The U.S. is moving two amphibious ships with Marines of the 24 MEU embarked – USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7) and USS Fort McHenry (LSD-43) – toward the coast of Yemen, because it’s increasingly likely that American personnel will have to be evacuated from the country.
The precaution was ordered before the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi resigned en masse on Thursday evening (22 January), under pressure from the Iran-backed Houthi rebels besieging the presidential palace and holding Rabbu Mansour Hadi hostage.
Sources in the Pentagon told CNN on Wednesday that the military was particularly anxious to evacuate Americans early. The difficulty of doing the job will increase significantly if the internal security situation deteriorates.
There are some mitigating factors, at least as regards the conditions under which Americans would have to be evacuated. One is that the former president of Yemen, who was ousted in 2011 – Ali Abdullah Saleh – is making common cause with the Houthis. He was an ally of the U.S., and, all things being equal, would be likely to use his influence to ensure Americans have safe passage out of the country.
Another factor is that Yemen is very close to Djibouti, where the U.S. has a key regional military base, and allies like Japan and France maintain logistics hubs for their antipiracy forces. The logistics of moving large numbers of people around will not be as great a challenge as they would be in some other places.
Iran, meanwhile, will prefer to see the U.S. pull out of Yemen with our anti-terrorism infrastructure. We need not expect the Iranians to try to impede a departure.
I assume, however, that the State Department will be very reluctant to go. That is to be expected: if we effectively pull out, we won’t know what we could have accomplished if we stayed. Regional observers fear that Yemen is closer than it has been in decades to splitting apart. During the Cold War, it was divided into a “North” and “South,” but that was mainly because the Soviet Union was determined to retain a client on the Arabian Peninsula (South Yemen), and kept an otherwise meaningless “nation” viable for its own purposes.
Now, the possibility is that Yemen will disintegrate because its warring factions can’t agree to keep a coalition government in place.
“We are in uncharted territory now,” said Jamal Benomar, the United Nations envoy to Yemen, raising several possible perils, including the prospect that southern Yemen might break away. “It’s going to be very difficult days ahead,” he said.
Charles Schmitz, an analyst with the Middle East Institute and an expert on the Houthis, said that of all Yemen’s many political crises, Thursday’s was among the worst yet.
“We’re looking at the de facto partitioning of the country and we’re heading into a long negotiating process but we could also be heading toward war,” he said.
One of the chief consequences would be a release of the clamp exerted by the U.S. presence, and the client government in Sanaa, on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which operates primarily out of Yemen. There is no other force or entity that could achieve the same level of interdiction and deterrence against AQAP.
Iran would certainly seek the opportunity to move in and neuter AQAP as a rival in Yemen. But that wouldn’t by any means translate to shutting it down. Iran would be happy for AQAP to keep making war on the West from a base in Yemen. If the U.S. didn’t have the use of Yemeni territory or the cooperation of a Yemeni government in our operations against AQAP, we would lose much of the edge we’ve had up to now.
The Saudi angle
The Saudis will work to contain the Houthi eruption and shoulder out Iran as much as possible. The Houthis are a border problem for the Saudis: the Houthi stronghold in western Yemen is along the Saudi border, and Houthi operations, which resulted in significant incursions several years ago, have remained a top security issue for Riyadh.
The Saudis will have issues of their own to preoccupy them in the coming days, after the death on Thursday of King Abdullah. His brother Salman succeeded him peacefully, and as defense minister since 2012 is expected to be well-versed in national security priorities and practices. But the death of Abdullah on the same day as the complete collapse of the Yemeni government amounts to a big political earthquake on the Arabian Peninsula – a region that doesn’t see much political change, and likes to keep it that way.
Salman’s accession triggers a need to revisit a laundry list of key security issues with Saudi partners. With the best will in the world to keep things on an even keel, there will inevitably be a sense of flux in expectations around the region. It would be preferable to have a United States that exercised a reassuring effect there with diplomacy and military power. But we are guaranteed to have instead a United States that drives ships around waiting – perhaps indecisively – to evacuate Americans, and deploys low-level functionaries from time to time to make Delphic, ambiguous disclosures to the media.
The change in political conditions will be a green light to Islamist radicals in the larger area. Many of them have despised the Saudi regime for years, viewing it as corrupt and sold out to the West. The opportunity to infiltrate a Yemen in chaos will not go unexploited.
Escalation in Libya
What better time for the forces of an anti-Islamist rebel commander in Libya, Khalifa Hifter, to seize the Benghazi branch of Libya’s central bank and gain control of an estimated $100 billion – thought to represent about 80% of Libya’s entire currency reserves?
Hifter, whose name is transliterated as many different ways as Qadhafi’s, has been fighting an anti-Islamist rebel cause in eastern Libya since Qadhafi’s ouster in 2011. He has the backing of at least some of the Libyan army (such as it is, under the beleaguered government in Tripoli). It would be misleading to suggest that Libya has ever settled down since Qadhafi met his fate, but the fighting did heat up throughout 2014, and has kept Benghazi and Tripoli both in a state, basically, of gang-patrolled chaos.
If you want to read up on the 71-year-old Mr. Hifter, you might as well start here.
As Business Insider points out, keeping some oil flowing – sort of – from the ports of eastern Libya has been a limited but real success story during the civil war. Hifter is likely to use the leverage that $100 billion gives him over the oil industry (as well as things like army salaries) to improve his power position.
The $100 billion will also make him a big, fat target for enterprising Islamists, with whom the government in Tripoli is likely to make alliances to take him down. Foreign adventurers will take notice as well. Hifter could buy a lot of support, and make a lot of trouble, with $100 billion.
A word of admonition from the Obama administration
We’re blowing right past 1914 now, heading rapidly for something more like 1803, and we’re only 23 days into 2015. But keep a lid on your speculations. The U.S. State Department gets the last word in this update, from the briefing on Thursday as the Yemeni government collapsed:
As news of Mr. Hadi’s resignation broke earlier in the day, Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said, “We’re not in a position — and I don’t think any of you are either — to assess what it means at this point in time.”