Yemen (4): Yemen War Intensifies/US Heavily Involved
Saudis Continue To Pound Yemen
On February 3, yesterday, Saudi jets …ie – US jet planes sold to Saudi Arabia – pounded Yemen, killing at least 14 civilians, among them 10 women and children – in Houthi populated areas of the country’s north. According to the Iranian press, on just that one day, Saudi war jets carried out 16 bombing missions against several northern districts of Yemen. One report said that on this day the Saudi’s fired 620 at targets in Yemen’s Shada, al Malaheez , al Hurra districts.
Military Operations Began in August, 2009Against The Sixth Houthi Rebellion Since 2004
Yemen is among the weakest, least developed and tribally based states in the Middle East. Unemployment stands at 40% according to some accounts. Despite this, the same percentage – 40% – of the country’s budget is for military spending. It is facing strong separatist sentiment in the South, a nasty rebellion in its northern provinces and an `al Qaeda’ presence, although Yemenis insist this last issue, which so concerns the US media and Congress, is the least of their problems. Its government is led by Ali Abdullah Saleh, long a US and Saudi strategic ally. The initial two front Sana’a military offensive against the northern Yemen based Houthi rebels and southern separatists began in August and preceded all the hooplah and media attention surrounding Yemen in the US coming after the attempted Christmas suicide bombing.
From the outset, Sana’s military campaign against Ali Abdullah Saleh’s domestic opponents has included both punishing air raids and ground assaults (led by US advisors?) as well as an ideological campaign of blaming Iran. Nor did Houthi rebellions in the northern zones of Yemen only start in August 2009. The current uprising is the sixth since 2004. Although religion is a factor in the rebellions, some commentators point to Sana’s long term policy of promising socio-economic development in the north, but not delivering, along with government repression - as key to understanding this, the sixth, uprising
The Houthis are largely Shi’ite Zaydi Moslems living in the north of Yemen near the poorly defined border with Saudi Arabia. The Shi’ite connection was enough of a pretext for the Sana’a government (and the United States) to blame Iran for supporting the rebellion although Iran’s involvement varies from insignificant to nonexistent. Claiming that the rebellion is `Iranian inspired’ – along with exaggerating the `al Qaeda threat’ – gives a convenient cover for the growing Saudi and US military involvement in Yemen’s affairs. There is no evidence of Iranian involvement nor does it make sense politically. As Khaled Fattah wrote in the October 9, 2009 edition of Asia Times
A closer examination of the current crisis in Yemen suggests that the northern Zaydi rebellion, which has been on and off since June 2004, is neither a proxy ideological war between Riyadh and Teheran nor a sectarian war between the Sunni and and Shi’ite strains of Islam.
The increasingly isolated regime in Teheran is currently not in a position to open more frontiers of confrontation, and mingling in Yemen’s political affairs carries more risks than opportunities. From a military perspective, for instance, the strong armed presence of the United States and other Western Powers in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean – and the tribal context of Yemen – make it very risky for the Iranian regime to make use of the rebellion as a step towards any ambitious plan of achieving control over the Red Sea shipping lanes.
A Coordinated Sana’a Government, Saudi, US Military Offensive
The original Sana’a based offensive did not go well and stalled. As a result, in early November, with US encouragement, permission and US made jet planes, the Saudi’s joined in the fighting . The Saudi’s (with US backing) are fearful of any kind of social change in Yemen that might challenge the Saudi Royal Family-Wahhabist status quo and in turn the US-Saudi strategic alliance, critical to Saudi oil flows. Accordingly, the Saudi’s have long interferred politically and militarily in Yemen’s domestic politics, fearing that a collapse of the Sana’a government could have a spill over effect in Saudi Arabia itself. Likewise the US is willing to engage it yet another thankless military operation – adding Yemen to the list that includes Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia (and through Israel), Israel-Palestine – in order to `pre-empt’ – the word of the day – any undermining of the authority of the Saudi royal family.
Still, the Yemeni rebels seem singularly unimpressed with all those US purchased Saudi military hardware and, in the recent clashes, have given Saudi ground troops something of a thrashing, killing over 200, imprisoning others, seizing a number of Saudi border posts, much to the embarrassment of Riyadh and forcing the Saudi’s to rely more and more on punishing air power. The air strikes – from different reports – have done little to weaken Houthi resistance and organization but they have, as in Afghanistan and Pakistan, led to a spike in civilian casualties.
In fact, the main casualties of this trilateral military offensive have been, predictably, the civilian population. There are reports, hardly noted in the US media, that the fighting since 2004 has led to over 200,000 refugees, both internal refugees and those seeking safe haven across the border in Saudi Arabia. The current round of violence can only intensify these troubling trends.
In an effort to save civilian lives, Houthi rebels called for a cease fire and withdrew from 40 positions they had held on the Saudi-Yemeni border. In the presence of a senior State Department Counter-Terrorism official, Daniel Benjamin, the Sana’a government and the Saudis rejected the offer. The Saudi’s responded to the truce call by `declaring victory’ (ha!) and intensifying their air strikes.
US Military Extending Its Presence In Yemen
The US has been involved from the outset, providing intelligence and sending a small contingent of US troops to the area. Washington became involved in secret joint operations in Yemen after President Barack Obama approved US military and intelligence teams to be dispatched to the country.
Short-term, the Obama Administration hopes bring the hostilities to an end in such a manner that strenthens the position of the Sana’a government and the Saudis - weakening or knocking out the northern Houthi rebellion, neutralizing the separatist movement in the south and striking a blow to al Qaeda in Yemen.
Long-term, the current Yemen fighting creates `Shock Doctrine’ type opportunities for the United States to tighten its grip on yet another Middle East oil choke point (the Bab El Mandeb Strait) by increasing its physical military presence in the area `for the long haul’. As argued in an earlier post, this is more about strategic control of Middle East oil, propping up the Saudi Regime, challenging China and Iran in the Middle East and Africa than it is about,Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalib, the son of a Nigeria banker (who buys arms from Israel) hoping to blow up his own genitals and a packed airplane along with them.
- A formal, permanent US military base in Yemen (see below) combines nicely with its psychic twin across the Bab El Mandeb Strait at Djibouti, Camp LeMonnier.
- The two bases combine to give the United States control of both sides of Bab El Mandeb, one of the world’s key `choke points’ and still the main route of oil from the Persian Gulf to Europe.
- It also gives the US a strategic handle on Sudanese oil heading to China in the other direction.
- Finally the bases strengthen the US military presence on the ground both in the Arabian Peninsula and the unstable Horn of Africa.
- Combine that with the floating arsenal – the US Fleet in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean – and a picture of the growing, unchallenged, permanent US military presence in the region comes more sharply into focus
As a part of that strategic picture, among the Obama Administration’s disturbing moves in Yemen include:
- The Obama Administration has sent 200 special forces troops to the country `with lots of experience fighting tribesmen in the mountains’ . According to the Washington Post, operations began six weeks ago, involving troops from the US military’s clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), whose main mission is tracking and killing suspected “terrorists.”
- Increasingly the US also provides intelligence from UAV’s (drones) and does electronic eaves-droppings.
- Meanwhile in late January, CIA Director Leon Panetta flew to Cairo and Jerusalem where he held `secret talks’ with Egypt and Israel over the expanded US intervention in Yemen.
- Washington has asked the Egyptian government to let the US use Egyptian airports for ferrying military equipment and launching air raids on Yemen. It is not clear what came from Panetta’s talks in Israel nor what role Israel was asked to play in the Yemen events. (on some level they benefit from instability on Saudi Arabia’s southern flank as it keeps the Saudi’s occupied with its southern neighbor and its attention directed away from Israel/Palestine. A similar dynamic exists with Egypt, pre-occupied about the turmoil in the Sudan and thus less willing to challenge Israel’s policies on its Occupation, even should it disagree with some of them. )
- General David Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command, has proposed more than doubling military assistance for Yemen to about $150 million.
- In addition, the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have proposed boosting funding for Yemen to $106.6 million from $67.3 million the previous year, with most of the increase for security.
- Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew said the money would improve Yemen’s Air Force intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, fund counter-terrorism training for its security forces and offer support for the country’s coast guard, border guard and special operations forces.2
- There are reports that US base is under construction under the Yemeni Red Sea Port of Hodeidah, a city of 400,000 (Note – it is also spelled – Hudaydeh) at a port site that the Ottaman’s built. During the 1970s and 1980s it was used as a Soviet military base.
The United States is also doing what it can – as in Afghanistan/Pakistan – to drag its NATO allies into the fray giving a `multi-national’ cover to what is essentially a US military build up. As usual, the UK in particular has obliged and is sending a warship to the region, symbolic support for the US effort. There has been virtually no protest against adding now a fifthfront to the `War on Terrorism’ (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, – don’t forget Iraq, and now Yemen) from US allies in Europe and Asia. And as usual, the US Congress acquiesses and cheers the misguided effort along.