As tensions mount in the Middle East, one cannot help but wonder whether eschatological factors are playing out or whether nations looking to influence outcomes in a positive way still have roles to play. Those of us unwilling yet to accept end-of-world prophecies prefer the emphasis be put upon the latter.
As one observer notes, “whether you believe in… prophecy or not, today the Middle East is the most keenly watched area of the globe… it is central to the economic stability of the entire world.”
Center stage for unfolding events in the region — and undoubtedly a topic for discussion by President Donald Trump during his May 19th visit to Riyadh — is the two-year-old Yemen conflict. The battlefield lineup there pits Shiite Iran, which helped its Shiite Houthi rebel proxies jump-start the war by overthrowing Yemen’s established Sunni government, against a Sunni coalition of regional states led by Saudi Arabia, known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The GCC was originally formed in 1981 by six major oil-exporting states “to foster economic, scientific and business cooperation among them.” However, Tehran’s aggression in Yemen caused the organization to foster military cooperation among them as well.
The war has been a chess match between Islam’s two sectarian champions as to which is more committed to putting Yemen in their sect’s “win” column. As it became clear President Barack Obama was pushing a pro-Iran foreign policy in the region, the GCC entered the conflict in March 2016 to assist the Yemeni government.
Undoubtedly, the GCC was delighted with Trump’s election victory. They saw a Hillary Clinton presidency simply continuing Obama’s policies — forcing the GCC nations to share the neighborhood with the local bully. With Trump, Riyadh sees an opportunity to confront the bully and reclaim the neighborhood.
How goes Yemen in this confrontation will prove a strong indicator of how the GCC’s neighborhood reclamation project will go – and, in turn, a strong indicator as to how goes Yemen will be how goes control for Yemen’s Red Sea seaport city of Hodeidah.
The seaport was seized early in the conflict by the Houthis to receive Iranian arms. Thus, upon entering the conflict, the GCC recognized it was important to drive them out. But the GCC also knew this could prove costly. A solution on Hodeidah involving the warring factions may soon be in the offing.
Upon arriving in Riyadh, Trump will find a divided GCC on how best to deal with Iran. While Saudi Arabia favors a more aggressive policy, other GCC members seek to reduce tensions. The mullahs will pounce on this division to further their own goals. Undoubtedly, they will seek a solution allowing them to use a ploy, successfully utilized more than four decades earlier, to affect another enemy’s withdrawal from the battlefield. We can expect to see Tehran play the “Hanoi card.”
While an end to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war was negotiated with North Vietnam in 1973, by which it agreed not to invade the South, Hanoi did exactly that following America’s withdrawal. It effectively lulled the U.S. into a false sense of security with a treaty aimed to get American fighting forces out of Vietnam — knowing it would be much more difficult for the U.S. to regain public support to re-commit those forces later.
A solution the GCC will propose, with Yemeni government support, ultimately will play into Tehran’s hands and its use of the Hanoi card.
The proposal involves giving control of Hodeidah to a mutually acceptable third party that would become responsible not only for maintaining its neutrality but also for rebuilding infrastructure damaged by the war.
Tehran’s performance to date on international agreements it has directly negotiated is poor. In fact, it has violated every such agreement it has entered. Thus, its influence over the Houthis could demand they do the same.
Just like Iran seeks to play off divided GCC interests, Riyadh must try the same, playing the Houthis against Iranian interests.
As the Houthis have lost significant personnel assets and as a GCC attack would open up another front against them, they should be open to the GCC’s proposal. They know, even backed by a determined Iran, a GCC battle over Hodeidah would extract a heavy toll. And should it be lost, the Iranian weapons flow would dry up, signaling the beginning of the end for their insurrection.
Hopefully, Trump will prove able to unify the GCC mindset to recognize any agreement over which Iran exerts influence will be short-lived.
We can rest assured the Iran lobby and other pro-Iran groups will downplay any proposal not fitting Tehran’s agenda by playing yet another card: the “humanitarian crisis card.” Trump needs to convince GCC members such a crisis would not necessarily flow from a Hodeidah attack. In January, when the GCC successfully fought al-Qaeda for control of the Yemeni port of Mukallah, located on the Gulf of Aden, no such crisis erupted.
Realistically, it is not Saudi military action creating humanitarian crises, but rather Iranian military action, such as in Syria. Thus, any group seriously seeking to avoid such crisis needs to examine how to keep Iran out of it.
It should also be noted, despite Iran’s May 19th presidential election in which President Hassan Rouhani seeks a second term, the outcome will not affect Tehran’s position. After all, it is Iran’s Supreme Leader for life, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, determining the tone negotiators take.
However, any GCC willingness to open up a military campaign against Hodeidah will require a solid U.S. commitment to help, including modern weaponry and adequate training.
An absolute foreign policy nightmare now exists in the Middle East following an eight year Obama appeasement policy towards Iran failing to support our regional allies. Vis-a-vis Iran, Trump has few options in his foreign policy quiver.
Failing to secure Hodeidah, either by GCC military action or via truly enforceable third-party control option, leaves the door open not only to a possible humanitarian crisis but unleashing a possible Armageddon prophecy as well.
Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.