By Nafeez Ahmad
As Iran-backed Houthi forces have pressed into Aden, clashing with Yemeni troops loyal to exiled President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, the US has provided live video feeds from US surveillance drones to aid with Saudi targeting. The Pentagon is set to expand military aid to the open-ended operation, supplying more intelligence, bombs and aerial refuelling missions.
Yet growing evidence suggests that the US itself, through its Gulf allies, gave the northern Houthis a green light for their offensive last September.
US advanced warning
As David Hearst reported in October 2014, the Houthi offensive was “conducted under the nose of a US military base in Djibouti” from where CIA drones operate. “The Houthis are even protecting the US embassy in Sanaa.”
Hearst revealed that the Houthis had been emboldened by a quiet nod from Saudi Arabia, under the watchful eye of US intelligence.
A year earlier, then Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar met with Houthi leader Saleh Habreh in London. The Saudis wanted to mobilise the Houthis against the Islah Party, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood branch that shared power with President Hadi, so that they “cancel each other out” in conflict.
But Islah refused to confront the Houthis, and Riyadh’s green light backfired, allowing the militia to march unhindered to the capital.
The US was involved. Sources close to Hadi say they were told by the Americans about a meeting in Rome between Iranian officials and the son of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, to secure his assurances that government units loyal to Saleh would not oppose the Houthi advance.
Three years ago, Ali Abdullah Saleh was replaced by Hadi in US-Saudi-backed negotiations that granted him immunity from prosecution. Audio leaks and a UN Security Council report prove Saleh’s extensive collusion with the Houthis to the extent of supervising their military operations.
Yet President Hadi, who fled in the wake of the Houthi offensive, “said he was informed of the meeting in Rome by the Americans, but only after the Houthis had captured Sanaa.” [emphasis added]
The US, in other words, despite being aware of the impending Iran-backed operation, did not pass on intelligence about this to its own asset in Yemen until after the Houthis’ success.
According to another source close to President Hadi, the UAE also played a key role in the Houthi operation, providing $1 billion to the Houthis through Saleh and his son Ahmad.
If true, this means in sum that US intelligence had advanced warning of the Houthi offensive and Saleh’s role in it; the UAE had reportedly provided funding to Saleh for the operation; and the Saudis had personally given the Houthis the green light in hope of triggering a fight to the death with Yemen’s Brotherhood.
According to Abdussalam al-Rubaidi, a lecturer at Sanaa University and chief editor of the Yemen Polling Center’s “Framing the Yemeni Revolution Project,” local reports in Yemen refer to “an alliance… between the Houthis, the United States, and Saleh’s Republican Guard,” to counter Ansar al-Sharia, the local al-Qaeda branch. Some Yemeni politicians also said that “the Americans gave a green light to the Houthis to enter the capital and weaken Islah”.
Why would the US do nothing to warn its Yemeni client regime about the incoming Houthi offensive, while then rushing to support Saudi Arabia’s military overreaction to fend off the spectre of Iranian expansion?
Divide and rule
The escalation of the crisis in Yemen threatens to spiral into a full-scale Sunni-Shia regional war-by-proxy.
Since 9/11, every country in the region touched by major US interference has collapsed into civil war as their social fabric has been irreversibly shattered: Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya.
The ensuing arc of sectarian warfare bears uncanny resemblance to scenarios explored in a little-known study by an influential Washington DC defence contractor.
Unfolding the Future of the Long War, a 2008 RAND Corporation report, was sponsored by the US Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Army Capability Integration Centre. It set out US government policy options for prosecuting what it described as “the long war” against “adversaries” in “the Muslim world,” who are “bent on forming a unified Islamic world to supplant Western dominance”.
Muslim world adversaries include “doctrinaire” Salafi-jihadists; “religious nationalist organisations” like “Hezbollah and Hamas that participate in the political process” but are also “willing to use violence”; secular groups “such as communists, Arab nationalists, or Baathists”; and “nonviolent organisations” because their members might later join “more radical organisations”.
The report suggests that the US Army sees all Muslim political groups in the region that challenge the prevailing geopolitical order as “adversaries” to be countered and weakened.
Among the strategies explored by the US Army-sponsored report is “Divide and Rule,” which calls for “exploiting fault lines between the various SJ [Salafi-jihadist] groups to turn them against each other and dissipate their energy on internal conflicts,” for instance between “local SJ groups” focused on “overthrowing their national government” and transnational jihadists like al-Qaeda.
This appears to be the strategy in Libya and Syria, where local insurgents, despite affiliations with al-Qaeda, received covert US aid to overthrow Gaddafi and Assad.
The RAND report recommends that the US and its local allies “could use the nationalist jihadists to launch proxy IO [information operation] campaigns to discredit the transnational jihadists… the United States and the host nation could even help the nationalist jihadists execute a military campaign to stamp out al-Qaeda elements that are present locally.”
US support for such “nationalist jihadists” would, however, need to be packaged appropriately for public consumption. “Because of the nature of the nationalist terrorist groups, any assistance would be mainly covert and would imply advanced IO capabilities.”
This illustrates the confusion in US defence circles about the complex relationship between transnational and national jihadists. According to Dr Akil Awan, an expert in jihadist groups at Royal Holloway, University of London, before 9/11 the concerns of national jihadist groups were “often very local and parochial”. This changed after 9/11, as al-Qaeda’s “brand value became irresistible to many local groups, who then pledged allegiance to bin Laden in savvy PR campaigns”.
“Funding national jihadist groups is not a particularly bright idea,” said Dr Awan. “Yes it might undermine support for global jihadist groups like al-Qaeda, but whoever proposed it has a very poor memory in terms of recent US foreign policy by proxy warfare and the inevitable blowback effect – case in point: Afghanistan. Supporting violent groups for your own foreign policy objectives is also incredibly damaging to local democratic or peaceful voices, and other civil society actors.”
The US Army-backed report did show awareness of this risk of “blowback,” noting that the “divide and rule” strategy “may inadvertently empower future adversaries in the pursuit of immediate gains”.
Capitalising on sectarianism
According to Dr Christopher Davidson of Durham University, author of After the Sheikhs: the Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies, the current crisis in Yemen is being “egged on” by the US, and could be part of a wider covert strategy to “spur fragmentation in Iran allies and allow Israel to be surrounded by weak states”.
He suggests that the Yemen war serves US interests in three overlapping ways. It tests whether or not Iran will “ramp up support for Houthis”. If not, then Iran’s potential role “as a reliable, not expansionist regional policeman (much like the Shah) will seem confirmed to the US.”
The war could also weaken Saudi Arabia. Pushing the House of Saud into a “full-on hot war,” said Dr Davidson, would be “great for the arms industry, [and] gives the US much needed leverage over increasingly problematic Riyadh… If the regime in Saudi Arabia’s time is up, as many in the US seem to privately believe, in the post-$100 a barrel era, this seems a useful way of running an ally into the ground quite quickly”.
The Yemen conflict also “diverts global attention from IS [Islamic State] in Levant and the increasingly obvious uselessness or unwillingness of the US-led coalition to act against it”.
Davidson points out that there is precedent for this: “There have been repeated references in the Reagan era to the usefulness of sectarian conflict in the region to US interests.”
One post-Reagan reiteration of this vision was published by the Jerusalem-based Institute for Strategic and Political Advanced Studies for Benjamin Netanyahu. The 1996 paper, A Clean Break, by Douglas Feith, David Wurmser and Richard Perle – all of whom went on to join the Bush administration – advocated regime-change in Iraq as a precursor to forging an Israel-Jordan-Turkey axis that would “roll back” Syria, Lebanon and Iran. The scenario is surprisingly similar to US policy today under Obama.
Twelve years later, the US Army commissioned a further RAND report suggesting that the US “could choose to capitalise on the Shia-Sunni conflict by taking the side of the conservative Sunni regimes in a decisive fashion and working with them against all Shiite empowerment movements in the Muslim world… to split the jihadist movement between Shiites and Sunnis.” The US would need to contain “Iranian power and influence” in the Gulf by “shoring up the traditional Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan”. Simultaneously, the US must maintain “a strong strategic relationship with the Iraqi Shiite government” despite its Iran alliance.
Around the same time as this RAND report was released, the US was covertly coordinating Saudi-led Gulf state financing to Sunni jihadist groups, many affiliated to al-Qaeda, from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon. That secret strategy accelerated under Obama in the context of the anti-Assad drive.
The widening Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict would “reduce the al-Qaeda threat to US interests in the short term,” the report concluded, by diverting Salafi-jihadist resources toward “targeting Iranian interests throughout the Middle East,” especially in Iraq and Lebanon, hence “cutting back… anti-Western operations”.
By backing the Iraqi Shiite regime and seeking an accommodation with Iran, while propping up al-Qaeda sponsoring Gulf states and empowering local anti-Shia Islamists across the region, this covert US strategy would calibrate levels of violence to debilitate both sides, and sustain “Western dominance”.
The Pentagon’s neocon fifth column
The concept of “the long war” was first formulated years earlier by a little-known Pentagon think-tank known as the Highlands Forum. The Forum regularly brings together senior Pentagon officials with leaders across the political, corporate, business and media sectors in secret meetings.
Formally founded under the authority of Bill Clinton’s then defence secretary William J Perry, the Pentagon Highlands Forum was established to coordinate interagency policy on information operations. Originally run through the Office of the Secretary of Defence, the Forum now reports to the Office of the Undersecretary of Defence for Intelligence, the Defence Advanced Research and Projects Agency (DARPA), the Office of Net Assessment (ONA), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), among other agencies.
The Highlands Forum also works closely with the Pentagon federal advisory committee, the Defence Policy Board, of which arch-neocon Richard Perle (co-author of the “Clean Break” strategy) was a member from 1987 to 2004.
Under the Obama administration, Defence Policy Board members have included leading neocon statesmen such as William Perry and Henry Kissinger.
RAND Corp in particular is a longstanding Forum partner.
Despite its bipartisan pretensions, the Pentagon Highlands Forum is an overwhelmingly neoconservative network. Its acolytes, Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, Deputy Defence Secretary Robert Work, and DoD intelligence chief Mike Vickers, hold the reigns of Obama’s military strategies.
Today, they are busily executing the US Army’s “divide and rule” strategy to forcibly reconfigure the Middle East by proxy sectarian violence. How much of the chaos is “blowback,” and how much of it is intended, is difficult to determine.
In any case, the latest casualty of this doomed strategy is Yemen.
First published at the MEE