DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources reported minutes before this issue closed that the CIA Director Leon Panetta had arrived secretly in Cairo and Jerusalem Thursday night, Jan. 28, to prepare the ground for expanding US military intervention in Yemen against al Qaeda's strongholds.
In Cairo, Panetta discussed the use of Egyptian airports for the transfer of US troops and equipment to Yemen.
In Jerusalem, he exchanged intelligence evaluations on the Yemen front.
The complexities of the conflicts crisscrossing Yemen are unending. They certainly defied the combined efforts to cut through to solutions by the representatives of 20 countries, led by US Secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who convened in London Wednesday, Jan. 27.
As the meeting began, the US military leaked word that the US had been deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops against al Qaeda for the past six weeks – thus confirming the report in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 427 of Jan. 1 2010 (The Americans Are Already Fighting Terror in Yemen -Though Covertly.)
This involvement is about to expand.
Clinton argued that economic aid without limited military intervention would not save Ali Abdullah Salah's regime in Sanaa or his impoverished country of 22 million inhabitants, which is strategically positioned at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and commands the narrow straits into the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Yemen would sink into anarchy at the mercy of three insurgencies and multiplying power moves.
Her fellow-participants were not convinced.
Yemen is beset with an Iran-backed Houthi revolt in the north which also spills over into Saudi Arabia; the grip of "Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula" in the central and southeastern regions; and the Southern Engine separatist movement around the southern port of Aden.
And that is not all.
Since much of the reporting on Yemen is confusing at best, mendacious at worst, DEBKA-Net-Weekly offers a short guide to its various conflicts and their respective dynamics:
The Houthi Rebellion
In the last week of December 2009, after the Saudi air force and special operations units, backed by
Moroccan commandoes (not Jordanian as we erroneously reported at the time), were beaten back by the Houthi rebels, Riyadh negotiated a ceasefire deal with the Houthis, mediated by Syrian president Bashar Assad through his Iranian cronies, and pulled its troops out of Yemen.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 427 of Jan. 1: DNW Saudi Armed Forces Routed in Yemen.)
The Houthis did not keep to their side of the bargain and kept up their armed incursions into southern Saudi Arabia in an effort to stir up rebellion among the Saudi Ismaili tribes.
In the second week of January, the Saudis resumed their battles against the Houthis.
Military intelligence experts reckon this war can go on for a long period of time without resolution.
The same holds true for the Yemeni army's attempts to quell the Houthi rebellion. The rebels manage to keep the upper hand in the field because Abdullah Salah is short of the military strength for crushing them.
The War against Al-Qaeda
Most of the air and special operations strikes against al Qaeda strongholds are carried out by US and Saudi forces – very few by the Yemenis although they habitually take the credit.
These operations are by and large ineffective.
The local al Qaeda branch has forged pacts with tribal and clan chiefs in central and southeastern Yemen gaining free license to operate at will in three provinces: Marib, east of the capital Sanaa, which controls its eastern and southern approaches; Abyan in the south, which controls the southern reaches of the Gulf of Aden; and Hadhramaut in the southwest, Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland, which controls the entrance to the Arabian Sea from the Gulf of Aden.
This is the first place where al Qaeda has gained free access to the sea.
The Southern Engine Movement
While the war on al Qaeda has filled front pages, especially since the Yemeni link came to light in the failed bombing of a US-bound airliner last month, very little notice has been taken of the conflict which has the most potential for determining Yemen's future and ending its integrity.
The Southern Engine separatists aspire to carve Yemen in two and base their claim to partition on solid religious and ethnic differences between the South and the North. Some nine million Yemenis of the south, almost half the population, are Sunni Muslims, while central and northern Yemen are dominated by secular or practicing Shiites.
If al Qaeda cements its grip on the provinces of Marib, Abyan and Hadhramaut, then the two elements would tip Yemen over from a Shiite-dominated country to a Sunni republic.
This prospect has not been lost on the Gulf emirates, chiefly Oman on Yemen's border, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources report that for a time, the Saudi royal house backed the Sunni Southern Engine movement politically and financially, but withdrew this support after concluding that the Salah regime could not fight three enemies and survive.
The Gulf Emirates Lose Faith in a United Yemen
The rulers of the Gulf emirates jumped in where Riyadh backed off, piping funds and arms to the Southern Engine movement. Their motivation, which none of the delegates to the London conference on the future of Yemen raised, was simple: The Salah regime and with it the united Yemen Republic are doomed to collapse. In these circumstances, the Persian Gulf states must step in sooner rather than later to guarantee their own interests.
They propose helping the separatists establish a Sunni state in southern Yemen ruled by an administration akin to their own emirates. This state would act as a buffer against the pro-Iranian Shiite republic predicted for northern Yemen and the al Qaeda-ruled provinces in the center and south-east.
This is not the only new complication besetting Yemen.
On Wednesday, as Hillary Clinton and her British colleague David Miliband waxed poetic over Yemen's dire need for more help, DEBKA-Net-Weekly Gulf sources discovered the embattled Red Sea republic's two main tribes, the Hashid Tribal Federation and The Bakil Federation, had published a resolution pledging to resist any American involvement in their country.
The Hashids are the biggest tribal federation in Yemen. Their lands stretch across the mountains of the north and northwest of the country. The Bakil federation is the next in size with holdings in the far north.
No government can hold sway in Sanaa without the support of these two tribal federations.
President Salah therefore finds himself on the horns of a fresh dilemma: He must choose between the US bolstering his regime against the foes gathering around its gates or retaining the popular buttress of his rule.
The Obama administration, for its part, must reach a clear decision about whether the US really wants to sink in the Yemeni quicksand.