by James Spencer
It was widely reported that ground-based Houthi forces hit and largely disabled the United Arab Emirates ship Swift as it was transiting the Bab al-Mandab Strait on October 1. However, the Houthi-Salihi grouping—a witch’s brew of forces loyal to Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdallah Salih, and the Zaydi Revivalists who had previously battled against him—described the attack on their official website as “Army destroys UAE warship off Mocha coast.” One might have expected the Houthis to have claimed the attack had it indeed been theirs. In the past, they have falsely claimed responsibility for sinking various Saudi vessels.
In the week that followed, two additional missile attacks from Houthi-Salihi-controlled areas were launched against the USS Mason, a Navy destroyer, in the same region. In those cases, however, the Houthis rapidly denied targeting the ship. For its part, the Yemen news agency Saba also reported “Army denies reports of targeting ship off Yemeni coasts.”
The emphasis on the Houthis may be editorial compression, but the stock epithet that usually accompanies the name Houthi is “Iran-backed,” An unholy alliance of Israel and the Sunni Arab monarchies—and their mouthpieces in the West—have ascribed all evil in the region to Iran. Iran is up to quite enough mischief on its own account without the pin more on it. (To be fair, a less partisan source accurately noted that “Houthi relations with the Islamic Republic resemble the Iran-Hamas relationship more than the Iran-Hezbollah relationship—that is, the Houthis are autonomous partners who usually act in accordance with their own interests”.)
The missiles used against the Swift and USS Mason are usually baldly portrayed as Iranian-supplied Chinese C-802s. Yet no one has explained how Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have managed to smuggle the 6.5 meter long C-802 missiles past the serried ranks of CTF-150 and the Saudi-led Coalition’s tight blockade, nor how these forces missed the large tracking and fire control radar trailers that come with them (and that subsequent U.S. cruise-missile attacks destroyed). However, according to a Janes report in 2010, the Yemeni armed forces already owned SS-N-2C Styx SSM missiles and Chinese C-801 medium-range anti-ship missiles. As its designation suggests, the C-801 is a predecessor of the C-802, and possibly a reverse-engineered EXOCET, as used by the Argentinians in their disastrous Falkland Islands campaign nearly 35 years ago..
It is thus more likely that the missiles were Yemeni-procured C-801s, operated by elements of the Yemeni Armed Forces loyal to former president Ali Abdallah Salih, fired from territory under Houthi-Salihi control. Given the initial claim of the attack on the UAE ship, the Army was likely responsible for both—possibly with Houthi spotters—and that the Houthis’ denial is genuine. (The Army’s later denial—given the likely repercussions from the US—is probably less genuine.) If that were indeed the case, it offered a perfect opportunity to drive a wedge between the Houthis and the Salihis and thus to weaken their alliance at a moment when renewed peace negotiations appear likely. But it has now been wasted by hyping the Iranian specter.
Despite the reliability of these open-source reports, some quarters notably sympathetic to both Israel and Saudi Arabia are using these incidents to agitate for additional backing for the Saudis in their deeply flawed military campaign. This is probably because the Saudis are running out of ideas—and combat power—to bring the conflict to an end without having to make the embarrassing compromise that is unfortunately needed: a major role for the Houthis and the Salihis in a future Yemeni government. (A sensible solution would be to use the d’Hondt system to limit corruption.)
As a result, advocates for the Israeli/Saudi compact against Iran have not only tried to ascribe intention to an attack on a USN ship (it is doubtful that the Houthi/Salihi spotters can pick out the pennant number or ensign of a USN ship at range from a bobbing skiff) but they have designated the perpetrators to be IRI-backed Houthis and attributed the supply of missiles to the IRI. This, they probably hope, will constitute a casus belli, or at least soften US public’s opinion against getting involved in another Middle Eastern war on behalf of another regional client with hegemonic ambitions.
Should that not work, they propose that “The United States and other countries need to show the Houthis in no uncertain terms that they cannot attack U.S. or allied interests with impunity.” [Emphasis added.] That policy risks handing a blank check to the Saudis to provoke an incident and ensnare the US in conflict. They would not be the first to do so: there have been other instances of US “allies” trying to draw the US into a conflict by provocative actions.
Possibly as a result, the US response—with POTUS authorization—was very well calibrated and measured. Not only did U.S. naval actions destroy military capability—three surveillance radars—but, by attacking in the small hours, the US sent a clear message without causing casualties and further inflaming the situation. (By comparison, the Saudis’ profligate use of US and UK weaponry to kill civilians—most recently the October 8 funeral in Sanaa that killed more than 100 people, including officials who played key roles in trying to negotiate an end to this catastrophic war—has raised many Yemenis’ ire against the US and the UK for supplying the murderous weapons.)
As well as advocating US combat, the same less partisan source astutely notes that “more active [US] support for an equitable peace deal could offer [the Houthis] guarantees that Tehran cannot.” That is indeed the best role that the US can play, and absolutely in line with its values and interests: ending the conflict, protecting global shipping routes, rooting out terrorists, and undermining the twin evils of activist Shi’a and Salafi expansionism.
That appears to be the direction the Obama administration, to its credit, is taking. As one unnamed senior official told The Washington Post after the U.S. retaliation against the radar installations, U.S. support for the Riyadh’s continued military campaign will continue to be reduced if the Saudis “don’t accept the unconditional cessation of hostilities that we think is absolutely, urgently needed, now more than ever.”
War is the extension of politics by other means, wrote von Clausewitz. The other means have come to an end: it’s time to return to politics: jaw-jaw really is better than war-war.
Photo: HSV-2 Swift, leased to the UAE in 2015.
James Spencer is a retired British infantry commander who specialized in low-intensity conflict. He is an independent strategic analyst on political, security and trade issues of the Middle East and North Africa and a specialist on Yemen.