Thursday, August 8, 2013

Why is Winning in Yemen Important?

by Prof. Alexander Bligh

The fall of Yemen's central government in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, together with circumspect policymaking, the plethora of separatists, the U.S. government and painful memories of Iraq lingering in the background have helped produce combustible and strategic nodes of conflict between radical Islam and the West. 

One of these flashpoints is in Yemen, situated on one of four main maritime routes that transformed the Middle East from a remote backwater somewhere out there in western Asia to the focal point for international interests over the past few centuries. The straits of Bab el-Mandeb -- the Red Sea's southern entrance -- are under Yemenite sovereignty, though the country lacks an effective central government. The waterway is the only way to reach Aqaba in Jordan or Eilat in Israel, two nations with close ties to the United States. It is also the best option for Europe to access ports in the Far East. 

The Suez Canal is another one of these four strategic points of interest. While that passageway is under Egyptian sovereignty, a battle is raging in that North African country over the characteristic makeup of its government, and the possibility of radical Islamists forcing the closure of the canal is still very real. The Turkish straits under Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling Islamists' control are another one of those strategic points. The last important spot is the Straits of Hormuz, which is controlled by Iran to the northeast. These passageways are in danger. Radical Islamists could block these vital oil routes where Western navies patrol. Al-Qaida intends to be the first radical Islamic group to seize one of these four strategic points. 

The former Yemenite government's collapse and the resulting power vacuum created an opportunity for al-Qaida -- perhaps one of a kind -- to try and capture a strategic outpost where the organization could pose a threat to the U.S., Europe, Israel and Jordan. Even if al-Qaida does not go ahead and block the straits, it would become the effective authority there. Perhaps, beside ruling from its capital in Sana'a, the organization would expel the U.S. and Europe from the area. Al-Qaida would have unprecedented means of blackmailing the U.S. and its allies.

The regional ramifications of al-Qaida's movement through Yemen could also be devastating to northern neighbor Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaida preaches a Sunni Islamic doctrine that considers the Saudi authorities heretical, since their interpretation of Islam is inconsistent with that of the organization. What that means is that today, several Islamist terrorist groups, with al-Qaida at the helm, are acting against the Saudi government. Al-Qaida's control of Yemen would position the organization on the Saudi border itself, and would result in a spike of violent opposition to the Saudi government. Even Saudi oil fields would fall under danger of sabotage, which would damage both the Saudi regime and its customers, mostly in the West. 

All of these considerations form the backdrop for U.S. deployment in Yemen. But having its army around the Arabian peninsula does not quell all of Washington's concerns. Almost a year ago, the U.S. ambassador in Libya was killed by a mob of Islamic terrorists. Apparently U.S. intelligence could have prevented the attack, but the U.S. failed to act on warnings. From the American perspective, prudent caution now by closing its embassies in the Muslim world is necessary to avoid a repeat of the tragic events in Tripoli. 

Prof. Alexander Bligh is the head of the Middle East research center at Ariel University


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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