Shi'ite Muslim rebels in Sanaa, Yemen, March 26, 2013.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As recently as last June, President Barack Obama touted Yemen as a model for US efforts to fight terrorism via local allied forces.
Now the US, together with its drone-led anti-al-Qaida offensive, is beating a humiliating retreat. Earlier this month, US special forces evacuated a base in Yemen housing about 100 troops. Last month the US closed its embassy.
Now US-backed Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has fled the southern port city of Aden by boat after Iran-backed Houthi Shi’ite militiamen seized the city’s airport and arrested two top officials.
The US, in coordination with Hadi’s regime, had been operating against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which was responsible for the January attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
The ouster of the last remnants of US troops will embolden both the Iranian-backed Houthis and AQAP.
The loss of Yemen as a US partner gives the al-Qaida offshoot more room to plot and train. In December, before Yemen unraveled, the group released the 13th edition of its English-language online magazine Inspire, which contained instructions for building a nonmetallic bomb and urged supporters to attack Western airliners.
Though much of Yemen has fallen under Houthi control and the Houthis have promised to combat the Sunni AQAP, it is not clear how seriously they will pursue that goal as they focus on strengthening control over the country and forming a government.
Though the Saudis are a longtime US ally and the US has a clear interest in preventing Iran from extending its influence into Yemen, the Obama administration has no intention of getting involved beyond empty condemnations. The result with be a free-for-all involving the Saudis, backed by a few other countries united under the Gulf Cooperation Council; the Houthis, who are receiving abundant logistic and arms support from Iran; and AQAP.
Fighting alone, the Saudis, who have already carried out air strikes against the Houthis, have little chance of restoring order with a ground offensive. Back in 2009, when Riyadh launched an offensive into Yemen, the Houthis bested the Saudis. We are most likely in store for a long period of the sort of bloody anarchy that we have witnessed in Syria and Iraq. And as is the case in Syria and Iraq, Iran, the single most powerful and aggressive force operating in the region, is likely to emerge the big winner.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration and the other P5+1 governments are negotiating a deal with the Iranians that might allow the Islamic Republic to become a threshold nuclear state. He is facilitating Bashar Assad’s war on his own people by targeting Islamic State so the Syrian dictator can train his fire on our ostensible allies in the Free Syrian Army. And US forces are coordinating air attacks with the Iranian forces fighting alongside Iraqi troops against Islamic State in Tikrit, Iraq.
What is clear is that the developments in Yemen are yet another setback for the Obama administration’s strategy in the Middle East. The US’s ability to fight AQAP has been seriously compromised, if not paralyzed altogether. The Saudis, apprehensive about Iranian expansionism and distrustful of US intentions regarding Tehran’s nuclear weapons program, are even more convinced of the need for their own nuclear warheads.
There are no easy answers in places such as Yemen, Syria and Iraq. But the message being conveyed by the Obama administration is one of retreat packaged in euphemisms such as “light footprints” and “engagement.”
In the process, redlines have been crossed in Syria; a US-backed regime has been deposed in Yemen; and a pro-American, Israel-friendly regime in Egypt is being kept at arm’s length by Washington.
A foreign policy vacuum has been created and longtime American allies are being forced to look out for themselves, sometimes with less than satisfactory results. Yemen is a symptom of a fundamental ailment in US Middle East policy.