US special forces return to Yemen, motives questioned
SANA'A - The deployment of US special operations troops to southern Yemen was eyed with suspicion by both sides in the country’s war.
Opponents of the Iran-backed Houthis and their allied forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh argue that US forces in Yemen would serve the rebels, who, on their part, say the Americans are a backup for the Arab alliance fighting in support of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Adnan al-Odaini, a senior member of the anti-Houthi Islamic Reform Party maintained that the return of US troops to Yemen will serve the Houthis and Saleh’s followers by providing them with a pretext to perpetuate their rebellion.
Odaini said Washington has been acting in favour of the Houthis in many instances. “One, America was the first to oppose the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist group, though they do raise the slogan of ‘Death to America’,” he said.
“Second, Washington was the one that forced the Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia to stop fighting against the Houthis in the earlier wars (in the northern province of Saada) and ordered the handover of the garrisons and state weapons to the Houthis through the traitor Saleh and his loyalist officers.”
Houthi leader Abdelmalik al-Ajri contended that the US involvement coincided with a surge in al-Qaeda attacks. “They wanted to have forces in al-Anad base (south Yemen) in addition to the bases they have in Saudi Arabia and Djibouti, to launch ground operations such as the ones that occurred in Lahj and Shabwa,” he said.
“Under the banner of helping Yemeni forces combating terrorism, the Americans have slowly revealed that their real wish is to have a military presence in more than one Yemeni region, after their ambassador had taken the reins of political decision in the country.”
The Pentagon, on May 6th, said it sent a special operations team to Yemen to work with Arab military forces battling to push al-Qaeda militants out of areas captured during the country’s civil war. US commandos were deployed to Mukalla, after Yemeni and Saudi-led coalition troops retook the strategic seaport, which was under al-Qaeda control for a year.
A US military presence in Yemen is not new but it has been renewed to support the Hadi government, said Abdel Salam Mohamad, head of Aba’d Centre for Strategic Studies in Sana’a.
“It is common knowledge that US advisers and special forces are there since Saleh’s days as part of the programme for combating terrorism,” he said. “The difference now is that they have returned in cooperation with the UAE, whose troops are effectively in control of al-Anad base.”
The Pentagon previously had more than 100 special operations forces advising the army in Yemen but withdrew them in early 2015 as the country slid into an all-out war.
The latest US deployment cast a shadow on UN-sponsored peace negotiations in Kuwait, where the delegation grouping the Houthis and Saleh’s party cautioned that such developments could jeopardise the talks and a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Mohamad Abdel Salam, head of the Houthi delegation, was quoted as saying: “The violation of Yemeni sovereignty by foreign forces will scuttle negotiations.”
Pro-Houthi political analyst Zakaria Monser sees the US deployment as an alternative to Saudi involvement. “Since April 8th, Riyadh has been overconfident that the Yemenis would stick to peaceful negotiations regardless of the cost,” he said. “However, almost a month has passed since the start of the talks in Kuwait and the ceasefire remains extremely volatile. We can safely say that it has collapsed and it is only a matter of time before the death of talks and the truce is announced officially.”
He said the Hadi government, which relies on the support of the Arab alliance in fighting the Houthis, had no plausible reaction to the US move.
But Mohamad said: “There is a clear manipulation of the American deployment by the Houthis especially in the Kuwait talks. The Houthis are trying to score points but they have no genuine demands to end the American presence because they regard the Americans as neutral towards them, unlike the Arab Alliance.”
Combating al-Qaeda in Yemen provided an opportunity for the United States to return to an area where regional conflicts are tightly linked to the US-Russian race for influence on the Middle East, according to Mohamad.
“The return to al-Anad base coincided with the establishment of an American base in the Kurdish area in Syria,” he said, “but I believe that the Yemen issue will remain a Gulf issue par excellence, minimising the possibility of a Russian-American competition.”