Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Crawl, Walk, Run, Faceplant?

When we try to lead from behind, eventually those in front of us decide to do what they want. Right now, Saudi Arabia is being led from behind in Yemen.

In one sense, having allies capable of fighting with less of our help is good. It means we have to get involved fewer times and with less effort.

On the other hand, if allies need us, that need provides us with a leash to keep them from fighting wars we'd rather they not fight. So when we have to ship in weapons and spare parts to our allies even early in a campaign, that's not just allied failure to plan or spend--it's our effort to put them on a short leash by promising quick resupply in case of a war (that we approve of).

I imagine that was a feature rather than a bug when the Islamists were ascendent in Egypt.

The Saudis rather enjoy the feeling of riding into the wind, sabres flashing:

Every evening since the Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen began last week, the fortress-like grounds of the defense ministry in Riyadh has opened to journalists. They listen to a briefing on the latest battlefield events, see some black-and-white warplane video clips of missiles destroying suspected rebel buildings and convoys, and pose a few questions. All pretty standard fare for reporters covering any conflict.

But the Saudis have added their own sense of purpose and pride. The event has become something of a possible dress rehearsal for a country that could be quickly moving out of the background of American-directed security agreements and taking regional matters into its own hands.

The optics leave no doubt that Saudi Arabia is in charge.

Yet have no doubt that we are involved:

The White House, which halted weapons transfers to Egypt in mid-2013 to protest a military takeover and harsh political crackdown there, reversed course Tuesday and announced a quick infusion of military aid to help Cairo respond to the mounting turmoil in the Middle East..

With Cairo increasingly involved in the region’s growing conflicts, President Obama approved the release of a dozen F-16 fighter jets, 20 Harpoon anti-ship missiles and up to 125 M1A1 Abrams tank kits that were held from delivery after the Egyptian military overthrew the elected government.

And we want to restore military aid to Egypt. Which could be important if Egypt sends in ground troops to Yemen.

That could be a brigade with reinforcements to hold the ring at Aden to allow local Sunni forces with Arab special forces, air, and logistics support to expand out from a secure base. Or it could be a multi-division effort to defeat the pro-Iran elements.

We simply wouldn't have opened the weapons spigot right now if we opposed the Yemen operations.

As an aside, I don't want to make too much of Iran's involvement. I imagine a good part of this is simply jumping on the unexpected success of Shias and trying to jump in front of the parade in a variation of leading from behind.

I'm not mocking the Saudis, mind you. It's heady stuff to be capable of carrying out this mission.

And unlike with Israel fighting their enemies, there won't be outrage from the White House and every "peace" group out there if a bomb explodes in the wrong place. So that will keep the purpose and pride in their step a little longer.

But it is an aerial bombing campaign against an enemy with virtually no ability to do anything but sit and take it. It's a low degree of difficulty right across their border.

If local Sunni allies are strong enough to exploit this air support, it will be all storm and resolve. If it takes ground troops? Well, the swagger will be harder to come by.

And if it all goes well? That's good. Mostly. But there will be repercussions that have the potential to be complicated

If the air campaign works, then we'll have a Saudi Arabia that feels it can rely on its own military power and diplomacy rather than rely on the Bat Signal to CENTCOM.

The Saudis will feel that if America isn't going to get involved, why should Saudi Arabia be led from behind--presumably fighting for American interests--rather than simply lead themselves and others?

And what if they worry about what President Obama is doing behind them?

While I don't think the Saudis have the forces to do it, it would be kind of funny if they took this experience to wage an air campaign--perhaps in cooperation with Israel--against Iran's nuclear facilities, convinced that they can now do it all on their own.

When you lead from behind and get others to die for our objectives, eventually those doing the dying will want to die for their own objectives. Even among allies, sometimes their objectives will differ from ours.

UPDATE: Yemen's official foreign minister wants troops:

"Yes I'm calling for this (ground forces) because I think at some stage air strikes will be ineffective," Riyadh Yassin told AFP during an interview in the Saudi capital where he has taken refuge along with President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.

If Egyptian troops enter Yemen, it would likely be from Aden after friendly forces secure the harbor. While Egypt has some amphibious assets, the best way to come ashore is at a secure pier.

Speaking of that:

Dozens of unidentified troops landed by sea in Aden in an apparent last-ditch effort by a Saudi-led coalition to shore up a foothold in the southern Yemeni port city after Shi'ite Houthi fighters seized control of its center on Thursday.

The soldiers arrived in a single vessel a few hours after the Iran-allied Houthis and their supporters swept into the heart of Aden despite an eight-day air campaign led by Riyadh to stem their advances.

Since rebels are moving into Aden, too--with tank support--the main force had best arrive soon. It could be an Egyptian marine brigade.

Then we see if this is just an effort to hold Aden for the government and allow them to organize forces to counter-attack the Iran-backed rebels; or if it is the vanguard of a larger Egyptian-led force.

UPDATE: Stratfor speculates about one option of using air assault forces staged forward to assault Aden using helicopters from the sourh or southwest. They discuss a using a brigade to secure the city to support the official government in regaining power--possibly just some power--through negotiations.

UPDATE: And the initial air strikes weren't sufficient to disarm the air force assets in Yemen. It is lucky the degree of difficulty was so low.