Obama’s Yemen: From ‘success model’ to a terrorism nightmare

Trying to see eye to eye

2015/04/17 Issue: 1 Page: 5

The Arab Weekly
Joyce Karam

Washington - I f US former President George W. Bush’s most infamous gaffe was in complimenting his for­mer staffer Michael Brown for doing “a heck of a job, Brown­ie” in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Barack Obama’s was last September in citing Yemen as a “success model” for his coun­ter-terrorism strategy.

Ever since Obama’s statement, Yemen has been on a rapid down­ward spiral as the Houthis took over Sana’a last September, dis­solving the country’s government, dismissing its draft constitution, forcing President Abd Rabbo Man­sour Hadi out of his residence and expanding their reach from the tra­ditional stronghold of Saada to the gates of Aden.

The Houthis’ expansion, the breakdown of the central govern­ment and the near-collapse of the military was an ideal recipe for cha­os, according to a senior US official who spoke to The Arab Weekly. It not only eroded the country’s cen­tral government but also fuelled the resurgence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and in­vited the spectre of the Islamic State (ISIS) a new foothold on the Red Sea.

The events of last eight months have created a nightmare for the Obama administration, forcing it to close the embassy in Sana’a in February and evacuate its special forces unit in March. Such meas­ures throw a wrench into US coun­ter-terrorism efforts in a country that harboured Anwar Awlaki and trained scores of jihadists, some of whom took part in the Paris attack in January.

Yemen’s collapse triggered “Op­eration Decisive Storm”, led by nine Arab countries and supported logistically by the United States. The intervention, in the form of air strikes, was “expected,” accord­ing to the US official. The Houthis, he said, “overreached by going to Aden and Saudi Arabia has to pro­tect its long border”.

For Washington, supporting the Saudi-led intervention is its last hope at avoiding a total collapse in Yemen that would split the coun­try between the Houthis, AQAP and separatists. Washington hopes the Arab intervention will pressure the factions into a political solu­tion and protect strategic security assets, such as the Bab el Mandeb strait and US drone operations over Yemen.

The departure of US special forc­es creates a dangerous intelligence void for the United States in Yem­en, prompting the House Home­land Security Committee Chair­man Michael McCaul (R-Texas), to warn, “We will have no intelligence footprint or capabilities to monitor what AQAP and ISIS and the Shiite militants are doing in the region.”

The chaos around the Houthis’ advance caused Washington to lose track of more than $500 million worth of military aid it had provid­ed the Yemeni government; some of which may have ended up in the hands of AQAP. The rebels also looted files on US spy operations and AQAP freed 300 prisoners from a prison in Hadramoot. If the status quo continues, the chaos in Yemen will only compound US losses in a key battle front against al-Qaeda.

By supporting Operation Deci­sive Storm, the Obama administra­tion is seeking to both reassure its Arab allies and prioritise its securi­ty goals in Yemen. While announc­ing the operation on March 25th, Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir emphasised the close consultations with and support from the Obama adminis­tration.

The White House promptly au­thorised “the provision of logistical and intelligence support to GCC-led military operations”, and Obama has called Saudi King Salman twice. In addition, the Obama ad­ministration restored full military aid to Egypt, including F-16 fighter jet deliveries that had been put on hold for two years, and Obama dis­cussed the Yemen situation with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al- Sisi in an hour-long telephone call.

A US expert with close ties to the administration tells The Arab Weekly, on condition of anonym­ity, that the decision to release the F-16s to Egypt was meant as a boost for Cairo’s role in regional stabil­ity in both Yemen and Libya. As Obama eyes a lighter military foot­print in the region, his strategy is more dependent on US allies in pro­tecting mutual interests in Yemen and other trouble spots.

Nevertheless, officials in Wash­ington remain deeply concerned about events in Yemen. The senior US official warned Yemen cannot be allowed to become another So­malia or Afghanistan and said that for the military operations to suc­ceed they have to be complement­ed with a political strategy under the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) initiative “with changes to dates and deadlines” as they roll back the Houthis advances.

For now, all eyes in the Obama administration are on the Saudi-led military operation and whether it can be a model of success.

Joyce Karam is an Arab Weekly correspondent in Washington.

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