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Yemen 5 – Houthi Rebellion in Yemen has the Saudis Nervous

February 11, 2010

(related links:

– Yemen Articles

– Yemen Powerpoint)

warning:  a long piece – more than 5500 words.


Thinking About Yemen

Houthi Refugees fleeing the fighting. There are between 150,000-200,000 people made refugee in Yemen's northern regions since 2004

Continuing to probe the US-Saudi-Yemeni (Sana’a Government) military offensive in Yemen.

It takes some doing to get closer to what is going on. Before giving some of the latest thoughts, a bit of review is in order. I start with the assumption that the reasons given for the military offensive in Yemen are essentially pretexts for public consumption, only worth considering because they provide excuses for opening yet another front of this pointless `war on terrorism’, and that once again `we’ – the American public are being  deceived and led off the track through gross exaggeration, outright fabrication or some combination of the two.

The major trends are upside-down.  Aggressors are cast in the role of victims – it has become something of a political tradition these days – and the victims  painted as aggressors. It all takes place so far away. The fact that so much US money, weaponry and political energy go intoYemen’s war hardly penetrates the public conscience and is confusing.

Pretexts are false leads, thrown out purposely to misinform.  Then again, when it comes to Yemen, the American public doesn’t particularly care. The firing of two US cruise missiles at Yemen last December hardly raised a peep of protest here, even less than when Bill Clinton was  lobbing them at Iraq during the 1990s.  How does the death of a few more hundred people at the hands of US weapons- mostly civilians, twomen and children dying in Yemen – touch Americans?

The case has been built that Yemen is an al Qaeda `stronghold’, that in 2000 the  USS Cole was bombed and badly damaged from Aden, Yemen’s major port facing out on the Indian Ocean; that there is `a connection’ between a Moslem cleric in Sana’a and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallib, the young man who, if he is lucky, will not be executed but spend the rest of his life behind bars for trying to blow up an airplane headed for Detroit with some kind of plastic contraption in his crotch.

Strange as it seems : the US-Saudi-Yemeni (Sana’a Government) – Israeli-Pakistani Alliance…against Iran

Politics may make strange bedfellows; it certainly makes for  byzantine alliances. There are reasons why the United States, dragging NATO and Great Britain along for the ride, Saudi Arabia and the Sana’a government in Yemen have all conspired to join ranks to try to crush Yemen’s Houthi rebels in the North; assassinate separatist leaders in the South; and do a drone killing here and there of al Qaeda operatives.

All of this is a part of a bigger regional schemein two acts.

  • Act One is Middle East specific: to strengthen the alliances to tighten the noose around Iran and choke it off one way or another; this could be  economic strangulation – tightening the sanctions against that country’s energy sector ; political subversion – witness recent bombings in Iran’s SE region;  a major bombing campaign from Israel, the US of A or some combination there of; or some form of outright invasion, taking advantage of the growing social tensions growing in the country …the possibilities are unlimited when you think about it!
  • Act Two is a long term and dangerous more global chess game with China, to deny her sources of overland oil and gas by politically sabotaging pipeline deals that would go from oil and gas producing centers in the Middle East and Central Asia forcing Peking to depend upon sea routes controlled by the US military from Yemen to Singapore

In the broader Middle East region the anti-Iranian campaign brings together the United States, the Saudis, an opportunist like Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s increasingly isolated president, and the Israelis all under one happy anti-Iranian tent. For the US and Saudi Arabia, Yemen is an annoying, time consuming sideshow. They would prefer to direct their strategic efforts to undermining Iran rather than concentrating on propping up an unpopular and discredited Sana’a based Yemeni government.   Yemen  is not only drawing more and more Saudi attention away from concentrating on the anti-Iranian front. As the wars there drag on, it  threatens the legitimacy of the Riyahd regime itself.

Grand `Mettre-en-scene’ – The Obama Administration

The US directs the overall anti-Iranian alliance’s activities. Washington has its own agenda which differs somewhat from that other players, but that has always been the case of grand coalitions in the Middle East. While the US `agenda’ is multi-faceted, its major themes are quite clear:

  • to maintain its flagging global hegemony through the the military control of Middle East oil and natural gas
  • to prevent – and to use the word of the day -`pre-empt’ other nations from challenging US domination through this stranglehold on energy
  • to break down the regional powers that might stand in the way of US plans in the Middle East. The example of Iraq is instructive: it centralized government is destroyed and replaced with an much more easily controlled confederation; it was not just its oil industry that was privatized but the entire economy; the US built what are referred to as `enduring’ (to avoid the more accurate word `permanent’) bases in Iraq from which the US can `manage’ regional political or economic challenges. That was the goal in Iraq and it was accomplished. That the country was destroyed in the process, with perhaps a million dead and 4 plus million refuged mattered little. The Bush Administration achieved its goal. And now it probes ways to do likewise in Iran. The methods might be slightly different – but the goals are essentially the same.

Surprising as it may seem, two of the Obama Administrations most important partners in the anti-Iranian coalition are Saudi Arabia and Israel. If the two are generally hostile to one another concerning the Palestinian issue, this does not prevent them from extensive cooperation in support of US regional and global goals. Nor is this anything new. The Saudis and Israelis have been the key US allies in the Middle East since at least the 1979 fall of the Shah of Iran, and on some levels, even before that. Since 1979, they have been working in tandem with each other in the anti-Iranian front. I expect to read in five or ten or twenty years some `insider story’ by one our new liberal `neo-cons’, people like Stephen Simon and Daniel Benjamin about how `secretly’ Saudi and Israeli officials met in Washington DC or Sharm el Sheik or Eilat to conspire together against Iran’s mullahs.

There is a division of labor between Riyadh and Tel Aviv and some friction, but the ties that bind, through Washington are much stronger. And when it comes to opposing Iran and bringing down the region, the three are of one mind. This is THE strategic goal of all three in the region and they are pursuing it relentlessly through alliance building, intimidation and whatever other cards they think they can play. As for the misleading notion that Obama’s Middle East strategy represents a break with the Bush legacy, there are virtually no strategic difference – none at all – between the Bush and Obama Administrations. As M.K. Bhadrakumar aptly put it in his two part series on Yemen in Asia Times:

“He [Obama] is but a creature of his circumstances. As someone put it brilliantly, Obama’s presidency is like driving a train rather than a car: a train cannot be “steered”, the driver can at best set its speed, but ultimatley, it must run on its tracks”

Let’s Begin With The Yemeni Domestic Situation

Let’s start with the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Things have not been going well for him for a long time. He is facing a quadruple whammy and although he has been able to juggle the Yemeni political scene to his advantage for some time – he’s been in power for more than 20 years – basically his political house is falling in on him. A Yemeni journalist interviewed on al Jazeera a week ago said it quite bluntly: without Saudi and US support, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime would collapse like a house of cards.In fact, no one is in control in Yemen. If not for Saudi and US support, Saleh’s government would probably collapse. So what is the quadrupal whammy? Simple:

  1. What is referred to as the Houthi Rebellion in the North where armed struggle against the central government has been going on since 2004 and is now in its sixth round. Although it is described in ethnic terms (a `Shi’ite rebellion), for the most part the roots of the uprising are socio-economic.
  2. A powerful separatist movement in the South. The South was, from 1970 through 1990 an independent country – the only  socialist country in the Middle East at the time that was engaged a genuine, if somewhat limited process of social change. The regime collapsed and, a bit like East and West Germany, was unified under Sana’s control into one nation. Saudi Arabia was especially pleased to see this experiment in secular social change collapse. In exchange for unifying with its erstwhile opponents in the North, South Yemen was given promises of economic aid and a political voice in the unified country’s future. Neither happened and already in 1994 the South rebelled. With Saudi help, the uprising was crushed but movement never died and in recent years has grown stronger. It is NOT about al Qaeda although the organization has some fighters there, but again, about the economic and social crisis in the region which Sana’a has never addressed and it seems, never intended to.
  3. Al Qaeda. There is an al Qaeda presence.  It is more annoying than serious. It does not seem to have much focus on Yemeni politics and its base in Yemen is quite narrow. As mentioned elsewhere it has no more than 200 fighters in the whole country, a modest presence. But from Yemen al Qaeda has launched attacks into Saudi Arabia as well as it famous suicide bombing attack against the USS Cole with a small Yemeni fishing boat in 2000.  For Yemen, al Qaeda is an irritant, not a crisis and Yemenis wonder what all the fuss in the US media is about.
  4. Weaving its way through these three crises is the biggest one of all – the collapsing Yemeni economy. Unemployment stands at 40%, truly crisis proportions.  About 45% of Yemen’s 21 million people live on less than $2 a day according to the United Nations. Likewise according to the UN, Yemen is one of the world’s 49 least developed countries (LDCs). It is the only Middle Eastern country considered an LDC and ranks 153 on the UN’s Human Development Index of 192 members. Yemen has a bit of oil, but it is fast running out and could be exhausted within  a decade according to some reports. The government has a history of both pervasive corruption and a pretty terrible human rights record when it comes to tolerating dissent. There are also clan tensions that seem to have a life of their own.

Perhaps Yemen needs a change, that the current government has long ago lost legitimacy? The `threat’ of collapse or of some unified reform movement sweeping to power does not threaten the Yemenis. Understanding well, how fragile his political base is, Ali Abdullah Saleh has had no choice but to lean on Saudi and US support.  In order to maintain Saudi support, the besieged Yemeni president has had to align himself with Saudi and US Middle East policy. For the Saudi’s it meant forcing him to engage the northern rebels militarily and at least giving lip service to the anti-Iranian campaign. For the United States it meant Yemen joining in the war on terrorism against al Qaeda and assisting the United States in its campaign against them, including offering the United States base facilities, opening Yemen to US drone overflights and Special Forces operations. And that in the end could cost him dearly.

In classic Middle Eastern fashion, rather than dealing with the deeper socio-economic crisis at the core of its current dilemma, Yemen is instead arming itself to the teeth. The Yemeni armed forces are spending more than $4 billion in a weapons’ buying spree, most of which come from Russia, China, Ukraine, eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. Although the US is increasing its military aid, US arms supply to Yemen does not hold a candle to the weapons purchases, military training and technical expertise from non-US sources.

  • The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a historically reliable source on the arms trade, notes that Russia accounted for nearly 59% of all major weapons deliveries to Yemen from 2004 to 2008, followed by Ukraine (25%), Italy (10%), Australia (5%) and the United States at less than 1%
  • SIPRI also claims that the Russian media reports that Yemen signed a deal to buy an estimated $1 billion worth of arms from Moscow (some reports suggest the figure is as high as $2.5 billion). These weapons include Mig -29 fighters, helicopters, tanks and armored vehicles
  • To fund these purchases, the NY Times reported that Saudi Arabia has provided about $2 billion in aid to Yemen – an amount that dwarfs the US contribution (to be discussed below)

Such multi-lateral arms deals tie the arms’ producing countries to the fate of Yemen and give them a `piece of the pie’. With such major financial investments involved, it is unlikely that any of these countries will seriously challenge the US-Saudi goals in Yemen or raise questions of human rights violations. Indeed the arms manufacturers have, not surprisingly, remained silent about human rights abuses resulting from this latest round of fighting.

Saudi Arabia’s involvement: Aerial Ethnic Cleansing

M. K. Bhadrakumar, quoted above, is a seasoned retired diplomat with the Indian Foreign Service who served in the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey. Writing in the November 14, 2009 on-line edition of Asia Times (“A Witches’ Cauldron Brews In Yemen”), he explains both Saudi Arabia’s more immediate tactical goals in its war with Yemen and the Saudi broader role as a key player in the Obama Administration led anti-Iranian alliance . Admittedly complex stuff , but Bhadrakumar systematically breaks it all down and explains Saudi motives and fears well.

Up until several days ago (February 12, 2010) , according to Houthi rebel press releases, the Saudi’s continued to bomb Northern Yemen mercilessly, this despite calls for a truce by the rebels late last week. The Saudis carried out extensivebombing missions on the Hinbah, Qatabir, Bani Maaz, Muhazat and al Ahmar districts of Yemen’s north firing a large number of rockets at the villages in these areas hoping to carry out a kind of aerial ethnic cleansing. The Saudi bombing campaign has triggered new wave of Yemeni civilian refugees – some 50,000 alone since the last round of fighting opened last August, 2009, adding to the already 150,000 or so refuged from the intermittent war begun in 2004.

While these numbers are high, and include many civilian dead and wounded, the Saudi bombings have  failed to achieve their political goal: to weaken the organization and fighting ability of the Houthi guerillas who have continually embarrassed both the Yemeni and Saudi armies in armed engagements. Indeed, beaten back across their own border by Houthi guerilla attacks, its border posts overrun, its patrols frequently ambushed, the Saudi military has taken nothing short of drubbing in this contest. Outmaneuvered, out-fought on the ground, the Saudis have intensified the air war.  The Obama Administration cruise missile attack on Yemen was in part to bolster Saudi confidence in light of its battlefield failures.

Saudi’s Yemeni Plan: Aerial Ethnic Cleansing, Security Fence, Naval Blockade

Beyond propping up Ali Abdullah’ Saleh’s sagging fortunes, Saudi Arabia has its own goals in the conflict. The military offensive against the Houthis began in August. The plan was developed and executed in close cooperation with the Obama Administration and the units of the US Central Command in the region. It was as the Saudi-Yemeni offensive  faltered in late November and early December in the face of fierce Houthi resistance and effective guerrilla tactics that the US was drawn more into the fray, at first my sense is, somewhat reluctantly, but by mid December, with greater enthusiasm. US Special Forces units became more actively involved in early November. The Saudis wanted a quick devastating military offensive – the Nazi blitzkreig model – all that `shock and awe’ bullshit – which was supposed to quickly do `the job’. The Saudi’s hoped to finish off the Yemeni northern rebels so that they could get back to doing what they love best – helping the United States (and Israel) to bring down Iran. Bogging down in northern Yemen is not what the Saudis had intended. The Yemen sideshow gives the Iranians a little breathing room.

According to Bhadrakumar, the Saudi offensive included a three-pronged plan for Yemen.

  1. To create a buffer zone in northern Yemen by bombing the Houthi communities that live in the border region to retreat. What is striking about this campaign of aerial ethnic cleansing is that it unabashedly targets civilians; it is the civilian population itself which is the main target
  2. To build a 1500 kilometer (about 950 mile) security fence along the entire Saudi-Yemeni border to keep the impoverished Yemenis from crossing over to find work, refuge from the storms of war. Perhaps they got the idea from the master wall builders – the Israelis – or from the Bush Administration’s attempts to keep Mexicans and other Latinos fleeing poverty and oppression out of the United States?
  3. To construct a naval blockade of the Yemeni coast with the help of the US and British navies to block sea-based weapons shipments.

Unable to defeat the northern rebels militarily, the plan is to isolate them to the degree possible and to intensify the human suffering in the area, reminiscent of Israel’s seige against Gaza. It might have some effect, but given the porous nature of the terrain and the opaqueness of the Saudi-Yemeni border, it is a questionable strategy, defensive in nature. Although the plan will intensify civilian suffering, it is unlikely to have much impact on Houthi fighting ability.

The Great Fear in Riyadh

Saudi Arabia rarely involves itself militarily in Middle East tensions and conflicts, preferring – as it did recently and unsuccessfully in Lebanon against Hezbollah – to throw money at political problem and let others do the fighting. It would have preferred to achieve its goals financially, relying on the Sana’a government to do most of the fighting and dirty work. Engaging so directly in military operations, as it is been forced to do is somewhat out of character. What seems to be driving it? Essentially thre factors – Sana’a’s failure to bring the security situation under control; the emergence of hard-liner militarist types among the vast collection of Saudi princes and the third factor is naked fear.

Concerning the hard-liner militarist types in the Saudi royal family, Bhadrakumar mentions unnamed but `well informed American scholars’ who write about a new generation of Saudi princes with a penchant for using some of those weapons the Saudis have been buying from the US and other Western arms merchants these past decades.  Among the new hard-liners:

They are a part of a changing of the guard of the Saudi royal family, a transition, with the key players among the younger generation more included towards military action than their fathers. But using the military option in Yemen so far has backfired. The less successful Saudi military operations have been, the more Riyadh has resorted to even more excessive levels of force; one example – Houthi rebels claim the Saudis have used phosperus weapons in their attacks. As stated above, to date, the Saudi Yemeni offensive has gone poorly.

The fear factor? What is it about?

Part of the picture in Yemen needs to be understood against the historic backdrop of a Zaidi Shi’ite awakening in Yemen’s northern region. The Zaidi’s have long been oppressed there and Shi’ite uprising have not been unknown in the past. There is a deliberate attempt to undercount Zaidi numbers in the overall population but they could make up as much as 45% of the population according to one account. The current movement there led by Hussein Badr al Houthi in some ways resembles Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Houthis very well might follow Hezbollah’s example, but it would be a mistake to consider their movement either a Hezbollah or Iranian clone; this is a movement with indigenous roots and very little outside support other than verbal. And it is that characteristic, that makes this movement so potent.

The fact of the matter is that the Saudi’s are nervous and confused as to how to deal with the situation in Yemen, with what is being described as a `Yemeni style Hezbollah’ on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. Especially threatening to one of the last theocracies in the world is a movement, like that of the Houthi’s based upon, as Bhadrakumar puts it, `ideas of political justice and equality with a highly disciplined and trained cadre that may come to inhabit the Saudi border areas’ .  But it is not as if the Houthis are about to invade Saudi Arabia, rather it is the Houthi example that is so threatening.

No, `the great fear’ is the rebellious confrontational spirit of the Houthis will spread beyond Yemen, to the largely Shi’ite population of Oman with its strategic location at the mouth of the Gulf of Hormuz and, ultimately, to the large and long economically and socially oppressed Shi’ite population in Saudi Arabia’ eastern and oil rich provinces.

The Saudi Shi’ite community is seething with resentment over Wahhabi intolerance. Discrimination against Saudi Shi’ites has a long ignoble history, but according to a recent Human Rights Watch Report (Denied Dignity – Saudi Discrimination and Hostility Toward Saudi Shia’ Citizens), the situation has deteriorated even further in recent years.

Map of Yemen with insert of northern region around Sa'bah, heartland of the Houthi rebellion

Map of Yemen with insert of the Sa'bah region, heartland of Houthi rebellion

Add to this another oft forgotten point about the birth of the Houthi political movement itself. It started in Sa’bah, regional Houthi center in the 1990s and was a cultural response to aggressive Saudi Wahhabist missionaries – not much different from the 16th century Catholics trying to lay claim to the Americas – amongst their midst who attacked their brand of Islam and tried to undermine it. Instead,  the Wahhabist initiative triggered a violent reaction of its own, a Houthi Zahdi cultural and religious revival which just after the turn of the millenium turned political and militant. The movement’s early slogans did not target the central government in Sana’a but the Saudis, the United States and Israel in the aftermath of the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and Israel’s long mistreatment of the Palestinians. As Ali Abdullah Saleh’s was held together by the thread of US and Saudi support, he could not permit public expression of opposition to his allies to continue, fearing his funding base would be cut off. As a result, he felt pressure to try to crush the Houthi movement.

This is the great fear, that a movement similar to the Houthi insurrection could also take root in Saudi Arabia. And well it might, but if it does, it will be one that has domestic and not imported roots from Yemen. Riyadh’s hard line against the Houthis is meant to send a message to Saudi Shi’ites: try to rebel and we will crush you too. But then to date the campaign has not worked. The longer the Houthi rebellion holds its ground, the greater the risk that movements like it will spread elsewhere.

The US role ..`It’s not about oil’ (that’s funny)

When the news of the `enhanced’ US military role in Yemen hit the press, it appeared to be a classic example of what Naomi Klein so well described as  the `Shock Doctrine’ in her book by the same name.  he shock doctrine is the use of a political or natural crisis to spring on the effected nation far reaching plans to restructure a country’s economy along `neo-conservative lines. Examples are

  • de-nationalization of the economy during the 1973 coup in Chile
  • privatization of much the coast of India in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami
  • undermingint of  public education in New Orleans in the aftermath of  Hurricane Katrina in 2005

A most blatant and often under-reported example of the shock doctrine entails the 2003 US invasion of Iraq resulting in the dissolution of the centralized state there, its replacement with a more easily manipulated (by foreign oil companies and the US government) federal structure, combined with the privatization not only of Iraq’s energy sector, but its entire economy. (see Michael Schwartz’s excellent War Without End: The Iraq War In Context) . To control Middle East oil not only in Iraq but the entire region, the United States established a permanent US military presence – `enduring’ bases on Iraqi soil. Iraq was to be a model of how the United States hoped to restructure the entire region – weak centralized state, energy sectors open to foreign investment with the goal of doubling oil production output, the complete deconstuction of the Middle East nationalist development project of the post war period and its replacement with a thinly veiled neo-colonial presence along the lines that the British established in Iraq in the post World War One period.

As it would have been crude to make such changes in the name of serving the international oil monopolies, pretexts needed to be created to justify naked military intervention. This was the case for the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, Iran and now Yemen as well.

US Intervention in Yemen – a military campaign waiting for a pretext – and then Umar Farouk Abdulmutallib came along… neo-con manna from Heaven

US military intervention in Yemen started months before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallib, in cooperation with a New Mexico born American citizen now openly targeted for assassination by US Special Forces, allegedly conspired to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Europe to Detroit at Christmas time. The Obama Administration is gambling that the US military role in Yemen will be of a limited nature, a low level war, and especially that US casualty numbers from the war there remain low to maintain public support at home. For now, Obama has agreed to limit the US military role to deploying drone aircraft, using special forces, providing intelligence and training Yemenis in counter-intellgence. But these tactical considerations bely Obama’s main objective: to establish a permanent US military presence in Yemen.

The United States has taken significant steps to achieve this goal.  US military advisors had been active in Yemen for some time.  The Obama Adminstration has approved stepped up ground military operations in Yeme, done in large measure without Congressional approval, which only came after the fact. . Until Abdulmutallib’s attempted terrorist bombing, these operations were kept covert, in part because there was no congressional approval to broaden the military’s role in Yemen, in part because Washington was worried that more open military operations in Yemen would provoke even more anti-American sentiment than already exists in Yemen.

Abdullmutallib’s actions provided the pretext for the Obama Administration to go public with its Yemen polkicy in a classic `Shock Doctrine’ fashion – using a particular incident, exaggerating its strategic significance and using it to expand its strategic goals as it sees fit. The Israelis, incidently, do the same sort of thing quite regularly, using Palestinian suicide bombings to build more settlements, etc, etc. As a part of this effort the Obama Administration will significantly increase US military aid to Yemen over the next 18 months, providing the Sana’a government more in that time period than the Bush Administration offered it in 8 years. In those Bush years, between 2002 and 2008 Yemen received some $69 million in aid (most of it coming the last year) and 496 Yemeni military personnel were trained under the International Military Education and Training program (IMET). At the same time the US CIA was also involved in counter-terrorism efforts in Yen at an unknown budgetary cost.

There has been talk – at this point rumors in the press – of secret US special forces bases in Yemen and of US plans to use naval facilities at Huydaydeh (a port that was a Soviet naval base in the 1960s and 1970s) along the Red Sea. Plans to increase US military assistance to Yemen. Budgeted for $4.6 in counter-terrorism assistance in 2006 it increased by nearly 15 times to $60 million in the 2009 budget, with much more in the works. General David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, has proposed more than doubling military assistance for Yemen to about $150 million, but it is unclear how much covert assistance will be provided on top of that.

Initially, the US militarization of Yemen – opening up yet another war front in the Middle East while the Obama Administration is bogged down in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel is having troubles pacifying Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, does not seem to make much sense. The military build up in Afghanistan does not have great public support. Add to this the fact that the United States already has a major base in the Red Sea, Gulf of  Aden region: Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, just a stone’s throw away from Yemen. Nor is the Camp Lemonnier base – the US’s only current military presence in Africa, the end of it. US warships patrol both the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

Why risk provoking yet more anti-Americanism – in the aftermath of Obama’s June 4, 2009 Cairo speech – that would result in a yet more complex situation for the United States in the region?

Possible Reasons

There are both short and long term answers to the above question

For starters, the Saudi-Yemeni offensive in the north was not going well at all. The Saudis were getting very nervous as was Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government in Sana’a. There was fear in Washington that a failure on the military front could provoke a government collapse in Sana’a and great embarrassment in Riyadh (and a show of the regime’s military weakness).  There could have been many unseen and unknown consequences to all this none of which the United States was willing to consider. The impression or allusion of a Saudi-Yemeni (Sana’a) military victory over the rebels was important. The situation seemed to have forced the United States to increase its military involvement perhaps even, somewhat unwillingly.

Longer term, an increased US military presence presents both dangers and possibilities. The dangers are not a mystery. The US has little support, intelligence on the ground in Yemen. Historically, all the special forces movies playing in the United States aside, the fact of the mater is that the United States has proven essentially inept at fighting wars against mass based guerilla insurgencies from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Its presence risks bringing together the Yemeni opposition – the Houthis in the north, the Southern secessionists, the emergence of a young `peace’ or `anti-war’ movement that came out publicly against the results of the recent London conference on Yemen, all into a unified political opposition. It hasn’t yet materialized but it would be a logical consequence of the intensified assault on the country. All indications are that the US military presence enhances rather than weakens al Qaeda’s role. Indeed, Osama bin Laden’s strategy has long been to provoke a US military over-reaction that would bring the US military into open conflict with the peoples of the Middle East, uniting various trends against the US presence (and Israel). The other fear, as cited above is how the US military presence in Yemen will play out in Saudi Arabia.

What does the United States hopes to gain by opening another military front in Yemen?

  • It helps – at least the Obama Administration hopes – to prop up the Sana’a government and give a needed boost to the Saudis who have badly messed things up.  That is mostly what those December cruise missile attacks were about as they had no military significance whatsoever
  • It opens the door for a permanent land and naval base in Yemen, giving the United States a military presence now on both sides of the Red Sea in the strategic area of the Bab el Mandeb Straits – strategic maritime route for oil from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, and what is sometimes  missed, from Sudan to China.
  • As Conn Hallinan notes in his piece Yemen: Terrorist Haven Or Chess Piece, besides countering Chinese access to Middle East and African oil and gas moves, in the long run, Yemen offers the United States strategic access to the Horn of Africa – Somalia, Sudan, Kenya – all of which are in varying degrees of turmoil and opens the door for expanding the roles of either Africom or NATO – not only in the Middle East, but in Africa
  • There is another possible strategic consequence to US bases in Yemen, hypothetical but not out of the range of possibility: a US  air base in Yemen could be used as a launching pad for an air attack on Iran, not only for US planes but for the Israelis as well. There as been some speculation on this already. It is less surrealistic than it might initially appear.

Regardless, the United States is now there, on the ground, in Yemen supporting an unpopular government with a narrow base, in solidarity with one of the least democratic governments in the region but largest suppliers of oil, Saudi Arabia. And this is only the beginning. La Lutta Continua………………

10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2010 7:17 pm

    Impending Explosion: U.S. Intensifies Threats To Russia And Iran « The Global Realm

  2. hypothetical no facts or knowledge permalink
    December 21, 2010 1:02 am

    1-There are at least 12 Shi’ite sects and the Zaidi of Yemen are the moderate of them, in fact, they are closer to the Sonnies of Saudi Arabia than to the extremists Ethna’asharies of Iran.
    2-The current government of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen is Shi’ite Zaidi and Zaidi have been in control historically.
    3-The “poor Houthis rebels,” as you put it, who have been kicking the ass of 2 organized armies are ,in fact, Zaidi converted by Iran and Hizbollah to the Ethna’asharies so they can be used to expand Iran’s control.
    4-Explan why Iran helped the US topple Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam in Iraq to the point that some think they actually control Iraq.
    5-Milliones of Yemenis work in Saudi and in fact some sectors of the Saudi economy are controlled by Yemenis who have elected to come through the legal channels.
    6-Erricting a wall is on the internationally recognized borders of Yemen and Saudi while the one Israelis’ erecting goes through the occupied Palestinian lands.

    • December 21, 2010 3:31 am

      believe it or not, thanks for your response. it is late and i am tired, i am in the middle of some other projects…in a few days when my schedule clears up i will respond to some of your points.

      r. prince

  3. James Paul permalink
    March 29, 2011 12:51 pm

    Hi Rob,
    Let me try my hand at responding to hypothetical-no-facts-or-knowledge’s points while you are tied up.
    1 – Yes, in their jurisprudence Zaydis are closer to Saudi extremist Sunnis than Itna ashri extremists of Iran and still Saud’s Arabia is hell-bent on crushing them in north Yemen?!
    2 – Yes, Ali Abdullah Saleh is a Zaydi himself but also a corrupt and opportunist leader. He is serving his own political interests.
    3 – The Houthi rebels are claimed to be fighting to re-establish the “Imami” rule in Yemen. As opposed to Itna ashari Shias, Zaydis believe in a continued line of Imams through Imam Zayd ibn Ali who ruled Yemen from 897 in varying degrees until the republican revolution in 1962. Had Houthi Zaydis converted to Itna ashari they would not have included re-establishment of Zaidi Imamat in their agenda.
    4 – Iran helped the US topple Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam in Iraq as much as Saud’s Arabia did by not doing anything about it. Although, supposed liberation of Shia population from Sunni extremists/authoritarian in Afghanistan and Iraq could be the reason for Iran’s inaction, Saudi’s close ties with the US could be the only reason for their inaction to prevent the toppling. And let’s not discuss the recent Saudi intervention (or more accurate word `invasion’) in Bahrain.
    5 – Yes, just more than a handful of Yemeni Zaydis are reportedly working in Saudi-government-uninfluenced American and other western MNCs in Saud’s Arabia.
    6 – Yes, there’s nothing wrong in erecting a wall! Chinese did it, Israelis are doing it, so can Saud’s Arabia. But hope it keep Saudis out of Yemen as much as it’s supposed to keep Yemenis out of Saud’s Arabia.

    • March 29, 2011 2:38 pm

      James Paul:

      Thanks for interetsing comments. appreciate it. have to look at the article again to remember what it is I wrote.

      Best, Rob P.

  4. July 1, 2012 2:42 pm

    Ah! I take a teensy time off from the blogging cosmos and come back to find that you have a ton of followers?
    ! Wow, times have changed! Keep up the superb work!

  5. April 19, 2013 6:59 am



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