In Yemen, Saudis to Confront Iran, Americans AQAP
It is time to discuss your future, said Saudi King Abdullah, sitting down Yemen's absentee President Ali Abdullah Saleh, his guest for the last three months in a sumptuous marbled palace in Riyadh, for a serious talk on Monday, Sept. 19.
Although the Gulf press insisted this week that the Saudis were reluctant to tell Saleh to step down, the king made no bones about making him understand that he can never go back to Yemen, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources report. If he tried to return home, taking with him the large retinue of security staff and political aides attending him, he would find the plane that brought him to Saudi Arabia, badly wounded from an attempt on his life gone from the runway.
Ali Saleh did not have much choice. He bowed to the king's will after they briefly reviewed the Saudi plan for resolving the Yemeni crisis, which called for the president's resignation to be followed by the creation of a national unity government in Sanaa representing all of Yemen's opposition organizations as well as Al Saleh’s sons and relatives.
This was the same formula Russia developed for Libya on the eve of the NATO-led rebel conquest of Tripoli in the third week of August. Asked by the US to mediate the Libyan crisis, Moscow convened a national reconciliation council in the Tunisian town of Djerba to discuss a national unity government that would include Qaddafi's sons.
Only later did the Russians discover that NATO had supported the gambit as a diversion from its march on Tripoli.
Yemeni bloodshed has not put the Saudis off their plan
This same blueprint of plan and secret counter-plan played out in the Yemeni capital this week with different actors.
No sooner had Ali Saleh approved the Saudi plan than his sons and relatives this week set out to torpedo it by bombing the Sanaa bastions of their two rivals: Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsin Saleh Ahmar, who in March defected to the opposition with the 1st Armored Division he commanded; and Hamid Ahmar, a scion of the powerful Hashid tribe, who made a billion-dollar fortune from the banking, oil business and mobile phone concession awarded him by President Saleh.
Ahmar turned against his benefactor because, like the renegade general, he objected to the Saleh sons assuming power in Yemen. Both defectors paid the price this week at the hands of the Saleh clan, led by Ali Saleh's son Ahmed Saleh, commander of the Republican Guard, which controls roughly two-thirds of the still loyal Yemeni army.
The immediate outcome was bloody: more than 100 dead in three days.
The Saudis are nonetheless not convinced that their master plan for Yemen is unrealistic.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources say Riyadh remains determined to set up a national reconciliation council because one of its key clauses promotes a prime Saudi objective.
Earlier in the Yemen conflict, the Saudis supported the South Yemen Engine Movement and its leader, Brig. Gen. Ali Mohammed Assadi, in the hope of his heading a breakaway pro-Saudi-GCC government in the South that would secede from Yemen.
For Saudis the Iranian-backed Houthis are the No. 1 peril
Now, in return for withdrawing Saudi support from this movement, King Abdullah has charged him with the formation of a new national unity government that would unify all Yemen's fighting forces and recapture the northern Yemen regions which recently fell to the Zaydi Shiite insurgent Houthis.
With Iranian support, arms and military instructors, the Houthis have seized control of nearly all the borderlands between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has come to see the Iranian surrogates as a bigger threat to the oil kingdom than Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula –AQAP and the turmoil in Yemen.
Thus far, Riyadh and Washington see eye to eye on Yemen, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources say. But when it comes to the order of priorities for action, they part company.
In his first and only public statement since assuming the post of CIA Director, David Petraeus on Sept. 13 said that AQAP based in Yemen had emerged as the "most dangerous" affiliate of the extremist group as the terrorism threat shifted outside South Asia.
In his testimony to congress, Petraeus called it "the most dangerous regional node of the global jihad."
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counterterrorism sources report that the Saudis are far from discounting the threat Al Qaeda poses from Yemen. That is why, for the first time in seven years, they gave the CIA permission two months ago to build a new station situated, according to American intelligence sources, “somewhere on the Arabian Peninsula,” i.e., in the Najran area of southern Saudi Arabia opposite the border with Yemen.
For the oil kingdom, the Iranian peril is far more palpable and pressing than the danger posed by Al Qaeda. The Houthis must be disposed of first.
On this point the royal house in Riyadh and the Obama administration are divided.