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Operation Decisive Storm

Thwarting Iran's maritime stranglehold

09 April 2015

The successive events in Yemen, following the launch of Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm of a ten-country coalition in the early hours of 26 March, have been raising questions about the rationale as to what are the reasons and exigencies that made these countries deem it necessary to take part in this military operation regardless of its possible risks and aftermath. Are these reasons and exigencies purely ideological and sectarian? Do they involve crucial geostrategic implications linked to Yemen's strategic regional and international importance that became even greater particularly because of its control of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait at the sole southern entrance of the Red Sea from Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean? Is this rationale being driven by the concerns that many stakeholders have over Iran's possible takeover of this regionally and internationally important strait through their allies, the Houthi rebels? 

Yemen's strategic importance

Yemen's 2500 kilometer-long coastline is among the most important coastal strips in the Arab region and the Middle East as it stretches along the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Yemen also has more than ten major seaports, and strategic islands that several states continue to attempt to control. These include Kamaran, Socotra, Hanish Islands, and ten others including the strategic island of Meon in the heart of the Yemeni-controlled Bab el-Mandeb Strait, the strategic gateway that regional and international powers have never ceased their attempts to control.

An estimated 21,000 ships pass through the strategic waterway in both directions in a continuous stream (between 50-60 ships of various sizes everyday) carrying 30% of the world's seaborne-traded oil and accounting for 7% of the global sea traffic.

Military presence in the region

The beginnings of U.S. military presence in this region date back to the past century when the U.S. Military established  its Kagnew radio station as a military installation in Asmara, Eritrea on the Horn of Africa, as per an agreement with Ethiopia. Later in 1980, the U.S. consolidated its presence in Somalia and Kenya six years after ousting Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

The failure of US military intervention in Somalia in 1993 dissuaded the U.S. away from attempting direct intervention in the region. But the 9/11 attacks in 2011 led to a shift in the US strategy that mandated large-scale redeployment of U.S. military bases around the world. As a result, Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa was established on 19 October 2002 as part of anti-terror Operation Enduring Freedom that operated from aboard USS Mount Whitney command ship in the Gulf of Aden until 2003 when the mission moved ashore to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti City following an access agreement with the Djiboutian government. Four thousand  U.S. soldiers are stationed at this base where UAVs are launched against targets in Yemen, the Horn of Africa as part of counter-terrorism operations.

In addition to its role as a regional policeman and an essential  counter-terrorism and counter-extremism  military power, Ethiopia is considered as a major regional weight by the White House's strategy for controlling international navigation routes. During the rule of Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi, Washington's annual aid to Addis Ababa amounted to US$800 million. In Ethiopia, the US also has Arba Minch drone base and Dire Dawa camp for Army commandos. By 2011, the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) expanded its responsibilities to include all the Horn of Africa and operated under CENTCOM until October 2008 when it became part of United States Africa Command (U.S. AFRICOM) which was established in February 2007.

The issue of piracy contributed to the expansion of military presence in this region as UN Security  Council Resolutions allowed foreign states to deploy military ships in the waters of Horn of Africa to counter pirates. The European Union then launched Operation Atlanta, also known as European Union Naval Force Somalia (EU-NAVFOR-ATALANTA) in December 2008. Iran, China, Japan, Russia, India and South Korea followed suit and deployed military ships to the region as part of the international scramble for influence. Despite France's withdrawal from most of its  colonies in Africa, France still maintains its naval base in Djibouti, and in 2010 started to build an anti-piracy base in partnership and coordination with the Yemeni government. In this context, an agreement was signed between Somalia and the UAE in late 2014 to bolster their military cooperation. 

GCC and the Iranian stranglehold

According to Western reports, Iran seeks to develop and military strategy to 2025 to deploy its naval forces from the Strait of Hormuz,  the Red Sea and even to Strait of Mallaca. Iran would be able to threaten maritime oil tanker traffic by controlling Strait of Hormuz, on the one hand, and Bab el-Mandeb on the other, using the Houthis, its Yemeni allies who took control of the port of Hodeidah. This would put new cards in Iran's hands to utilize in its regional and international relations.

This proved  Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi right when he said in  January that whoever holds the keys to Bab el-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz does not need a nuclear bomb. That is because Yemen is considered by the Gulf states as the their "weak flank" where no developments should ever be ignored or taken for granted. For Iran, Somalia is also one of the most strategically important locations that it needs to tighten its stranglehold on the Gulf countries and Egypt.

Egypt's concerns over Suez Canal

Houthis' control of Yemen poses a direct threat to Egypt's national security, namely the Suez Canal traffic and the new expansions. Egypt collects around US5.6 billion a year in canal tolls accounting for 10% of Egypt's foreign currency earnings. That is why Egypt's stances were decisive and clear on the developments in Yemen. In early October 2014, the chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, Mohab Mamish, said that Egypt will not allow the Houthis to take control of the Bab el-Mandab Strait because it affects the Suez Canal and its traffic. In February, Mamish said that Egypt will not accept any threats to the southern gateway to the Red Sea (Bab el-Mandeb) because the security of the canal and the strait is indivisible.

Iranian-Israeli vying for influence in Eritrea

As part of its strategy for expansion into the Horn of African, Iran maintains a presence in Eritrea on the other side of the Red Sea's strategic Bab el-Mandeb. This presence is still mysterious because both countries keep discreet about it. In May 2008, Eritrea's Isaias Afwerki, visited Tehran to sign a number of agreements to promote cooperation between the two countries in the domains of trade and investment.

In 2009, after Eritrea declared its support for Iran's nuclear program, Iran's Bank Saderat Iran (BSI) transferred US$35 million in aid to Eritrea to support its economy. Several experts maintain that Iran has benefited from its presence in this region to train the Houthi fighters at Dongolo camp in Eritrea and smuggle arms into Yemen. In exchange for its military base in Eritrea's Assab port city, Iran supplies Eritrea with cheap oil.

On the hand, there is much talk about the Israeli presence in Eritrea, especially in the light of their bilateral relations often described as "unique" as they also exchange visits. Reports show that Israel maintains military and intelligence presence at Eritrea's Dahlak Archipelago, located at the entrance of the Red Sea, and at Massawa port, where Israel can monitor ship traffic through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

The following points have to be made in this context:

  1. Israeli intelligence reports note that the Red Sea is one of the safest waterways for sending logistic supplies to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and therefore can be an alternative to the Syrian route in the future.
  2. Israel has concerns over the expansion of extremist Islamist groups in many African regions, particularly in major conflict zones and high-tension areas, where the weakness or even collapse of the state is a reality, with Somalia being just one of the instances.
  3. Israel has growing concerns over Al Qaeda's increasing activities where Yemen is the best launching pad for the organization's operations in the Arabian Peninsula especially after the U.S. withdrew its remaining military personnel from an air base in Aden, closed its embassy in Sanaa City, and suspended its attacks against Al Qaeda positions.Israel is attempting  to tighten the noose around the regime of Sudan's President Omar Hassan Al Bashir which maintains an "ideal" relationship with Iran, long accused by Israel of smuggling arms into Gaza Strip through the Red Sea and Sudanese territory which was the target of several Israeli military attacks.

Turkey is the third rival

Turkey has always been involved in rivalry over the region. To further Turkey's strong relations with Sudan, Ahmet Davutoglu,  then Minister of Foreign Affairs, visited Eritrea in November 2012. One year later, the Turkish Embassy was inaugurated in Eretria and the Eritrean Embassy in Doha, Qatar, authorized a representative to be based in Ankara. In  August 2014, Turkish Airlines started regular flights between Istanbul and Asmara. Turkey also led an emergency Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) conference in Istanbul where member countries pledged US$350 million in aid to fight famine in Somalia. After the OIC conference, Turkey launched a fundraising campaign for Somalia and raised generous donations from Turkish people.

As part of his tour to Eastern Africa in January, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, paid his second visit to Somalia to further relations established by his first visit to Mogadishu in 2011 when he was prime minister. Although the Turkish-Somali relations are rather recent, Erdogan's visit ushered in a new era of strategic partnership where Turkey's aid to Somalia is not confined to the humanitarian domain but also involves development, infrastructure and health, education and transport  services. This includes:

  • Reconstruction and renovation of Mogadishu airport, and the launch of a service between the Somali capital and Istanbul twenty years after international carries stopped using the Somali airport.
  • Building a 200-bed hospital in Mogadishu and reconstructing its roads and infrastructure.
  • In August 2014, a Turkish firm was awarded a 20-year contract to manage operations at Port of Mogadishu. The contract further consolidates Turkey's influence in the region.

Amid this international rivalry for influence and presence in the region, Operation Decisive Storm was launched to open a new chapter in addressing the reality where the consequence of this intervention are linked to a group of regional and international factors in one of the world's most strategically important regions.