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| On the way to hell in the Middle East

Preparing for the Third Gulf War

The road to war will turn out to be the road to hell; and now that a Third Gulf War is looming on the horizon of mankind, it seems open. Once again the enemy is Iran. And again, like in 2003, a president is surrounded by bellicose advisors who are exactly out for such a war and looking for justifications to start it. Now that Donald Trump has made the decision to tear the nuclear deal with Iran to shreds, it is time for us to start thinking about what a third Gulf War would mean. Looking at the last 16 years of American experience in the Middle East, one can say: It won't be nice.

The other day reportedNew York Timesthat US Army Special Forces would covertly support the Saudi Arabian military against Iran-sponsored Houthi rebels in Yemen. This was just the last sign of President Trump's declaration on Iran - the declaration that Washington was getting ready for the possibility of another interstate war in the Persian Gulf region. The first two Gulf Wars - the operation Desert Storm (the 1990 campaign to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait) and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 - ended in US “victories” that unleashed duplicating tensions from terrorism such as ISIS, uprooted millions and the entire region of The Middle East was terribly unbalanced. The Third Gulf War - not against Iraq, but against Iran and its allies - will undoubtedly end with another US “victory”; this could unleash even more gruesome forces of chaos and bloodshed.

Like the first two Gulf Wars, the third could include high-intensity clashes between a presence of US troops and those of Iran, an equally well-armed state. The US has fought against ISIS and other terrorist units in the Middle East and elsewhere in recent years. Yet these warfare have little in common with engaging in a confrontation with a modern state determined to defend its territory with professional armed forces - forces with the will, if perhaps not the wherewithal, to support the superior US -To counter weapon systems militarily.

A Third Gulf War would differ from recent conflicts in the Middle East by the geographic scope of the struggle and the number of large actors that might be involved. It would be highly probable that the battlefield would stretch from the shores of the Mediterranean, where Lebanon borders on Israel, to the Strait of Hormuz, where the Persian Gulf flows into the Indian Ocean. Participants could include Iran, the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and various Shiite militias in Iraq and Yemen; on the other hand Israel, Saudi Arabia, the USA and the United Arab Emirates. And if the fighting in Syria gets completely out of control, even Russian troops could be involved.

All these actors and forces have armed themselves with massive modern weapons accumulations over the last few years, so that it is certain that any conflict would be intense, bloody and horribly destructive. Iran has received an assortment of modern weapons from Russia and also has its own extensive arms industry. Conversely, Iran itself has equipped the Assad regime with modern weapons and is suspected of having shipped significant numbers of rockets and ammunition to Hezbollah. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have long been the primary recipients of sophisticated U.S. arms valued at tens of thousands of millions of dollars, and President Trump has promised to provide them with far more.

All of this means that a Third Gulf War, once started, could escalate rapidly and undoubtedly result in large numbers of civilian and military casualties, as well as new flows of refugees. The United States and its allies would seek swiftly crippling Iran's ability to fight - an operation that would require multiple waves of air and missile strikes - some of them certainly on facilities in densely populated areas. Iran and its allies would seek to respond with attacks on high value targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia, including large cities and oil industry facilities. Iran's Shiite partners in Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere could be expected to launch their own attacks on the US-led alliance. Where all of this would lead, once it began, is of course impossible to predict, but twenty-first century history suggests that events will not follow the carefully worked out plans of commanding generals (or their civilian superiors), and that it will neither as expected nor will it end well.

Just as unpredictable is the exact incidents or sequences of events that will spark such a war. Nonetheless, it seems clear that the world is getting closer and closer to the moment when, from a series of hostilities leading up to President Trump's rejection of the nuclear deal, the right (or perhaps better the wrong) spark that leads to war springs up. For example, a confrontation between Israeli and Iranian troops in Syria is conceivable, which could trigger such a conflict. The Iranians are said to have set up military bases in Lebanon in support of both the Assad regime and Hezbollah. On May 10th, Israeli jets attacked several such facilities while pursuing a rocket attack allegedly carried out by Iranian soldiers in Syria on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. More such Israeli military strikes will certainly follow, as Iran is working flat out to create and control a so-called land bridge through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Another possible spark to ignite the war could come from clashes or other incidents between US and Iranian naval vessels in the Persian Gulf, where the two naval fleets often meet in aggressive ways. Whatever triggers the first clash, a rapid escalation and a turnaround into widespread hostilities could be the result without much warning.

All of this begs a question: why is the United States and its allies in the region moving ever more towards another great war in the Persian Gulf? Why now?

The geopolitical impulse

The first two Gulf Wars were in large part driven by oil geopolitics. After the United States became more and more dependent on oil import sources after the end of World War II, it clung more and more closely to Saudi Arabia, the world's leading oil power. Under the doctrine of President Carter of January 1980, the US first committed itself to the use of force, if necessary, to prevent any disruption of oil flow from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to its own country and to allies. Ronald Reagan was the first president to implement this doctrine; he was responsible for the new flagging of Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti oil tankers with the stars and stripes of the USA and their protection by the Navy during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war from 1980. When Iranian gunboats threatened these tankers, US ships drove them away; thus began the first military clashes between the United States and Iran. President Reagan put the matter in clear terms at the time: "The use of the shipping lanes of the Persian Gulf will not be dictated by the Iranians."

Oil geopolitics also largely determined the US decision to intervene in the First Gulf War. When Iraqi forces occupied Kuwait in August 1990 and seemed ready to invade Saudi Arabia at any time, President George W. Bush announced that the US would send troops to defend the kingdom, practicing the Carter Doctrine in real time. "Our country currently imports nearly half of the oil it consumes and faces serious threats to its economic independence," he said, adding that "the sovereign independence of Saudi Arabia is of vital interest to the United States." .

While the role of oil in Second President George W. Bush's strategy to invade Iraq in March 2003 was less obvious, it was there. Members of his inner circle of advisers, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney, argued that Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the security of oil routes through the Persian Gulf and must be eliminated. Others in the government eagerly watched the prospect of privatizing Iraq's state-owned oil fields and slamming them to US oil companies (an idea that apparently stuck in the mind of Donald Trump as he stated repeatedly during the 2016 election campaign: "We would have this Should keep the oil ”).

Today, while oil plays a minor role, it has not entirely disappeared as a factor in geopolitics around the Persian Gulf. Other issues are now in the foreground. The escalation of the struggle for regional supremacy between Iran and Saudi Arabia (with a threatening nuclear-armed Israel in the background) is of the greatest importance for overcoming the current military stalemate. Both countries see themselves as the center of a network of friendly states and societies - Iran as the leading power of the Shiite populations in the region, Saudi Arabia in the same way for the Sunnis - and both resent the other for any gain. To make the situation even more complicated, President Trump - obviously based on deep antipathies against the Iranians - has decided to side with the Saudis, while Benjamin Netanyahu's Israel stands out for fear of Iranian progress in the region operates the same. The result, as military historian Andrew Bacevich spoke, is the “introduction of a Saudi-American-Israeli axis” and a “major realignment of US strategic relations”.

Some key factors may explain that shift from an oil-centered strategy that emphasizes military superiority to more conventional forms of struggle between regional rivals in which the planet's last remaining superpower is already deeply entangled. First of all, it should be noted that the United States' dependence on imported oil thanks to a revolution in drilling techniques that now allow wells in the shale fracking to exploit massively, has decreased sharply in recent years. As a result, the supply from sources around the Persian Gulf is now far less important to Washington than it has been in the past few decades. According to oil giant BP, the US still relied 61% on imports to meet its oil needs in 2001; By 2016, this proportion had fallen to 37% and continued to fall - and yet the US is still deeply entangled in the Middle East, as painfully evidenced by a decade and a half of never-ending war, counterinsurgency, drone strikes and other conflicts.

With the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, Washington also destroyed a central bulwark of Sunni power, a country ruled by Saddam Hussein that had turned against Iran with the United States two decades earlier. The invasion thus had the most ironic effect of expanding Shiite influence and making Iran the primary - if not the only - winner in the years after the war. According to some Western analysts, the biggest tragedy of the invasion, from a geopolitical point of view, lies in the rise of Shiite politicians with close ties to Tehran and Iraq. If the politicians of this country seem to be pursuing their own path after the victory over ISIS, many have powerful Shiite militias in Iraq - including some who played a key role in driving ISIS out of Mosul and other major cities - close ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

The wars in Syria and Yemen are disasters in and of themselves; they have made the situation on the geopolitical chessboard that Washington is now on and from which it cannot withdraw even more complex. In Syria, Iran has decided, in alliance with Putin's Russia, to ensure a continuation of the brutal Assad regime by providing it with weapons, money and an unknown number of advisers from the Revolutionary Guards. Hezbollah, a Shiite political group in Lebanon with a sizeable military wing, has sent numerous fighters of its own to Syria to support Assad's forces. It seems that Iran in Yemen is providing the flow of weapons and missile technology to the Houthis, an autochthonous Shiite rebel group that now controls the northern half of the country including the capital Sana'a.

Conversely, the Saudis have become increasingly active in the development of their military power by strengthening fighting Sunni groups across the region. In an attempt to thwart and reverse what they believe to be Iranian successes, they have helped militias of the most extreme sort and even the Al Qaeda Empower affiliated groups in Iraq and Syria under pressure from Iranian-backed Shiite forces. In 2015 they organized a coalition of Sunni-Arab states in Yemen to put down the uprising of the Houthi rebels in a bloody war. This led to a blockade of the country, a massive famine and continuous US-backed air strikes, which often hit civilian targets such as markets, schools and weddings. This combination resulted in an estimated 10,000 civilian deaths and an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the already impoverished country.

In view of these developments, the Obama administration tried to calm the situation by negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran and its prospect of stronger economic ties with the West - in return for a reduced level of enforcement beyond Iran's borders. However, this strategy never won the support of Israel or Saudi Arabia. And during the Obama administration, Washington continued to provide substantial support to these two countries, including through massive supplies of military equipment. This included refueling Saudi planes in the air so they could penetrate deeper into Yemen and providing the Saudis with target information for their destructive war.

The anti-Iranian triumvirate

All of these regional developments had taken place before Donald Trump was in office. They have only accelerated since then, and in no small measure by the people involved in decision-making positions. The first person is, of course, President Trump. During his election campaign, he regularly denounced the nuclear deal with Iran, which the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union all signed in July 2015. Officially known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action(JCPOA), the deal forced Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program in exchange for the lifting of all sanctions imposed on that program. It was a plan that Iran adhered to meticulously. Although President Obama, many veteran US politicians, and most European leaderships had argued that whatever its flaws, the JCPOA was putting effective pressure on Iran not to pursue its nuclear (and other) ambitions, Trump repeatedly dismissed it as a “terrible deal”, as it does not guarantee that the last remnants of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure will be destroyed or that the country's missile program will be ended. "This deal was a disaster," he told David Sanger of the in March 2016New York Times.

Trump has filled his administration with Iran-haters, including his new state secretary and new security advisor.He seems to harbor a deeply rooted animosity against the Iranians - perhaps because they do not meet him with the admiration he believes he deserves; on the other hand, he has a weakness for the Saudi royals, who are not lacking in homage. In May 2017, he completed his first trip abroad as president: he traveled to Riyadh, where he performed a sword dance with Saudi princes and immersed himself in the kind of pompous spectacle of wealth that only oil potentates can offer.

During his stay in Riyadh, he exchanged ideas intensively with the then MP and now Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 31-year-old son of King Salman and one of the architects of the geopolitical competition between the Saudis and the Iranians. Prince Mohammed, who serves as Saudi Defense Minister and was named Crown Prince in June 2017, is the driving force behind the - as yet unsuccessful - attempt by the Kingdom to defeat the Houthi rebels in Yemen and he is known for being anti-Iranian Embittered views.

At an earlier White House reception in March 2017, bin Salman and President Trump appear to have reached an implicit agreement on a joint strategy to portray Iran as a regional threat, to undo the nuclear deal and thus set the stage for a possible war to defeat the country, or at least bring down the regime. In Riyadh, President Trump informed those attending a conference of Sunni Arab leaders that “Iran is armed, trained and funded terrorists, militias and other extremist groups from Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen to wreak havoc on the destruction and chaos everywhere in the world Spread region. It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, evokes the destruction of Israel and the death of America, and also the ruin of many leaders in this room as well. "

These words were no doubt received with satisfaction by the assembled Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis and other Sunni rulers; They also gave the view of the third decisive player in the strategic triumvirate that could soon drive the region into open war: that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also known as "Bibi". For years he has opposed the Iranian ambitions in the region and threatened with military action against any movement in the country, which in his view could affect the security of Israel. Now he has the allies of his dreams in Trump and the Saudi Crown Prince. During the Obama administration, Netanyahu was a fierce opponent of the nuclear deal with Iran and used a rare appearance at a joint session of Congress in March 2015 to condemn it. Until the days when Trump withdrew from the treaty, Netanyahu never stopped trying to convince the president that the deal must be annulled and Iran must be targeted.

In that address to Congress in 2015, Netanyahu outlined a vision of Iran as a systemic threat that Trump and his Saudi allies would later adopt in Riyadh. "Iran's regime poses a grave threat not only to Israel but also to world peace," he added in a typically exaggerated statement. “With the support of Iran, Assad slaughters the Syrians. With the backing of Iran, Shiite militias are on a rampage through Iraq. And with help from Iran, the Houthis are seizing control of Yemen and threatening the strategically important strait on the Red Sea. Together with the Strait of Hormuz, this would create a second bottleneck for Iran to influence global oil supplies. "

Netanyahu is now playing a major role in dragging the already troubled region into a war that could further destroy it, produce even more terrorist groups (and terrorized civilians) and wreak havoc on possibly global proportions - especially given the fact that both Russia and China support the Iranians.

Belt yourself for the war

Let us give the right meaning to the words of Netanyahu in Washington and Donald Trump in Riyadh. Let us not see it as political rhetoric, but as sinister prophecy. Far more such prophecies will be heard in the months ahead as the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia move more and more towards war with Iran and its allies. Ideology and religion will play a role in what follows, but the real impetus is a geopolitical struggle for control of the wider Gulf, with all its riches and between two sorts of countries, each determined to survive.

No one can predict with certainty when or whether these powerful forces will unleash a devastating new war or series of wars in the Middle East. Other considerations - an unexpected flare-up on the Korean peninsula if President Trump's talks with Kim Jong-Un ends in failure, a new crisis with Russia, a global economic collapse - could draw attention to other places and the importance of competition in Persian Let golf fade away. New leadership in any of the key countries could similarly change course. Netanyahu, for example, is currently at risk of losing power due to an ongoing investigation by the Israeli police into alleged corruption. And Trump - well who can say that? Without such developments, or at least such a development, the path to war, which will certainly turn out to be the path to hell, seems open - a third Gulf War is looming on the horizon of mankind as a gloomy picture.

The text was first published by TomDispatch and was translated by Corinna Trogisch.