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Abdus Sattar Ghazali

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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The US geostrategic objectives behind the war in Yemen

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali 

The United States is supplying intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition bombing rebel positions in Yemen and will expedite arms supplies to the alliance, Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken said in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Tuesday. After talks with the Saudi officials, Blinken told reporters that Saudi Arabia was sending a "strong message to the Houthis and their allies that they cannot overrun Yemen by force". 
"As part of that effort, we have expedited weapons deliveries, we have increased our intelligence sharing, and we have established a joint coordination planning cell in the Saudi operation centre."

The US Deputy Secretary of State's comments came hours after the International Committee of the Red Cross flew medical personnel for the first time into Yemen amid delays that have worsened the humanitarian situation in Aden. Fierce fighting between militias loyal to Hadi and and the Houthis has been raging in the port city for days, according to Al Jazeera. 

Human catastrophe 

More than a 100,000 people have fled their homes after the Saudi-led coalition launched air strikes in Yemen, according to UNICEF, the UN agency responsible for children welfare. A spokesman from the agency, Rajat Madhok, told Al Jazeera that most of those who have been displaced are women and children.  "Most displacements have taken place from and within al-Dhale, Abyan, Amran, Saada, Hajja. The displaced persons are mostly being hosted with relatives," Madhok said. 

In a statement published on Tuesday, UNICEF said 74 children caught up in fighting had been killed and another 44 maimed since March 26.  "These are conservative figures and UNICEF believes that the total number of children killed is much higher," the statement read.  

On April 2, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos issued a statement saying:  “Reports from humanitarian partners in different parts of the country indicate that some 519 people have been killed and nearly 1,700 injured in the past two weeks – over 90 of them children.Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes, some by crossing the sea to Djibouti and Somalia. .Electricity, water and essential medicines are in short supply.”

Yemen already is the region’s poorest country with around 26 million population. War exacerbated things greatly. The World Food Program says about 13 million Yemenis have only polluted water for drinking and other uses. Around a million aged-five or under Yemeni children are malnourished. Expect the number to grow exponentially in coming weeks and months.

This is not a Shia-Sunni conflict

As usual, western media is misinforming about the latest conflict in the Middle East. It is projecting the Yemen conflict as Shia-Sunni strife  since the Houthis forced President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia. Itt is also reported as Saudi bid to curtail or counter the Iranian influence which has reportedly supported the Houthis. This may be true to some extent but the real agenda behind the US-backed Saudi effort to reinstall the ousted President Hadi.

Interestingly, the US has always double standard when it comes to supporting the so-called democracy around the world. In Yemen it is supporting restoring its client government of President Hadi who was “elected” after overthrowing his predecessor President Ali Abdullah Saleh in a coup. He was the only candidate for the office on the ballot. Not surprisingly in the circumstance, he “won” more than 99 percent of the vote.

However, in Ukraine, a democratically elected President (Yanukovych) was chased by a mob from his office and a client fascist government was installed. Yanukovych was elected in a contested election judged to be “free and fair” by international monitoring bodies. Now the US says that by leaving the country Yanukovych lost legitimacy. While a fleeing Yemeni president has not lost legitimacy and the US is backing Saudi attacks on Yemen in the name of democracy.

Now let us see who are the Houthis, a Zaydi sect of Shia Muslims and how the current crisis developed. The current strife led by the Houthis was in the making for at least a decade. The Houthis and their allies represent a diverse cross-section of Yemeni society and the majority of Yemenites. At present the domestic alliance against Al-Hadi includes Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims alike.

The Houthis organized themselves in the early 1990s as a secular progressive group of “Young Believers”. Like Hezbollah of Lebanon, they helped poor communities and organized youth camps in the northern Saada province. With President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s pro-US government becoming increasingly repressive against any popular reform movement, the Houtis grew rapidly into an army of young men, soon becoming a dominating force in the North. They were seeking democracy, openly opposing the US-Saudi supported dictator, who was kept in power by Washington since 1978. The Houthis organized a first uprising against the Saleh Government in 2004, but were defeated by Saleh’s brutal army with heavy backing by the Saudi tyrants.

The Houthis emerged as a mass movement against President Saleh in 2011. Under continuous popular and Houthi pressure and with Washington’s nod, President Saleh finally stepped down in February 2012, ceding power to his Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. President Ali Abdullah Saleh was in power since 1978. He amassed $60 billion during his long corrupt rule, according to a UN report released in February 2015.

When Hadi became Yemeni president he dragged his feet and was working against the implementation of the arrangements that had been arranged through consensus and negotiations in Yemen’s National Dialogue, which convened after Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to hand over his power. The Houthis pressed for a more egalitarian representation in parliament. They attracted small parties and like-minded splinter groups to form a coalition and eventually succeeded in taking control by storming government buildings and Parliament in January 2015. Hadi resigned, fled to his native Aden and eventually received safe haven in Saudi Arabia. The Houtis hastily formed a five-member transition government and intended to write a new Constitution with democratic principles. However, Washington would not tolerate a non-client government in the strategic southern tip of the Arab Peninsula.

On March 25, Saudis, with the blessings of Washington, launched airstrikes in Yemen with the professed objective of restoring the ousted President Hadi who had resigned when the Houthis seized the Presidential palace in January 2015. Saudi Arabia has formed a coalition of more than 10 countries try to restore President Hadi's government. The coalition includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan.

Yemen is a growing reminder of just how important the strategic U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia really is, says Anthony Cordesmanof the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. It is one thing to talk about the war against ISIS, and quite another to realize that U.S. strategic interests require a broad level of stability in the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula and one that is dependent on Saudi Arabia as a key strategic partner.

The US, Saudi geo-political interests in Yemen

While the House of Saudi has long considered Yemen a subordinate province of some sorts and as a part of Riyadh’s sphere of influence, the US wants to make sure that it could control the Bab Al-Mandeb, the Gulf of Aden, and the Socotra Islands, argues Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya. The Bab Al-Mandeb is an important strategic chokepoint for international maritime trade and energy shipments that connects the Persian Gulf via the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea via the Red Sea. It is just as important as the Suez Canal for the maritime shipping lanes and trade between Africa, Asia, and Europe. 

Added to the geopolitical importance of Yemen in overseeing strategic maritime corridors is its military’s missile arsenal. Yemen’s missiles could hit any ships in the Gulf of Aden or Bab Al-Mandeb. In this regard, the Saudi attack on Yemen’s strategic missile depots serves both US and Israeli interests. The aim is not only to prevent them from being used to retaliate against exertions of Saudi military force, but to also prevent them from being available to a Yemeni government aligned to either Iran, Russia, or China.

For  Anthony Cordesman, Yemen does not match the strategic importance of the Gulf, but it is still of great strategic importance to the stability of Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Peninsula.  It is critical to note that far more is involved than energy: the cost and security of every cargo that goes through the Suez canal, the security of U.S. and other allied combat ships moving through the canal, the economic stability of Egypt, and the security of Saudi Arabia's key port at Jeddah and major petroleum export facility outside the Gulf. The Energy Information Administration describes the energy impact of importance of this chokepoint as follows:

  • -The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is a chokepoint between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, and it is a strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. The strait is located between Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea, and connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. Most exports from the Persian Gulf that transit the Suez Canal and SUMED Pipeline also pass through Bab el-Mandeb.
  • -An estimated 3.8 million bbl/d of crude oil and refined petroleum products flowed through this waterway in 2013 toward Europe, the United States, and Asia, an increase from 2.9 million bbl/d in 2009. Oil shipped through the strait decreased by almost one-third in 2009 because of the global economic downturn and the decline in northbound oil shipments to Europe. Northbound oil shipments increased through Bab el-Mandeb Strait in 2013, and more than half of the traffic, about 2.1 million bbl/d, moved northbound to the Suez Canal and SUMED Pipeline.
  • -The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, limiting tanker traffic to two 2-mile-wide channels for inbound and outbound shipments. Closure of the Bab el-Mandeb could keep tankers from the Persian Gulf from reaching the Suez Canal or SUMED Pipeline, diverting them around the southern tip of Africa, adding to transit time and cost. In addition, European and North African southbound oil flows could no longer take the most direct route to Asian markets via the Suez Canal and Bab el-Mandeb.
  • Any hostile air or sea presence in Yemen could threaten the entire traffic through the Suez Canal, as well as a daily flow of oil and petroleum products that the EIA estimates increased from 2.9 mmb/d in 2009 to 3.8 mmb/d in 2013. Such a threat also can be largely covert or indirect. Libya demonstrated this under Qaddafi when he had a cargo ship drop mines in the Red Sea.

The archipelago of Socotra

Maritime trade from East and Southern Africa to Western Europe also transits within proximity of the Yemeni archipelago of Socotra (Suqutra), through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Socotra in the Indian Ocean is located some 80 kilometres off the Horn of Africa and 380 kilometres South of the Yemeni coastline. A military base in Socotra could be used to oversee the movement of vessels including war ships in an out of the Gulf of Aden.

The Socotra archipelago is part of the Great Game opposing Russia and America. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a military presence in Socotra, which at the time was part of South Yemen, says Prof Michel Chossudovsky of the Global Research. In 2009, the Russians entered into renewed discussions with the Yemeni government regarding the establishment of a Naval base on Socotra island.

In January, 2010, the then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh and General David Petraeus, Commander of the US Central Command met for high level discussions behind closed doors. Several reports confirmed that the Saleh-Petraeus meetings were intent upon redefining US military involvement in Yemen including the establishment of a full-fledged military base on the island of Socotra. The Iranian news agency Fars reported that  president Ali Abdullah Saleh had “surrendered Socotra for Americans who would set up a military base.” Following the Petraeus-Saleh meeting, a Russian Navy communiqué “confirmed that Russia did not give up its plans to have bases for its ships on Socotra island.

In short, to borrow former World Bank official Peter Koenig, "domination of Yemen is an important step on the Zionist-Anglo-Saxon Empire’s path towards world hegemony. Like Ukraine, Yemen is just another square on the geopolitical chess board which the exceptional nation aims to dominate.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America.