The Bab al-Mandab Strait Must Not Fall to Iran

Congressional House Democrats have been trying for a long time to end U.S. government support for the Saudi Coalition that is fighting to restore the legitimate government of Yemen. Led by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), member of the House Armed Services Committee, they and a few misguided Republicans in effect would allow the jihadist regime in Tehran and its Shi’ite Houthi proxy forces to take over Yemen and its strategic position at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, astride the critical Bab al-Mandab.

Map of Arabian Peninsula with Iran and Bab al-Mandab Strait highlighted

After President Donald Trump vetoed a bipartisan War Powers resolution to halt U.S. activity in Yemen in April 2019, the Democrats fixed their sights on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by co-sponsoring an amendment to the NDAA that would defund U.S. military support for activities in Yemen. That bill passed the House with bipartisan support in July 2019. But the Senate version of the NDAA did not contain that defunding language and the so-called ‘reconciliation process’ to mesh the House and Senate versions has, to date, not yet produced final language on a unified piece of legislation.

Just before the 4th of July recess, the Democrat-controlled House Armed Services Committee voted to add a rider to the NDAA that would ban the administration from using funds to provide the Saudi coalition with logistical support in its war against the Houthi rebels. The only Republican to join the Democrats this time was Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.). As of 21 July 2020, amendments were still being offered in separate House and Senate debates.

So, what happens if the Democrats’ efforts succeed in ending the U.S. role helping the Saudi Coalition stop Iran from taking over the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula? And what are the stakes for this NDAA bill, should it pass both chambers and not be overridden with a sustainable veto by President Trump?

It’s useful to look at a map of this critical region of the Middle East. The Bab al-Mandab is one of the most important straits in the world, because it controls access to the Red Sea and Suez Canal. Yemen sits astride this waterway, across from the Horn of Africa. Were Iran to gain a foothold there, it would be in a position to threaten maritime traffic at this critical spot as well as to further surround its arch rival, Saudi Arabia.

Map of Saudi Arabian Peninsula including Bab al-Mandab Strait and Yemen (Jemen)

The stakes directly affect some 29 million Yemenis, too, at least 19 million of whom already suffer under horrific conditions as a direct result of Houthi aggression, banditry, and terror. Impoverished and in need of international assistance in the best of times, since the 2014-15 coup by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, Yemen has sunk even deeper into disease, population displacement, famine, and poverty. In the last five years, the Houthis have looted the Yemeni Central Bank of nearly $5 billion in foreign reserves, planted tens of thousands of landmines that kill and maim Yemeni civilians, and seize and even burn international food assistance sent to help the Yemeni people. Amidst all these ravages, the Yemeni currency, the rial, is now in freefall collapse.

There are efforts underway to resolve the conflict in Yemen and return the country to its legitimate government. Speaking at a Middle East Institute program on 10 June 2020, Commander of the United States Central Command General Kenneth McKenzie lauded Saudi efforts to lead a negotiated settlement and indicated that it was Iran that did not want the conflict resolved. Gen. McKenzie also branded Iran as the greatest threat to regional security and stability, specifically citing Iran for providing advanced weapons to the Houthi rebels.

Flag of Yemen via Wikipedia commons

As if things were not bad – or complicated – enough already, Turkey has been flexing its muscles across a region subjugated for centuries under an Ottoman Empire that Erdogan openly seeks to re-establish. Absent movement in Yemen toward either a defeat for Iran and its Houthi proxies or a negotiated settlement, there are indicators that the Muslim Brotherhood regime of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan now may be considering some sort of intervention there. Already on the ground in Iraq, Libya, and Syria with Turkish troops and Syrian jihadist fighters, Erdogan reportedly is in communication with Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood figures, who are urging a Turkish intervention, possibly with financing from Qatar. Qatar, which is loosely aligned with Turkey and Iran against Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, is reported to have been cooperating with the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al Islah political party as well as the Houthis by smuggling money and weapons to them.

Stripping the Trump administration of its ability to help the Saudis, Emiratis, and other Coalition members defeat a blatant Iranian regime grab for power and influence in one of the most strategic regions on the face of the earth would be folly. Allowing the Turks and Qataris to meddle there unchallenged, even worse. The assistance the U.S. provides is financial and logistical—not boots on the ground. Continuing U.S. engagement in Yemen and the region is critical to countering the geo-strategic aggression of the Iran-Turkey-Qatar Axis of Jihad and keeping open freedom of navigation in a troubled neighborhood. The Saudis and Emiratis, as well as direct U.S. national security objectives, need and deserve a robust and continuing U.S. support role in the Yemen conflict.

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