Secret US rescue in Yemen played role in Middle East peace deal

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WASHINGTON – On August 11, 2017, a United Arab Emirates helicopter filled with soldiers participating in an offensive against Al Qaeda militants crashed in Yemen, killing three and seriously injuring seven, including a young family member royal.

As the Emirati leadership rushed to save their soldiers, they turned to the United States and called on America to organize an emergency rescue mission.

Within hours, according to US military officials, US special operations forces rushed to rescue the Emirati royal and other soldiers. In a way that could not have been anticipated at the time, the unusual military mission helped pave the way three years later for the Israel-UAE peace agreement that is reshaping the Middle East. Until now, the UAE and the US military have never acknowledged that US forces saved the young royal that day.

The American at the center of the rescue mission was Major General Miguel Correa, a gregarious Puerto Rican who now serves as a special advisor to the White House and a senior National Security Council official on US Gulf policy.

General Correa, then defense attaché at the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi, coordinated the risky 2017 mission, leading to the celebration of the young royal’s return six months later.

The rescue mission made General Correa a hero among Emirati leaders, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, the ruler of the country, who is also the uncle and stepfather of the injured soldier rescued by the Americans That day.

General Correa’s close relationship with the Emirati leadership became an unforeseen asset in the Trump administration’s secret talks between Israel and the United Arab Emirates that led to the historic peace accords – known as the Abrahamic Accords. – signed last month at the White House.

Major General Miguel Correa, right, in the Oval Office last month after Bahrain agreed to normalize relations with Israel. General Correa, a special White House adviser, played a role behind the scenes of the Abrahamic Accords.

Photo:
Tia Dufour / White House

The agreements marked the greatest success in the Trump administration’s efforts to solidify ties between Israel and its Gulf neighbors, based on mutual interests to counter Iran that have altered Middle East relations in recent years. years.

Officials from different countries have recognized the notable role played behind the scenes by General Correa. At the White House, ahead of the September 15 signing ceremony, according to those in attendance, the UAE foreign minister – who is the younger brother of the crown prince and the uncle of the soldier America rescued in 2017 – has singled out General Correa and told President Trump, “This general is part of my family. ”

“It would not have happened without him,” said Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan.

It was a sentiment shared by the White House team led by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and the White House’s reference man on Middle East policy. While Mr Kushner and his deputy Avi Berkowitz did much of the heavy diplomatic work, they both said General Correa played a key role in getting the deal done.

Yousef Otaiba, the influential UAE ambassador to the United States who played a central role in the talks, said their success was based on the UAE’s trust in General Correa and the rest of the White House team. .

President Trump presided over the signing of a Middle East peace accord between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on Tuesday. Photo: Alex Brandon / Associated Press (originally published September 15, 2020)

“The truth is, for the Abraham’s Accords to come to fruition, there was a very necessary element of trust, and we had that trust with Miguel Correa and the White House,” he said. “A very big leap of faith was needed on all sides to make this happen.”

The 2017 rescue mission came days after Yemeni forces, backed by the United States and the United Arab Emirates, launched a military operation to oust Al Qaeda militants from one of their most great bastions.

For years, the United States had carried out airstrikes against Al Qaeda militants in Yemen, who were considered some of the extremist group’s most dangerous leaders.

General Correa was at home in Abu Dhabi in 2017 when he received a call that the UAE helicopter had crashed in Yemen while on a counterterrorism mission.

Officially, Emirati officials said mechanical issues caused the helicopter to fall. But U.S. officials said the cause was unclear, leaving open the possibility that she was gunned down by militants in Yemen.

Three Emirati soldiers were killed. Zayed bin Hamdan al Nahyan, a 27-year-old nephew and son-in-law of the country’s crown prince, was one of the other seven seriously injured. US officials quickly learned that the young Emirati royal was among those rescued.

Two ospreys transported a special operations forces medical team to the site of the helicopter crash in Yemen. The U.S. medical team transported the seven wounded soldiers to the USS Bataan, a U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship in the Gulf of Aden, said U.S. Central Command spokesperson Captain Bill Urban. A soldier died on the way to the ship as a surgeon on the Osprey revived a second Emirati whose heart stopped, Captain Urban said.

Major-General Miguel Correa, left, met in Abu Dhabi in July with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, leader of the United Arab Emirates, and Zayed bin Hamdan al Nahyan, in wheelchair, the nephew and son-in-law of the crown prince . General Correa coordinated one. 2017 rescue mission that saved the young man’s life.

Photo:
Miguel Correa

Bataan medics worked frantically for 48 hours, Captain Urban said, as US forces on board lined up to donate blood to Emirati soldiers. The medical team used 54 of 66 blood units, making it the largest “walking blood bank” the Navy has used since World War II, Captain Urban said.

Meanwhile, UAE leaders have asked the Americans for special permission to transport the six soldiers, including the Emirati royal, to Landstuhl, Germany, where the US military has a medical hospital that specializes in treating combat injuries.

General Joseph Votel, then head of central command, called then Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who quickly approved the plan as General Correa kept anxious Emiratis informed.

The United States returned the Emirati soldiers from the ship to an airport in Yemen, where an Air Force C-17 cargo plane equipped with a special medical unit was waiting for them to fly to Germany,

Flying this massive plane in Yemen posed a risk. The United States landed the plane at night and flew before sunrise to keep everyone safe.

Last year General Correa’s career was interrupted by complaints that, as a defense attaché in Abu Dhabi, he maintained ties with Emirati leaders without keeping his civilian boss informed, current US officials say. and old.

He was dismissed from his post in April 2019 by America’s top diplomat in Abu Dhabi, officials said. An official investigation by the Pentagon Inspector General concluded that General Correa had done nothing wrong, officials said, and the general ultimately got a new job with the White House National Security Council as a Senior Director of Gulf Affairs. The State Department declined to comment. Earlier this year, General Correa was promoted to two-star general.

In the White House, General Correa’s revered status in Abu Dhabi quickly became an asset.

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In mid-June, Mr. Otaiba wrote an op-ed in a major Israeli newspaper warning the country that his looming plans to annex West Bank lands that should be part of a Palestinian state would jeopardize Israel’s hopes of weaving links with the Emirates other Arab countries.

The editorial sparked weeks of secret discussions between Mr. Otaiba, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and the White House team. The two ambassadors never spoke directly, according to US, Emirati and Israeli officials involved in the talks. Instead, they led the negotiations through the White House.

At the end of July, General Correa, nicknamed “the Arab whisperer” by his colleagues, flew to Abu Dhabi for a one-on-one meeting with Prince Mohammed. They discussed the details of the deal, and General Correa reassured the Emirati leader that the United States would ensure the terms were met, according to US officials.

Before the meeting started, Prince Mohammed invited his son-in-law – the one who was rescued in Yemen that day in 2017 – to see General Correa. The young UAE royal arrived, smiling from his wheelchair.

“The United States did not need a thank you,” General Correa recently said. “I wanted to show the Emiratis that it was not transactional. ”

M. Trump unveiled the Middle East deal in an Aug.13 tweet.

The White House team worked to come up with a name for the agreements, which Bahrain also signed up to a few weeks later. General Correa recalled an interfaith complex the UAE is building in Abu Dhabi, known as the Abrahamic Family House, as Islam, Christianity and Judaism are all religious branches of the prophet Abraham. General Correa suggested that the agreement be called the Abrahamic Accords.

“Love it,” Mr. Trump told General Correa and the Oval Office team. On September 13, officials from the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Bahrain and the United States signed the Abraham Accords at the White House.

Write to Dion Nissenbaum at [email protected]

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