William Owens, the first American serviceman to die in combat on President Trump’s watch, was killed in Yemen. American forces have been using drones against al-Qaeda in Yemen for 15 years, but the raid conducted by Owens’ Navy SEAL team against leaders of the terrorist group kicks U.S. involvement up a notch. It also signals a deeper U.S. immersion in the broader conflicts of which the Yemeni civil war is a part — including a confrontation with Iran.
A long-running rebellion in Yemen escalated into civil war after President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi was exiled from the capital in 2015. Saudi Arabia leads a 10-nation coalition that has come to Hadi’s aid with a steady rain of air strikes against the Houthi rebels that control about half the country. The United States had provided $22.2 billion in armaments to the Saudis, along with logistical and intelligence support. Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, with a culture that dates to antiquity — and now it is devastated by war on a scale second only to Syria, with 10,000 dead and 3 million displaced.
The U.N. Security Council’s Iran Sanctions Committee reported in 2015 that Iran has been providing arms to the Houthis since 2009, and stepped up its support after the civil war began. The conflict in Yemen is mainly about internal divisions and grievances, but it is also a front in the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The United States has tried to avoid direct involvement in Yemen’s civil war — but the fighting has created disorder of the kind that allows al-Qaeda to thrive. U.S. drone strikes, and now ground operations, against al-Qaeda have resulted in civilian casualties which, along with U.S. support for the Saudi bombing campaign, have led many Yemenis to perceive Americans as aggressors. Last October, a U.S. Navy ship in the Red Sea came under attack by missiles fired from territory held by Houthi rebels in Yemen; the ship destroyed rebel radar installations in retaliation.
Sporadic episodes of military engagement in Yemen come against a backdrop of increased tension between the United States and Iran. As a candidate, Donald Trump denounced the agreement that put a hold on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. As president Trump appointed as his national security adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who in 2014 was forced into early retirement as chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency because of his aggressive advocacy for a military response to terrorist threats in Syria and elsewhere.
Flynn believes Islam — not just its radical strains, but Islam itself — is a threat to the United States and the West, describing the religion as a “cancer” and as a “political ideology.” This is an incoherent view, lumping together enemies and allies and blurring vital distinctions within the Islamic world.
Nowhere are such distinctions more important to recognize than in Iran. Last week Flynn placed Iran “officially on notice” for testing a ballistic missile, and on Friday the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on 13 Iranian individuals and 12 businesses. The United States claims the test defied a U.N. Security Council resolution against missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons; Iran insists the missile’s purposes are defensive.
Such disputes can be contained, provided the United States and Iran recognize each other as rational actors pursuing their own interests. Those interests are often, but not always, in conflict. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, for instance, regard members of Iran’s dominant Shiite sect of Islam as apostates on a par with the West and Israel. The United States and Iran can find common cause in opposing those radical Sunni formations, and have done so in the past.
But if the United States and the Islamic world — Sunni and Shiite alike, of all shades of intensity — are seen as being on course toward an inevitable collision, Flynn’s belief becomes self-fulfilling. It could manifest itself in unilateral U.S. abrogation of the nuclear agreement, undercutting President Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s May 19 elections and strengthening those in Iran pushing for a resumption of the nation’s nuclear program. Such a resumption would move military action against Iranian nuclear facilities to the top of the Trump administration’s options for dealing with Iran.
At a minimum, undifferentiated hostility toward Islam could manifest itself in deeper U.S. military involvement in the Yemeni civil war, where the Trump administration may expand its list of adversaries beyond al-Qaeda to include Iranian-backed rebels. The first military casualty of the Trump administration may not be the last to die in Yemen.
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