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Operation Sentinel: The Coalition Guarding the World’s Oil Highway

November 14, 2019

by: Cheryl Hauer, International Vice President

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Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines the word sentinel as “a soldier set to guard an army, camp, or other place, from surprise, to observe the approach of danger, and give notice of it.” Is it any wonder that US President Donald Trump chose Operation Sentinel as the name for his Persian Gulf coalition that began earlier this year? The goals set out by the US president for what he hoped would be a broad international partnership are to secure the Persian Gulf region, allowing for nations to escort their own ships through the area. The US is providing coordinating ships and has dispatched guided missile destroyers to strategic areas. The US military is heading up surveillance efforts, establishing surveillance routes and monitoring for unusual activity. America has pledged to protect freedom of navigation, securing international corridors and guaranteeing the safety of maritime traffic.

Most of that surveillance is being directed toward the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of the world’s oil travels. However, that leaves a massive area of ocean for someone to keep an eye on, and unfortunately, the multinational maritime alliance the president envisioned has yet to materialize.

Why Now?

Oil tankers passing through the waterway were attacked in May and June, forcing crews to abandon ship, leaving at least one vessel on fire. The US blamed Iran for the attacks. Iranian ships attempted unsuccessfully to seize a British oil tanker in early July, but later were successful in seizing three vessels, one flying the British flag. It was released in August.

Some believe the targeting of a British ship was retaliation for the efforts of the British Royal Marines who were able to impound a tanker carrying Iranian oil destined for Syria. But most Middle East experts agree the impetus was actually the US pullout of the controversial Iranian nuclear deal in May of 2018. The ensuing sanctions imposed by the American government have limited Iranian oil exports and are crippling the country’s economy. Iranian officials are trying to prove to the US and its allies, the experts say, that the Islamic Republic will not be “bullied” by the West and is well able to push back against President Trump’s policies.

Who’s on Board

Many European nations have been hesitant to become involved with the coalition since they are holding out hope to restore the 2015 nuclear treaty with Iran through diplomatic channels. Others are concerned about an all-out military conflict with Iran. So it’s not surprising that the first partners to sign on to President Trump’s coalition were those to whom the conflict is a little closer to home. Bahrain, an Arab Muslim nation, has been outspoken in its support of the American initiative. It is serving as the headquarters for the US Navy’s 5th fleet, and the nation’s king has publicly stated his appreciation of the US role in supporting regional security and stability.

Saudi Arabia has joined the alliance, but only after more than half of its crude oil production was knocked out by a massive drone attack. Although the Saudis were able to draw on reserves and expect production to return to normal levels by November, Riyadh has expressed certainty that Iran was behind the attack.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made it clear that his nation’s decision to join had nothing to do with the American pressure campaign. “This is about freedom of shipping,” he said, stating that 16% of crude oil and 30% of refined oil destined for Australia passes through the Strait of Hormuz. “Iran’s actions are a threat to our economy,” the prime minister commented. Australia is contributing a frigate and a surveillance aircraft and is stationing officials at the mission’s headquarters in Bahrain.

The UK has joined the effort as well, stating that it will work alongside the US Navy to escort vessels through the Strait of Hormuz and is positioning two Royal Navy warships in the region. In late September, the UAE announced that they, too, will join the “effort to protect vessels in the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf and the narrow Strait of Hormuz.” In a later development, India has begun escorting its own ships through the troubled area, although independently of the US coalition.

The one nation with perhaps the most to offer and the most to lose is Israel. As a staunch ally of the US, it is not remarkable that the Jewish state has joined the coalition. However, it is in a unique position to provide badly needed intelligence to the coalition forces and will be involved in other “unspecified fields.” Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz has stressed that the mission is in Israel’s strategic interests of countering Iran and boosting ties with Gulf nations.

A Lot to Lose

Iranian reaction to Israel’s participation in the coalition was swift and virulent, calling it highly provocative and threatening a new war in the region. Dangling Israel like a carrot on a stick before the international community, Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami commented, “I am confident the Zionists and their allies are not interested in war because they know that the geography of such war would be broad and they know the results in advance. Such a war,” he claimed, “would involve Hamas and Hezbollah as well as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, resulting in the collapse of Israel.”

Iran claims to have created an axis of power with Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinians “and elsewhere,” guaranteeing that any new war will place the “Zionist regime” on an irreversible path to destruction.

Clearly, Iran is attempting to use Israel as a pawn in a very dangerous game. Its obvious strategy is to intimidate western allies into forcing the US president to change his policy regarding sanctions. Most experts agree that isn’t likely to happen. If the strategy backfires in such a fragile environment, the outcome may be the unthinkable.

Photo Credit: RT/YouTube/Screenshot

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