took power over a decade ago, China has created spheres of geopolitical and economic influence to rival and, if possible, supplant those of the US. Iran is central to Xi’s plans. In 2021, the two countries signed a 25-year strategic investment and energy pact. Under Chinese sponsorship, Iran has joined the Brics group and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
Conspiring with Beijing to circumvent sanctions, Iran sells millions of barrels of discounted crude to China each month, transported there by “dark fleet” oil tankers. After years of stagnation and fierce internal political and social unrest, its economy is picking up. In February, Xi told Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, that China supported its fight against US “unilateralism and bullying”.
With Russia, it’s all about guns. Iran supplies armed drones that Moscow uses to kill Ukrainians. US intelligence reportedly believes Russia’s Wagner mercenary group plans to provide Hezbollah with a medium-range air defence system – a startling provocation if true.
Iran, in turn, may soon take delivery of advanced Russian Sukhoi SU-35 fighter-bombers and attack helicopters, the product of an “unprecedented defence partnership”. Russian exports to Iran are booming. Moscow has pledged $40bn to develop its natural gas fields.
After 45 years of trying, Iran is finally the big kid on the block. Sanctioning, ostracising and threatening Tehran hasn’t worked. The US, Britain – and Israel – face a formidable opponent, part of a triangular global alliance backed by powerful militias and economic might. A fresh diplomatic approach is urgently needed if a wider conflict is to be avoided.
What Comes Around, Goes Around
During the 1940’s, Jewish resistance groups launched a campaign of terror against the British occupation forces in Palestine. The two main groups were the far-right Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organisation) and the Nazi-allied Lehi, known pejoratively as the “Stern Gang.” They blew up oil installations, kidnapped British soldiers, destroyed railways, and killed 80 British bureaucrats in the King David Hotel bombing.
Through these well-conceived terror campaigns, in 1947 the British, not for the last time during this period of decolonialization, were humiliated and forced to withdraw from Palestine, as the UN proclaimed a two-state solution to replace British colonialism. The UN solution didn’t work out very well and nearly 80 years later war and terror are still raging in Palestine.
Once free of the British jackboot, in 1948, in scenes similar to Hamas’s October 7th attack, Zionist terrorists attacked the prosperous Palestinian village of Deir Yassin:
On April 9, 1948, Zionist gangs raided the village of Deir Yassin, killing at least 254 Palestinian civilians, mainly women, children and the elderly. There were documented cases of rape, mutilation and humiliation.
The Deir Yassin massacre was led by Menachem Begin in his capacity as head of the Irgun terrorist militia, which were also responsible for several acts of terror, including the blowing up of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Supporting the Irgun was the Haganah, a group that went on to form the basis for the Israeli army, and the Lehi, led by Yitzhak Shamir.
In the same vein, Hamas along with the Iranian proxies of Hezbollah, Houthis, and disparate groups in Iraq are well on their way to achieving similar goals as their Jewish resistance / terrorist cousins did in the 1940’s. Only this time it is the US who is being invited to leave the Middle East. The open question is how many Deir Yassin’s will Israel suffer as a consequence? Israel is a nuclear power but those weapons are useless below a certain level of violence.
The US has been a net exporter of petroleum products for more than a decade. American energy independence means the US has fewer “vital” interests in the Persian Gulf area. As the War on Terror wanes, the only real reason the US is still involved in the region is to protect their golden child ally Israel. For example the purpose of stoking the Syrian Civil War was to push Syria into the Sunni camp and by doing so protect Israel from the menacing Shiite crescent of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah.
The eviction strategy employed by the BRICS / Hamas / Iranian proxies is to gently increase the costs—financial, reputational and human—of the US presence in the Middle East. Unity within the BRICS lowers the risk of regional conflicts, lessening the need for US protection. With the Black Sea well on its way to becoming a Russian lake, the Persian Gulf and Red Sea may soon pass to BRICS control. Given the potential showdown with China over Taiwan, the US has to pick its peripheral battles wisely. The US is already stretched by the war in Ukraine. Venezuela is getting bold in the Caribbean Sea. North Korea is increasingly belligerent towards its neighbours. And China will make its move on Taiwan when an overextended US is at its breaking point.
Making the world safe for Israel by staying in the Middle East may prove to be a mission too far for the US. The saving grace for Israel may be their nearly one million citizens of Russian descent. In a BRICS-controlled Middle East, if Israel shows the correct amount of contrition, they may be able to count of Russia dissuading her allies from trying to finish off the Jewish State. In many ways, Josef Stalin’s attempts to ferment chaos in the Middle East led him to insuring the creation of Israel back in 1947-8. Will future czar-like leaders of Russia ensure Israel’s survival once the region is stabilized by the BRICS?