The United States has to be flexible and prepared for shifting alliances in the Middle East, where the ouster of longtime leaders has unleashed instability not seen in generations.
In trying to understand what is going on, it’s also important for Americans to be able to separate fact from fiction, reality from propaganda.
Recent events in Iraq and Yemen provide good examples.
Early this month, Iran used social media to publicize that Gen. Qassim Suleimani, head of its notorious Quds Force, was directing the initial thrust to retake the city of Tikrit, once the home of Saddam Hussein, from Islamic State fighters.
Iranians “were trying to project they were in charge and Iraq has Iran and doesn’t need anyone else,” said one senior Obama administration official familiar with the situation.
When the operation began March 2, two Iranian-trained Iraqi Shiite militias were widely reported to be spearheading a force of 20,000 advancing on the mainly Sunni-populated area. The bulk, however, were primarily members of local Shiite militias that united at the urging of Grand Ayatollah Ali Husayni Sistani as the Popular Mobilization Committees.
Three weeks ago, the Suleimani-directed effort stalled.
“It’s mined with thousands of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), with sniper bunkers, with fighting positions and command and control facilities,” Brett McGurk, a top U.S. diplomat, told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
American military personnel working with Iraqi and coalition officers said the Suleimani-led forces were not equipped or trained for the street-by-street fighting needed to take the city.
Two weeks ago, the Iraqi government requested U.S. and coalition intelligence and combat air support to help retake Tikrit.
The United States set out conditions. Suleimani and the Iranian-trained militias had to withdraw from the fight along with most of the Shiite popular mobilization forces. They were to be replaced by about 6,000 trained Iraqi army special forces and Iraqi national police.
Iraqi command and control of the remaining forces was to be strengthened and direct ground linkage to the operation center established to facilitate precise targeting for aircraft. One special precaution: Iraqis on the ground in the area would not be armed with weapons that could shoot down U.S. aircraft.
Last Wednesday, the U.S. bombing around Tikrit began, but as McGurk said, “it’s going to be painstaking work . . . to go house by house and alley by alley.”
Although withdrawn from the Tikrit battle, the Iranian-trained militias exist and “will be a long-term problem that the Iraqi government has to deal with,” according to McGurk.
It is misleading to say, as Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, did on Friday on CNN, that the United States is “in Iraq helping make Iraq a better place for Iran.”
Yemen is another country whose internal conflicts and shifting alliances burst into headlines again last week.
Again, Americans have little understanding of the history of U.S. relations with this tiny nation or the issues causing problems.
North and South Yemen emerged after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The north became independent, the south a British protectorate. In 1967, the British withdrew, and the independent south became Marxist, receiving support from the Soviet Union.
In 1990, the two countries unified with Ali Abdullah Saleh and named him president — he had been president of North Yemen since 1978. Since then, there has been constant turmoil.
Saleh has easily changed alliances. He was close to Iraq’s Hussein and supported the country’s invasion of Kuwait. He opposed the U.S. coalition put together by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 that freed Kuwait. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, however, Saleh became an ally of President George W. Bush in the fight against al-Qaida.
Meanwhile, Saleh developed an enemy in Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, whose followers practiced the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam in the northern part of Yemen. When Houthi opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Saleh began the first of what became six armed police actions against the Houthis over the years.
In 2012, the Houthis were in the coalition that ousted Saleh. Since then they have moved to gain more power inside Yemen as the succeeding government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has struggled to unify the country.
One reason for their success: Saleh is now supporting them. As a result, military and security forces still loyal to him have not opposed the Houthis.
Are the Houthis a tool of Iran?
They have gotten outside support from Tehran but independently built up their own power, taking advantage of the weakness of the central government along with the tribal, religious and regional rivalries within the country.
Ironically, the Houthis, Iranians and Saudis oppose al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State, the Sunni terrorist groups operating in Yemen.
With this background, what does the United States do?
Support the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, welcome the newly formed unified Arab military force and work to try to get the disparate Yemeni groups back to the table to negotiate a new government arrangement.
One partner could be Saleh, who has publicly called for such talks and promised neither he nor his son would seek the Yemen presidency. One thing to remember: The interests of our partners in one part of the world are not always in our own interests elsewhere.
Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washington Post and writes the Fine Print column.
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