U.S. airstrikes in Yemen continue as war rages

Matt Saintsing
February 06, 2018 - 1:58 pm

Photo by Xinhua/Sipa USA

An intense U.S. air campaign in Yemen against al-Qaida and ISIS shows no signs of slowing down as 18 airstrikes were conducted in the war-torn country in December and January.

While most of these strikes targeted al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaida’s active branch in Yemen, some aimed at striking Islamic State targets.

One strike on Dec. 15 resulted in the death of an AQAP external operations facilitator, Miqdad al Sana’ani, in the western governate of al-Bayda. Another strike killed Habib al-Sana’ani, an AQAP arms facilitator, on Dec. 19 in Marib governate.

According to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Al-Sana’ani had ties to senior AQAP leadership and was responsible for moving weapons, explosives and finances into Yemen.

“Every strike advances the defeat of violent extremist organizations, and protects the United States and partner nations from attack at home and abroad,” said U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesperson Lt. Col. Earl Brown.

In 2017, the U.S. conducted 130 airstrikes in Yemen— more than six times the 21 conducted in 2016 against AQAP targets in Yemen. Airstrikes are typically carried  out by unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as “drones,” AC-130 gunships and fighter-bomber aircraft.

10 strikes have been carried out in Yemen at least so far this year.

The increase in strikes is the result of a policy change by President Donald Trump declaring certain areas of Yemen, as well as Somalia, to be “areas of active hostilities,” right after he took office in January 2017.

As a result, the U.S. military has had more flexibility to target individuals associated with terrorism from the air and on the ground without extensive White House approval.

Just five days in office, President Trump authorized a raid in Yemen that resulted in the death of Navy SEAL Team 6 operator Senior Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens. Five other SEALs were wounded in that raid.

A war within a war

The situation in Yemen is one of a war-inside-another-war. For more than 15 years, the U.S. has used airstrikes to kill Yemen-based terrorists, now known to be mostly AQAP. Last week, Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters that Iran is arming Houthis—Yemeni rebels—with ballistic missiles.

Votel said that a “growing missile threat that is being orchestrated by Iran through the Houthis, and which I think poses a significant danger, not just to Saudis and Emiratis, but in cases where we have our forces and citizens co-located it poses a risk to us.”

Saudi Arabia is leading a war against the Houthi rebels, which has largely resulted in a stalemate. While the Saudi's have had limited success in some areas, particularly around coastal cities, fighting has accelerated the countries decent into further chaos.

The Saudi-led coalition is an ongoing struggle for influence in the Middle East, as Iran and Saudi Arabia have provided support to opposing sides in the conflict. Yemen has, for years, been inside Saudi’s influence orbit, and the decade-long Houthi insurgency is propped up by Iran.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has been backing the Yemeni government for the last three years. Brutal fighting has taken place between the Iran-backed Houthis and Yemeni troops. The Saudi’s in Yemen are supported by the U.S.

The proxy-war appears to be power-competition in the Middle East between Iran and Saudi, but the chaos that ensued has left large swaths of land ungoverned, much to the benefit of ISIS and AQAP who seek to fill the power vacuum with violence.

 “Yemen more closely resembles a region of mini-states at varying degrees of war with one another, and beset by a complex range of internal politics and conflicts, than a single state engaged in a binary conflict,” according to Peter Salisbury, a researcher with Chatham House policy institute, in a report on the country that paints a bleak picture.

 The plight of civilian deaths in Yemen has struck a nerve in Washington. In December, a reporter Defense Secretary Jim Mattis if he was “okay” with the current level of civilian casualties, Mattis said “I’m never okay with any civilian casualty.”

“Don’t screw with me on this.”

According to the U.N., the civilian death toll in the nearly two-year conflict has reached 10,000, with 40,000 others wounded.