Adding an exclamation point to the folly of the “deal to make a deal” outcome of the Iranian nuclear negotiations, Iran-backed Shi’ite rebels in Yemen seized the presidential palace in the coastal city of Aden.
Houthi rebels had fought their way through the commercial district of the city before taking over the Maasheeq palace, the former home of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Hadi fled the country for Saudi Arabia last month, when it became apparent the Houthi advance was succeeding. Previously he fled to Aden from the rebel-held capital city of Sanaa.
Making the most of the ongoing chaos in Yemen, al Qaeda terrorists raided and captured the coastal city of al-Mukalla, freeing about 300 inmates held captive in a local prison. Senior al-Qaida operative Khaled Baterfi, who had been held since 2011, was one of the inmates liberated in the assault. Yemeni security forces also noted that al Qaeda has deployed its forces across major roads leading into the city, in an apparent attempt to prevent anyone from retaking it. Al-Mukalla is in the province of Hadramawt, most of which still remains controlled by forces loyal to the exiled president.
The palace’s takeover in Aden was viewed as a blow to the Saudi Arabian-led coalition comprised of Egypt, most of the Gulf states and Pakistan. They had been carrying out an air campaign they thought would halt the Houthi advance and that of their Saleh loyalist allies (forces loyal to Hadi’s predecessor, ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh). And despite the fact that those air strikes focused on Aden over the previous two days, they were unable to halt the invaders’ approach into the city’s east and north.
Hours after Aden’s central neighborhood known as the Crater was seized, additional unidentified armed men arrived by sea in a section of the city yet to be captured by the rebels. A Yemeni official denied the arrival of troops, and a port official insisted the men were armed guards from a Chinese ship who had come into the city to aid the evacuation of civilians. Nonetheless residents of Crater said the rebels assumed control of the city by mid-day yesterday, and that they had deployed tanks and foot patrols through empty streets. “People are afraid and terrified by the bombardment,” Crater resident Farouq Abdu told Reuters by telephone. “No one is on the streets. It’s like a curfew.” Another resident revealed that Houthi snipers had taken up positions on a hilltop overlooking the neighborhood, and were firing on the streets below. Houses struck by rockets were ablaze, and warnings relayed to residents over loudspeakers urged them to move to safer parts of the city.
Both sides weighed in on the fighting. “Saleh and the Houthis are keeping the pressure on Aden, which is the weak point in Saudi strategy,” said an unidentified diplomat in Riyadh. “I think the Saudis would put ground forces into Aden to recapture it if it falls. It is a red line for them.” Houthi spokesman Mohammad Abdulsalam insisted Saudi Arabia’s intervention was an outright failure. “The victories in Aden today embarrass this campaign and silenced the aggressor states,” he declared.
No one ought to be more embarrassed by this latest development than the Obama administration, whose ongoing determination to label Yemen a counter-terrorist success story, now borders on Orwellian. The descent into ideologically-induced denial began last August when all non-essential U.S. personnel were ordered by the State Department to leave the country, and all other Americans were urged to leave because of “the continued potential for terrorist attacks.” One month later, President Obama insisted the “strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”
In January, CNN wondered whether Yemen unrest that included the presidential palace in Sanaa being overrun by Houthi rebels, and Yemen’s minister of information describing the takeover as the “completion of a coup” might throw a “monkey wrench” into Obama’s State of the Union message. Undeterred, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest doubled down. Yemen is “a place where the American counterterrorism strategy that has been put in place by President Obama has succeeded in degrading the threat that those organizations pose to the United States,” he insisted. “We intend to implement an analogous strategy against ISIL.”
Unfortunately for the Obama administration, March became the cruelest month. On March 17, the Washington Post revealed the Pentagon could not account for more than $500 million in military aid given to Yemen, “amid fears that the weaponry, aircraft and equipment is at risk of being seized by Iranian-backed rebels or al-Qaeda, according to U.S. officials.” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, revealed the political machinations behind the administration’s belief it could quell terrorist insurgencies absent American intervention. “The administration really wanted to stick with this narrative that Yemen was different from Iraq, that we were going to do it with fewer people, that we were going to do it on the cheap,” he explained. “They were trying to do with a minimalist approach because it needed to fit with this narrative . . . that we’re not going to have a repeat of Iraq.”
On Saturday March 21 the narrative took another beating when U.S. troops evacuated a Yemeni air base following al Qaeda’s seizure of a nearby town. On March 23, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf insisted it was of little consequence. “Although we have temporarily relocated our remaining U.S. government personnel from Yemen, we continue to actively monitor threats and have resources prepared in the region to address them,” she told reporters.
Two days later, President Hadi fled the country. Incredibly the narrative remained the same. “The White House does continue to believe that a successful counter-terrorism strategy is one that will build up the capacity of the central government to have local fighters on the ground to take the fight to extremists in their own country,” Earnest told reporters at the White House. “That is a template that has succeeded in mitigating the threat that we face from extremists in places like Yemen.”
The next day in an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Earnest remained just as earnest. “The goal of U.S. policy toward Yemen has never been to try to build a Jeffersonian democracy there,” he told incredulous co-host Mika Brzezinski. “The goal of U.S. policy in Yemen is to make sure that Yemen cannot be a safe haven that extremists can use to attack the west and to attack the United States.”
As of yesterday, Yemen appeared to be exactly that. The latest violence has claimed the lives of 44 people, including 18 civilians.
Saudi Arabia has not ruled out a ground invasion. Coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Ahmad Asiri insists the operation to oust the rebels, known as Decisive Storm, would continue. He noted that coalition fighter jets had targeted rebel-controlled ballistic missiles, air defenses and weapons depots, along with troop positions engaged in the Aden fighting. But they refrained from doing so inside Aden to avoid civilian casualties. He further noted the coalition’s naval forces controlled waters surrounding Yemen and were setting up a blockade.
There are dire regional implications should the Houthis gain complete control of Aden and the critical naval chokepoint of Bab el-Mandeb, or Mandab Strait. This “Gateway of Tears” connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, and is the access point to the Red Sea and a key route for Israeli and European trade. A Houthi takeover would give Iran a critically strategic port for its warships. Last December, Iran conducted a major naval maneuver on the other side of the Persian Gulf from Yemen, one Israeli news site Arutz Sheva characterized as “an expression of commitment by Iran to aid the Houthis, and demarcate its strategic aspirations in the region.” Aspirations that “could directly threaten the southern naval exit from Israel from the port of Eilat.”
Iranian aspirations were further buttressed yesterday by the announcement of a deal regarding nuclear negotiations. It was characterized by President Obama as one that would “cut off every pathway that Iran could take to a nuclear weapon,” even as chief Iranian negotiator Javad Zarif insisted none of the measures negotiated to scale back Iran’s nuclear program “include closing any of our facilities”—and even as Iraqi weapons inspector Charles Duelfer reminds us the weapon inspections that form the critical heart of this deal “can be no tougher than the body that empowers them—in this instance the UN Security Council. And herein lies the agreement’s fundamental weakness—and perhaps its fatal flaw. Do we really want to depend on Vladimir Putin?” he asks.
As the events unfolding in Yemen reveal, Obama’s judgment is infused with a level of denialism so profound, reality itself becomes irrelevant. It is astounding to note that in the space of the last few months, the administration has gone from backing Hadi, to making overtures to the Iranian backed-rebels, to subsequently backing a Saudi collation to topple the rebels when they rejected those overtures. All the while they bend over backwards to accommodate Iran and its regional ambitions—all of which are utterly inimical to the Saudi coalition. While such inane capriciousness might look good in the faculty lounges of elite Ivy League schools, it has engendered chaos, disaster and death in the Middle East and beyond. And it is chaos, disaster and death that will remain ongoing for as long as this administration remains in charge, chasing its self-aggrandizing “historic” legacy.