As Yemen war spreads, a reminder of fluid alliances and political intrigue

The US is currently aiding the Saudis against the former US-backed president. And that same ex-president is partnering with a rebel leader he once asked the US to assassinate.

Hani Mohammed/AP
Smoke billows from a Saudi-led airstrike on Sanaa, Yemen, Wednesday.

In June 2006 Gen. John Abizaid, who headed the US Central Command, sat down for a series of meetings with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his interior minister. What happened in that meeting – Saleh urging the US to help him assassinate a political rival – is useful background to assessing US support today for a Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen. 

In 2006, President Saleh was a dictator, but he was also a major ally in the US drone campaign to kill alleged members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that was ramping up. That year Saleh's government received about $60 million in US military and economic aid. After President Barack Obama took power, aid to Yemen surged, peaking at $300 million in 2010

When Gen. Abizaid met him, Saleh asked for help with what the mafia would call a "piece of work," namely Abdul Malek al-Houthi, a charismatic young tribal leader of the Houthi movement, which draws from the Shiite population of northwest Yemen. The Houthis were jostling for a greater share of power. And Saleh wanted the US to help kill their leader, according to the State Department writeup of that encounter, later leaked by Chelsea Manning. 

Today the tables have turned: Mr. Saleh's forces are now fighting alongside the Houthis, while the US is aiding Saudi Arabia's military effort to restore his rival Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power. 

Back in 2006, Yemeni Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi had blamed Iran for stirring unrest for decades and alleged that the Houthis were Iranian proxies. 

When Abizaid said that Iran's Revolutionary Guards may be a problem for Yemen alongside that of Al Qaeda – which had attacked the USS Cole in Aden harbor in 2000, killing 17 American servicemen – one of Alimi's aides told him "the threat from the Revolutionary Guard is greater." The Yemeni leaders sought to redirect US worries about coastal security (piracy was rampant at the time) to their more pressing domestic concerns.

Saleh laid his cards on the table. According to the US cable, he said he wanted advanced US imagery of Saada, a Houthi stronghold. "I want a decisive operation in Saada before the election against Abdul Malik al-Houthi," he told Abizaid. "I want to track his phone calls and then strike him like we did Harithi."

Abu Ali al-Harithi was an Al Qaeda operative who was assassinated, along with six companions, by a US drone in Yemen, in 2002. Mr. Harithi was accused by the US of helping to organize the Cole attack. And that was the problem: Then, as now, the Houthis hadn't been involved in terrorism against the US.

Abizaid told Saleh he'd look into what could be done. It's unclear what happened next, but there's no indication that the US provided direct help. 

Open conflict between Saleh's government and the Houthis dates back to 2004, and government efforts to defeat them were and are brutal. Human Rights Watch wrote in late 2008:

Yemen's security forces have carried out hundreds of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances of civilians. Since 2007, but especially in the first half of 2008, the extent of arbitrary arrests and "disappearances" expanded, with the government broadening its targets to include persons reporting on the war's impact on civilians.

... Despite hostilities ceasing in July 2008, security forces continued to arbitrarily arrest persons from the conflict areas. Displaced persons in the capital remained extremely fearful of arrest. Three groups of internally displaced persons from Sa'da governorate declined to meet with Human Rights Watch because of fears for their own safety. Earlier in 2008, the government arrested persons who had attempted to visit recent conflict areas to assess damage to their property or to bring trapped relatives to safety.

Hadi's efforts to paint the Houthis as Iranian proxies – a popular perception today in Saudi Arabia and beyond – didn't convince many who were following the conflict at the time. Madeleine Wells wrote at Foreign Policy in 2012:

Saleh rallied support for the war first by casting the Houthis as proto-Hezbollah foot soldiers for Iran — a spurious claim dismissing that Houthis are Zaidis and follow a doctrine quite different from Iranians and Lebanese Shiites — and then by painting them as separatists and terrorists. Despite the Houthis’ rather unsavory slogan, their early stated goals included regional autonomy, not separatism, and freedom of religious Shiite education, which made them the enemy of radical Sunni Salafis and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Much has changed since 2008. In 2011, protests against the corruption and thuggery of Saleh's rule saw Saudi Arabia negotiate his replacement by Mr. Hadi, who recently fled the country. A promised new constitution and elections have not emerged, and the Houthis – along with many other Yemenis – weren't happy at what they saw as Hadi trying to become another authoritarian like Saleh. 

But there's also evidence of how fluid relationships can be. Saleh is now fighting alongside Mr. Houthi after urging the US military in 2006 to help him assassinate in order to prevent an Iranian attempt to "reestablish the Persian empire." And he's brought with him many of the Yemeni army units that the US helped train and equip in the final years of his rule. Now Hadi and the Saudis complain of the malign shadow of Iran in Yemen, and the US has taken up arms on their side.

US Air Force aerial refueling planes have begun supporting bombing raids by Saudi Arabia and its fellow Sunni Arab allies in a war that is growing more sectarian in its focus – rather than about tribal rivalries for power – with each passing day. AQAP has been enjoying the sectarian focus, and the chaos.

This week, an AQAP propaganda arm offered a bounty of 20 kilograms of gold each for the killing or capture of both Mr. Houthi and his new friend Saleh.

While it's unlikely that Al Qaeda will compensate the Saudis or the Americans if they manage to kill either man, the irony of the situation is rather stark. Who will the US end up fighting with – or against – in Yemen next?

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