U.S. forces are effectively providing military support to the Iranian troops battling Sunni extremists in Iraq and Syria. Yemen could be the next battleground.
- By Seán D. NaylorSeán D. Naylor is the intelligence and counterterrorism senior staff writer for Foreign Policy. He previously spent 23 years at Army Times, where his principal beat was special operations forces. He is the author of Not A Good Day To Die – The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda and the forthcoming Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command.
The Iranian-supported Houthi takeover in Yemen has spooked Washington and its allies in the Middle East — and boosted the chances that Americans could again effectively find themselves fighting alongside Iranian-backed forces in an explosive and strategically important country.
U.S. and Iranian interests have aligned in Iraq, where the United States is not only conducting a major air campaign against the Islamic State, but also has 2,600 conventional troops plus a special operations task force assisting the Iraqi government and Kurdish Peshmerga militia in their fight against the Sunni terrorist group. Also joined in battle against the Islamic State, meanwhile, are Iranian Quds Force operatives, Hezbollah fighters, and Iraqi Shiite militias that are little more than Iranian proxies.
Hezbollah and the Quds Force, Iran’s special operations and intelligence outfit, have also been at the forefront of the war in Syria, protecting the Assad regime and leading the fight against the Islamic State and al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front. American spooks are running a smaller, covert operation to train and arm so-called moderate Sunni militias in Syria.
The Iranian-backed forces in both countries are getting indirect support from the escalating American-led air campaign against the Islamic State. To date, U.S. jets have mounted 2,300 strikes against the militants. The United Arab Emirates, a key member of the American-led coalition, suspended its participation after a Jordanian pilot was captured by the Islamic State when his plane went down in Syria. The militants recently posted a video showing the pilot being burned alive, and the government of the UAE responded by resuming its strikes. Jordan has also intensified its fight against the militants.
In Yemen, the United States responded to the Houthi takeover by suspending operations at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa and evacuating its American staff on Feb. 11. However, a U.S. special operations force engaged in the fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is staying in Yemen, a senior defense official said. The United States considers al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terrorist group’s Yemen affiliate, to be the most directly threatening because of its skill in building bombs difficult to find with metal detectors. Militants with ties to AQAP were tied to the foiled plot to blow up a civilian airliner on Christmas Day in 2009, as well as a later attempt to down a pair of cargo planes while they flew over the United States.
That the U.S. special operations task force remains in Yemen, even though the Houthis owe their success in part to Iranian support, adds another complication to the awkward balancing act that U.S. military and intelligence forces are performing across the Middle East when it comes to Iran. Houthi supporters in Sanaa marched through the streets chanting, “Death to America, death to Israel, damnation to the Jews.” Behind the scenes, though, Houthi leaders have said they want normal relations with the United States. There’s a simple reason for their potential willingness to work with Washington: The Houthis, like other Iranian-supported groups through the Middle East, hate and fear al Qaeda and are as just as devoted to fighting the militant group as the United States is.
Retired Navy Cmdr. Chris Harmer, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said the United States finds itself forced to engage in “dance-step warfare.”
“We’ve got to look every place we step because in some places we are de facto, if not de jure, allied with Iran,” Harmer said. “In other places we’re still opposing Iran. And all of this is interconnected somehow.”
For instance, while the United States finds itself fighting uncomfortably on the same side as Iran and its allies in Iraq and Yemen, on the high seas the U.S. Navy continues to conduct maritime interdiction missions aimed at Iranian attempts to supply weaponry to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that uses them to menace neighboring Israel, Harmer said.
The extent to which the Quds Force or its Arab proxies are assisting the Houthis is the subject of some debate. As evidence of Iranian influence over the Houthis, Katherine Zimmerman, a Yemen analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, pointed to two events that occurred shortly after a Sept. 21 agreement in which President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi appeared to acquiesce to the demands of the Houthis, who had occupied key positions in the capital. On Sept. 23 the Yemeni government released two Lebanese prisoners who were suspected of being Hezbollah members and who had been arrested in Aden for allegedly providing military training to the Houthis; two days later, Zimmerman said, the government released three suspected Quds Force members accused of being members of an Iranian spy ring.
But these examples aside, unclassified proof of Quds Force, Hezbollah, or Iraqi Shiite militia advisors working with the Houthis is harder to come by. “The Houthis have received support from Iran including weapons and some training, but beyond that it’s hard to actually quantify what it has been,” said Zimmerman. “There are reports that have come out over the past couple of years about trainers and advisors but nothing that’s seen as hard evidence.”
Retired Army Col. Derek Harvey, who served as a senior intelligence advisor to Gen. David Petraeus at the height of the Iraq war, said that Iran had sent Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militia trainers to help the Houthis, but the true extent of their role was unclear.
Some in the U.S. government contend that Iranian support for the Houthis does not necessarily equate to Iranian influence over the group. “There’s no indication the Iranians exert command and control over Houthi activities in Yemen,” said a U.S. official.
While there are U.S. military trainers in Yemen, the units with which they are working are not collocated with the Houthis, Zimmerman said. However, she added, there have been instances in recent weeks of Houthi and Yemeni government forces cooperating on the battlefield — she cited fighting against AQAP in south-central Yemen as an example — and the Houthis are now trying to integrate their fighters with the formal Yemeni armed forces.
The result, she said, was that “vulnerable” Sunni communities in Yemen that had previously “kicked out” AQAP were reluctantly allowing AQAP to return, “simply because al Qaeda’s seen as a lesser evil than the Houthis.” In other words, Zimmerman said, while the United States views the Yemeni government as “a counterterrorism partner,” its actions are actually driving up support for AQAP.
The degree of coordination between the United States and the Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria is also unclear. The United States does not appear to be coordinating its air campaign in Syria with Iran or those allied forces, Harvey said. But in Iraq “there has to be some level of coordination,” even if it’s transmitted via Iraqi or Kurdish intermediaries, he added.
Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost, a Defense Department spokeswoman, declined to comment on what she termed “Special Forces or intelligence matters.”
But with U.S. and Iranian special operators likely to be working in close proximity to each other in Iraq, Syria, and possibly Yemen well into the future, the question remains as to which side stands to benefit more from the uneasy partnership. Because the United States enjoys such a huge advantage in electronic intelligence gathering, the opportunity to observe U.S. forces up close could serve to even the intelligence playing field for the Iranians or their agents, Harmer said. “My tendency is to think they get more out of that than we do,” he said.
Harvey said the United States also no longer has the “footprint” in Iraq or Yemen required to build a comprehensive intelligence picture of Iranian activity in those countries. While acknowledging that he did not know the size of the CIA’s Baghdad station, he said that U.S. intelligence was more focused on the Islamic State, the political dynamics within Iraq, and the internal workings of the Iraqi security forces. In Yemen, meanwhile, the U.S. decision to shut down the embassy meant that Washington also withdrew large numbers of CIA personnel, including some of those charged with helping to coordinate the ongoing campaign against AQAP militants there.
Rising Iranian influence in Yemen poses a potential longer-term strategic challenge to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which are looking to sidestep Iranian control of the Strait of Hormuz by expanding the export of oil via ports on the Red Sea. Harvey suggested that within a few years Iran might use its sway in Yemen to also threaten those vital shipping lanes, either by deploying Silkworm missiles to the north side of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which joins the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, or through small attack craft using swarming tactics. Alternately, Iran or its Yemeni proxies could simply lay mines across the narrow waterway.
The Houthis’ success has only deepened a sense of concern among American allies in the Middle East — a worry shared by some American analysts — that the United States is willing to allow Iran a sphere of influence in the region, in part to help lock down a nuclear deal. A January 2014 recording — leaked in October — of White House security advisor Ben Rhodes appearing to equate a nuclear deal with Iran with Obamacare in terms of its significance to the Obama administration did nothing to dampen these fears. “This is probably the biggest thing that President Obama will do in his second term on foreign policy,” Rhodes said. “This is health care for us, just to put it in context.”
Yemen “is not the main game” in the Middle East, Harvey said. “But it feeds into a sense of paranoia” that the United States is acquiescent in the face of an emboldened Iran. “It doesn’t look good if you’re a Sunni Arab in the region,” he said.
Kate Brannen contributed to this report.