The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, General David Petraeus, says there are indications the domestic conflict in Yemen could become a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Petraeus spoke in Washington Friday at the Institute for the Study of War.
General Petraeus was asked whether he sees the civil war between Yemen's government and rebel Houthi forces in the north as a proxy war, with Iran supporting the rebels and Saudi Arabia helping the government. The general said it is not a proxy war now, but has the potential to become one, and there may already have been some movement in that direction.
"Frankly, although there is a lot of rumor, there's a lot of allegations, and so forth, we have been hard pressed to find indications of substantial levels of that," he said. "Although there have been some indicators in the past month or so that some of that is indeed beginning to happen."
General Petraeus says he has been concerned about growing militancy in Yemen for more than two years. When he became commander of U.S. forces in the region a year-and-a-half ago he ordered his staff to develop a plan for engagement with Yemen, and last year he made two secret visits to the country.
"[The] first trip, candidly didn't go entirely according to what we hoped it would be," he said. "It was more along the lines of 'frank and open' conversations. The visit in July, on the other hand, was a literal as well as figurative embrace."
After that more-productive visit, General Petraeus went to Yemen again on January 2, for what he thought would be another secret visit. But this time, to his surprise, he was greeted by a television camera in the office of President Ali Abdallah Salih.
"There was no reticence to show he [the president] was meeting with the commander of [the U.S.] Central Command," he said. "And, indeed, announcing that the reason I was there was to talk about how we could support them, assist them, in the effort to deal with the growing al-Qaida in the Arabian Penninsula."
After that visit, General Petraeus announced a doubling of U.S. military aid to Yemen, to $150 million this year, but Pentagon officials said the final figure had not yet been officially determined.
The general praised Yemeni military strikes in December that killed insurgent leaders and suicide bombers, and destroyed two training camps. But he said, as with all places where insurgents and terrorists find fertile recruiting grounds, the key is to put together an international civilian effort to help provide the kind of aid and services the people want and need. He said Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states can be very helpful in that effort.