The head of the US Central Command discussed support for Yemen's army and anti-smuggling efforts during a visit on Wednesday that a former US envoy to the country said was a warning to Iran.
Gen Joseph Votel's visit to Aden, the interim capital, was his first official trip to Yemen since the civil war broke out in 2015. He arrived with a military delegation for a day-long visit and met the Yemeni military chief of staff Gen Taher Al Aqili and other high-ranking officers.
The trip followed visits this week to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the leading members of the Arab military coalition supporting Yemen's government against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. It also comes days after the US Navy seized a large consignment of light arms being smuggled through the Gulf of Aden.
Gen Votel's discussions were focused on tackling "the threat of terrorist militias and fighting smuggling”, the Yemeni state news agency reported, as well as "efforts to restore the state and put an end to the coup by the Iran-backed Houthi militia”.
Yemen’s embassy in Washington said support to the Yemeni coast guard and special forces was on the agenda as well.
Stephen Seche, a former US ambassador to Yemen and the executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said the “messaging from General Votel’s visit appears to be directed towards Iran and its relations with the Houthis more than counterterrorism against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”
Expressions of support for the coast guard, countering smuggling and militias, are "a very clear message from the US to Iran that we are watching you in Yemen", Mr Seche told The National.
“It’s also an indication on US intent to keep the Yemeni army well armed and trained,” he said.
In February, Gen Votel told Congress that “what it took 20 years for Iran to do in Lebanon with the Lebanese Hezbollah, they’re attempting to do in about five years with the Houthis in Yemen.”
Last week, the US Navy seized an unflagged boat smuggling a cargo of hundreds of small arms in the Gulf of Aden. On Wednesday, as General Votel was holding meetings in Yemen, the US military announced that the boat carried a total of 2,521 AK-47s, but the investigation to determine the origin and destination of the boat was is still under way.
A Yemeni military source said the visit of such high-ranking commander reflected the US intention to resume training for the Yemeni army, as well as to prepare Yemeni special forces to counter extremist groups. Support for the coast guard was aimed at enhancing its role in securing the Bab Al Mandeb shipping corridor and fighting piracy in the Red Sea, the source said.
The US has cooperated with the Yemeni government on counterterrorism and trained Yemeni troops since the time Ali Abdullah Saleh was in power. Saleh stepped down as president in 2011 and was killed by the Houthis in December last year after he broke off his alliance with the rebels.
With reporting from Ali Mahmood in Aden