While the world watches IS, Iran quietly advances
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Analysis

While the world watches IS, Iran quietly advances

‘Moderate’ Tehran is gaining control over larger chunks of territory — Lebanon, parts of Syria and Iraq, and now Yemen, where a vital Israeli sea route is now threatened

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Armed Yemeni Shiite Houthi anti-government rebels sit in the back of a pick-up truck as they drive near the state television compound in the capital of Sana'a, September 21, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Mohammed Huwais)
Armed Yemeni Shiite Houthi anti-government rebels sit in the back of a pick-up truck as they drive near the state television compound in the capital of Sana'a, September 21, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Mohammed Huwais)

While the entire world follows breathlessly the battles between Kurdish forces and the Islamic State in Kobani, the Syrian city on the border between Turkey and Syria, Iran is slowly completing an impressive takeover of Yemen.

On Tuesday, Houthi separatists took control of the strategic Yemeni port city of Hodeida, west of the capital, Sana’a. They captured the airport to the south of the city on the same day. This came after the September 21 Houthi takeover of Sana’a itself.

The Houthi, Zaidi Shi’a (one of the Shi’a sects), have enjoyed the close support in recent years of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and its al-Quds Brigades, responsible for foreign theaters.

This should arouse worry in Israel. Yemen, due to its strategic location, commands what for Israel is a strategic waterway — the exit from the Rea Sea to the Indian Ocean, also known as Bab al-Mandab. The presence of Revolutionary Guards forces on such a critical shipping lane for the Israeli economy, facilitating access not only to the Indian Ocean but also to targets like Iran itself, could present significant problems for Israeli ships passing through. At the beginning of the 1970s, Palestinian terror groups attacked Israeli ships that passed through Bab al-Mandab. It is possible that the Iranians will try to use the same tactics with the Houthis.

But beyond the Israeli angle, developments in Yemen in recent weeks, and indeed since the  beginning of the Arab Spring there, are a classic example of the shifting sands in the Middle East.

In November 2011, Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh quit after 33 years. He was one of the longest-serving leaders in the Middle East, similar to Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. They were the same age, and the lynch that killed Qaddafi in 2011 was, it seems, one of the factors that led to Saleh stepping down on his own accord. In his place, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi was appointed president.

Yemeni politician Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak during a visit to the Shiite rebel stronghold of Saada,  September 19, 2014. photo credit: AFP/MOHAMMED HUWAIS)
Yemeni politician Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak during a visit to the Shiite rebel stronghold of Saada, September 19, 2014. photo credit: AFP/Mohammed Huwais)

But for the Houthi, this personal change was not enough. They wanted a bigger slice of the government pie, and, likely with Iranian encouragement, they sought to take over the country, as they are still attempting to do now. In recent months, the Houthi have recorded significant military achievements, the most important being the capture of Sana’a. They managed to take over government offices and other strategic facilities, and then agreed to stop fighting — but only if a new government made up of technocrats was appointed.

President Hadi, with UN mediation, agreed. But when he tried to appoint one of his associates, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, as prime minister, he was met with a strident refusal on the part of the Houthi.

Meanwhile, the Sunni extremists operating throughout Yemen, especially al-Qaeda, did not look favorably upon this assertion of power by the Zaidi Shi’ites, who make up about 30% of the country’s population. Last Thursday, during a Houthi demonstration against the appointment of bin Mubarak, a suicide bomber detonated himself in the crowd marching in Sana’a, killing 47. This development caused President Hadi to withdraw from his plan to appoint bin Mubarak, and only on Monday did all the parties agree to the appointment of the former Yemeni ambassador to the UN, Khaled Baha, as the new prime minister.

But then came the next day’s events — the occupation of Hodeida — which knocked everything back to square one. And if that wasn’t enough, on the same day, southern separatists demonstrated in cities in the south, notably Aden, demanding independence and the recreation of the People’s Republic of South Yemen.

It is uncertain where Yemen is heading. What is clear, however, is that in the shadow of attacks and massacres from the Islamic State, the Shi’ite axis headed by Iran is not resting for a moment. During the Houthi demonstrations, passwords appeared that sounded like they were taken directly from the Iranian Islamic Revolution’s phrasebook: “Death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews.”

Armed Yemeni Shiite Hawthi anti-government rebels shout slogans as they man a checkpoint erected after the Hawthi group seized northern districts of the capital Sanaa on September 21, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/MOHAMMED HUWAIS)
Armed Yemeni Shiite Houthi anti-government rebels shout slogans as they man a checkpoint erected after the group seized northern districts of the capital of Sana’a on September 21, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Mohammed Huwais)

Many of the participants probably don’t even know where Israel is. But Iran’s influence goes well beyond slogans, and the Saudis are anxiously keeping an eye on the developments to the south. Riyadh knows that the Iranians have transferred weapons to the Houthi, and it is trying to help foil the smuggling from Iran to northern Yemen. Revolutionary Guards forces were caught by the Yemeni army during the fighting, and the Saudis are worried that the new Iranian expedition will try to produce unrest in their Shi’ite areas.

So while the American (and Israeli) media focuses almost obsessively on the maps of IS’s takeover, “moderate” Iran is succeeding with a little less noise to gain control over even larger chunks of territory: Lebanon, parts of Syria and Iraq, and now Yemen.

Next month, six months of talks over the Iranian nuclear program will end, likely without a major breakthrough. But even without nuclear weapons, it looks like the Iranians are doing just fine.

The Islamic State’s changing tactics

And now to the Sunni threat. IS, despite aerial attacks by the Americans and their coalition partners, is not stopping. True, its rate of progress is not as rapid as in the good old days of Mosul, but it is still capturing parts of Kobani.

How is it possible that even the mighty air power of several armies, led by the US, cannot defeat IS?

The answer, it seems, lies in the tactical level.

A Syrian Kurd gestures as thick smoke rises following an airstrike by the US-led coalition in Kobani, Syria as fighting continued between Syrian Kurds and Islamic State forces, on Monday, October 13, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
A Syrian Kurd gestures as thick smoke rises following an airstrike by the US-led coalition in Kobani, Syria, as fighting continued between Syrian Kurds and Islamic State forces, on Monday, October 13, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)

IS commanders understood that their convoys of Toyota 4x4s are easy prey for American drones and planes, and so they changed their method of transportation. They are able to reach their destinations, but not in such an open manner, using motorcycles and private cars. They also left their black garb in Iraq, along with their identifying flags.

Second, they are using various methods to foil the aircrafts’ ability to target them, including burning hundreds of tires in order to create thick smoke above battle areas.

Third, and this might be the most problematic for the Americans, the moment IS forces enter urban environments, US pilots — especially those flying fighter jets (as opposed to attack helicopters) — are having trouble distinguishing between friend and foe without direction from the ground. But there is no intention to fix this. US President Barack Obama’s decision not to put boots on the ground, as understandable as it is politically, makes it difficult for the coalition forces.

In order to create targets, intelligence is needed. And without the presence of intelligence personnel and special forces on the ground, there is not sufficient information, it turns out, to stop the advance of IS.

Police used tear gas and water cannon on October 8, 2014 in Ankara to disperse demonstrators protesting against the attacks launched by Islamic State insurgents targeting the Syrian town of Ain al-Arab, known as Kobani by the Kurds, and the lack of action by their government. (Photo credit: AFP/ADEM ALTAN)
Police use tear gas and water cannon in Ankara on October 8, 2014, to disperse demonstrators protesting against the attacks launched by Islamic State insurgents targeting the Syrian town of Kobani by the Kurds, and the lack of action by their government. (photo credit: AFP/Adem Altan)

Finally, a word about the allies America chose for herself in the Middle East — Qatar and Turkey — is necessary. They both finance Hamas, and Doha, at least, has helped IS members in the past on one level or another. It’s hard to believe, but the current administration in Washington chose these two countries as partners within the framework of its policy of rapprochement with Arab and Muslim countries generally.

This week, National Security Adviser Susan Rice praised Ankara’s decision to allow coalition aircraft to use Turkish airports to attack IS targets. Ankara immediately denied the claim. Furthermore, on Monday, Turkish aircraft attacked the Kurdish underground in southeast Turkey. The only place from which it is possible to transfer supplies to the beleaguered Kurds in Kobani is the Turkish border. But the leaders in Ankara reject this possibility out of hand.

It seems that saving their brothers in Gaza is more urgent.

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