Why the Conflicts in Tikrit and Yemen Signal a New Middle Eastern War

A Houthi Shiite fighter stand guard as people search for survivors under the rubble of houses destroyed by Saudi airstrikes n
A Houthi Shiite fighter stand guard as people search for survivors under the rubble of houses destroyed by Saudi airstrikes near Sanaa Airport, Yemen, Thursday, March 26, 2015. Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes Thursday targeting military installations in Yemen held by Shiite rebels who were taking over a key port city in the country's south and had driven the embattled president to flee by sea, security officials said. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

BEIRUT -- With the Iranian involvement against the Islamic State in the assault on Tikrit, and the Saudi invasion of Yemen to stem the tide of Iranian influence, we have entered a new Middle Eastern war.

Tikrit has become something of an augury and symbol of ISIS' prospective fate. The suggestion in much of the commentaries is that the Iranian-directed offensive in Tikrit has stalled. Indeed one can detect a certain pleasurable rubbing of hands at the very prospect of an Iranian setback.

"If this leads to the Iranians forced to concede defeat, that would be a satisfactory outcome," one U.S. defense official told the The Daily Beast. An ISIS victory, then, is "satisfactory" to the U.S.?

In fact, the city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, is surrounded. What is stalling its fall is a dispute between the Iraqi army and Iranian military advisers. It is an issue of tactics. ISIS has rigged the town with explosive booby traps, mines, tripwires and left behind snipers and suicide volunteers. To clear Tikrit of such obstacles is a laborious process. The Iraqi army wants to do it the American way: call in air support and bomb ISIS forces. The Iranian side argues that this will just produce another Fallujah and leave Tikrit's Sunni inhabitants seething with resentment at their destroyed city. The Iranians propose -- based on four years learning from the experience of Syria's fight against jihadi forces -- to mount a siege; to wait, to be patient and then clear Tikrit, street by street. This approach, however, will be more costly in terms of their own casualties -- though undoubtedly will help save ordinary Tikriti lives. As of now, it seems the easier way has been chosen by the Iraqi government.

"If Tikrit was the precursor, then the fall of Aden was the trigger."

Tikrit, and the Iranian involvement in the war on ISIS (now with U.S. air support, ostensibly provided to Iraqi forces) is directly linked to the Saudi-led coalition attacks on the Houthis (Ansar Allah) in Yemen. Saudi Arabia's leadership was already in a state of great alarm at Iran's growing influence -- occasioned by its boots-on-the-ground approach to fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria -- when the Houthi forces unexpectedly overran Aden in South Yemen, to which ousted President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi (supported by the Gulf states) had just fled, and named as his "temporary seat of power." Jon Alterman, a former senior U.S. State Department official, has noted that "there is a growing consensus [in the Kingdom and amongst its allies] that this [the Houthi takeover] is the finger of Iran and it needs to be put down decisively."

If Tikrit was the precursor, then the fall of Aden was the trigger.

"The Saudi default position on Yemen," Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy writes, "can be best described as paranoia." And thus we have a new Middle Eastern war -- one which will complicate the region greatly.

On the one hand, the Gulf states are muttering about withdrawing from the coalition fighting ISIS (owing to Iran's prominence), and Saudi Arabia may be expected, Henderson speculates with regard to Yemen, to deploy "the full Saudi diplomatic toolbox -- money, arms supplies and perhaps even a blind eye to actions that would be described anywhere else as terrorism -- to block Tehran." And on March 20, Henderson writes, "suicide bombings at Houthi mosques in San'a killed 152 people; responsibility was claimed by San'a Province, a Sunni group loyal to Islamic State but previously virtually unknown."

In short, yet again inflamed radical Sunni jihadi groups will become the policy tool of choice in the region. In reality, it is about the only tool which Yemen's fugitive President Hadi and his patrons have available. This will constitute a major reverse to Washington's hope to contain and degrade groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Suicide Attacks Rock Yemen