Assessing the Chaos in Yemen – Part 1 – Sharp

Published: April 7, 2015

Editor’s Note:

It was standing room only at the National Council on US-Arab Relations hosted event “Yemen in Chaos: Analysis, Prognosis, and Prospects” at the U.S. Capitol Rayburn House Office Building in Washington on Thursday. The event, broadcast live to the country on C-Span TV, brought together a distinguished panel to examine the issues and developments in the aftermath of the Saudi-led coalition intervention in Yemen to fight Houthi rebels:

Dr. John Duke Anthony, Founding President & CEO of the National Council, served as moderator and H.E. Adel A. Al-Jubeir, Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States, delivered featured remarks. Additional featured specialists included: Mr. Jeremy M. Sharp, Specialist in Middle East Affairs for the Congressional Research Service and Author of the CRS Report, “Yemen: Background and U.S. Relations;” Ms. Sama’a Al-Hamdani, Analyst and Writer for Yemeniaty and former Assistant Political Officer for the Embassy of the Republic of Yemen in Washington, DC; Professor David Des Roches, Senior Military Fellow at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies (National Defense University) and Council Malone Fellow in Arab and Islamic Studies (Syria); and Mr. Abbas Almosawa, Yemeni Journalist and Analyst, and former Media and Information Advisor for the Embassy of the Republic of Yemen in Abu Dhabi and Beirut.

SUSRIS has already provided Ambassador Al-Jubeir’s remarks from this event. Today we provide the presentations of Mr. Sharp, Professor Des Roches, Mr. Musawa and Ms. Hamdani. We also have the question and answer portion of the event, moderated by Dr. John Duke Anthony. You can also review the entire session on C-Span [Link] and find extensive articles, interviews and more in “Yemen in Turmoil” a SUSRIS Special Section.

Here in Part 1 is Mr. Jeremy Sharp, Middle East Specialist at the Congressional Research Service. He is author of: “Yemen: Background and U.S. Relations – CRS – Feb 11, 2015” and “Yemen: Civil War and Regional Intervention – CRS – Mar 26, 2015.”

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[Dr. John Duke Anthony] We’ll go to Jeremy Sharp, who’s with the Congressional Research Service. He is the person who does the research, writing, analytical written work for members of the United States Congress. Their bios are on the materials that you picked up coming in on your seat.

I ask that you write a question on the 3×5 cards and pass them to National Council staff who will bring them forward and I’ll use them in the Q&A.

Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir is due here around 11 o’clock. He called yesterday to say I’ll be there. So we’re looking for an operational logistical feat because he’s been in the Kingdom in the last 72 hours, went, and now he’s coming back, and this particular event is high – is highest on his agenda. Jeremy Sharp.

[Jeremy Sharp] Thank you, John. I wish I could do that. Just go to a map and give a country’s history in broad-brush strokes. We have a few other countries that could use some of that.

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Well first of all, thank you to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations for hosting this event today and a welcome not just to the media and our outside guests but a special thanks to our CRS Congressional clients for coming here today. Like a good CRS analyst I am legally obliged to note that the remarks here this morning are my own and do not represent those of the Congressional Research Service.

yemen-crs-doc-cover2march1I’d also like to thank John for moderating this morning. I can tell you first-hand that John can hike the Yemeni highlands better than most men half his age, and I know that because I sort of panted from behind watching him sort of traverse the Yemeni highlands like a little gazelle. Don’t be fooled – John is quite nimble. So thank you for moderating today.

Pleasantries aside, this is a particularly unpleasant time for most Yemenis. I am always humbled by the fact that I cover Yemen from a seat here on Capitol Hill, and I’m mindful of the fact that perhaps some of our panelists, perhaps some of you in the audience have friends or extended family members who are enduring quite an ordeal of suffering right now, and suffering that may endure the longer this conflict persists. So I’m constantly mindful of that fact.

Now, because I am situated here in Washington I wanted to gear my remarks towards U.S. policy and what are the implications for Operation “Decisive Storm” on U.S. policy toward Yemen and the region at large. So I’m going to make a few policy remarks and then analyze where this is going in the weeks and months ahead.

So number one, the obvious point to start with is that there is a serious political imperative in Washington to demonstrate support for Saudi Arabia at this time, both in the Administration and in Congress.

Whatever you may think of Saudi Arabia’s historic involvement in Yemen, for better or for worse, the reality is that U.S. policy in Yemen, which is foremost designed to counter terrorism, is highly dependent on Saudi Arabia, not just for counterterrorism, but for politically and financially supporting a Yemeni central government.

This is especially true since the post-Saleh transition that began in late 2011, culminating in early 2012.

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Now, because the Houthi-Saleh alliance has expanded so far into Yemeni territory, far beyond what most of us thought just a few weeks and months ago, there has been a lot of signal sending by the Administration that we understand that a red line has been crossed in Saudi Arabia’s mind and that we support their action.

This is particularly pertinent amidst the wider regional environment – international environment of an Iran nuclear negotiation and the sensitivity to Sunni Arab perceptions of a regionally emboldened Iran.

Now, just a few remarks on Iran for a second.

yemen-crs2-doc-cover1For Iran, who is definitely supporting the Houthis materially and financially, what a great investment Yemen is for Iran. It’s a high return, low risk investment. Iran is certainly supporting them, but the level of support doesn’t mirror what’s being done in Syria, doesn’t mirror what’s being done in Iraq, doesn’t mirror what’s being done historically in Lebanon, and the media every time it mentions Iran and Yemen is just basically doing Iran’s work for them, inflating this prospect. It’s definitely a concern and support could increase in the years ahead, but we have to keep that in mind. We have to sort of measure what is exactly going on there.

Now, U.S. support for Saudi Arabia – back to that. One named U.S. official told the Washington Post last week that we’ve shown that when it comes to the security of the Persian Gulf countries we have their back, providing them with unique, indispensable capabilities to facilitate their actions.

U.S. support for Saudi Arabia at this time is not just political. There’s certainly a material element to it. In the back of the room is my colleague Chris Blanchard. He covers U.S.-Saudi relations, and Chris’s report on Saudi Arabia has catalogued and documented Pentagon and Defense Department notifications to Congress that since 2010 there has been a planned arms sales to Saudi Arabia of something like over 90 billion dollars.

So when you think about that number for a second, when Saudi Arabia goes to war in Yemen, there’s a definite U.S. element that’s working behind the scenes. If you sell an F-15 to Saudi Arabia yes, there’s a Saudi Arabian pilot, it’s a Saudi Arabian owned plane, but there’s U.S. work being done on the maintenance of it, there’s U.S. refueling and rearmament, U.S. training of the pilot. When Saudi pilots went down just a few days ago there was a U.S. search and rescue operation to assist. So there’s a lot that we’re doing behind the scenes, and the Administration is not hiding this fact.

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The White House issued a statement on the day that Operation “Decisive Storm” began blaming the Houthis for causing the crisis in Yemen, recognizing President Hadi is the legitimate leader of Yemen, and President Obama authorized the provision quote of logistical intelligence support to GCC-led military operations. The Administration claimed while U.S. forces are not taking direct military action in Yemen in support of the effort we are establishing a joint planning cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate military and intelligence support.

So that’s one aspect of the policy, and certainly one that’s being played out in public.

Now, privately we can sort of speculate that yes, we’re definitely in support of what’s going on but there’s a lot of concern perhaps that the longer this persists the greater the chance for terrorists on the ground to become empowered.

I’m really glad that I woke up at 5 a.m. to prepare for this today because had I not I wouldn’t have checked the news cycle and had seen that there was actually a major operation in Al Mukalla and Hadramaut last night where AQAP terrorists in what seems like a major operation attacked certain facilities, and then while one group was attacking the facilities another group attacked a jail and broke it open and several hundred AQAP militants escaped including a high-level senior regional commander.

So we know from history, we know from Yemen’s history that when the central security forces dissipate, take sides, abandon their posts that that leaves a vacuum for AQAP, the Islamic State, whomever to take root. And so there’s a lot of concern that this is happening and it may happen continually if the conflict drags on.

Now, there’s also sort of the immediate concern of how does the U.S. conduct CT operations, counterterrorism operations, in Yemen as this conflict persists. And the Administration has released several statements trying to reassure the American public that we will take action if there’s an immediate risk to U.S. homeland security, that we have assets in the region, offshore assets, assets in Djibouti, in Saudi Arabia that we will employ if there’s a terrorist threat.

At the same time logic would dictate that if our embassy operations are suspended, if we’ve pulled out a certain level of military personnel, that that’s going to certainly impact our on the ground knowledge of what’s going on.

Now, that’s an obvious point, but there’s also something else that’s out there and that is since 2006 as part of our CT strategy in Yemen we’ve had a train and equip program. And I think one concern that hasn’t been expressed in the various pieces on Yemen is that if this conflict persists we’ve made a lot of investments in the Yemeni military, and if there’s damage done to those investments, both material and human, that’s going to be a lot harder to reconstitute our program in the years ahead, and so there’s a lot of concern that that doesn’t take place either.

And finally the fourth part about U.S. policy in this conflict is that the U.S. has really tried to get its own personnel out of harm’s way. As I mentioned we have suspended embassy operations, moved our diplomats to the consulate in Jeddah, and like I mentioned before we moved some of our – all of our special forces trainers and military personnel out of an air base which was near a nearby town that was attacked by AQAP militants just a day before we evacuated our personnel.

Now, where is this all going? We talked about some aspects of U.S. policy, but it’s obviously – a lot’s going to be dictated by where this conflict goes in the days and weeks and months ahead. An oversimplified way of looking at things is just to sort of take two tracks.

One is that this is a military conflict that the Saudi-led coalition either by ground, air – there was a BBC report just a few hours ago that there had been may be land forces in Aden. I have no idea. Some may know better than others if you’re on your phone Tweeting or whatever. There’s a military dimension to this where the coalition just pushes everyone back – push you back from Aden, push the Houthis and Saleh back from Taiz, perhaps to the capital, perhaps beyond. But I also think force is being used in another way in statecraft, and I think that’s something we need to look at, and that is perhaps force is being used to break apart the Houthi-Saleh marriage of convenience.

I think if you look at what’s been put out in some of the pan-Arab media lately, there have been a lot of reports of leaks between former President Saleh and the international community claiming that he wants to negotiate a deal for himself, preserve his immunity in Yemen, lift U.N. sanctions against him in exchange for turning on the Houthis.

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There’s a quote – I don’t know if it was him directly – but he said let’s go to dialogue in elections and I promise you that neither I nor any of my relatives will run for the presidency. And a Houthi spokesman retorted saying, quote, “Saleh’s only doing this to keep his relationship with Saudi and the Gulf states friendly because he wants above anything else to protect his personal interests.”

Now, I don’t know exactly what the play here is, but trying to break up this marriage seems like a pretty rational strategy whether it’s by force, by psychological operations, whatever – using the media – because look, at his core Saleh is a rational actor who’s concerned with his own preservation and the preservation of his family – his son, his place in Yemen. He’s the consummate negotiator. I don’t know if any of you saw this but the U.N. sanctions committee a few weeks ago put out a report estimating something that’s unbelievable, that Saleh has pilfered somewhere between thirty to sixty billion dollars from Yemen over the time in power. I mean that’s like Forbes list that puts him towards the top if he hasn’t spent it all supporting patronage in Yemen in his rule.

Look, I think that’s something to look at, to carefully analyze. What is the deal if there is any, and what does it mean for President Hadi, especially as we’ve said that he’s legitimate ruler of Yemen, that the Saudis are doing this on his behalf?

If there is one day a negotiation what is it going to look like in terms of his status? I’ll leave it to the rest of you. Thank you very much.

[Dr. John Duke Anthony] Thank you, Jeremy. Colonel David Des Roches.

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