The Revolutionary Guard — Iran’s deep state

Aaron Bastani writes: At the beginning of March a photo emerged of Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force (the extraterritorial element of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard), smiling as he despatched troops into Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace and now a front line in the fight against Isis. Ben De Pear, the editor of Channel 4 News, tweeted it alongside a similar photo, of a dozen men in desert fatigues and with smiles as wide as Suleimani’s, making victory signs to the camera. They were US marines in Tikrit in April 2003.


During that brief period of euphoric triumphalism in the White House and Downing Street, you’d have been laughed out of the room for suggesting that Tehran would gain the most from Saddam’s overthrow, and that within 12 years its sphere of influence would extend to four Arab capitals. More likely, the experts would have rejoined, that Iran would itself see regime change, by force if necessary.

Yet as Alireza Zakani, a member of parliament for Tehran, said last September, three Arab capitals – Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus – now ‘belong’ to the Islamic Revolution. The rise of Ansar Allah in recent months (the Zaidi Shia militias fighting in Yemen, often referred to as Houthis) means that Sana’a could be added to the list, though for how long is unclear.

The expansion of the Islamic Republic’s reach can’t be seen in isolation from the Arab Spring. Iran considers the uprisings the continuation of a historical movement it initiated. The former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati said in December that Iran supports the ‘rightful struggle’ of Ansar in Yemen, and considers the movement part of the ‘successful materialisation of the Islamic Awakening’ – Tehran’s name for the Arab Spring, which it views as evolving rather than defeated. [Continue reading…]

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Al Qaeda in Yemen using chaos of war to carve out terrorism haven

The Los Angeles Times reports: A brazen territorial grab by Al Qaeda militants in Yemen — together with a $1-million bank heist, a prison break and capture of a military base — has given the terrorist group fundraising and recruitment tools that suggest it is following the brutal path blazed by Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which was long forced into the shadows by U.S. drone strikes and commando raids, has taken advantage of the growing chaos in Yemen’s multi-sided war to carve out a potential haven that counter-terrorism experts say could help it launch terrorist attacks.

After seizing a regional airport and a coastal oil terminal this week, Al Qaeda militants consolidated their gains Friday in Mukalla, an Arabian Sea port. Fighters stormed a weapons depot and seized armored vehicles and rockets after apparently forging a truce with local tribes and forcing government troops to flee. [Continue reading…]

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Why Yemen’s political transition failed

Farea Al-Muslimi writes: For three years, Yemen has been touted as a successful model of international intervention to contain the crisis triggered by the Arab Spring—at least according to the United Nations, various UN Security Council ambassadors, and, most importantly, the UN special adviser on Yemen, Jamal Benomar, who today announced his resignation after four years in the job.

But the deteriorating situation of the country, particularly after President Abd-Rabu Mansour Hadi was ousted by the Zaidi Shia Islamist rebels known as the Houthis in mid-January 2015, has put an end to this rhetoric. And since March 25, when a Saudi-led coalition of Arab and other states launched a military intervention, the situation has worsened considerably.

When Jamal Benomar assumed his position as special envoy in April 2011, Yemen’s then-president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, knew that he could not hold out for long against the many opposition currents that had converged to overthrow him. This simplified the task of the UN envoy, who — along with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states — brokered the implementation of the so-called Gulf Initiative, according to which Saleh would resign and hand power to Hadi, his vice president, in a managed transition. After months of negotiations and despite the intensification of violence, Hadi was finally able to accede to the presidency in February 2012 with considerable international and Yemeni support as part of a transitional process that was not to exceed two years. [Continue reading…]

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Al-Qaeda seizes airport in eastern Yemen

The Washington Post: Al-Qaeda has seized an airport in eastern Yemen, an intelligence official confirmed Thursday, signaling that the extremist group is exploiting the chaos caused by the Saudi-led attacks in the country.

Fighters from the Yemeni branch of the militant group, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), on Tuesday seized the Riyan Airport in the city of Mukalla, said the Yemeni intelligence officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The group was already in control of areas around the airfield, including the nearby city of Mukalla, which is the capital of Yemen’s Hadhramaut Province. According to the intelligence official, the militants faced no resistance when taking the airport, suggesting that AQAP receives significant support in the area.

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Western officials dismiss Saudi claims that Yemen’s Houthis have close ties to Iran

Bloomberg reports: European leaders are signaling to Riyadh that patience with its three-week offensive — joined by nine mostly Sunni Muslim nations with the stated aim of restoring to power a legitimate, ousted government — is starting to wear thin. Yemen’s disintegration can only be prevented by negotiations between its competing factions, they say.

“The prospect of a military solution to the Yemen problem isn’t foreseen by anybody,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Wednesday after meeting his counterparts from the Group of Seven nations in the German port city of Luebeck. He said all G7 ministers called for a return to dialogue.

There are already indications that al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen is gaining from the conflict. The group and allied fighters on Thursday seized control of an airport and oil export terminal around the town of Mukalla, which they captured this month, according to a local tribal leader.

The Houthis have been fighting against al-Qaeda for years, and say that Yemen’s government, counted by the U.S. as an ally against the jihadists, has been tacitly aiding them.

Secretary of State John Kerry and other top U.S. officials have accused Iran of providing military and financial support to the Houthis in an effort to expand its influence, American and European intelligence officers and diplomats following the issue closely say the Islamic Republic’s support is limited.

The Houthis are not aligned with the Iranian brand of Shiite Islam, two U.S. officials who requested anonymity to be critical of higher-ranking colleagues, pointed out. The group has no allegiance to Iranian leaders in Tehran or top clerics in the holy city of Qom, two European officials said.

The Houthis are fighting largely with small arms and light weapons they’ve had for years or seized from U.S.-backed Yemeni forces, according to one American official. They are not reliant on Iranian arms, money, intelligence or direction to nearly the degree that Hezbollah in Lebanon, some Shiite militias in Iraq or the Syrian government are, the official said. [Continue reading…]

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In Yemen chaos, al Qaeda may be the biggest winners

Harriet Salem and Sama’a al Hamdani report: Standing beneath an ornate chandelier, Khaled Batarfi, a high-ranking member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), poses for a snapshot in the governor’s palatial residence in the port city of al Mukalla. Trampling on the Yemeni national flag, the bespectacled jihadi raises his index finger in salute as he grins at the cameraman.


Batarfi has plenty to smile about. As Yemen descends into a full-scale war between Shia Houthi rebels and the Saudi Arabia-backed forces of its president-in-exile, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, dormant AQAP factions — backed by a handful of Sunni tribes — have surged out of their heartlands into towns and cities across the country’s central and southern provinces.

Last week, in a lightning offensive, fighters from the group stormed al Mukalla, capital of the oil-rich Hadhramaut province. Entering in the dead of night by morning they had taken over government buildings, emptied the city’s bank vaults of the equivalent of $80 million, and freed 300 prisoners, including Batarfi and several other high-ranking members of AQAP, from the local jail.

But for the power hungry group, the snatch of al Mukalla is just the tip of the iceberg. The lawlessness that followed the revolution of 2011, coupled with the recent outbreak of war, has enabled AQAP to secure a stronghold in at least seven governorates: ‘Ibb, Al-Jawf, Ma’rib, Hadhramout, Lahj, Abyan, and Shabwah. [Continue reading…]

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Is Iran outmaneuvering Saudi Arabia in Yemen?

Mohammad Ali Shabani writes: The war in Yemen is increasingly being construed as a Saudi contest with Iran. To ascertain the veracity of this oft-repeated conception, two things need to be clarified: whether the conflict is driven by sectarian dynamics and what Iran seeks in Yemen.

Yemen has long been the Afghanistan of the Arab world. Most Yemenis live below the poverty rate. The country sits on multiple fault lines, in addition to a long-running border dispute with Saudi Arabia. Following Arab Spring protests, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi came to power through a Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered one-man election, as opposition groups seized on power vacuums. The Houthis have in past months seized major urban centers in collaboration with their old foe (and Hadi’s predecessor) Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Experts on Yemen contend that the Houthis emerged as a Zaydi revivalist movement in response to Saudi-funded Salafist proselytizing in the 1990s. Claims that the group is sectarian and linked to Iran are long-running. Robert Worth, a fellow at the Wilson Center and former New York Times Middle East correspondent, told Al-Monitor, “The Houthis have been accused of being Iranian stooges almost since they were first founded.” However, these accusations have not attracted much credence. Worth, who has been on the ground in Yemen and is working on a book on the legacy of the Arab uprisings, said, “When I started reporting on them in 2007, this accusation was ridiculed by almost everyone — even by Yemeni officials, off the record.” [Continue reading…]

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Is there any hope left for Yemen?

Bushra al-Maqtari writes: There is no shortage of people to blame for Yemen’s catastrophe: the sectarian, tribalist Houthis, who seized the capital in January; Mr. Hadi, who led an incompetent government and is now supporting our northern neighbor’s effort to turn us into a Saudi protectorate; and his vindictive, irrational predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced from power in 2011 but refuses to step aside.

These culprits have effectively made Yemen the battleground between two great external powers, Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Yemenis today are more divided than they ever have been.

The pro-intervention side claims that the legitimacy of Mr. Hadi’s government must be upheld, and that the Houthi assault on the government must be stopped. The other side presents itself as the defender of national autonomy, even though it was the Houthis who sought Iran’s military and financial help and thereby helped to turn Yemen into a proxy for a regional struggle against Saudi Arabia.

Like other democratic activists, I am in a third group — one that has been rendered nearly invisible. We reject external military intervention absolutely. We also reject the Houthis’ coup and their vengeful campaign against Yemenis in the north and the south. Our brief hope for a peaceful democratic transition, after Mr. Saleh officially ceded power more than three years ago, has given way to despair. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia campaign in Yemen masks widening domestic unrest

By Afshin Shahi, University of Bradford

The conflict in Yemen, which is rapidly piling up a disturbing body count, is remarkable for the overt and prominent role played by Saudi Arabia which is the power behind an impressive coalition of regional states which support their campaign, largely seeing the conflict as a proxy for a campaign against Iran.

But while, understandably, Riyadh does not want to compromise on its regional sphere of influence, the Yemen conflict is also being used for internal political consumption. Saudi Arabia projects confidence, but in reality it is not a very stable nation. The threat of tribal, sectarian and class paradoxes within the kingdom is much graver than the threats imposed by so-called Shia Crescent.

The Saudi political elite either ignores the prevailing challenges or tries to compensate for internal problems with an assertive foreign policy. Using foreign policy as an effective tool to control internal dynamics has been common practice for a very long time in the region – an “external enemy” can be used to generate unifying nationalism or to legitimise a security state. It’s an especially useful tactic for authoritarian regimes.

For Saudi Arabia, the ramifications of this conflict go way beyond Riyadh’s regional ambitions. The war in Yemen has significant internal political implications for the new king and his new political entourage. King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud took over his position in January 2015 and in less than three months he embarked on the most ambitious Saudi foreign policy in years. Although Salman’s early political manoeuvring suggest that foreign policy is going to be his main preoccupation, there are also various factors threatening the stability of his kingdom internally.

[Read more…]

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Saudi spurns call by Iran to draw back from Yemen

The New York Times reports: Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister accused Iran on Sunday of meddling in Yemen and pointedly dismissed Iranian appeals for the Saudis to end their bombing campaign, in the latest sign of deepening tensions between the regional heavyweights.

“How could Iran call on us to stop the fighting?” the foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said, adding that Tehran had played no constructive role in Yemen’s development process.

“On the contrary, it intervened in decision-making in Yemen,” he told reporters in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, according to a transcript by the Al-Arabiya news channel.

The escalating feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has inflamed conflicts and sectarian rhetoric around the region, has dampened hopes that there will be a swift end to the fighting in Yemen. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi-led strikes do little to reverse Houthi gains, Yemenis say

The Los Angeles Times reports: From their post on a rocky hilltop, a pair of Saudi border guards man a .50-caliber machine gun and use binoculars to scan the dry scrubland that separates this kingdom from its war-torn neighbor to the south, Yemen.

The scene before them appeared peaceful Friday: The craggy peaks that rise beyond a riverbed were spotted with goats, cows and families of baboons. But later that day, mortar rounds fired into Saudi territory from Yemen killed three soldiers and injured two others stationed along the frontier, state media reported Saturday.

It was the latest in a series of border skirmishes that have killed six of the kingdom’s troops since a Saudi-led coalition began airstrikes March 25 against rebels known as Houthis, who have seized large parts of Yemen. The Saudi Defense Ministry said that its forces returned fire, and that 500 Houthi fighters have been killed in the clashes. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s Arab partners don’t believe in political solutions

James Traub writes: Saudi Arabia has pulled eight other Arab nations, as well as the United States, into its air war against the Houthis. That war has thus become a prototype of a new form of collective regional action with the United States as a supporting player — precisely what Obama suggested at West Point [last year].

The administration defends the Saudis’ resort to force to stem the tide of the takeover of Yemen: The Houthis had placed Scud missiles on the border, while Iran had begun regular flights to Saada, the Houthi stronghold. But the State Department official I spoke to added that the hostilities would have to end soon in order to limit death and destruction, and to bring the Houthis to a political settlement.

There is, unfortunately, no sign that Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz agrees with that proposition. His apparent plan is to bomb the Houthis into submission. What’s more, the Saudis are new to the game of military intervention, and they seem bent on reproducing America’s worst mistakes. The air war has caused over 500 civilian deaths and an incipient humanitarian disaster; created new opportunities for al Qaeda, which has seized Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest city; and done nothing to hinder the Houthis’ bid to conquer the strategic southern city of Aden. It’s not a very encouraging prototype.

The fight is only two weeks old and perhaps the tide will turn. The more lasting problem is King Salman’s idea of a political solution. Once he’s evicted the Houthis, he plans to restore to power President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was forced to flee Yemen to Saudi Arabia. But it was the Saudis who put Hadi there in the first place; so weak is his writ that his army effectively abandoned him in favor of his widely hated predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Hadi might survive, but only as a Saudi puppet. What’s more, the Houthis are not Iran’s puppets, as the Saudis insist, but a powerful indigenous force whose demands must be accommodated in a power-sharing agreement.

A comparable situation can be seen in Libya, where Egypt has given political and military support to the Tobruk government in its effort to destroy the rival government based in Tripoli. The former is avowedly “moderate,” the other “Islamist,” but these oversimplified terms disguise the reality of different regions, tribes, and ethnic groups vying for control. Again, the only lasting solution would be a political one. Yet right now the greatest obstacle to a cease-fire is the refusal of the Tobruk government to negotiate with the Islamists. The Tobruk prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, has demanded that the Arabs do in Libya what they’re now doing in Yemen. That would be a catastrophe.

The United States has learned the hard way that it cannot simply prop up governments seen as illegitimate by their own people; that’s why Obama has tried to condition military assistance to Iraq on political reform that offers a significant role to Sunnis. Arab autocrats do not accept this principle. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. expands intelligence sharing with Saudis in Yemen operation

Reuters reports: The United States is expanding its intelligence-sharing with Saudi Arabia to provide more information about potential targets in the kingdom’s air campaign against Houthi militias in Yemen, U.S. officials told Reuters.

The stepped-up assistance comes as two weeks of relentless air strikes by the Saudis and other Gulf Arab allies have largely failed to halt advances by the Iran-linked Houthi forces.

The U.S. officials said the expanded assistance includes sensitive intelligence data that will allow the Saudis to better review the kingdom’s targets in fighting that has killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands since March.

“We have opened up the aperture a bit wider with what we are sharing with our Saudi partners,” said one U.S. official.

“We are helping them get a better sense of the battlefield and the state of play with the Houthi forces. We are also helping identify ‘no strike’ areas they should avoid” to minimize any civilian casualties, the official said. [Continue reading…]

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Yemen’s despair on full display in ‘ruined’ city

The New York Times reports from Aden: Rooftop snipers have emptied the streets of this dusty seaside city and swelled its hospitals and morgues.

Weeks of fighting between armed groups have left nearly 200 people dead and the city starved of water, fuel and electricity. Hospitals struggle to obtain anesthetic and dressings. Barefoot, nervous teenagers with matted hair and guns mind checkpoints on the treacherous roads. Gun battles sweep across the city while residents lie low and worry that there is worse suffering to come.

“The war of hunger has not started — yet,” said Ali Bamatraf, a grocer with dwindling stocks, standing among empty food boxes that would not soon be replaced.

As war engulfs Yemen, no place in the beleaguered country has suffered as severely as Aden, a southern port city captive to ferocious street fighting for the better part of a harrowing month. Foreign navies patrol its waters and warplanes circle above, blockading a city that is steadily crumbling under reckless fire from tanks and heavy guns.

“Damaged. Ruined,” said Faris al-Shuaibi, a professor of English literature at Aden University, searching for the words to describe the beaten-up neighborhood around him. “Everything is destroyed.” [Continue reading…]

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Militiamen in Yemen’s Aden say two Iranian officers captured

Reuters reports: Local militiamen in the southern Yemeni city of Aden said they captured two Iranian military officers advising Houthi rebels, during fighting on Friday evening.

Tehran has strongly denied providing any military support for Houthi fighters, whose advances have drawn Saudi-led air strikes in a campaign dubbed “Decisive Storm.”

If confirmed, the presence of two Iranian officers, whom the local militiamen said were from an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, would deepen tensions between Tehran and Riyadh, who are vying for influence in the Middle East.

Three sources in the city’s anti-Houthi local militias said the Iranians, identified as a colonel and a captain, were seized in two different districts rocked by heavy gun battles.

“The initial investigation revealed that they are from the Quds Force and are working as advisors to the Houthi militia,” one of the militia sources told Reuters. [Continue reading…]

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Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia deepen over conflict in Yemen

The New York Times reports: Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia deepened on Thursday as Iranian leaders lashed out with rare vehemence against the continuing Saudi air campaign in Yemen, even hurling personal insults at the young Saudi prince who is leading the fight.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, on Thursday denounced the Saudi airstrikes in Yemen as “a crime” and “a genocide,” while all but taunting Saudi Arabia that its war in Yemen was doomed to fail.

A regional coalition led by Saudi Arabia extended its bombing campaign for a 16th night in its effort to stop the Houthi movement and its allies from dominating Yemen. The Houthis nonetheless continued their advance, and aid groups warned of a compounding humanitarian catastrophe, particularly in the port city of Aden.

Secretary of State John Kerry sharply warned Iran over its backing for the other side of the conflict in Yemen, in the first explicit American accusation that Tehran has been providing military aid to the Houthis.

Washington was “not going to stand by while the region is destabilized,” Mr. Kerry said in an interview with “PBS NewsHour” on Wednesday night. [Continue reading…]

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Americans stuck in Yemen file suit against State, Defense departments

Al Jazeera reports: Hundreds of American citizens trapped in Yemen’s roiling violence have a legal right to be evacuated by the U.S. government, advocacy groups argued in a lawsuit filed Thursday that challenges the State and Defense Department’s perceived inaction on a constitutional basis.

In court documents that name Secretary of State John Kerry and Pentagon chief Ashton Carter as defendants, U.S.-based lawyers acting on behalf of 41 American citizens or permanent U.S. residents stuck in Yemen described Washington’s decision not to provide any flights or ships out of the conflict zone as “arbitrary” and even illegal. The plaintiffs say they are in grave danger from the escalating violence but have received little more from the State Department than emails or calls about possible third-party flights out of the country and recommendations that they take shelter.

Abed Ayoub, national legal policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), said his group and two others that formed the Stuck in Yemen legal action group decided to file a suit as a last-ditch effort to compel the U.S. to act. [Continue reading…]

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Yemen risks becoming Saudi Arabia’s ‘Vietnam’

The Washington Post reports: Two weeks into a Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, airstrikes appear to have accelerated the country’s fragmentation into warring tribes and militias while doing little to accomplish the goal of returning the ousted Yemeni president to power, analysts and residents say.

The Yemeni insurgents, known as Houthis, have pushed ahead with their offensive and seem to have protected many of their weapons stockpiles from the coalition’s bombardments, analysts say. The fighting has killed hundreds of people, forced more than 100,000 people to flee their homes and laid waste to the strategic southern city of Aden.

The battles are increasingly creating problems that go beyond the rebels opposing President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the forces supporting him. The conflict has reduced available water and food supplies in a country already suffering from dangerous levels of malnutrition and created a security vacuum that has permitted territorial advances by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

For the Saudi government and its allies, the military operation in Yemen may be turning into a quagmire, analysts say.

“What’s a potential game changer in all of this is not just the displacement of millions of people, but it’s this huge spread of disease, starvation and inaccessibility [of] water, combined with an environment where radical groups are increasingly operating in the open and recruiting,” said Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. [Continue reading…]

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