Instability and proxy wars continue to be a source of concern for US strategic planners dealing with the volatile Middle East. Not only does instability threaten vital waterways through which oil shipments and other commodities pass, but the fallout from conflicts threatens pro-US regimes in strategic parts of the region. In addition, uncertainty over the repercussions of the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has brought renewed attention to security in the Gulf.
Over the short term, the military prowess of the United States is likely to be sufficient to deter any belligerent from disrupting vital sea lanes, as the Houthi rebels in Yemen learned by their misguided attempt to fire on a US naval ship in the Red Sea in October 2016. But military might and deterrence are not the cure-all for instability in the region. Unless accompanied by vigorous diplomatic efforts to help end the proxy wars and promote good governance in the area, the Middle East will continue to be a source of worry for US strategic planners.
Protecting Vital Sea Lanes
World trade with the Middle East region, particularly involving petroleum products and their transportation, has long been vulnerable to so-called choke points. These have been identified in a 2017 study by the US Energy Information Agency (EIA) as the Strait of Hormuz (connecting the Arabian Gulf to the Arabian Sea), the Bab al-Mandab Strait (connecting the Arabian Sea to the Red Sea), the SUMED Pipeline in Egypt (connecting the Gulf of Suez to the Mediterranean Sea), and the Suez Canal (connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean). The EIA stated that all of these choke points are “critical to global energy security” and that hindering transit through them “can lead to substantial supply delays and higher shipping costs, resulting in higher world energy prices.”
According to the EIA study, the oil flow through the Strait of Hormuz, which at its narrowest point is only 21 miles wide, is about 18.5 million b/d (barrels per day). In addition, about 30 percent of the liquefied natural gas trade worldwide passes through this strait. About 4.8 million b/d of oil and refined products flow through the Bab al-Mandab Strait, which is even narrower at 18 miles, limiting oil tanker traffic to two, two-mile wide channels. As for the Suez Canal, at least 3.9 million b/d of crude oil and petroleum products pass through it, while the SUMED pipeline has the capacity of shipping 2.3 million b/d from the Gulf of Suez to the Mediterranean.
The US Navy and the navies of some of its European and regional allies help to patrol the Mediterranean, Red, and Arabian Seas as well as the Arabian Gulf, but the US component of this naval presence is the largest. The US Navy maintains its
5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain and its mission is to protect the waterways and choke points. Ships from this fleet are supplemented by US naval ships in the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea which frequently pass through these vital waterways.
Dealing with Threats
One of the primary threats to the sea lanes is the potential for spillover from regional conflicts near and around the Arabian Peninsula. Although the recent rapprochement and the restoration of diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea have mitigated the threat from the Horn of Africa, there remains the problem of instability in Somalia. For several years during the past decade, piracy originating from the Somali coast
was a real threat to sea lanes, but this problem has subsided because of forceful actions by the United States and allied navies. Nonetheless, continuing instability in Somalia has the potential to bring this issue back to the fore and cause havoc to the sea lanes.
The more immediate threat is the ongoing conflict in Yemen. The Houthi rebels, backed by Iran (though the extent of Iranian assistance is still the subject of some debate), see Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, backed by the United States, as their main enemy, in addition to the internationally recognized Yemeni government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The Houthis have attacked several ships in the Red Sea, including a Saudi oil tanker and a UAE naval ship, and in October 2016, they launched missiles against a US naval ship as well, though they missed their target. In response, the US Navy, in short order, destroyed three Houthi radar sites on the Red Sea coast. The fact that the Houthis have not tried another attack on a US naval ship since that incident suggests that the US military response worked not only as a show of military strength but also as a deterrent. Nonetheless, given the strategic importance of the Bab al-Mandab Strait, the US Navy is likely to remain in the area to protect this vital waterway as well as Saudi ships traversing the Suez Canal.
Egypt is heavily dependent on the Suez Canal (as well as the SUMED pipeline) for foreign exchange earnings. Tolls from the canal, for example, have averaged about $5 billion a year in recent times and play an important role in keeping the Egyptian economy afloat, especially as tourism revenues are still far below their potential. Egypt is in the midst of an IMF (International Monetary Fund) economic reform program that has been accompanied by painful subsidy cuts. If shipping were disrupted in the Red Sea, Egypt stands to lose billions of dollars a year in Suez Canal tolls, and this could threaten the country’s stability.
Another major threat comes from Iran, which has periodically threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz (although doing so would also hurt its own economy). Tensions with the United States have increased in light of President Donald Trump’s May 2018 decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and impose new economic sanctions on Tehran and threaten secondary sanctions against European companies doing business with Iran. The Trump Administration clearly wants to squeeze the Iranian economy, purportedly to compel Tehran to renegotiate the nuclear deal and to desist from meddling in the political affairs of Arab countries, but an unstated goal may be to effect regime change.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has recently warned Washington that a war with Iran would be the “mother of all wars,” prompting a response from President Trump warning of catastrophic consequences. But Rouhani also held out the option for peace with the United States. This reflects Iranian bravado on the one hand and realism on the other: Iran wants to show defiance in the face of US threats, but it knows that its military is no match for that of the United States. The last time the United States and Iran engaged in military conflict—during the so-called tanker war that took place in the last phase of the Iran-Iraq war in 1987-1988—the US Navy easily defeated Iranian naval forces in several clashes.
Currently, Iran plays a sort of cat-and-mouse game with the US Navy in the Gulf. Speedboats of the Revolutionary Guards often come dangerously close to US naval vessels as part of a harassment campaign. So far, such encounters have not led to clashes, but in the current climate, a military confrontation cannot be ruled out. It may be the case that some officials in the Trump Administration are itching for a fight with Iran as a way to prove once again that the US military can overwhelm any adversary in the region. Even for those who do not seek war, the show of overwhelming military strength is part of a deterrence strategy as outlined in the administration’s own 2017 National Security Strategy.
The strategy also emphasizes strengthening allies and partners against threats. Part of this component is to sell oil-rich states sophisticated US military hardware, which has the added benefit of helping the US economy by boosting exports and jobs. The hope is that such military hardware bolsters the military capabilities of these friendly states and helps to deter their enemies. These sales also help to solidify political relations and to demonstrate that the United States will support and defend allies in the region.
The problem is the actual use of such equipment. The ongoing Yemen war has shown that despite the tens of billions of dollars the Saudi government has spent on their air capabilities, the performance of the Saudi Air Force is still far from optimal. The United Nations estimates that hundreds of Yemeni civilians have died as a result of errant Saudi air strikes. The US military has been working with the Saudi military to improve targeting as well as the capabilities of Saudi pilots, but this is a long process and the problem is unlikely to be fixed in the short term. In the meantime, the United States has provided the Saudi kingdom support for its defense capabilities against Houthi-launched rockets as well as the deployment of some US Special Forces near the Saudi-Yemeni border.
The United Arab Emirates also works closely with the US military and, according to some US military officials, UAE special forces are very competent. In fact, US Defense Secretary James Mattis referred to the UAE as “Little Sparta” because of its military competence. In recent years, the UAE has been flexing its muscles outside the Gulf region as well, establishing a military base in Eritrea, for example, and reportedly taking charge of ports in the southern part of Yemen to help control the sea lanes in the Arabian Sea. As long as the United States and the UAE have similar objectives, such capabilities can complement one another. However, there may already be some divergence in policy. The United States hopes that Yemen will remain a united country whereas the UAE may be opting for a secession of the south of the country.
Within the Gulf itself, the United States had hoped that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) would have taken on more of its own defense needs and would have pursued better military coordination and interoperability of forces. The GCC crisis, however, stemming from the Saudi-UAE-Bahrain-Egypt policy of imposing an economic blockade of Qatar, has certainly set back such hopes. US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have called on the Saudis to end the crisis with Qatar—to no avail.
Further to the west, US military planners remain concerned about the pivotal country of Egypt, which has been battling a terrorist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula for several years. Perhaps because of national pride, Egypt had been reluctant to take US counterterrorism advice, and its draconian practices have often backfired, possibly creating more terrorists than the military and police forces were able to kill or apprehend. The last Bright Star military exercises between the United States and Egypt, held in September 2017, involved a US-led leadership seminar on counterterrorism, suggesting that the Egyptian military is beginning to take American advice; but it might take several more years before Cairo is able to put an end to its terrorism problem.
Military Approach Is Not Enough
Although the United States remains the dominant military power in the Middle East, military strength alone cannot protect US national security objectives in the region. Political instability threatens the sea lanes and choke points, and it helps to feed the proxy wars taking place between Iran and the Arab Sunni Muslim states led by Saudi Arabia. These dynamics are likely to continue regardless of US military might.
US policy needs a more holistic approach to help put an end to the proxy wars and instability within countries. This requires the beefing up of US diplomatic capabilities to help negotiate an end to conflicts in the region, such as the war in Yemen, which even Pentagon officials like Defense Secretary Mattis believe requires a “political solution.”
Enabling the Saudis and Emiratis in their military campaign against the Houthis, plus patrolling the sea lanes around Yemen with US naval ships, might be a short-term fix, but it is not a long-term solution. Instead of attempting to cut State Department funding, which Congress has reversed in the appropriation process, the Trump Administration should favor vigorous financial backing of its diplomatic capabilities.
Along this vein, what some countries in the region need is not more military hardware but an emphasis on good governance, on policies that make governments more accountable to their people, end repression of political dissent, reduce corruption, and adhere to democratic and human rights norms. Only then will young people in these countries believe that they have a meaningful future. While some youth have become politically apathetic or simply wanting to emigrate, others have become susceptible to the entreaties of the extremists. This is the real danger to the region, one that military policies and programs cannot solve. While military power and capabilities will remain important, they must be matched by meaningful programs that address civilian needs, and US policymakers need to devote the personnel and resources to help realize this goal.