The United States is showing…restraint?

The situation in Yemen as of October 13: rebel areas in green, government areas in red, al-Qaeda areas in white (Wikimedia | Ali Zifan)

It’s now been a few days since US cruise missiles destroyed three Yemeni radar installations controlled by the Houthis and their pro-Saleh allies in retaliation for two attempted missile strikes against a US destroyer in the Red Sea. Well, yesterday the other shoe dropped:

The UN special envoy for Yemen has announced the plan for a ceasefire starting on Wednesday night.

Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed has received assurances from all Yemeni parties for a ceasefire to begin at 23:59 Yemen time on Wednesday, for an initial period of 72 hours, subject to renewal, a statement released on Monday said.

The country’s foreign minister has said in an official tweet that the president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has agreed to the 72-hour ceasefire. “The president agreed to a 72 hrs ceasefire to be extended if the other party adheres to it, activates the DCC and lifts the siege of Taiz,” Abdel-Malek al-Mekhlafi said. The DCC is the military commission responsible for overseeing ceasefires.

See, this is just the kind of unrestrained military aggression that the United States…wait, what? A ceasefire? That the actual fighting parties are going to obey, at least in theory? That’s wild, man. Damn.

Seriously though, this is what should have happened after the Saudis launched their inexplicable War on Funerals 10 days ago. In the aftermath of a strike so far beyond the pale that even Riyadh paid lip service to the idea of investigating what went wrong, it was time to leverage Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition to which he answers supporting him into a ceasefire and a resumption of talks. And, in fact, there were signs that the US was doing precisely that. Then somebody fired missiles at the USS Mason and it looked like all bets might be off. But, somewhat surprisingly, they apparently weren’t.

After the Mason was fired upon the usual suspects moved very quickly, as Yemen expert James Spencer writes, to try to pin the incident on Iran. There is, as you might suspect, not much reason to believe them:

The emphasis on the Houthis may be editorial compression, but the stock epithet that usually accompanies the name Houthi is “Iran-backed,” An unholy alliance of Israel and the Sunni Arab monarchies—and their mouthpieces in the West—have ascribed all evil in the region to Iran. Iran is up to quite enough mischief on its own account without the pin more on it. (To be fair, a less partisan source accurately noted that “Houthi relations with the Islamic Republic resemble the Iran-Hamas relationship more than the Iran-Hezbollah relationship—that is, the Houthis are autonomous partners who usually act in accordance with their own interests”.)

The missiles used against the Swift and USS Mason are usually baldly portrayed as Iranian-supplied Chinese C-802s. Yet no one has explained how Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have managed to smuggle the 6.5 meter long C-802 missiles past the serried ranks of CTF-150 and the Saudi-led Coalition’s tight blockade, nor how these forces missed the large tracking and fire control radar trailers that come with them (and that subsequent U.S. cruise-missile attacks destroyed). However, according to a Janes report in 2010, the Yemeni armed forces already owned SS-N-2C Styx SSM missiles and Chinese C-801 medium-range anti-ship missiles. As its designation suggests, the C-801 is a predecessor of the C-802, and possibly a reverse-engineered EXOCET, as used by the Argentinians in their disastrous Falkland Islands campaign nearly 35 years ago..

It is thus more likely that the missiles were Yemeni-procured C-801s, operated by elements of the Yemeni Armed Forces loyal to former president Ali Abdallah Salih, fired from territory under Houthi-Salihi control. Given the initial claim of the attack on the UAE ship, the Army was likely responsible for both—possibly with Houthi spotters—and that the Houthis’ denial is genuine. (The Army’s later denial—given the likely repercussions from the US—is probably less genuine.) If that were indeed the case, it offered a perfect opportunity to drive a wedge between the Houthis and the Salihis and thus to weaken their alliance at a moment when renewed peace negotiations appear likely. But it has now been wasted by hyping the Iranian specter.

The fact that a good chunk of the Yemeni rebel coalition is made up of former military units allied to ex-president Saleh is usually elided, including here, and it’s probably (as Spencer suggests) done in most cases for “editorial compression” (that’s at least why I do it). But lumping all the rebels under the label “Houthi” casts them all as country bumpkins who simply must be getting all their heavy weaponry from some nefarious foreign player, and who else could it be but Tehran? When you acknowledge that a large portion of the Yemeni military is also participating in the rebellion, then you have to also acknowledge that most, maybe all, of that heavy weaponry most likely just came out of existing Yemeni stockpiles. But we don’t like to talk about that because there’s no sexy Iran angle there, and so it doesn’t help the Saudis advance their case for more unconditional US support.

A 72 hour ceasefire means little unless it’s the first step to something else. But every peace deal has to start somewhere. Maybe that funeral strike really did change the situation in Yemen after all.



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