Earlier today, I wrote about how tensions escalated in Yemen after a Saudi airstrike allegedly hit targets close to the Iranian embassy in Sana’a, causing damage to the embassy itself, but no casualties. Houthi-controlled (read: Iranian-controlled) news outlets peddled the line that the airstrike had missed its intended target—a Sana’a arms depot—but photos and reports from the area have largely refuted that claim.
Moral of the story? Things are tense in the Arabian Peninsula today—and it’s about to get much worse, to the tune of an increased U.S. naval presence in the region.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Navy officials: US warship heads to Yemeni waters to intercept Iranian weapons shipments.
— Phil Elliott (@Philip_Elliott) April 20, 2015
Late last week, military officials and members of Congress expressed concern over the United States’ increasing role in patrolling the waters surrounding Yemen’s major port cities. Saudi Arabia is running a blockade in an attempt to stop Iran from funneling weapons to Houthi rebels; meanwhile, the Houthi are fighting for control of Yemen’s major port cities, but they’re largely depending on help from Iran to continue their slow march down the coast. According to U.S. officials, Iran has now sent a small, armed armada of ships on a route to Yemen and will attempt to re-arm their Houthi rebels:
What’s unusual about the new deployment, which set out this week, is that the Iranians are not trying to conceal it, officials said. Instead, they appear to be trying to “communicate it” to the U.S. and its allies in the Gulf.
It is not clear what will happen as the convoy comes closer to Yemen. Saudi Arabia has deployed ships around Yemen to enforce the blockade, as has Egypt. An official said the ship convoy could try to land at a port in Aden, which the Houthis have taken over.
Although the U.S. is assisting with the Saudi-led air campaign, it is not participating in the naval blockade of Yemen, said U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. Pat Ryder.
However, the U.S. Navy is in the region and has already “consensually boarded” one Panamanian-flagged ship in the Red Sea on April 1 on the suspicion it was illegally carrying arms for the Houthis.
None were found, but the move raised alarm bells in Washington over an increasingly active U.S. military role in the conflict. The Pentagon indicated this week that more boardings could occur.
“We will continue to vigilantly defend freedom of navigation and to conduct consensual searches in an effort to ensure that drugs, human trafficking, weapons trafficking and other contraband are limited,” Army Col. Steve Warren said on Monday.
I think it’s important to emphasize that, by and large, a U.S. presence in the waters surrounding the Arabian Peninsula is not unusual. Our combat ships regularly patrol the area (remember the pirates?) but have not played an active role in the naval blockade. We have, however, expanded our role, and many of the ships in the area are combat vessels—again, not unusual, considering US officials sometimes board ships suspected of running weapons or other illicit cargo. They haven’t boarded any foreign vessels since April 1, but that could change at any moment.
All eyes are now on the Bab al-Mandab strait, the stretch of water between Yemen and Djibouti that connects the Red Sea with the strategically crucial Gulf of Aden. Iran is poking the bear, and Saudi is obviously prepared to continue airstrikes as needed until the Houthi advance breaks. What you’re seeing now is the beginnings of a proxy war between Saudi and Iran, with everyone from civilians to US citizens to terror groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda now caught in the crossfire. Saudi and Iran may be dominating the international news cycle right now, but don’t discount the presence of other Islamic extremist groups in the region. If civil war breaks out in truth, Yemen’s powerful al-Qaeda cell will be presented with a valuable opportunity to exploit the effects of instability and use the violence as a recruiting tool.
Yemen is falling apart; it has been coming for a long time, and it’s possible that the attention of the world was caught far too late to stop the small country’s devolution from struggling to failed state.
We’ll keep you posted on the brewing naval situation.DONATE
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