Tag Archives: foreign policy

Yemen’s elite factions

I recently read through Yemen Endures: Civil War, Saudi Adventurism, and the Future of Arabia (2017), an excellent journalistic and historical account of Yemeni politics in the last two decades, written by Ginny Hill, who appears to be one of the few Western/English-speaking journalists who have spent a significant amount of time in the country.  The book does much to unveil complex elite networks, and the rivalries and conflicts that have been bubbling under the surface in Yemen, which exploded into full view after the rupture of the Arab Spring and have now drawn in regional and international powers in what may end up being the most catastrophic war in decades, with tens of millions of people at risk.

Perhaps the most interest part of the book is the unpacking of the three factions that were holding together the Yemeni state prior to the 2011 Arab Spring protests.  You had Ali Abdullah Saleh, the regime leader with a vast patronage network, built over decades of rule.  Then you had Ali Mohsin, a major military figure under Saleh who had his own relatively independent support base, and much closer ties with Islah, a Islamist political party associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.  And finally, you had Sheikh Abdullah — speaker of the parliament — and his son Hamid — a powerful businessman with his fingers in every part of the economy — both of whom lead the Hashid tribal confederacy and also had ties with Islah.

The patronage network that held the regime coalition together was largely fueled by oil profits.  This worked, for a time — but Yemen’s crude oil production peaked in early 2001, meaning that as the decade dragged on, the regime elites were facing a zero-sum game over a shrinking pie.  This also seems to have been underpinned by different factions cultivating ties with various international actors.  Saleh managed to get closer to the US military apparatus after the start of the War on Terror by playing up the presence of al-Qaeda in the country, even as he played a double game and diverted funds and training to boost up his own loyalist wing of the military, the Republican Guard.  Meanwhile, Hamid’s powerful holding company, the al-Ahmar group, cultivated increasing ties with regional and international capital and steadily increased control over various parts of the Yemeni economy.

Meanwhile, Ali Mohsin was at the head of the 1st Armored Division.  The growing rivalry between Mohsin and Saleh lead to a rather chaotic situation during the Houthi insurgency in the later 2000s.  The 1st Armored Division was tasked with leading the fight against the Houthis, but kept being cut off by peace deals negotiated unilaterally by Saleh.  At some points there were even violent clashes around the northern city of Saada between the Republican Guard and the 1st Armored Division, as these intra-regime tensions began to increasingly boil over.  The Houthis, for their part, generally held their own militarily, and even successfully fought back some tepid Saudi attempts at military intervention at the northern borders.  This is some of the more recent historical context of the current war, that saw Saleh and his loyalists join forces with the Houthis to fight a full-on civil war against the post-Arab Spring regime, supported by Mohsin and Hamid and Islah.

And of course, always lurking above Yemen, is the US empire, who has in recent years stepped up their increasingly confused military actions, which appear to be carried out with little to no understanding of Yemeni politics, and yet can reverberate and shake up the entire country.  This was seen in a most dramatic fashion in May 2010, when a drone strike killed a deputy governor and powerful tribal leader, during a meeting where he was trying to negotiate a settlement between the regime and al-Qaeda.  The al-Shabwan tribe attacked oil pipelines in revenge, which lead to a shortage of fuel in the capital city of Sana’a.  To deal with the shortage, Saleh diverted fuel from the south, which lead to blackouts and fuel shortages in the southern city of Aden, provoking riots and further contributions to southern separatist sentiments.

Today, it seems that the old regime factions are becoming increasingly irrelevant, and getting picked apart by the Houthis, the Southern Movement, and al-Qaeda — movements that have an actual mass base, rather than consisting of self-interested opportunists bought off via bribes and subsidies.  Saleh is dead, killed by the Houthis after he attempted to switch sides again and make his own deal with the House of Saud.  Mohsin’s forces were humiliated by the Southern Movement as they finally began flexing their armed wing.  Much of Hamid’s business empire has been expropriated by the Houthis, and the Hashid confederacy has disintegrated.  The fate of the country is up in the air, but the one sure thing is that the old elites of Yemen are withering away into history.

Supply-lines for Salafi-jihadist rebel groups in Syria

In a recent episode of Radio War Nerd, the interviewee Elijah Magnier pointed out that there is a massive and ongoing logistical operation to supply Syrian rebels (most of whom are ultra-conservative sectarian Salafi militias).  In order to emphasize the scale of the operation, he pointed out that during the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, the US had to carry out an emergency re-supply to Israeli military forces after less than two weeks; compare that to the fact that Syria has seen what is more or less a full-blown conventional war effort between standing armies for the last 6 years, with seemingly no limitations on weapons or ammo.  It is relatively clear that Iran and Russia are supplying massive and consistent arms shipments to the Assad regime’s coalition, but what must be an equally massive and consistent military logistics operation on the rebel side is barely discussed at all in the mainstream Western media.

This article published recently in The American Conservative (which, despite its name and supposed political leaning, regularly publishes fantastic critical analysis of US foreign policy) somewhat fills the void, by digging into the details of arms supply operations by the US and its regional allies in the early years of the war, and how these operations were obviously and blatantly boosting up the power of al-Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadist groups.

The level of detail drawn from what appears to be public record is quite striking.  Here is an excerpt on weapons shipments in the summer of 2012, that involved the CIA trafficking weapons from Libyan arms caches:

A declassified October 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency report revealed that the shipment in late August 2012 had included 500 sniper rifles, 100 RPG (rocket propelled grenade launchers) along with 300 RPG rounds and 400 howitzers. Each arms shipment encompassed as many as ten shipping containers, it reported, each of which held about 48,000 pounds of cargo. That suggests a total payload of up to 250 tons of weapons per shipment.

And here is an excerpt detailing part of the massive arms corridor between the Balkans and Syria that was established in early 2013, financed by Saudi Arabia and coordinated by the CIA:

One U.S. official called the new level of arms deliveries to Syrian rebels a “cataract of weaponry.” And a year-long investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project revealed that the Saudis were intent on building up a powerful conventional army in Syria. The “end-use certificate” for weapons purchased from an arms company in Belgrade, Serbia, in May 2013 includes 500 Soviet-designed PG-7VR rocket launchers that can penetrate even heavily-armored tanks, along with two million rounds; 50 Konkurs anti-tank missile launchers and 500 missiles, 50 anti-aircraft guns mounted on armored vehicles, 10,000 fragmentation rounds for OG-7 rocket launchers capable of piercing heavy body armor; four truck-mounted BM-21 GRAD multiple rocket launchers, each of which fires 40 rockets at a time with a range of 12 to 19 miles, along with 20,000 GRAD rockets.

And here is an excerpt on the connect between the war in Syria and US-Saudi arms deals:

By far the most consequential single Saudi arms purchase was not from the Balkans, however, but from the United States. It was the December 2013 U.S. sale of 15,000 TOW anti-tank missiles to the Saudis at a cost of about $1 billion—the result of Obama’s decision earlier that year to reverse his ban on lethal assistance to anti-Assad armed groups. The Saudis had agreed, moreover, that those anti-tank missiles would be doled out to Syrian groups only at U.S. discretion. The TOW missiles began to arrive in Syria in 2014 and soon had a major impact on the military balance.

The entire article is excellent and worth spending time on.  Its perhaps the clearest and most well-sourced article I’ve seen on the exact nature of NATO-GCC supply lines to their local proxies.

AQAP in Yemen

There has been a lot of noise in recent weeks from the Trump administration about increasing US military involvement in the ongoing gang-fight in Yemen, and helping Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Hadi regime in their war against the Saleh-Houthi alliance.  Any such escalation will very likely bolster the position of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), notwithstanding America’s own ongoing military campaign against them.

This contradiction became hilariously and horrifically apparent in the aftermath of the US special forces raid against an alleged AQAP compound back in January, shortly after the transfer of power in the US to the Trump administration.  The raid targeted important leaders of the al-Dhahab family, which is a key backer of AQAP, and is related by marriage to Anwar al-Awlaki, the infamous Yemeni-American preacher and al-Qaeda recruiter.  But the family is also closely linked with the Hadi regime; Sheikh Abdel-Raouf al-Dhahab, one of the key figures killed in the raid, had met with Hadi’s military chief of staff just a couple of days prior and had received a nice sack of money to help him and his tribal militia fight the Houthis in a nearby city.

This fits in with the larger pattern of more or less overt cooperation between the Hadi regime and AQAP — which, oddly, enough, the US government itself appears aware of, although it does not appear to be influencing the overall military strategy.  Some key connections include:

  • Nayif al-Qaysi, one of Hadi’s provincial governors, who is accused of both the US and the UN of being a senior AQAP official
  • Abdul Wahab Al-Homayqani, the head of a powerful Salafist political party and an advisor to Hadi, who is accused by the US of being an AQAP official and helping mediate financing between Saudi donors and AQAP
  • Al-Hasan Ali Abkar, a pro-Hadi militia commander who is accused by the US of funneling money and weapons to AQAP

Connections between the “official” regime in Yemen and al-Qaeda isn’t new, either.  The ex-dictator Saleh maintained links with al-Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadist groups for decades, right up until he linked up with the Houthis and went to war against Hadi, his old vice president, and his former allies among AQAP.  Saleh encouraged Salafi-jihadists to fight against his enemies in the socialist south during the 1994 Civil War, including a few prominent militants like Jamal al-Nahdi, who planned al-Qaeda’s first attack against the US, and who would go on to join Saleh’s political party and become an important member of the state security apparatus.  Saleh continued to exploit AQAP militants against political rivals (including the Houthis) even as he took in hundreds of millions of dollars from the US to fight AQAP throughout the 2000s.  Now, Saleh and his loyalists in the military have jumped sides to the Houthis, while the security establishment that Hadi took over are still deeply intertwined with AQAP and other Salafi paramilitary groups.

So what is the US plan for all of this?  Pushing the Saleh-Houthi alliance back will almost certainly mean a de-facto alliance with AQAP, which has already demonstrated its ability to take over areas “liberated” by the pro-Hadi coalition.  On the flip side, attacking AQAP means undermining the regime that the US is backing, and letting the Houthis consolidate their gains.  At this point, it seems like the US is content to simply shoot at everybody, strategy be damned.  A drone strike here, a refueling mission there, and so on, until…well, who knows.  At least the defense industry creeps will be happy.

What should the radical left do about Syria?

First, we need to recognize that this is a bad question.  We need to back up a bit, and recognize that the radical left (specifically, in the US) is in no position to do anything about Syria.  We’re weak, divided, confused, and largely isolated from the American masses.  We have depressingly little influence on domestic policy, let alone on how US imperialism functions abroad.  Most of our debates are academic and abstract.  Our protests — especially our anti-war protests — are reactive, and utterly disconnected to any kind of larger, coherent strategy around fighting imperialism and building a revolutionary movement.

With this in mind, the next step is to consider what would constitute an effective program around Syria.

The core plank of an effective program would be establishing and deepening concrete ties with people in Syria.  I’m not talking about re-Tweeting activists in Aleppo or helping “raise awareness” through interviews or whatever — I’m talking about actual coordination, planning, and resource transfer with organizations on the ground in and around Syria.  From this perspective, the most effective programs thus far have been 1) solidarity efforts with Rojava, such as fundraising for supplies and volunteering to fight, and 2) solidarity efforts with refugees, which have been particularly impressive in southern European countries like Greece.

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The gang-fight in Yemen: enter player seven!

There has been a lot of controversy over Trump’s recent special operations raid in Yemen against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  Predictably, the liberal reaction is one soaked in moralism and superficial analysis, more rooted in anti-Trump partisanship than any serious interest in Yemen.  Not that the killing of dozens of civilians and an eight-year old girl (whose older brother and father were killed by Obama) isn’t horrifying — just that the reaction doesn’t do a good job of conveying just how complex and catastrophic (and fascinating) the situation on the ground in Yemen is.

The US has been conducting military operations in Yemen against AQAP for quite a while now, mostly via drone strikes, but has also been playing a very important role in the civil war by providing logistical and intelligence support to the military forces of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who are backing up the regime of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi against Houthi rebels and loyalists of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the old dictator.  The Hadi regime and the Saudi-lead coalition also maintains an opportunistic relationship with AQAP; sometimes it fights them, sometimes it fights alongside them.  And then there is the Southern Movement, a secessionist movement in the south-west of the country with roots in the old revolutionary leftism of the region, which has its own militias and is currently in a tense alliance with the Hadi regime.

What’s truly hilarious in all this is that Saleh is now fighting against the very people that supported him in his 33-year reign.  But this is expected; as Andrew Cockburn put it in a Radio War Nerd interview on Yemen, Saleh is “a man of no fixed principles whatsoever”, a true gangster.

Saleh the smug

The Hadi regime’s opportunistic stance toward AQAP is merely a reflection of Saleh’s own masterful double-game, during which he raked in hundreds of millions of dollars from the US to fight AQAP even as he kept militants on the payroll and used them against political opponents.  And Saleh’s current alliance with the Houthis belies the fact that he killed the movement’s founder and fought a brutal and ineffectual counter-insurgency campaign against them between 2004 and 2010.  But after the Arab Spring, Saleh was forced to step down in favor of his old defense minister and vice-president, and he and his many loyalists (or rather, clients and employees) found their power threatened — so why not ring up the Houthis, who had also been sidelined by the GCC-brokered transition deal, and shoot your way back in together?

It is into this utter mess of shifting alliances and power-politics that The Donald is now looking to wade in to.  Trump is looking to escalate the war against the Houthi-Saleh alliance as a way to push against Iran, but how might this sit with a simultaneous anti-AQAP strategy?  Swinging matters back to the violent melee between AQAP and US Navy Seals on the night of January 29th, as discussed toward the end of the Reuters article:

Though al Qaeda claimed one of the dead, Abdulraoof al-Dhahab, as one of their “martyrs”, some officials on the government side denied that and said he was an important partner with local tribes in battles against the Houthis. “Trump must have launched the raid without enough information – Abdulraoof was a good, honest man, not with al Qaeda. He fought the Houthis,” a local tribal leader and security official told Reuters.

Now, Mr. al-Dhahab could very well have been both an AQAP leader and a respected ally of the Hadi regime — which is an excellent illustration at how the new administration is likely to inflame tensions across the board with its flailing and incoherent strategy, supporting and angering every faction at the same time.  Sit back and much on the popcorn — unless you’re in Yemen, in which case good luck with dealing with a horrific humanitarian crisis which is likely to get much worse.

Potential imperial co-option of the radical left in Syria

This interview with Josha Landis, an academic studying the Middle East and an expert on Syria, is quite a good dissection of the contradictory and incoherent nature of US foreign policy in the region.  I disagree with some of his points — particularly when he downplays the radical and democratic dimensions of the initial uprising by sidelining the importance of unarmed factions — but his analysis of the tensions in the US foreign policy and military establishments are spot-on.  There are strong desires to both 1) contain and roll back Iranian regional hegemony, and 2) contain and roll-back Salafi-jihadist organizations, but the kicker is that these goals can’t be accomplished at the same time since these two forces are primarily fighting one another.

These aren’t the only forces at play, however, and this passage from the interview raises the question of how the US relationship with the radical leftists of the Syrian Kurds and their allies will evolve.

The present critique among some think tankers in Washington is that Assad is too weak to reconquer Syria, so the United States will have to step in, particularly if it wants to defeat ISIS quickly. They argue that Syria is a land of many different social and cultural environments. The Century Foundation, the New America Foundation, and the Center for a New American Security have published policy papers advocating in one way or the other that the United States keep special forces on the ground and reinforce regional rebel groupings. They envision carving out autonomous areas that would give the U.S. leverage and presumably force both the Russia and Assad to the negotiating table. They refuse to say that they are for partitioning Syria. Instead, they talk about a framework of autonomous regions. But in the end, it is all pretty much the same thing. It’s about retaining control over areas of Syria to give the US leverage.

This rhetoric of Syria’s diversity of “social and cultural environments” and “a framework of autonomous regions” sounds a whole lot like the ideology of the Syrian Kurds and their allies, derived from Marxist and anarchist thought, which emphasizes a decentralized political system, local governance, and respect for religious and linguistic and ethnic diversity.  How much the US would actually be willing to support such a system is deeply questionable, of course, especially considering that there have been plenty of cool rhetoric from both rank-and-file members and officers in Syria about abstaining from any long term alliance with US imperialism.  But it is still very likely that the political vision of the Syrian Kurds and their allies will get rolled up into the US plan for the region, at least to the extent that it hampers the ability of the Assad-Iran-Russia alliance from pushing the US and the Gulf monarchies back out of Syria.

Opportunistic support is hardly a new thing for DC foreign policy and military elites.  Consider the fact that many of the ghouls and goblins in the incoming Trump administration have deep ties with a self-styled “Marxist Islamist” Iranian rebel group, which sounds like a caricature of what American right-wingers are supposed to have nightmares about.  One wouldn’t think that US elites would have any interest in such a group ideologically — but in geopolitics, ideology is easily trumped by whether one can poke at an enemy.

From slavery to imperialism

What were the continuities between the elites of the slave economies of the southern United States before the Civil War, and the elites that pushed the formal imperial expansion of the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s?

This was a question that crossed my mind earlier this year when I was doing some casual reading and reflecting on the aftermath of the Civil War.  Aside from the brief period immediately after the Civil War, when the slaver/planter elites were on the backfoot during Radical Reconstruction, the relative socio-economic and political power of these elites remained largely intact.  Thus, it stands to reason that the interests of these former slavers was a powerful force behind the expansion of US imperialism by the turn of the 20th century.

Jacobin has recently published an interview with the author of This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (2016), which re-empahsizes the power of the Southern planter class in the US state, and which touches on issue of foreign policy.  One relevant argument discussed in the interview is that the US slaver elite saw slavery as necessarily being an international system, and pushed US foreign policy to act accordingly prior to the Civil War.  For example, on views on Cuba:

…many Southerners wanted to acquire Cuba, for all different reasons: some had immediate commercial interests involved, some of them wanted to project US power into the Caribbean, and of course there was the pure domestic political desire for Cuba as another slave state (or many slave states).

But other slaveholders were much more ambivalent about annexing Cuba. And ultimately, the most important thing for Southern leaders was not territorial acquisition, but the preservation of Cuban slavery. Whether Cuba was Spanish, American, French, independent, whatever, mattered far less than whether it was slave or free. They would much rather see Cuba Spanish and enslaved than American and free. It’s not fundamentally about political allegiance, it’s about the preservation of a certain kind of social system, and a certain kind of class power.

Another relevant book that I recently came across is The White Pacific: US Imperialism and Black Slavery in the South Seas after the Civil War (2007), which looks at the continuities between the southern slave economy and the slave/indentured-labor markets of various Pacific Islands. From the summary:

Worldwide supplies of sugar and cotton were impacted dramatically as the U.S. Civil War dragged on. New areas of production entered these lucrative markets, particularly in the South Pacific, and plantation agriculture grew substantially in disparate areas such as Australia, Fiji, and Hawaii. The increase in production required an increase in labor; in the rush to fill the vacuum, freebooters and other unsavory characters began a slave trade in Melanesians and Polynesians that continued into the twentieth century.

The White Pacific ranges over the broad expanse of Oceania to reconstruct the history of “blackbirding” (slave trading) in the region. It examines the role of U.S. citizens (many of them ex-slaveholders and ex-confederates) in the trade and its roots in Civil War dislocations. What unfolds is a dramatic tale of unfree labor, conflicts between formal and informal empire, white supremacy, threats to sovereignty in Hawaii, the origins of a White Australian policy, and the rise of Japan as a Pacific power and putative protector.

All of this just goes to show how important it is to trace the way class and capitalism undergoes a constant process of decomposition and recomposition.  Nothing in history is really “new”–its always built on the formations and movements and dynamics of previous eras.  A more optimistic look at this dynamic can be seen in the evolution of the radical left in this era: the Radical Republicans paved the way for the Knights of Labor, which paved the way for the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party of America.