Playing Both Sides of the Fence

Sectarian war is spreading in the Middle East, and Washington finds itself fighting with Sunnis in one country and with Shiites in another.

Yemeni men wearing military fatigue and loyal to the Huthi movement brandish their weapons on March 26, 2015 during a gathering in Sanaa to show support the Shiite Huthi militia and against the Saudi-led intervention in the country. Warplanes from a Saudi-led Arab coalition bombed Huthi rebels in support of Yemen's embattled president, as regional rival Iran warned the intervention was a "dangerous" move. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

As it comes to the aid of Mideast allies, the United States is straddling both sides of a regional sectarian war — one where Washington is simultaneously fighting and supporting Shiite militias that are backed by Iran.

In Iraq, American warplanes this week finally joined a stalemated assault against the Islamic State in Tikrit. The battle initially was launched by Iraqi security forces, Iranian commanders, and thousands of Shiite militiamen — many of whom fought with military and intelligence support provided by Tehran. The United States says it joined the fight only after being assured that the Iraqi government was leading the battle, and that the militias most closely linked to Iran had left.

In Yemen, the United States is funneling intelligence and logistics support to Saudi Arabia in its bombing campaign against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels, who have dislodged the Sunni government in Sanaa. Riyadh is keenly focused on attacking targets in Yemen that are linked to Iran, meaning that the United States will likely provide real-time intelligence to carry out those strikes, experts said.

With the two major Mideast air campaigns — one in tacit alliance with Iran, the other against it — the United States “maintains that in each instance, it is supporting the legitimate, elected government of the country,” said Juan Cole, a Middle East expert at the University of Michigan.

And then there’s Syria, where the United States intends to train a force of moderate Sunni rebels to fight the Islamic State. That they would also like to fight the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Iranian forces supporting him is an inconvenient truth that Washington is not ready to address.

All of this is happening against the backdrop of sensitive negotiations between world powers and Iran over curbing Tehran’s nuclear program. Negotiators initially had hoped to have a framework for an agreement by the end of March, with an eye for a final deal later this summer. But the talks have ebbed and flowed with no guarantees that Iran will sign off on even a tentative plan next week.

U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East amid the complex web of competing alliances was already difficult to decipher. But the morass grew this week with the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen, leaving U.S. officials in the difficult position on Thursday, March 26, of trying to explain how it fits together or makes sense in the long run.

Regarding Yemen, “we’re not taking sides … a Shia faction against a Sunni faction,” State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told reporters in Washington. “We’re trying to promote a dialogue process in which the views of all Yemenis can be taken into account, and it’s the Houthis who have refused to engage in that dialogue.”

He shot down a suggestion that the United States “will become Iran’s air force in Iraq” and dismissed concerns that Washington’s alternating stance with Tehran will bleed into the nuclear negotiations. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke briefly about the Yemen unrest Thursday with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the nuclear talks in Switzerland, but Rathke refused to give any details about the discussion.

Overall, “we do have concerns about the way Iran has taken steps and supported actions that are destabilizing to the broader region,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told CNN.

It is clear that both Washington and Tehran have a common — and often competing — interest in helping Baghdad defeat the Islamic State. But the United States has taken great pains to avoid military operations that ultimately could support Iranian-backed troops. That’s one reason why Washington held off on airstrikes in Tikrit for nearly four weeks, and intervened on Wednesday only after being assured that Iraqi government forces would lead the fight on the ground.

Now, Tikrit is becoming an “I told you so” moment for the United States, which is eager to demonstrate that with its help the Iraqi forces will be successful — in contrast to a failed effort by Iran.

“The effort the Iranians were sponsoring stalled,” Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. The Pentagon said earlier in the week that Iraqi forces, including the militias, had surrounded Tikrit, but could not dislodge the Islamic State from the city’s center.

Meanwhile, Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Tehran’s elite Quds Force, has left the area, Austin said. And the New York Times reported that three major Shiite militia groups have pulled out of Tikrit in protest of U.S. participation. While the majority of the 20,000 Shiite militiamen are still nearby, it’s unclear what role they’ll play as the battle continues, and they “are not a part of the clearing operations in Tikrit,” Austin said.

In Yemen, the White House does not envision “taking direct military action” to help degrade the Houthi rebels who have overrun the capital Sanaa with Tehran’s help. But the U.S. military will provide intelligence and logistical support for the operation, including intelligence resources that were supporting U.S. forces in Yemen until those forces withdrew over the weekend for security reasons.

The U.S. military assistance will almost certainly include help with targeting Iranian-supported individuals and facilities in Yemen, because those are high-priority targets for Riyadh and its Gulf state partners, according to a Defense Department official with close contacts in the Saudi military. Such targets could include ports where Iran is shipping weapons and other combat supplies to the Houthis, as well as front companies run by the Quds Force.

“They operate with mirrors and duplicity, so you want to know who their front companies are, you want to know who their false businessmen are,” said the Defense Department official, who was not authorized to discuss the U.S. assistance by name. He said the United States likely will “share everything and then some” to help the Saudi-led coalition attack the Iranian-linked targets.

One port the Saudis might target is Mocha, which is located on Yemen’s Red Sea coast near the Houthi heartland. The Iranians have been shipping supplies to the Houthis though Mocha, according to Chris Harmer, an expert on naval strategy in the Middle East at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

The CIA maintains at least one drone base in Saudi Arabia, while the U.S. military flies manned and unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft out of Djibouti. Both bases can expect to be busy sending aircraft over Yemen in the days ahead, according to the Defense Department official.

Additionally, while Saudi Arabia has long maintained an extensive network of spies in Yemen, it may now benefit from the United States’ history of espionage on the ground. Although the withdrawal of all U.S. personnel from Yemen has complicated U.S. efforts to run human intelligence operations in the country, “the phone lines are not dead,” the Defense Department official said.

Meanwhile, the logistical support promised by the United States is likely to include rapid resupply of spare parts and precision-guided munitions as the Saudis and their allies from the Gulf Cooperation Council expend their supplies, according to Harmer.

The prospect of a Saudi-Iranian war in Yemen, while a “human tragedy,” also sets up a “fascinating” conflict between the Quds Force’s seasoned “street fighters” and Saudi Arabia’s lavishly resourced military, which is equipped with state-of-the-art gear, but which lacks combat experience, Harmer said.

“The Iranians have been fighting continuously for the last 35 years,” he said. “They are hard-wired for this battle. The Saudis are not.”


Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen
Seán D. Naylor is the author of Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. Twitter: @seandnaylor