All the Troubles of the Middle East, In One Little Country

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Sarah Stern and Kyle Shideler

There is a country in the Middle East accused of a brutal decades-long occupation. A country where a blockade causes starvation among a civilian refugee population. A country which violently cracks down on those who oppose it, shooting into crowds of protestors, while it receives substantial aid money from the United States as an ally in the War on Terror even as it undermines our war efforts by pursuing its own agenda.

We’re talking about Yemen, of course.

Who else did you think we meant?

The country of Yemen on the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula has long been a simmering pot of violence.

One conflict is geographical, as much of largely secular southern Yemen (which was the independent Democratic People’s Republic of Yemen from 1967 until 1990) claims to suffer from an unwanted occupation from their more theocratic and traditional northern counterparts. This long conflict between the North and South has long been a sort of proxy between various influences in the region, whose participants included at one time or another: The Egyptians, Jordanians, Saudis, British, and the Soviets.

Another conflict is with the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels on the border of Saudi Arabia near the city of Sa’dah, stemming all the way from an ancient feud which goes all the way back to the rebellion of the Zaydi tribes in 1905.

A third, and much newer conflict is with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), although some assert that the Yemeni government’s stance on Al Qaeda is closer to cooperative then conflicting.

In November of 2009, the government of Saudi Arabia, which is allied with Yemen against the Shiite rebels, placed a naval blockade along the coast of the Houthi-occupied Northern Yemen. The goal, to prevent the Iranians from resupplying their proxy fighters. As former Ambassador Dore Gold pointed out during the now infamous Mavi Marmara incident, there was no outcry against Saudi Arabia or Yemen for this action.

Astoundingly, the purpose of the blockade, preventing Iranian arms from reaching the conflict, was identical to the purpose of the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza which receives harsh international criticism.

In Southern Yemen, a land blockade meant to put pressure on separatists there has caused dislocation, and dwindling food and medical supplies.  But unlike the Israeli checkpoints into Gaza, which permit around 15,000 tons of supplies to cross every week, there was no such humanitarianism on display in Yemen.  In January of this year, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees asserted that as many as a quarter of a million refugees have been dislocated in Yemen due to fighting.

Yet unlike the Palestinians, which have a billion dollar a-year agency (UNWRA) devoted specifically for their needs, the Yemeni refugees were faced with cuts in food assistance, when donors could not be found. Those who did contribute, not surprisingly, were largely Western countries, including the United States and France, while neighboring Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, have provided little or nothing.

Police in Yemen have opened fire on Southern protestors, and conducted torture and the Yemeni military has shelled Southern homes with little provocation. American and British flags are often present at such demonstrations of secessionist protestors, although they are generally being waved in solidarity, not burned as they routinely are in Gaza and the West Bank.

And while the world screamed in protest when Israeli bulldozers demolished Palestinian houses, either for lacking legal permits or for being the hiding places of smuggling tunnels, there was no similar outcry when the Saudis annihilated an entire village, including a mosque, in Northern Yemen during its intervention against the Houthi Rebels.

Yet despite its ham-handed and bloody tactics, American assistance continues to flow to the Yemeni government. Jonathan Schanzer who testified before Congress on the subject wrote in the Washington Times,

”Yemen’s willingness… to confront the serious threat Al Qaeda poses to the nation’s stability has been inconsistent in the past, but our recent intensive engagement appears to have had positive results.”

That was the State Department’s assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey D. Feltman, at congressional hearings on Yemen earlier this month. He repeatedly assured the House Foreign Affairs Committee that he was “encouraged” by Yemen’s new attitude.

This encouragement convinced international donors in late January to pledge $5.2 billion in aid to Yemen. It also prompted Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates this week to more than double U.S. military aid to Yemen. Taxpayers will now fork over $150 million, up from last year’s $67 million.

This is a mistake. Mr. Gates and his advisers ignore Yemen’s terrible track record. If our aid was based on Yemeni performance, Yemen wouldn’t get a dime.

Schanzer goes on to point to the repeated steps by the Yemenis to undermine our war effort against Al Qaeda, including routinely releasing dangerous terrorists from prison.

Part of the reason Yemen may be so ready to release wanted terrorists from its prisons, is that the government may use Al Qaeda terrorists as mercenaries in its fight against the Shiites, and as a tool in order to extort additional aid money from the West. From Jane Novak, writing at the Long War Journal:

Musid Ali, Director of the Yemeni American Anti-Terrorism Center, in commenting for this article said the Yemeni regime is responsible for the recent attacks, a serious charge as several foreign tourists were killed. The attacks, he said, “are a result of the good relationship between the regime and al Qaeda.” The purpose of the attacks is to “make the west in general and the US in particular believe that Yemen is an ally of the US against al-Qaeda, but what is clear to the Yemeni people is the strong relationship between al Qaeda and the regime.” As such, the counterterror assistance provided by the US in terms of funding, training, and equipment has been used “only against the Yemen people.”

Indeed the Yemeni government itself is suspected of being riddled with Al Qaeda supporters, who pass information from the Yemeni government to AQAP, and who help facilitate jail breaks, and attacks. Yet the United States continues to provide military assistance, including training, arms and munitions to the Yemeni government, with no real clear assurances whether such assistance is helping further U.S national interests such as fighting Al Qaeda, or the Iranian backed insurgency, or whether it is being used to target southern political opposition, under the guise of fighting terror.

The importance of Yemen in the global war on terror has escalated since American-born, Yemeni cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki fled there. Al-Awlaki was the confidante and spiritual mentor of many terrorist plotters, including three of the 9/11 hijackers, The Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan, Chrismas Day “underwear bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, as well as inspiration for Time Square failed bomber Faisal Shazhad.

Yet incredibly $150 million in military aid does not even buy the United States the ability to extradite al-Awlaki from Yemen, in the event he should be captured. Yemeni authorities say instead that Awlaki will be tried in Yemen for terrorists’ acts he may have committed there, even though Yemen’s track record of keeping terrorists behind bars is abysmal at best, and conducting jihad against foreigners outside of Yemen is not even a crime, according to Yemeni law.

This is not to say that regardless of the Yemeni government’s actions, Yemen is not a crucial battleground in the war on terror, or that the United States should cease to be engaged here. On the contrary, the area is vital to both regional and American security. The region is vital for several reasons, as outlined by former EMET Speaker of the Truth, Middle East analyst Walid Phares. In this video lecture, Phares outlines the strategic interests at play for both Al Qaeda and Iran. From Yemen, Al Qaeda is pushing to acquire coastal territory which will enable it to link up with Al Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab in Somalia and cut off the Red Sea. It is also seeking a base of operations for movement into the crucial region of Saudi Arabia where Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam are located. Similarly the Iranians seek to utilize the Houthi rebels to also control the Red Sea, linking up with Iranian naval bases in Eritrea and to help foment trouble among Shiite dominated Saudi provinces.

Yemen provides a particularly interesting case study because it contains within itself, three of the primary conflicts which exist throughout the Middle East. One, the conflict between the expansionist revolutionary Shiites of Iran, and their proxies, against their Sunni Arab counterparts. Secondly, the conflict of traditional versus secular Arabs, in Yemen depicted geographically between North and South. Finally it depicts the conflict between Global Jihad and revolutionary Islamism, in the form of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in their efforts to infiltrate and overthrow the traditional governments of the region, especially Saudi Arabia.

None of which, it is worth adding, have anything at all to do with Israel.

Meanwhile, within Yemen, the government and its allies the Saudis engage in all the behaviors which Israel is accused of doing, but does not actually do. They have implemented a blockade, as Israel has (no one has complained about the Saudi blockade). They do not permit humanitarian supplies to reach the citizens of an area they are accused of occupying (while Israel does). The U.N actually downgrades its assistance to Yemeni victims (while Palestinians have an entire agency devoted to them). They wantonly destroy civilian homes (Israel practices tight controls, including the “knock on the door” policy, warning terrorists and their families to depart before even valid military targets are destroyed). Yemen receives economic and military hand outs even as it fails to provide measurable results for American National security (Israeli intelligence and military sharing has provided numerous advantages to the United States, including in the form of intelligence against terrorists, IED detection and disabling technology, and many others.)

In this sense, Yemen shows us the double standard imposed by the world, which deems actions performed by Israel as bad, yet the same actions conducted by Arab states are deemed morally neutral, or at least, worthy of ignoring.

In reality solving the three conflicts which make up Yemen’s troubled history, would do more for regional, and indeed international security, than any number of peace agreements between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Let us point out that far greater Yeminis have been killed over the many years of in the internecine conflicts between the Yeminis and themselves than have Palestinians or Israelis.  Barak Salmoni, author of the Rand Corporation study Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen: The Huthi Phenomenon, calls Yemen, “longest running conflict in the Middle East with 25,000 to 50,000 casualties.”

Yet, for far too many people, Middle East Peace remains synonymous with the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel.

It is essential that   people understand the real root causes of Middle East conflict, as demonstrated in a single country, Yemen. Many of these root causes point to something endemic within the sociological norms and culture of Arabic society.

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About the Author

Sarah Stern
Sarah Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

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