The essence and the structure of most proxy wars in the Middle East are directly influenced by the rivalry of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The strategic Rivalry of the two states has introduced a new era of politically driven civil wars, interventions, and military encounters in the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Adan, and the Red Sea. The war in Yemen, interventions in Iraq, and military activities in Syria are all different dimensions of this rivalry - a rivalry to control the region, a rivalry to re-construct the regional balance of power. On Iran's side, political and military tensions with the United States and Israel, and Iran's intentions to utilize regional proxy pressure in favor of its foreign policy, have also inserted new dimensions to this rivalry. Following the political disputes and military confrontations in Iraq and Syria, most of Iran and Saudi Arabia's proxy confrontation is now strategically cantered in Yemen. There, 'Ansar Allah' functions as Iran's controlled militia and confronts the Saudi Forces in a direct border conflict and other indirect warfare. Due to Iran's more sufficient military capabilities and more advanced physical regional influence, the US and Israel were also inevitably engaged in this rivalry with a range of actions such as Israeli air strikes against Iranian militias in Syria, US drone strikes in Iraq, and provision of modern weapons to the Saudis. From September 2019 to January 2020, there were four major incidents which illustrate the broader perspective of this rivalry and the inevitable engagement of the United States. A domino effect in which drags external powers into this rivalry. These incidents include the Saudi airstrike on 'Dhamar' province of Yemen, Houthi's major attack on Saudi Aramco facilities, terror assassination of IRGC General Qasem Soleimani by American drones, and the Iranian retaliatory ballistic missile attack on American military bases of 'Ain-Al Assad' and 'Erbil' in Iraq. It is argued that these four events are strategically related to each other, all triggered and influenced by the regional hegemonic rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the over extension of the United States in the Middle East.
The conflicts between Iran and Saudi Arabia began after the Iranian Shi'a-led Islamic revolution and subsequently eight years of war between Iran and Iraq. Saudi Arabia's economic support of Saddam Hussein's regime became the first point of conflict with the newly established Islamic revolution in Iran. Since then, the two states experienced decades of rivalry and a zero-sum game for regional political, theological, and military supremacy. At different stages, the game absorbed foreign interveners including the U.S., Israel, Russia, China, and the GCC2 states. A long way from the 1980s, Iran and Saudi Arabia are now engaged in multiple parallel proxy conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Recently, Yemen became the most prominent field of confrontation between the two states in form of proxy warfare. Saudi Arabia is engaged directly in a border conflict as Iran stands back and controls its influenced militias to encounter Saudi forces. Furthermore, on Iran's interference in Yemen, the Quds forces branch of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is responsible for all foreign activities of this organization, is known to be the main economic and military supporter of the Ansar Allah paramilitary organization in Yemen and Houthis.3 Hence, the Quds Forces commander General Qasem Soleimani as the main supporter of Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in the Levant, and Hamas in Palestine, became a threat to Saudi national security in all proxy battlefronts of Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. Subsequently, the activities of Quds forces became a mutual threat to the American and Israeli interests in the region. In the four months period between September 2019 and January 2020, the above-mentioned series of events can illustrate the strategic entanglement of all the listed actors and how they each became a security dilemma for one another. IRGC, Saudi Arabia, and American deployed forces in the region.
The Saudi airstrike on 'Dhamar' province of Yemen, Houthi's major attack on Saudi Aramco facilities, terror assassination of IRGC General Qasem Soleimani by American drones, and the Iranian retaliatory ballistic missile attack on American military bases of 'Ain-Al Assad' and 'Erbil' in Iraq have all occurred in almost four months between September 2019 to early January 2020. The main involved parties were Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Houthis in Yemen. Each event had a specific strategic goal for the striking country; this campaign analysis will illustrate whether the events have achieved their objectives or failed to do so. Major combatants involved in these series of events were the IRGC, Saudi Air Force, United States drone squadron, and Houthi paramilitary combatants in Yemen.
The first event is Saudi Arabia's airstrike on the province of Dhamar where it was believed that IRGC's provided arms are being stored. Although the Saudis claimed that they have targeted a drone and missile storage, the Red Cross reports these airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition targeted a detention center and its surrounding civilian residents. More than a hundred non-combatant civilians died as the result of this strike.
The second event is the Houthi's drone and missile attack on Saudi oil company Aramco, which halted the global oil supply by more than five percent and Saudi Arabia's production by fifty-one percent. The strike occurred on September 14th, 2019, just weeks after the Saudi airstrike in Dhamar which shows the retaliatory nature of the operation. Furthermore, although the Houthis and Ansar Allah accepted these claims, but the U.S. subsequently claimed that the Quds forces and Iran were directly responsible for this attack on Saudi Aramco facilities. Many analysts also suggested in the aftermath of these attacks that these tensions and claims might end up affecting U.S.-Iran relations after the U.S.' withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or the Iran Deal.
The third event was the United States terror assassination of IRGC General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad airport on January 3rd, 2020. Soleimani was the commander of Quds forces active in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. His convoy was targeted by two U.S. drones on a side road of Baghdad international airport, resulting in 10 casualties including General Soleimani and Abu-Mahdi Muhandes, the commander of the Iraq Popular Mobilization Forces. Quds forces are known to be the main provider of drones, missiles, and ammunition for the Houthi resistance in Yemen. The main objective of this assassination was to reduce IRGC's influence in the region and stop their rogue attempts against U.S., Saudi and Israeli interests.
The fourth event was a retaliatory operation in nature in which was carried out by the IRGC aerospace division targeting U.S. military bases in Iraq. 'Ain al Asad' and 'Erbil' military bases were targeted by short-range ballistic missiles coming from the Iranian province of Kermanshah. These two bases were claimed by Iranians as the two bases that operated in Soleimani's assassination. The main participants were the IRGC, and Iranian defense forces, and the main objective was to retaliate against Soleimani's assassinations. The attack had other goals as well, such as maintaining military deterrence and prestige in the region. To determine whether these events followed Sun Tzu's art of war strategies or Clausewitz's theories of an all-out war, the next section will further elaborate the events and analyze the strategies used.
As each of these four events had different actors and different purposes, this paper cannot individually compare and contrast the campaigns. However, what this analysis can do is to illustrate the links to strategic goals that tie these four events together. Strategic goals of the events include defensive deterrence, targeting strategic infrastructures, assassinating strategic players, containing strategic influence, and restoring prestige.
The Saudi airstrike on the Dhamar detention center had the purpose of destroying Iranian-built missiles and drones which had been penetrating Saudi Arabia's national security in the war with Houthis on their southern border. According to the report delivered by the European Union Institute for Security Studies, Iranian Quds Forces have delivered and stored more than a hundred suicide and tactical surveillance drones in hands of Houthis, as well as a significant number of ballistic short-range missiles to reinforce Houthi forces in the battle against the Saudi state. Furthermore, the nature of the Saudi airstrike on the Dhamar detention center in September 2019 was a pre-emptive defensive stack to preserve national security by destroying those missiles and drones stored by Houthis. The broader strategic level goals were tightening Houthis' hands in becoming a security dilemma for the Saudi state. On the other hand, IRGC's support of Houthis has both ideological and strategic purposes in destabilizing Saudi Arabia's southern borders as well as expanding the Shi'a revolutionary ideology in the region. Therefore, the Iranian-supported Houthis retaliatory operation to hit Saudi Aramco facilities in Riyadh can also explain the broader strategic level goals of the Iranian policies in Yemen -serving the objective of disrupting Saudi Arabia's production of oil and infrastructures.
The other two events, the assassination of General Soleimani and the IRGC missile attack on US military bases in Iraq also shared strategic-level goals for both states. The assassination of the Commander of Quds Forces allowed the US to restrain IRGC's influence in proxy fields such as Yemen, Iraq, and Syria as well as to preserve the security of American deployed troops in the region. Soleimani had a significant local network in both Iraq and Syria with local militias, ideologically driven militias, and different ethnic communities which subsequently assisted the IRGC in exploiting the military and political dynamics of these countries. Furthermore, IRGC's arms and logistic support of Houthis in Yemen was also a major achievement of General Soleimani and the Quds Forces. Hence, the illegal assassination of this high-ranking general imposed constraints on Iran's capability of political and military intervention in the region. However, comparing the consequences of this rogue action and its purpose suggests that the United States' assassination of Soleimani was not a proportionate response to IRGC's foreign interventions. This operation could have provoked a more severe response from Iran than the ballistic attack on U.S. bases. In turn, Iran's retribution campaign in response to this assassination involved following the rationale of minimum casualties and at the same time delivering a message of deterrence. The main purpose of this campaign for Iran was to restore the lost military prestige after the assassination of its high-ranking General and to deter any further actions by the U.S. or its regional allies.
Following Clausewitz's theory of decisive battle, the Saudi air force established a campaign to target all Houthi infrastructures and strategic bases to discourage them from resistance and fight back. The airstrike in September 2019 in Dhamar with F15 Eagles and tonnes of explosives explains the nature of Saudi-led coalition attack as being decisive and destructive. However, the dispersion of Houthi forces and their local networks prevented the Saudis from minimizing collateral civilian damage. Similar to any other paramilitary organizations, militias, or terrorist groups, Houthi forces are dispersed in small numbers across the area. Thus, targeting them without collateral damage proved difficult for Saudi forces. In other words, this campaign analysis suggests that Houthis created a human civilian shield to deter Saudi strikes. Therefore, the outcome of any decisive battle and an all-out war would have left the Saudis with unjust collateral damage amongst civilians. What happened in the September 2019 Saudi airstrike was also following the same principle. More than a hundred civilian casualties and dozens were injured. The strategic outcome of this strike for the Saudi side was the destruction of a portion of Houthis missiles and drones; however, the collateral damage of this strike disadvantaged the Saudis in obtaining those strategic goals because of the implications of an attack on civilians. On the other hand, an advantage of this strike for the Houthis was that they gained a social justification to retaliate offensively against Saudi forces. Although they lost a significant portion of their missile and drone capabilities, they became more determined to confront the Saudis.
The Houthis responded to the Saudi airstrike by an unmanned drone and missile strike targeting Saudi Arabia's vulnerable Aramco oil facilities. Per Clausewitz's theory of destroying the enemy's 'centers of gravity', Houthis decided to strike Saudi Arabia's economic infrastructure and their main source of income. Houthi missiles and drones were able to pass Saudi's American air defense patriot systems and target Aramco facilities. Although Houthis as a paramilitary organization cannot be held accountable for international legal implications of civilian casualties, they have still decided to implement Sun Tzu's bloodless victory principle and solely target Aramco facilities. With the assistance of precise Iranian-made ballistic missiles and drones, the Houthis were able to cripple Saudi Arabia's main source of income for a period of time without casualties which made this attack a bloodless victory for the Houthis. The outcome of this attack can connect with both Houthi and Iranian strategic goals in the region: Houthis in retaliating against the September airstrike in Dhamar and Iranians in deterring Saudi influences in the region in a proxy war without any direct intervention. Furthermore, this attack also followed Sun Tzu's principle of strategic deception and surprise. The Saudis were not able to predict Houthis' capabilities in carrying out an attack in this significant scale. Hence, the attack also served the Houthi strategic objective of deterring any further large-scale strikes by the Saudis. To some extent, this objective was proven to be achieved as Saudi strikes reduced significantly in numbers since the Aramco attack.
In the case of the assassination of IRGC high-ranking commander, General Soleimani, the U.S. implemented a mixture of strategies influenced by both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz. The strike occurred in total surprise and with significant use of violence. Two American MQ-9 Reaper drones from Ain al Asad and Erbil air bases took off and headed towards Baghdad International Airport. Intelligence also played a vital role in this operation as they knew the live coordinates of Soleimani and his accompanied convoy. Soleimani was known to be one of the strongest political and military decision-makers after the Supreme Leader. Controlling all foreign interventions, most trade operations, and the military support of other organizations based on Islamic revolution expansionist strategy turned him into one of the most influential and strategic figures in Iran.15Influenced by Clausewitz's theory of destroying 'centers of gravity'
the U.S. targeted one of the most strategic centers of gravity in the Iranian system: an individual who played a pivotal role in networking local communications and exploiting different dynamics in foreign states that subsequently empowered the central state. As a result of this operation, Soleimani, Abu Mahdi al Mohandes, and nine of their security guards were assassinated. This assassination was the response to many previous incidents in which Soleimani confronted U.S. forces in the region. The attack on the K-1 base in Iraq and the Saudi Aramco attack are just a portion of this military confrontation between the U.S. and Quds Forces of the IRGC.
Lastly, there is the Iranian ballistic missile operation targeting US bases in Ain-Al-Asad and Erbil. The two bases in which were the operative compounds for the assassination mission of General Soleimani. In three consecutive operations on January 8th, 2020, Iranian IRGC aerospace forces conducted ballistic missile strikes with over twelve short and medium-range missiles of Fateh – 313 and Qiam – 1. Regardless of the large scale of the attack, expert analysis suggests that Iranians coordinated all missiles to hit areas that are less likely to host American and Iraqi personnel. Furthermore, Iran targeted storage buildings, runways, and infrastructures where civilians were unlikely to be targeted. Missiles that did hit their designated targets within a five meters radius were intentionally coordinated to leave no casualties. To expand on that and to relate it to Clausewitz /and Tzu's theories of war, Iran pulled a strategic and surprising maneuver designed to be bloodless. Although after the assassination of Soleimani Iranians had the justification and legal rights of self-defense (UN Charter ChVII) to react proportionately and decisively, they instead reacted in a strategic manner. The purpose of this operation was to show the international community the justification of Iranian retaliatory operation, show military capabilities and accuracy of ballistic missiles, show Iran's good faith in not taking any casualties; and deter any further military responses from the US. However, this begs the question: to what degree do these strategies connect with the broader strategic culture of Iran in the region, specifically towards the US?
The Iranian response sent two messages to both U.S. forces and Trump's administration. First, that Iran is not interested in escalating the military engagement by deliberately targeting and wounding U.S. forces. Iran was domestically obliged to retaliate but may have done so in a way that did not force the U.S. to strike back. Second, precision targeting would also make it clear Iran had the capability to go after American forces had it wanted to. The precision of Iranian ballistic missiles acted as a surprising factor for the American forces which might have deterred them from engaging any further. This strategy was employed in accordance with Sun Tzu's quote, the "best commander is the one who does not have to fight." This quote implies the importance of deterrent leverages. Nonetheless, Iran was fully prepared and placed its air defense systems on high alert right after the missile attack. A full alert situation in which costed the unintentional tragic downing of the Ukrainian commercial flight 752. Looking from a broader strategic perspective, this analysis suggests that Iran's ballistic missile capabilities play a vital role in its defensive strategic culture in both revolutionary and moderate narratives. Thus, through the ballistic missile program, Iran has structured itself a new 'center of gravity' based on Clausewitz theory in which it cannot be targeted in one specific airstrike. It has also established a deterrent strategy which may bring Iran many bloodless victories in the future. Some may argue that missile deterrence is the new nuclear deterrence. This is how this campaign empowered Iran's main strategic goals and objectives in the region, through missiles precisely hitting their targets and U.S. air defense systems being unable to track and destroy them. This is specifically true where all U.S. bases in Iraq are equipped with Patriot MIM-104 air defense system.
Campaigns can always have different outcomes if strategic steps were taken differently by decision makers and commanders. In the case of the latter mentioned events, all four of them could have ended with different outcomes if steps were taken differently. In the case of the Dhamar's Saudi airstrike, if the commanders were directing the attack towards a military base rather than a civilian detention center, there would have been fewer civilian casualties and perhaps Houthi's attack on Saudi Aramco would have never occurred on such a large scale. Saudi's intervention strategy in Yemen has always been argued by scholars as a blind struggle for status with unknown objectives. "The Saudi armed forces failed to defeat or even weaken the Houthi rebels, raising doubts about the military effectiveness of Saudi armed forces despite their vast technological superiority". Perhaps if the Saudi forces were more effective and better trained, they would have obtained better results through their strategic objectives to retain their influences in Yemen. Analysts also argue that the recent collapse of the Saudi-UAE coalition in Yemen is the reason why Saudi strikes on Houthis are gradually declining in quantity and scale. Another different outcome for Saudi Arabia could have been obtained through a stronger and broader coalition rather than just the UAE. Houthi's attack on Saudi Aramco facilities could have had different outcomes if certain strategies were not employed. Analysts argued that even if the Aramco attack had a single civilian or personal casualties, a retaliatory major attack on Houthis would have been morally and strategically justified. The fact that Houthis did not aim to target any civilians and solely destroyed Saudi's economic infrastructures may be aligned with Sun Tzu's theory of bloodless victory.
The other two campaigns also follow the same principle of having different outcomes if strategic steps were taken differently. If Iran had not been indirectly supporting the attacks on the U.S. K-1 military base in Iraq and the Aramco attack, the assassination of General Soleimani might have not been United States' option in constraining IRGC's influence in the region. Also considering the political dimension, a democratic administration in the U.S. might have not taken the same decision of assassinating an IRGC high ranking General. By analysing the causes and effects of the assassination of Soleimani, this paper suggests that a democratic administration in the U.S. would have approached this differently -perhaps using covert operations through small militia groups in which do not engage the U.S. directly with Iran. Therefore, the U.S. could have prevented the missile attack on its bases in Iraq. Although there were no casualties, the U.S. cannot always guarantee that its confronting forces will always abide by the principle of no collateral damage. In turn, in the case of the missile strike on US bases in Iraq, Iran could have easily played the role of the aggressor if there were any American casualties after the attack on both U.S. air bases in Iraq. Hence, the analysis suggests how small steps in different strategies can have significant impacts on all participants as in this case, Iran's national security, the regional proxy war for dominance, and the U.S. national security issues are all entangled. Therefore, most of the campaigns must have a multidimensional analysis to be successful.
These four above-mentioned events have all had their impacts on the current strategic culture of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Subsequently, Houthis in Yemen have also become a more prominent player in the context of the regional conflicts on dominance. After the attack on Saudi Aramco facilities, Houthis can be counted as a paramilitary organization that is well capable of carrying out strikes on infrastructures and forces of the opposing power, no matter how technologically developed and equipped is the opponent. In contrast, the Saudis experienced difficulties in holding the coalition together and the UAE began to drift away from the coalition in Yemen. Correspondingly, Saudi Arabia has also reduced its military confrontations with the Houthis in Yemen. Furthermore, Saudis also became more positive towards a direct diplomatic dialogue with the Iranians to control the revisionist behavior of the Houthis. On the other hand, the U.S. and Biden's democrat administration began to take a constructive path towards the revitalization of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, even though the new Iranian administration is having doubts about the progress. The IRGC and Quds forces also reduced their military support of the Houthis as Saudi Arabia deescalated the confrontation with the Houthis. Thus, this analysis suggests how entangled the strategies and interests of different states in the Middle East and the U.S. as a foreign intervener are. Although these four events might sound unrelated and irrelevant at the first sight, they are deeply connected with causes and effects which trigger the next event.