Tuesday, April 21, Saudi-owned Arabiya TV announced the end of the kingdom’s military operation against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. “The alliance had achieved its goals in Yemen through the Storm of Resolve campaign and would begin a new operation called Restoring Hope. The focus would now be on security at home and counter-terrorism, aid and a political solution in Yemen.”
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A simultaneous announcement came from Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian: “We are optimistic that in the coming hours, after many efforts, we will see a halt to military attacks in Yemen.”
Both statements evaporated in thin air within hours.
Wednesday, Saudi Arabia, which had carried out 2,250 air strikes in just over three weeks, resumed its air campaign against the Houthi forces. Its warplanes bombed pro-Iranian Houthi rebel positions southwest of Taiz, after they seized a brigade base from forces loyal to fugitive President Abdu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
It was clear that the Houthis had no intention of submitting to the Obama administration’s attempt to broker a Yemen ceasefire between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Iran, too, instructed its warships to stay on course for the Gulf of Aden opposite Yemen, in the face of President Barack Obama’s sharp warning Tuesday night, “…if there are weapons delivered to factions within Yemen that could threaten navigation, that's a problem.'”
So what was behind this to-ing and fro-ing over the Yemen crisis and where is it going?
US general warns Saudis to halt air strikes, accept a truce
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources disclose that on Thursday, April 16, US Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of the US Central Command, warned Saudi leaders in Riyadh that their air campaign in Yemen had exhausted its usefulness. This was taken as a US threat to cut off the intelligence assistance provided for the Saudi Air Force to target rebels and their military collaborators, led by the ousted president Abdullah Ali Saleh.
Gen. Austin advised the Saudis that persisting in their air campaign would result in Iran boosting aid to the Houthi rebels by helping them fire ballistic missiles against Saudi cities and stepping up the delivery of weapons.
The US general then informed Riyadh about another option. He disclosed that the Obama administration and Iranian leadership were in secret dialogue on ways to end the Yemen war. Tehran, he said, was willing to stop sending military supplies to the rebels and, for the sake of a ceasefire, to sacrifice their ally, the former Yemeni president and his son Ahmed. The quid pro quo? Houthi representatives must be co-opted to a national unity government headed by the pro-Saudi President Hadi.
According to Gen. Austin, Iran also pledged before Washington to abstain from attempts to seize the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb or Yemeni ports, promising to respect the freedom of navigation in the strategic Red Sea strait just as it upholds shipping rights in the Strait of Hormuz.
The Saudis promised to think the plan over and come back soon with their answer.
Obama turns GCC down on US defense guarantee
Sunday, April 19, Obama sent CIA Director John Brennan to Cairo. He went straight into a meeting with President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi, after which they issued a joint statement saying they had discussed ways of “enhancing bilateral relations and regional issues and agreed to continue consultations and coordination on issues of mutual interest.”
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources disclose that, while they certainly discussed the Yemen conflict (see a separate article), Brennan was most interested in hearing about Egypt’s plans for Libya. He asked whether El-Sisi was preparing an offensive against the eastern region of Cyrenaica in parallel with the Saudi operation in Yemen.
Monday, Apirl 20, the US President turned down a Gulf Cooperation Council application for an American guarantee to defend GCC members against external aggression. This refusal was delivered to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the United Arab Emirates Crown Prince and commander of UAE armed forces, during his visit to the White House.
But Obama did assure the Gulf potentate that the United States would not allow Iran free rein in the Arabian Peninsula. To that end, he had ordered the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier and the USS Normandy guided missile cruiser to sail from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Aden. Its mission was to prevent an Iranian armada of nine vessels putting into port in Yemen and unloading arms for the Houthi rebels.
The president also promised his visitor that the entire issue of Gulf security and cooperation would be thrashed out when its rulers were entertained for a summit conference at the presidential resort of Camp David on May 14.
Saudis see US cutting Iran down outside Gulf region
Based on the messages relayed by President Obama to the emir, by the CIA chief to Egypt and by Gen. Austin to Riyadh, Saudi rulers drew up a roadmap of America’s regional commitments and abstentions.
First: The United States will not deepen its involvement in the Yemen conflict beyond its current scope. The US focus henceforth is the defense of freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Bab el-Mandeb chokepoint for world shipping between the East and the West.
Second: Washington has put Tehran on notice that any further expansion of Iranian influence across the Arabian Peninsula would not be tolerated.
Third: President Obama has accepted Iran’s right to pursue initiatives within the Gulf region, with which its neighbors would have to contend – but not outside the region, where the Iranians would come up against the United States.
(Read a separate article about Iran’s status as regional power.)
In an interview on MSNBC’s Hardball, Obama warned Iran against delivering weapons to Yemen that could be used to threaten shipping traffic in the region. “We’ve actually been very straightforward to them,” he said.
Tehran was led to believe by this remark that Washington was less concerned by the crisis in Yemen than the situation around its waters.
Saudi roadmap covers its bases
The Saudis accordingly laid out a tentative four-point course of action:
1. They met the Americans halfway by initially accepting a halt on their air strikes in Yemen.
Those strikes were quickly resumed when Riyadh discovered that none of the other parties had reciprocated by holding fire.
2. They departed from the US-initiated ceasefire by keeping their naval blockade of Yemen in place.
3. They decided to launch a rehabilitation program to repair the ravages of war in Yemen and seek a political solution for its internal strife.
DEBKA Weekly: This is likely to be a mission impossible considering the plethora of warring elements in the country and the host of external dabblers in its troubles.
4. King Salman placed the Saudi National Guard, a force that is larger, more professional and better-armed than the national army, on a state of preparedness to join the conflict.
By this step, Riyadh showed its mistrust of the Obama administration’s assumption that a US policy confined to defending the seas around Yemen was workable.