Eight armies are fighting for dominance in Yemen, a country of 25 million inhabitants: The Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents, together with a breakaway force, are battling the army loyal to President Abdulrabbuh Mansur Hadi, which is supported by Saudi, Egyptian and UAE military forces and their hired legion of Colombian mercenaries.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) elements, most acting as advisers to the Houthi rebels, intervene actively from time to time. Last October, they conducted missile attacks on US vessels on the Red Sea from shore batteries. In response, the US Navy on October 9 and 12 knocked out those batteries and the radar stations that were manned by IRGC teams.
Tehran countered by deploying to Yemen long-range Shahed 129 drones carrying Sadid-1 rockets and sowing sea mines around the international Bab Al-Mandeb Straits.
US President Donald Trump’s sharp warning on Friday, Feb. 3, after just two weeks in office, that Iran was “playing with fire” and the fresh round of sanctions he clamped down were galvanized by Iranian aggression in Yemen and the Red Sea as much as by its ballistic missile test.
And indeed, the deployment of the USS Cole destroyer to the strategic Red Sea Straits of Bab Al-Mandeb on the same day turned the compass needle toward the potential arena, should the escalating tension between the US and Yemen explode into a military encounter, such as a US special operations force going into Yemen to strike IRGC targets.
DEBKAfile’s sources report that the Trump administration would find this battleground expedient out of six considerations:
1. It would enable the US to keep the confrontation within controlled limits, by claiming it was acting against the Houthi insurgents in Yemen – not a directly attack Iran.
2. If Iranian Revolutionary Guards “happened” to be caught in the fire, Washington would ask what they were doing in Yemen, when Tehran denied its intervention in the Yemeni civil war.
3. Iran would not necessarily be compelled to hit back directly so long as the US avoids direct attacks on its soil.
4. It would provide serious support for the Saudi and UAE armies, whose armies’ entanglement in the Yemen conflict is deepening without their making real headway against the Houthis. President Trump would show Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo, that he is on their side in the fight against Iran.
5. Iran is capable of coping with the regional armies ranged against the Houthi rebels, but any substantial US military intervention might force Iran to reconsider its support for the Yemeni insurgency.
6. The Russians are not involved in Yemen and any US intervention can be kept quite separate from the Trump administration’s evolving political and military partnership with Moscow in Syria.
By the same token, Washington is keeping its hands off Libya, where last week, the Russians began sending military advisers to assist the American-Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who controls large parts of the eastern oil-rich region. The planes which fly the advises in are carrying Hafter’s wounded men out to hospitals I Russia.