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'Operation Scorched Earth': A US Hand in Yemen's Civil War

By Juliane von Mittelstaedt

Yemen is becoming an important refuge for al-Qaida terrorists, but authorities in the country are more interested in pursuing its war against Shiite rebels in the north. American weapons are used in the fight -- and the US secretly pursues terrorists on their own.

Yemeni soldiers take up a position against Houthi rebels in 2009 in this picture provided by the Yemeni army. US dispatches make it clear that the fight could not continue without US support. Zoom
dpa

Yemeni soldiers take up a position against Houthi rebels in 2009 in this picture provided by the Yemeni army. US dispatches make it clear that the fight could not continue without US support.

His Excellency Ali Abdullah Saleh, the first and so far only president of the Republic of Yemen, ruler over 23 million inhabitants and 50 million firearms, is not a good man to have as an enemy -- but having him as a friend is even worse. In Yemen he is called "The Boss."

Since 2004, the boss has been fighting a ruthless war against the Houthi rebels in the north. They are Shiites -- and politically marginalized. In August 2009, this conflict entered a new phase when the Yemeni army launched a new offensive designed to wipe out all Houthi resistance. The president categorically rejects negotiations with the rebels: "The war will never stop no matter how much money or martyrs it costs," he said a year ago.

Saleh appears indifferent to the ravages of the war, the civilian casualties, the streams of refugees and the devastating damage to the region's infrastructure. He is pouring an increasing number of weapons into the battle against the Houthi stronghold of Sadah, and sending in an increasing number of soldiers into his deadlocked conflict with the rebels. He is also paying less and less attention to the fight against the terror group known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

"We are fighting on behalf of you, the Americans, and Israel," he said in a conversation with the US ambassador, according to one of the tens of thousands of US diplomatic dispatches that have now been made public by WikiLeaks. Saleh maintains that the war against the Houthis is actually a proxy war between Iran and the US. The Americans, however, feel that the Yemeni president is fighting a senseless war, a viewpoint that is made crystal clear by hundreds of reports that the US Embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa has sent to Washington over the past few years. Nevertheless, the Americans play a role in the war. The internal embassy documents show that Saleh has mis-appropriated the American anti-terror aid for his own purposes -- a situation which has made it necessary for the US military to secretly hunt down al-Qaida terrorists on their own.

Dares Not Enter His Office

Yemen is a country in freefall, on the way to becoming a second Afghanistan or Somalia -- an alarming situation given its close proximity to the world's largest oil reserves.

It was from Yemen that terrorists airmailed two parcel bombs addressed to targets in the US. The packages were intercepted in late October in Dubai and the UK. Evidence indicates that al-Qaida was behind the plot. Yemen was also where the "underwear bomber" was outfitted with plastic explosives intended to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight in December 2009. Al-Qaida leaders are moving their operations from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen: Nasir al-Wuhayshi, for example, Osama bin Laden's private secretary and confidant. In the province of Abyan, where the jihadist Tariq al-Fadhli calls the shots, not even the provincial governor dares enter his own office.

ORIGINAL: The Key Yemen Cables
Click on the headline below to read the full text...
Sept. 12, 2009, Sanaa: "iran in yemen: tehran's shadow looms large..."
XXXXXX: Redacted by the editors. Important note on the dispatches...

<<224857>> 09.12.2009 14:11 09SANAA1662 Embassy Sanaa SECRET//NOFORN 09SANAA1628|09SANAA876|09STATE86584 VZCZCXRO4184 RR RUEHBC RUEHDE RUEHDH RUEHDIR RUEHKUK RUEHTRO DE RUEHYN #1662/01 2551411 ZNY SSSSS ZZH R 121411Z SEP 09 FM AMEMBASSY SANAA TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 2751 INFO RUEHZM/GULF COOPERATION COUNCIL COLLECTIVE RUCNIRA/IRAN COLLECTIVE RUEHAE/AMEMBASSY ASMARA 0694 RUEKDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC TAGS: PINR, PREL, PGOV, ECON, ENRG, EIND, IR, YM SUBJECT: IRAN IN YEMEN: TEHRAN'S SHADOW LOOMS LARGE, BUT REF: A. STATE 86584

S e c r e t section 01 of 04 sanaa 001662

Noforn sipdis

Dept for nea/arp amacdonald, nea/ir cdejuana, inr smoffatt nsc for kmagsaman

E.o. 12958: decl: 09/07/2019 Tags: pinr, prel, pgov, econ, enrg, eind, ir, ym Subject: iran in yemen: tehran's shadow looms large, but footprint is small (c-ne9-01257)

Ref: a. State 86584 b. Sanaa 1628 c. Sanaa 876

Classified By: Ambassador Stephen Seche for reasons 1.4(b) and (d).

1. (S/NF) SUMMARY. Despite repeated ROYG accusations of Tehran's material and financial support to the Houthi rebels in Sa'ada and increasingly belligerent media exchanges between Yemen and Iran, Iranian influence in Yemen has thus far been limited to informal religious ties between Yemeni and Iranian scholars and negligible Iranian investment in the energy and development sectors. While Iran has good strategic reasons to involve itself in Yemeni affairs - including Yemen's proximity to Saudi Arabia and the presence of a large Zaydi Shiite population ) the only visible Iranian involvement remains the Iranian media's proxy battle with Saudi and Yemeni outlets over support for the Houthis. Significant gaps exist in post's knowledge of Iranian activities in Yemen due to the sensitivity of the subject and post's very limited access to events in Sa'ada. Post believes that while documented influence is limited, Iran's strategic interests in Yemen merit close monitoring in the future. END SUMMARY.

Iran-royg relations -------------------

2. (S/NF) After two high-profile Iranian official visits to Sana'a in early 2009, the formal bilateral relationship has rapidly deteriorated as a result of renewed fighting in Sa'ada governorate. Iran maintains an embassy in Sana'a headed by Ambassador Mahmoud Zada. According to DATT sources, Iran is not providing any military training to the Yemenis, and there have been no announced military sales between the two countries in recent years. Iranian Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani visited Yemen in May 2009 to discuss Iranian investment in Yemen's energy and infrastructure sectors and the bilateral relationship. During Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki's June visit to Sana'a, his second in two years, both nations maintained at least a public appearance of normal bilateral cooperation. Mottaki told local media at the time, "Iran is pursuing an honest and friendly approach towards Yemen. Iran wants progress, security and prosperity for Yemen."

3. (S/NF) With the August onset of the sixth war in Sa'ada, however, the ROYG has reverted to its previous position that Iran is intent on meddling in Yemen's internal affairs. Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Chief of Protocol Abdullah al-Radhi, who spent over a decade in Tehran as a student and diplomat, including a tour as Yemen's ambassador to Iran, echoed the near-unanimous attitude of ROYG officials when he told the DCM on August 23 that he believes Iran wants a strong political card to play in Yemen similar to Hizballah in Lebanon. He said that Yemen tried to normalize the relationship with the visits of Larijani and Mottaki, but Yemen "cannot accept" Iranian attempts to convert the Yemeni Zaydis to Twelver Shiism. (Note: The ROYG views Zaydi Shiites as less extremist and closer in practice to Sunnis than the Twelver Shiism predominant in Iran. End Note.) Radhi also said that the Iranians are still upset about Yemen,s support for Iraq during and since the first Gulf War.

Iran and the houthis --------------------

4. (S/NF) Although the ROYG maintains that Iran is providing material and financial support to the Houthi rebels in Sa'ada, little evidence has surfaced to date that supports this claim. President Saleh told General Petraeus in a July 26 meeting that the National Security Bureau (NSB) had a DVD showing Houthi rebels training with Hizballah uniforms and tactics. (Note: In a follow-up conversation, NSB Deputy Director Ammar Saleh claimed no knowledge of the DVD. End Note.) In an August 17 meeting, Saleh told Senator McCain that Iran was working against Yemeni stability because it believed that a weakened Yemen would hurt the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, both traditional enemies of Iran. In the same meeting, NSB Director Ali Mohammed al-Ansi claimed that the ROYG had arrested two separate "networks" of Iranians in Yemen on charges of espionage in connection with the Houthis and that one of the accused admitted to providing $100,000 every month to the Houthis on behalf of the Iranian

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government. Ansi told Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan on September 6 that the ROYG was unable to share the evidence from this case because it was still in the courts. (Comment: Since the outbreak of hostilities in 2004, the ROYG has used many different arguments, including the Houthis' alleged ties to Iran and Hezballah, to attempt to convince the USG to declare the Houthis a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). In 2008, the ROYG gave post a dossier of information purporting to show ties between the Houthis and Iran. Post passed on the file to the inter-agency community in Washington. Analysts agreed that the information did not proove Iranian involvement in Sa'ada. End Note.)

5. (S/NF) ROYG spokesman Hassan al-Lawzi has repeated statements throughout the three weeks of fighting in Sa'ada accusing Iran of supporting the Houthi rebels. On September 1, Foreign Minister Abubakir al-Qirbi publicly warned Iran that interference in the Sa'ada conflict would have a negative impact on bilateral relations and that, if such interference continued, Yemen could be forced to make "hard decisions," according to media reports. Qirbi also lodged an official complaint with the Iranian Embassy in Sana'a detailing Yemen's displeasure with Iranian support for the Houthis. Director for External Financial Relations at the Ministry of Finance Fouad al-Kohlani told PolOff on August 19 that the Houthis' level of organizational sophistication and military successes against government forces indicate a higher level of financial resources than the Houthis could attain on their own. He speculated that because of its strategic interest in gaining a foothold near Saudi Arabia, Iran was likely the Houthis' financial backer. The Iranians, for their part, continue to deny any interference in Sa'ada. On August 23, the Iranian Embassy in Bahrain stated that Iran had no connections to events in Yemen and "supports any movement that works to unify the ranks of the Yemeni people," according to Bahraini media. The Iranian Embassy in Sana'a repeated these statements on September 7, Yemeni media reported.

6. (S/NF) Media reports on August 22 cited ROYG officials claiming to have uncovered six storehouses of Houthi-owned, Iranian-made weapons ) including machine guns, short-range rockets and ammunition ) near Sa'ada City. In xxxxxxxxxxxx told the OMC Chief that a limited number of weapons "of Iranian manufacture" were found in the area, but would not provide information on the quantity or type, and avoided a direct request from EmbOffs to view the weapons. In June, ROYG military contacts told the DATT that relations between the two countries were "strained" because of Iran's support for the Houthis, and denied that the ROYG was either communicating or in cooperation with Iranian ships conducting counter-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden. (Note: GRPO reporting confirms ROYG refusals to allow Iranian vessels access to Aden harbor, reportedly over ROYG concern that Iran was using Eritrea to ship weapons to the Houthis. End Note.) According to xxxxx, however, the Houthis do not need to receive weapons from outside of Yemen because they can easily capture or purchase them from the Yemeni military. xxxxx, who communicates on a daily basis with Houthis and other Sa'ada residents, agreed that the Houthis' weapons came from the Yemeni military ) either through capture or abandonment on the battlefield or via black-market arms deals by corrupt military commanders - and not from an external source such as Iran.

7. (S/NF) The general consensus among civil society is that Iranian government influence in Sa'ada is minimal, but the Houthis might receive some financial support from Iranian groups or individuals. xxxxxxxxxxxx, told PolOff on August 26 that Iran had not been involved historically in the conflict in Sa'ada, but with changingdomestic circumstances in Iran, might have become involved in the latest round of fighting. He addd, however, that he has no knowledge of any Iranian nationals in Sa'ada in recent years. (Note: The ROYG used to grant Iranians living in Yemen hajj visas to travel overland to Mecca, but stopped issuing the visas some time ago because the ROYG was uncomfortable about Iranians traveling through Sa'ada into Saudi Arabia. End Note.) xxxxx speculated that Iranian groups are likely giving

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money to the Houthis, but he does not know to what extent. With that money, the Houthis buy weapons from corrupt elements of the Yemeni armed forces that sell weapons and munitions, xxxxxxxxxxxx. Civil society actors, however, were also unable to provide any concrete evidence of the involvement of any Iranian nationals in Sa'ada.

8. (S/NF) To date, Iran's most visible involvement in the sixth war in Sa'ada has been the Iranian media's proxy battle with Saudi and Yemeni outlets over Iranian support for the Houthi rebels (Ref B). Continuing a tradition that dates back to the earliest stages of the Sa'ada conflict, the ROYG has accused Iran of financially and materially supporting the Houthi rebels. For its part, Iran ) through state media outlets including English-language Press TV and Arabic-language al-Alam TV ) has claimed that Saudi Arabia is directly involved in the military campaign against the Houthis. The Sa'ada conflict has thus become a propaganda war between Yemen, eager to enlist the support of its Sunni Arab neighbors and the U.S., and Iran, allegedly seeking to nurture a Shi'a proxy force on the Arabian Peninsula. On August 24, Iranian al-Alam TV quoted rebel leader Yahya al-Houthi as denying Iranian support for the Houthis. Iranian media have consistently shown video footage intended to embarrass the ROYG, including images of alleged soldiers fleeing the fighting and Houthis dancing on top of abandoned ROYG armored vehicles.

Iran and the south ------------------

9. (S/NF) Little evidence ) or even debate ) exists regarding Iran's role with the Southern Movement. The southern secessionist movement, which is formally a secular organization that has among its ranks former Sunni jihadists, has, to date, no established connections with either the Houthis or Iran.xxxxx, told PolOff in May and July that the movement had repeatedly rejected offers of collaboration with the Houthis. xxxxx told PolOff on September 6 that the movement's leaders wanted to continue peacefully advocating for separation, rather than affiliating themselves with the Houthis or external actors willing to advocate violence such as Iran. Some limited evidence, on the other hand, indicates that Iran might be a more willing partner with southerners fed up with the current regime. According to DATT contacts, the ROYG asked the then-Iranian military attache to leave Yemen in 2008, purportedly because he had attempted to make contact with separatists in the southern governorates. He has not been replaced. xxxxxxxxxxxx said that the Iranian Ambassador in Muscat had been instructed to "study the south of Yemen," especially Hadramout and Shabwa governorates.

Iran's soft power in yemen ---------------------------

10. (S/NF) Perceived Iranian influence in other arenas is limited to informal religious ties between Yemeni and Iranian scholars and negligible Iranian investment in the energy and development sectors. Despite Yemen's 40% Zaydi Shiite population, religiously-based interaction between Yemen and the world's largest Shi'a country is limited, perhaps because the form of Shiism Zaydis practice hews closer to Sunni Islam than the Twelver Shiism of Iran. xxxxxxxxxxxx, told the DCM on August 23 that he believes there is a lot of "coordination on Yemen" between Qom and Najjaf, with 40-50 Yemenis studying Islam in Najjaf, and some (NFI) studying in Qom as well. (Note: Given that Yemen has over 9 million Zaydis, it appears that the number of religious students studying in Iraq and Iran combined is very small. End Note.)

11. (S/NF) Iranian direct investment in the Yemeni economy is negligible,xxxxxxxxxxxx. The only recent significant Iranian commercial activity in Yemen involves the ROYG,s tortuous experience hiring the Tehran-based Parsian HV Substations Development Company to build the substation of the Marib 1 power plant (Ref C). ROYG officials at all levels told EconOff that the decision to hire the Iranian firm was purely political, rather than economic, stemming from a desire in 2005 to expand relations with Iran. The delays caused by the technical incompetence

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of the Iranian firm have resulted in hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars in foregone savings from switching away from expensive diesel and towards natural gas in the power sector. (Comment: Post believes Iranian commercial activity will remain limited in Yemen, absent future politically-driven bilateral trade missions. End Comment.) The Iranian government funds two hospitals in Sana'a that are among the better medical facilities in the capital. The management of the hospitals is Iranian, but the staff is largely local.

Comment -------

12. (S/NF) Yemen's formal relationship with Iran is by all accounts relatively fragile, and has continued to deteriorate in recent months. Since the start of the Sa'ada conflict in 2004, Yemen has looked to pin the Houthis' strength and resilience in fighting the ROYG on the Iranians. Despite Yemen's seemingly heartfelt concerns that Iran is backing the Houthi rebels and the ROYG's desire to convince its powerful friends (the U.S. and Saudi Arabia) of Iran's nefarious intentions in Yemen, it has to date been unable to produce any concrete evidence of what it says is wide-scale meddling. It is post's firm belief that if Yemen had any concrete evidence that the Houthis had connections to either Hizballah or Iran, it would have produced it immediately; the lack of such evidence likely indicates that the ROYG lacks any real proof of such links. On the other hand, Iran has clear strategic interests in gaining a foothold in Yemen (Sa'ada) and developing a proxy ally in the Houthis similar to Hizballah in Lebanon. Post believes that, while it is worth keeping an eye on Iranian activities in Yemen, Tehran's reach to date is limited. END COMMENT. Seche
Dec. 17, 2009, Sanaa: "yemen's counter terrorism unit stretched thin..."
XXXXXX: Redacted by the editors. Important note on the dispatches...

<<240360>> 12/17/2009 12:54 09SANAA2230 Embassy Sanaa SECRET//NOFORN 09SANAA1669|09SANAA1995|09SANAA2079 VZCZCXRO9119 RR RUEHBC RUEHDE RUEHDH RUEHDIR RUEHKUK RUEHTRO DE RUEHYN #2230/01 3511254 ZNY SSSSS ZZH R 171254Z DEC 09 FM AMEMBASSY SANAA TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 3405 INFO RUEHZM/GULF COOPERATION COUNCIL COLLECTIVE RUCNIRA/IRAN COLLECTIVE RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC RUEKDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC TAGS: PTER, MOPS, PINS, MASS, PGOV, YM SUBJECT: YEMEN'S COUNTER TERRORISM UNIT STRETCHED THIN BY REF: A. SANAA 01995

S e c r e t section 01 of 02 sanaa 002230

Sipdis noforn

Dept for nea/arp amacdonald and inr jyaphe

E.o. 12958: decl: 12/01/2019 Tags: pter, mops, pins, mass, pgov, ym Subject: yemen's counter terrorism unit stretched thin by war against houthis

Ref: a. Sanaa 01995 b. Sanaa 02079 c. Sanaa 01669

Classified By: Ambassador Stephen Seche for reasons 1.4(b) and (d).

1. (S/NF) SUMMARY. As the sixth war against the Houthis continues to squeeze Yemen's conventional military, the ROYG has looked to its U.S. and U.K.-funded and trained counterterrorism forces to provide some relief to battered army forces. The Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) - trained to detect small terrorist cells and investigate and prevent terror attacks on civilian targets - is a poor tactical choice for use against a long-term domestic insurgency. The ROYG, desperate to defeat the Houthis at any cost, has largely ignored USG concerns regarding deployment of the CTU to Sa'ada. The CTU has been unable to go after genuine terrorist targets like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) while it has been tied down in Sa'ada. CTU involvement in a ROYG operation against AQAP on the morning of December 17 is a welcome return to its core mission, although it remains to be seen if this was any more than a one-off occurrence. END SUMMARY.

Signs of royg desperation in sa'ada -----------------------------------

2. (C) As the sixth war in Sa'ada, now in its fifth month, drags on in a tit-for-tat struggle between ROYG military forces and Houthi rebels, the ROYG has attempted to use its elite CT forces to provide needed extra muscle.xxxxx, told PolOff in late November xxxxxxxxxxxx forces were being pulled into the Sa'ada conflict because of the perception that the CTU is made up of "super-men that can solve any problem and defeat anybody." (Note: CTU forces were initially sent to Sa'ada in July to investigate the kidnapping of a group of Western aid workers. Post assesses that the CTU was drawn into the Houthi conflict in early September. End Note.) Such a misperception of the CTU's capabilities and mission was hurting the unit, xxxxxxxxxxxx. During the U.S.-Yemen Joint Staff Talks hosted in Sana'a November 8-11, xxxxx publicly impressed upon Brigadier General Ali Dahan of the Yemen Special Operations Forces (YSOF), another elite military unit also involved in CT operations, and other senior Ministry of Defense (MOD) leadership the severity of the situation in Sa'ada and the toll it was taking on the CTU. xxxxxxxxxxxx told Dahan, "You may not be feeling the hurt of this war, but the CTU is fighting in Sa'ada and is taking casualties." (COMMENT: xxxxxxxxxxxx while the CTU was being deployed in Sa'ada. xxxxxxxxxxxx believes the YSOF should be doing more in Sa'ada, which would allow the CTU to return to its primary mission. END COMMENT.)

3. (S/NF) Increasingly desperate to defeat the Houthis, the ROYG continues to insist that fighting the Houthis is a legitimate component of CT operations, thus justifying the use of CTU forces in Sa'ada. xxxxxxxxxxxx, "The war against the Houthis is not a distraction from the CT fight. It is the CT fight." xxxxx Despite the injection of CTU forces into the fight three months ago, the Sa'ada war drags on and, according to xxxxxxxxxxxx is taking "heavy casualties" due to their lack of training for this type of warfare. At the urging of CTU leadership, the Supreme Security Council agreed to move all CTU forces (two platoons) out of Sa'ada on December 9. xxxxx confirmed that the MOI Regional Commander ordered elements of the CTU, believed to be one platoon, to remain in Sa'ada until Sa'ada City is cleared of Houthi fighters.

Ct operations constrained due to sa'ada war -------------------------------------------

4. (S/NF) Following the return of one platoon to Sana'a, the CTU undertook its first CT operation against AQAP in four months on the morning of December 17. However, according to xxxxx deployment to Sa'ada has hurt the CTU's readiness capabilities. Ideally, the unit is primed for rapid response to any CT threat in and around Sana'a within 10 minutes. The

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CTU is broken into four platoons which rotate every two weeks: one on leave, a second in training, a third on standby, and a fourth as a Quick Reaction Force (QRF). With one platoon in Sa'ada, and another on active duty in Sana'a, the CTU has no surge capacity.xxxxxxxxxxxx the CTU's training and operational cycle has been disrupted by the Sa'ada war. "Since August, the QRF has been in Sa'ada, taking heavy casualties because they have been engaged in heavy fighting. We have only had a chance to send a relief team twice since the latest conflict started." He said that the use of USG-provided armored vehicles and humvees has "been fundamental in preventing casualties." (NOTE: Post has repeatedly questioned ROYG use of U.S. military equipment and U.S.-trained forces intended to combat AQAP in the war against the Houthi rebels. END NOTE.)

5. (S/NF) The CTU was established just six years ago at the urging of the USG and has received substantial funding and training from U.S. special operations forces and British conventional army trainers. Their training has focused on detecting and neutralizing the AQAP threat, not fighting a long-term, domestic insurgency. In particular, the CTU is predominantly trained for CT "direct action missions" in which they isolate an AQAP cell and capture its members based on specific intelligence. Referring to the guerilla warfare tactics the Houthis have been using xxxxxxxxxxxx U.S. training in "unconventional warfare" and tactics used by the U.S. forces in "asymmetric warfare" of the type encountered in the mountains of Afghanistan, suggesting the CTU expects to continue to use its forces in Sa'ada.

Comment -------

6. (S/NF) Bogged down in a seemingly unwinnable war that pits conventional forces against determined rebels, the ROYG has resorted to using its specialized CT units. Untrained to fight this type of conflict, the overstretched CTU has reportedly sustained significant casualties, missed training opportunities and been derailed from its principal mission: to combat AQAP. While U.S. concerns over diversion of troops and equipment have been acknowledged, they have clearly not resulted in a significant change of ROYG focus from the Houthis to AQAP. CTU deployment to Sa'ada, while a distraction, is not a crushing blow to all potential CT activities, as demonstrated by the December 17 CT operation. However, it remains to be seen if this indicates a balancing of priorities between the Houthi conflict and AQAP, or if it is simply a momentary return to the CTU's primary mission. End comment. Seche
Dec. 28, 2009, Sanaa: "yemeni tribal leader: for saleh, saudi involvement..."
XXXXXX: Redacted by the editors. Important note on the dispatches...

<<241752>> 12/28/2009 10:44 09SANAA2279 Embassy Sanaa CONFIDENTIAL 09RIYADH1617|09SANAA1611|09SANAA1617|09SANAA2227 VZCZCXRO6290 RR RUEHBC RUEHDE RUEHDH RUEHDIR RUEHKUK RUEHTRO DE RUEHYN #2279/01 3621044 ZNY CCCCC ZZH R 281044Z DEC 09 FM AMEMBASSY SANAA TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 3462 INFO RUEHZM/GULF COOPERATION COUNCIL COLLECTIVE RUCNIRA/IRAN COLLECTIVE RHMFISS/CDR USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL RHMFISS/COMSOCCENT MACDILL AFB FL RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHDC RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHINGTON DC TAGS: PGOV, PREL, PINR, SA, IR, YE SUBJECT: YEMENI TRIBAL LEADER: FOR SALEH, SAUDI INVOLVEMENT REF: A. RIYADH 1617

C o n f i d e n t i a l section 01 of 02 sanaa 002279

Sipdis

Dept for nea/arp andrew macdonald

E.o. 12958: decl: 12/28/2019 Tags: pgov, prel, pinr, sa, ir, ye Subject: yemeni tribal leader: for saleh, saudi involvement in sa'ada comes not a moment too soon

Ref: a. Riyadh 1617 b. Sanaa 2227 c. Sanaa 1617 d. Sanaa 1611

Classified By: CDA Angie Bryan for reasons 1.4(b) and (d).

1. (C) SUMMARY: President Saleh believes the Saudi Government's military actions in Sa'ada will alleviate mounting domestic political pressure on him to demonstrate progress against the Houthi rebels, according to xxxxxxxxxxxx told EconOff that Saleh views Saudi involvement in the war, and the concomitant increase in direct Saudi budget support to the ROYG, as an incentive to prolong the ROYG's campaign in Sa'ada. xxxxx also claimed that members of the Saudi Special Office for Yemen Affairs, in contrast to the Saudi Government's official support for the ROYG, are privately very skeptical of Saleh's claims regarding Iranian assistance for the Houthi rebels. The long absence from Saudi Arabia of Crown Prince Sultan, a Saleh skeptic who normally heads the Special Office, has meant that the Yemen file has largely been in the hands of King Abdullah, a firm supporter of Saleh, according to xxxxx End summary.

Saleh relieved by saudi involvement, but still overwhelmed --------------------------------------------- -------------

2. (C) In the past month, President Saleh has told a number of his top advisors that continued direct Saudi involvement in the Houthi conflict will alleviate domestic political pressure on the ROYG to produce tangible gains against the Houthis, according to xxxxxxxxxxxx. Saleh also views continued Saudi involvement as the key to keeping the tap of Saudi budget support open (Saudi monetary support for ROYG military operations will be reported septel). The greater financial incentives attached to direct Saudi participation in the conflict mean Saleh now has an incentive to prolong the conflict rather than seek a mediated solution. (Comment: xxxxx comments on Saleh's thinking support similar accounts from other Post contacts reported in REF B. xxxxxxxxxxxx. The chummy relationship between xxxxx that EconOff also attended. End Comment.)

3. (C) Like other Saleh watchers (REF C), xxxxx characterizes the multitude of threats facing Saleh as qualitatively different and more threatening to the regime's stability than those during any other time in Yemen's history. "Saleh is overwhelmed, exhausted by the war, and more and more intolerant of internal criticism. Saudi involvement comes at just the right time for him" xxxxx said. Largely unprecedented criticism of Saleh's leadership within the rarified circle of Saleh's closest advisors has increased in recent months, even including longtime Saleh loyalists such as xxxxxxxxxxxx, according to xxxxx These names add to the growing chorus of Saleh loyalists that have shed their traditional aversion to disparaging the man they call "The Boss" (REF D).

Saudis divided on confidence in saleh's sa'ada claims --------------------------------------------- --------

4. (C) Members of the Saudi Government's Special Office for Yemen Affairs, a committee normally headed by Crown Prince Sultan, are privately skeptical of Saleh's claims of Iranian involvement and of his desire to regionalize the Sa'ada conflict, according to xxxxx told EconOff on December 14 xxxxx that Saleh was providing false or exaggerated information on Iranian assistance to the Houthis in order to enlist direct Saudi involvement and regionalize the conflict. xxxxx said that xxxxx told him that "we know Saleh is lying about Iran, but there's nothing we can do about it now."

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5. (C) The prolonged absence from Saudi Arabia of Special Office chairman Crown Prince Sultan (REF A), who xxxxx claims is also highly skeptical of Saleh, left the Yemen file in the hands of King Abdullah, who has greater confidence in Saleh's motives and leadership abilities. Committee members have kept their doubts about Saleh's leadership abilities private since the departure of Crown Prince Sultan, creating a vacuum of Yemen policy advice in the Saudi Government that resulted in the decision to intervene directly in the Houthi conflict, xxxxx. King Abdullah was much more receptive to Saleh's entreaties for direct Saudi involvement than Crown Prince Sultan ever would have been, xxxxx.

6. (C) RIYADH COMMENT: We agree with xxxxx observation that Saudi support is enabling Saleh to weather increased domestic political pressure and continue his campaign against the Houthis. However, xxxxx assumption that King Abdullah's "greater confidence" in Saleh is driving this support may be flawed. We have seen no evidence that the King has any particular regard for Saleh beyond exasperation that borders on disgust. Senior Saudi officials make no secret of their distaste for Saleh, but see him as the "devil they know." Aware of his growing weakness, they view their support as essential to keeping Yemen's problems contained. Further, contacts say Second Deputy PM and Minister of Interior Prince Nayif, widely believed to advocate a tougher approach to the Yemen problem, has been heavily involved in the Yemen file in Sultan,s absence. Some suggest that the border actions -- while temporarily propping up Saleh -- may be indicative of Saudi plans to take a harder line towards Yemen in the longer term. END RIYADH COMMENT.

7. (U) Embassy Riyadh has cleared this cable. Bryan

The country is difficult to control due to its many clans and rugged mountainous regions. The US has sought to increase the anti-terror capabilities of the Yemeni army by providing significant aid and training. But a large amount of the materiel provided by the Americans has actually been deployed for the war in Sadah -- as have some of the units trained by US specialists. Indeed, the dispatches make it clear that the campaign is one which likely could not be maintained without US support.

Washington is aware of the problem, yet tacitly accepts it. "A concerted US anti-terrorism campaign in Yemen will free Saleh to continue to devote his limited security assets to the ongoing war against Houthi rebels in Saada," reads one of the dispatches. "The net effect, and one we strongly suspect Saleh has calculated, of both the American and Yemeni 'iron fist' unleashed at the same time in Yemen will be a clear message to the southern movement or any other party interested in generating political unrest in the country that a similar fate awaits them."

'Extra Muscle' in the Fight against the Houthis

US Special Forces and British army instructors are in the country and training the Yemenites to combat terror. The US has spent a total of $160 million on this effort since 2002 -- but in December 2009, it became clear that two of the four specially trained anti-terror units were fighting in the war against the Houthis. They had originally been dispatched to Sadah in July specifically to find nine hostages, including a number of Germans. "The Yemeni government has attempted to use its elite counter-terrorism forces to provide needed extra muscle," reads one of the embassy dispatches.

The US is displeased -- less because of the civil war than because of the fact that their special forces have been misappropriated and can no longer be used for their intended mission against AQAP.

The same is true of military hardware provided by the US. A high-ranking Yemeni officer leaked to the US diplomat something that President Saleh has denied: that American military equipment -- contrary to official US government policy -- is also being used against the Houthis. The officer urged the Americans to train the anti-terror units in the future in "unconventional warfare" as they did in Afghanistan, "suggesting the counter-terrorism unit expects to continue to use its forces in Saada," the embassy dispatch commented. "While US concerns over diversion of troops and equipment have been acknowledged, they have clearly not resulted in a significant change of Yemeni government focus from the Houthis to AQAP."

Washington has known at least since late December 2009 that President Saleh was deploying American weapons and US-trained troops against the rebels. Nevertheless, the US has recently extended its collaboration with him. At a meeting in January of this year, US General David Petraeus promised the president $150 million for 2010 alone.

'I Promise'

America is also helping Yemen to acquire helicopter gunships. "The US could convince Saudi Arabia and the UAE to supply six helicopters each if the American 'bureaucracy' prevented quick approval, Saleh suggested," according to a US Embassy report on a meeting between Saleh and Petraeus in January of this year. "The general responded that he had already considered Yemen's request for helicopters and was in discussions with Saudi Arabia on the matter." Saleh then assured his American guest: "'We won't use the helicopters in Saada, I promise. Only against al-Qaida.'" Hardly any leader lies as brazenly as the president of Yemen. He lies to the people, the parliament and his allies.

At the top of his list of favorite lies: The Houthis are a new Hezbollah.

He has a range of proof, including a video in which Houthis chant "death to America, death to Israel." There is also a DVD that President Saleh personally presented to General Petraeus in the summer of 2009: It allegedly shows Houthi rebels in Hezbollah uniforms -- but oddly enough the deputy director of the Yemeni intelligence agency NSB has no knowledge of the video, according to the US dispatches. Later that same year, Republican US Senator John McCain, while on a visit to the country, was informed that the intelligence agency had eliminated two Iranian networks in Yemen. Shortly thereafter, Yemeni media reported that six warehouses had been discovered with Iranian machine guns, short-range missiles and ammunition. Proof, though, was not forthcoming. It was classified as top secret, the Yemenis said. Alternately, they claimed it was being used as evidence in a trial.

"Most recently, the Yemeni government has failed to substantiate its extravagant, public claims that an Iranian ship seized in the Red Sea off its coast on Oct. 25 was carrying Iranian military trainers, weapons and explosives destined for the Houthis," reads one dispatch. "In fact, sensitive reporting suggests that the ship was carrying no weapons at all."

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