Tuesday, May 19, two days after Ramadi’s fall to the Islamic State landed a major blow to Baghdad and US strategy in the region, 10,000 troops – more than half American – ended a large US-led military exercise in Jordan that was designed to practice tactics for countering ISIS. Taking part surprisingly in the two-week exercise was a heavy US nuclear-capable B-52H bomber, which flew in from the United States, crossing through Israeli air space and returning to home base when it was over.
This was the first time in the 12 years since the US invasion of Iraq that a B-52H, which can deliver nuclear weapons and bunker buster bombers, has appeared in Middle East skies for any military mission.
East of Jordan, as some 25,000 refugees from Ramadi slept in the open, the Islamist conquerors began moving on their next target, the Habbaniyah air base some 70 km west of Baghdad. Its fall would cut Baghdad off from northern and eastern Iraq and place it under siege from three directions – north, east and west.
Most Arab members have dropped out of the US-led coalition committed to fighting the Islamist terrorists in Iraq and Syria. This has left the US Air Force to bear the brunt of the aerial campaign. Its average of 19 air strikes a day is far too few to have any real effect on ISIS’s battle momentum. It certainly did not stop the long columns of black-clad Islamist fighters swarming on Ramadi from all directions in hundreds of tanks, APCs and minivans armed with heavy machine guns, and taking control of the capital of Iraq’s largest province, Anbar.
Western intelligence from the Ramadi region offered disturbing accounts of thousands of fully-armed ISIS fighters springing up apparently from nowhere to descend on the city, with no one able to see where they came from and no air action to scatter them before they entered the city.
After the Ramadi defeat, the Obama administration’s next major test in the region comes from an Iranian cargo vessel heading, accompanied by two warships, for the Yemeni Red Sea port of Hodeida and scheduled to dock Thursday, May 21. According to Tehran, the ship will unload 2,500 tons of humanitarian aid for Yemen, and the hundreds of passengers who disembark are Red Crescent medical relief workers.
The Saudi, US and Egyptian fleets have imposed a sea and air blockade on Yemen to prevent Iran provding the Yemeni Houthi rebels with fresh arms. Saudi and other regional intelligence agencies are convinced that the “paramedics” are in fact Revolutionary Guards officers and instructors in disguise, sent to strengthen the Houthi revolt.
Washington, Riyadh and Cairo have all vowed to stop the Iranian flotilla from putting into port in Yemen and said that its vessels will be forced to submit to inspections to make sure no illicit weapons are aboard and to confirm the passengers’ identities.
Tehran, for its part has threatened to treat any such inspections as an act of war.
Deputy Revolutionary Guards Commander Gen. Masoud Jazayeri put it plainly when he said: “I am distinctly stating that the patience of Iran has limits. If the Iranian aid ship is prevented from reaching Yemen then they, Saudi Arabians and United States, should expect action from us.”
debkafile’s analysts strongly doubt that the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier and strike force, which have been monitoring the Iranian flotilla’s movements, will be ordered to intervene against the Iranian ships reaching the Yemeni port. It is not a good moment for President Barack Obama to upset Tehran when he is in dire need of the Iraqi Shiite militias controlled by Iran to stand up to ISIS before its columns reach Baghdad.
Without the US, it is hard to see Saudi and Egyptian warships directly engaging an Iranian naval force and risking a major military conflagration.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, May 20, Tehran climbed down to defuse the rising tension surround the ships scheduled arrival in Yemen Thursday, and agreed the ship could be searched by the UN after it was redirected to the central international aid center in Djibouti, as demanded by Washington.