The U.S. Enters Uncharted Territory in Yemen


 By Avi Davis
On January 20th, just as Barack Obama was delivering his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, a key statement he had made about U.S. foreign policy was about to explode in his Administration’s face.

“I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership. We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents. That’s exactly what we’re doing right now — and around the globe, it is making a difference.

First, we stand united with people around the world who’ve been targeted by terrorists — from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris. We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we’ve done relentlessly since I took office to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies.”

A central plank in that promise was the cooperation of the Republic of Yemen with which the United States was coordinating its confrontation with  al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group which claimed responsibility for the Paris massacre in the first week of January.

When the American-backed government of Yemen abruptly collapsed on that Tuesday, the  country was left leaderless as it became convulsed by an increasingly powerful force of pro-Iranian insurgents.
This collapse should not have been  unexpected.  The Houthi are a Ziadi Shia insurgent group operating in Yemen’s mountainous northern region. Originally a Shia oriented youth movement formed in the mid-1990s and attracting thousands of young, disaffected Yemenis, it soon developed a political wing which was distinctly anti- American and anti-Zionist.  It gained inspiration – and even financial support – from the Iranian republic.

In November 2011, Houthis were said to be in control of two Yemeni governorates and close to taking over a third, which would enable them to launch a direct assault on Saa’ana, the Yemeni capital.

By May 2012, it was reported that Houthis controlled a majority of  three more governorates, had gained access to the Red Sea and had started erecting barricades north of the capital Sana’a in preparation for new conflict.

In September 2014, the Houthis made their advance on the capital.   By the time Obama was stepping to the podium to deliver his  State of the Union address, the rebels had already taken the presidential palace in the capital Saa’ na and forced President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s resignation.

Yet the resignation of the president, prime minister and cabinet took American officials completely by surprise and heightened the risks that Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, would become even more fertile breeding ground for al Qaeda , which had claimed responsibility for hundreds of anti-Western attacks.

Now commentators are predicting that former President Saleh who had been ousted in a coup during the Arab Spring in 2011 is poised to make a comeback as an ally of  the Houthi.

But don’t hold your breath for that eventuality.  The more likely development is civil war, with the South, which is strongly Sunni, attempting to break away from the now Shia dominated north.

How could the Obama Administration have so cavalierly allowed this to happen?  Most Administration officials on the day after the attack seemed stunned by the developments, since they always seemed to believe that the Yemeni government was sufficiently in control to prevent America’s interests being compromised.

For Obama, Yemen has represented something like a real war – one he seemed willing, finally, to get behind.

In the course of his administration there have been over 130  drone attacks in Yemen on al Qaeda targets, as well as a further 15 U.S. strikes using other forms of weaponry such as cruise missiles.

Indeed, Obama vastly accelerated the drone campaign in Yemen in 2011 and 2012, just as CIA drone strikes in Pakistan began to slow. Forty-seven strikes took place in Yemen in 2012, marking the first time the number of drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan reached comparable levels.

One reason for the acceleration in drone strikes in Yemen may have been Obama’s authorization in April 2012 of the “signature” strikes that had been approved the previous year for use in Pakistan’s tribal regions. He must see it as effective military tool against AQAP. Indeed how the American born terrorist sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki was targeted and eliminated in September 2011.

 The U.S. bases and the drone strategy in Yemen are now in peril.  As of this writing, the Administration has yet to outline how it intends to cope with the new situation on the ground.  Its continuing negotiations with the Iranian regime only complicates its relations with Yemen, given the leverage the Iranians now exert over this area of the Arabian peninsula. Iran can, quite feasibly, hold Yemen hostage in exchange for generous terms in its agreement over  the disposition of its nuclear program.

Needless to say, this is not the most  comfortable situation for the United States to be in.

One then has to wonder exactly how much “smarter” this new version of American leadership is going to turn out to be.  Remember these words – “We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we’ve done relentlessly since I took office to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies.” And then measure them in six months time against the U.S.’ ability to act in Yemen.

Perhaps then the ‘new American leadership’ will not look quite as smart as the President has presented it to be.

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of The Intermediate Zone

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