Diario Judío México - The latest – and likely final – version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – features a provision, presented by the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, that would restrict U.S. aid to the Saudi-led Arab Coalition in , pending a certification by the Secretary of State that would be presented to Congress.  The aid that could be affected includes U.S. logistical support, such as refueling the airplanes, utilized in the Saudi airstrike campaign against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

This latest iteration of the bill represents the frustration of the lawmakers with the humanitarian toll of the three year campaign in response to the civil war, and the perceived shortcomings of the Arab allies in their attempts to free the port of Hodeidah from Houthi presence, and liberate the country from the Houthi take over (while simultaneously addressing the proliferation of Sunni terrorist organizations, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS). The attempt to liberate Hodeidah has largely stalled, pending political negotiations that would allow Houthis to cede the port peacefully, while the Arab Coalition, largely consisting of Yemeni government forces, in conjunction with the Emirati ground troops, work to demine  the booby trapped environs of the city, central to both the receipt of the humanitarian aid, and to Houthi armament by Iran through the ships.

The conditions placed on the Coalition before the approval of future additional aid includes

  • demonstrating the efforts to end the civil war
  • alleviating the humanitarian disaster by increasing access to food, fuel, and medicine
  • reducing the delays in the shipments of humanitarian supplies, and
  • reducing the risk of harm to civilians

The concerns reflected in the inclusion of this amendment are legitimate. Various humanitarian reports on the situation in made note of seemingly excessive and unwarranted delays in the release of humanitarian aid; although Saudi Arabia and other allies have pledged billions of dollars in humanitarian packages to the civilian population, disbursing this aid in a timely manner has proven logistically difficult. There are concerns that at least part of the aid is being siphoned off to assorted extremist organizations operating on the ground that have been fellow travelers to the Coalition in their battle against the Houthis. There are also concerns that the Coalition may be delaying the shipments of humanitarian aid out of spite or interest in pressuring the Houthis – at a cost to civilians, entrapped by the chaotic situation.

And the secretary could also issue a waiver for refueling for national security reasons. However, the waiver cannot be granted without issuing a detailed justification to Congress. Given the increasingly aggressive recent attempts by various members of Congress to mandate the Trump administration to withdraw US troops from altogether, this turn of events, although not completely destructive, is highly damaging. The concerns, however, legitimate should be addressed to the US allies in private, not through humiliating and disempowering public processes, which undermine these highly sensitive relationships. The Arab Coalition is struggling; ’s complicated terrain, the training granted to Houthis by Hezbullah, the proclivity of these Iran backed forces to engage in human rights abuses, including the recruitment of child soldiers and the widespread usage of civilian human shields, all complicate the war effort.

Along with the frequently flawed intelligence, provided by the United States, UK, and France, as well as the overall fluidity of the situation on the ground, complicated by terrorist attacks, and the asymmetrical strategies of the Houthis, the field of war would be difficult to navigate even for highly experienced and organized fighters. The Arab Coalition is largely a coalition of the willing, to some extent a motley crew that included the Saudi military, which has little to no experience in combat (the war is the first one for the country’s young Defense Minister and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman), the Sudanese forces, and assorted other contingents which assist with the airstrikes. The ground campaign, however, is largely conducted by the Yemeni security forces, who after years of strife preceding the launch of the bombardment campaign by Saudi Arabia, were ill equipped to respond to the sudden and aggressive push by the Houthis. The Houthis, meanwhile, are continuing to receive increasingly sophisticated weaponry which they have used successfully to attack the Saudi territory.

The Houthis present an existential danger to the Saudis; the latter, understandably, are concerned and distrustful of Houthi leadership reassurances. Given the proclivity for deception which has characterized the smuggling of the Iranian weapons inside the country, it is little wonder that the Coalition prefers to overinsure when it comes to the inspection of humanitarian shipments.  Worse, it appears that the arms are not the only thing being smuggled inside the country. Human cargo in the form of Hizbullah fighters and Iranian advisers has apparently made its way into – to train the Houthis, to build ground factories which replicate Iranian weapons, and to engage in sophisticated intelligence gathering efforts, which can hardly be countered by the 38 Green Berets present to assist the Arab Coalition with finding and dismantling Iranian missiles. Out of sheer desperation, understanding the universal threat of having yet another Iranian proxy become a mobilized force to reckon with, the Coalition has been partnering with whomever it can on the ground  in an effort to slow down the looming disaster.  The successes have been mixed. The war appears to be at a stalemate – and likely will remain there unless there are substantial changes in operations.  From now on, the war can go in one of the three directions:

  1. The Western counterparts increase their aid to the Coalition, and jointly engage in counterterrorism offensives to dislodge Hezbullah from Yemen, undermining Iran campaign. The joint offensive would also include aggressive covert ops, which would not include an increase in US forces or additional AUMF, but would undermine Iranian efforts and separate the Houthis from their backers. If these operations take place, rapidly and in a focused, carefully organized way, the Coalition can demoralize, weaken, and winnow out the Houthis from Hodeidah, to be captured outside the city. The forces then can secure the port and ensure that no Iranian shipments can reach their destination, which would mean a pivot to the course of war.
  2.  The United States and their other counterparts continue hedging their bets, and treating this battle to reverse the course of Iranian geopolitical hegemony, as if it were some law enforcement operation gone awry. The US will continue pressuring and punishing their inexperienced and beleaguered counterparts, creating the appearance of daylight between the White House and the Coalition. That will signal Iran and their proxies that the Coalition is vulnerable, that the United States is more loyal to UN-approved appearances than to its allies, and that victory appears to be less important than meeting the criteria proposed by humanitarian reporters, none of whom actually needs to make strategic war decisions.  This will undermine the morale of the troops, cause panic at the higher levels, and make the Coalition either significantly less decisive in its commitment, or desperate and reckless. Either way, it will put the effort to counter Iran-backed terrorism on a losing track, while inspiring the Houthis to be more aggressive and vicious than ever before .
  3. Iran refocuses its efforts on Yemen; roiled by internal protests, loss of business due to the imposition of secondary sanctions on European or other companies doing business with it, and by aggressive attacks by Israel in Syria, it will necessarily have to stretch even its most powerful forces and proxies thin to continue meeting its military goals. Temporarily, the war will heat up with increased civilian and other casualties. However, the West offers its full backing to the Coalition on this and other fronts and starts viewing the countering of Iranian aggression in the Middle East and elsewhere as a holistic and all encompassing strategy. It will combat Iranian backed proxies and efforts everywhere – in Europe, Africa, Latin America, the United States, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, giving full approval to root out terrorists working for Tehran whenever they appear. Such an attitude will boost trust and confidence of the allies in one another, and allow for a much greater degree of cohesive coordination, and a strategic outlook, with better, more thoughtful execution.

The current version of the bill guarantees the second result. Returning to status quo may more or less eventually get to the first. However, there is also an affirmative possibility of a more decisive victory that will ultimately yield to the collapse of Tehran-led aggression of natural causes. A glimpse of it is evident in Senator Ted Cruz’s amendment to the NDAA concerning Yemen and Syria:

  • Iran: A provision led by Sen. Cruz expands the Annual Report on the Military Power of Iran to address emerging threats emanating from Iran in both Syria and Yemen, in cooperation with state and proxy forces. This will include an assessment of Iran’s 1) military-to-military cooperation with Russia; 2) trafficking of nuclear, biological, chemical, and advanced conventional weapons; and 3) unconventional support and training to the Houthis. This report expansion will provide a greater understanding of these destabilizing relationships that threaten our allies in the region, and how to combat them.

This proposal empowers Congress and grants it a greater role in oversight related to Iran, Syria, and Yemen without compromising the integrity of the mission. Congress has been exasperated by what it perceives as its own inability to exercise its powers to check the role of the executive branch. Unfortunately, it has decided to run interference to the White House’s backing of the allies, rather than to work jointly and positively to produce better results, and to punish the US adversaries, rather than her allies.

Thanks to the reporting requirement, the US Congress would be privy to a greater oversight over Iran’s expanding aggression in two of the most critical regions today – Syria and Yemen, both, coincidentally suffering from massive human losses thanks to the unrestrained aggression shown by Iranian proxies – Assad’s regime, and the Houthis.  The report clearly identifies state and proxy forces as part of Iran’s overall strategy, and as equally threatening in value. Until now, public discourse has granted Houthis a more respected status of internal challengers, separatists, or rebels against the previous Yemen government’s corruption. Whatever they once were, currently the case is very clear that the Houthis are no less a terrorist contingent threatening international security, including maritime security in Bab al Mandeb than Hizbullah with its threats to the Strait of Hormuz, or the IRGC, and its terrorist attacks and assassinations in Iraq, Turkey, and Europe.

It is no coincidence that the Houthis have asked Russia to mediate between them and the Arab Coalition. Russia stands to gain from Houthi control and the support of its ally and counterpart Iran. It is looking to build bases in Yemen – and despite being seen as a fair interlocutor with the Arab Coalition members on a variety of defense and trade agreement, it ultimately understands that Iran is much more likely to grant Russia a permanent seat at the table in various locations in the Middle East. Only recently, Houthis have asked Iran and Russia to deliver arms to Sana’a, bypassing the Coalition siege. Russia, which has hardly been rebuked over its dubious and destabilizing role in Yemen, likely helped Iran to circumvent the Coalition in delivering weapons and trainers to the Houthis, just as it is rumored to have backed and armed Taliban in Afghanistan in opposition to US interests.

Russia has played an equally destructive war in Syria, most recently violating a ceasefire agreement with the United States to help Assad’s forces secure previously rebel-held territories in South and Southwest Syria, further empowering Iranian proxies much to the displeasure of Israel.The  amendment ensures that Congress would focus its attention on the potential and ongoing smuggling of weapons into Yemen, whether through Oman, Kuwait, Somalia, Qatar, or other routes. Although up until now, the weapons noted in Yemen were at most advanced conventional weapons such as ballistic missiles, in Syria, Assad used chemical weapons to bomb his own people. And North Korea was said to have operated a nuclear reactor in the country before it was allegedly destroyed by Israel. Moreover, recent intelligence asserts that Iranian presence in Syria may be working to disguise the footprint for further nuclear research. It is not out of the question that biological or chemical weapons or components for nuclear research could be smuggled into the chaotic Yemen to help escape international scrutiny. That is possibility that is being lost among the debates about the supposed negligence of the Arab Coalition with respect to humanitarian efforts.

Finally, the amendment emphasizes the constructive role Congress can play in the oversight in Iran’s support and training of the Houthis, which are an adversary to the United States at least as much as to the Saudis. Their very slogan calls for death to America, to Israel, and to the Jews, and there is little reason to believe they mean it: Houthis have been implicated in abduction imprisonment, and killings of Yemeni Jews. It is only a matter of time before Houthis are strong enough and organized enough to start attacking US targets, and eventually, to transport themselves across the globe, as Hizbullah, once a limited Lebanese group, has been able to do in just twenty years since its creation.  Congress needs not feel helpless or unimportant in light of the strategic implications of US foreign policy in Yemen.

On the contrary, it can play decisive and constructive role in monitoring developments, staying informed about emerging and ongoing threats, and playing an important role in keeping the administration’s efforts on point. Its oversight of Iran’s role in Yemen and Syria is crucial to understanding where US national security priorities lies and which efforts should be reported, justified, and funded. It needs not, however, play an unhelpful role in undermining our allies and creating a self-defeating cycle of humiliation and indecision. Rather, Congress should play an active and significant role in developing these relationships, and encouraging the administration to express its concerns to the Saudis and others – in private, so as to resolve the issues as real partners and friends do, rather than play into the hands of adversarial agendas, and embarrass the United States in the eyes of Iran and her proxies.

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Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.