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Belmont Club

The mystery of Yemen

December 20th, 2009 - 5:18 pm

Two days ago, Bill Roggio described a US cruise missile strike against al-Qaeda targets in Yemen, next door to Saudi Arabia, following the receipt of intelligence that the AQ were “planning to conduct attacks against Yemeni and US installations in the region”.

Qasim al Rimi, a member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s shura, or executive council, was reportedly the main target of the strike. He is thought to have escaped. Al Rimi is a senior lieutenant to Nasir al Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a senior US military intelligence official told the Long War Journal. which took place on Dec. 17, were carried out in conjunction with the Yemeni military, who targeted al Qaeda bases in the provinces of Sana’a and Abyan. The Yemeni government and the US launched the raids after intelligence indicated that al Qaeda was planning to conduct attacks against Yemeni and US installations in the region.”

ABC News quoted American officials who said “the missile strikes were intended to disrupt a growing threat from the al Qaeda branch in Yemen, which claims to coordinate terror attacks against neighboring Saudi Arabia.” The Washington Post said that few additional details are expected at this point, at least from official sources. But there were indicators that the US was part of a broader effort against the AQ in Yemen. Yet to what end remained unclear. Yemen is a synthetic country with very little inherent stability. President Saleh warned that if Yemen falls apart, it will disintegrate not into two or even three, but “many states”. Concerns about the stability of Yemen were reported in the New York Times which described as beset by insurgencies in the south and in the north. The northern insurgency is led by al-Qaeda, while the southern troubles are the result of the uneasy union with a formerly socialist south.

In recent weeks, a number of political figures have begun openly demanding independence for the formerly socialist south, which was autonomous until the two Yemens unified in 1990. A brief civil war in 1994 left many southerners resentful of the north, and in the past three years grievances have steadily grown. These have been fueled mostly by economic disparities and the demands of retired southern soldiers who said they had not been paid their pensions.

Last month the separatists were joined by Tareq al-Fadhli, a prominent tribal figure and former ally of President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen. Mr. Fadhli’s public repudiation was especially noteworthy because he had helped organize jihadists to fight with the government against the socialist southerners during the 1994 civil war.

Mr. Saleh delivered a stark warning during an April 26 meeting in the capital with military and civilian leaders from the south, saying any division of Yemen would result in many states, not just two. “The people will fight from house to house,” Mr. Saleh said. “They should take a lesson from Iraq and Somalia.”

This then, was the country into which the administration has launched a cruise missile strike. Jane Novak, who has been following events in Yemen for a long time warned against investing in Saleh, calling him a hated leader without an iota of support except Washington’s.

Despite the broad pro-democracy sentiment in Yemen, and increasingly vocal popular frustration with Yemen’s brutal and incompetent dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the only allies the US has in Yemen now are the genocidal Saleh and his corrupt cronies.

The groups previously demonstrating for civil rights and a free press, for transparency in governance and an end to the state’s violence against its citizens, are now all protesting the air strikes- because they missed and hit a village of shepards. The northern rebels and southern independence movement, who both phrase their grievances in terms of democracy, may enter the spheres of another big power for moral support. The US, never wildly popular, is now toxic to even the most liberal segments of Yemeni society.

Then there’s the “possibility” that the US was duped, and al Reimi was tipped off. Lately there’s been more mumbling by anonymous western officials recognizing that the Yemeni security, military and administration are somewhat compromised by al Qaeda. Its an understatement but at least, I thought hopefully, a beginning of the dawn of consciousness. How could US planners not factor in and guard against a potential double cross when dealing with Saleh’s regime? In the light of Yemen’s track record, it was predictable (30-40%) that al Reimi would escape.

As if that were not complication enough, the Jamestown Foundation reported back in 2005 that Iran was stoking the fires on the ground. It too observed that Saleh was using the War on Terror as a cover for his authoritarian tendencies. Neither the rumor of Saleh’s ulterior motivation nor the fears that Iran is involved have slackened. Time Magazine reported on the “hidden war” in Yemen just two days ago.

The Yemeni capital of Sana’a thunders at night with the sound of war planes taking off and heading north, toward a remote conflict on the Saudi border that the Yemenis and Saudis have stealthily managed to keep off-limits to journalists and aid workers. In the lawless frontier zone of Saada governorate, a fierce battle has raged for months between Yemeni troops and rebels belonging to the Houthis, a religious minority. Each side — Houthis on one, Yemenis and Saudis on the other — has offered conflicting reports on everything from air strikes to motives, and with Saada a no-go zone, it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction.

There are as yet unsubstantiated reports of massive human rights abuses, village bombardments and foreign involvement. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of refugees are pouring out of the frontlines, making the hidden conflict increasingly impossible to keep out of the international spotlight. …

But the conflict up north — and the resources it’s consuming — may be undermining efforts to deal with Yemen’s other troubles. Nor is it certain that Iran is actually involved in the conflict. “There just isn’t any evidence,” says Gary Sick, a Persian Gulf expert at Columbia University. He says that waving the Iran card is a useful propaganda ploy in the Arab Middle East. “Although they may have had some evidence of Iranian rhetorical support for the Houthis, I think they took advantage of that limited amount of evidence and blew it up into something bigger to, in effect, justify their own actions.”

However that may be, the administration has clearly not been able to make good on its promise to talk its way out of conflict with the various strains of despotism and Islamic militancy in the region. With Yemen weakened by the financial crisis and its leader by some accounts losing popular support, it will need increasing amounts of Saudi and US help to hold it together. The cruise missile strikes went underreported in the press, eclipsed by reports of the blustry wintry weather. But the War on Terror is not going away, even if it no longer exists.


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