Yemen, for years a showpiece of U.S. counterterrorism efforts against the world’s most active al Qaida branch, plunged into a dark and uncertain period Thursday with the resignation of the president and his cabinet after a militant takeover.
By late Thursday, it remained unclear who was in charge of the country as anxiety over a power vacuum rose in Washington, where U.S. officials appeared to be caught off guard by the developments and called for urgent talks between pro-government forces and the Houthis, the Iran-linked fighters from the minority Zaidi sect of Shiite Islam who are now nominally in charge.
U.S. officials said that counterterrorism remained their No. 1 interest in Yemen, but whether they’ll be able to salvage a partnership seems to depend largely on who or what emerges to take the place of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., told CNN that Hadi’s departure from power would hamper U.S. efforts against al Qaida. “Hadi was particularly helpful” when it came to sharing intelligence for drone strikes, he said.
Other longtime Yemen watchers warned that it’s too early to assess how the unrest will affect the longstanding U.S.-Yemeni counterterrorism partnership, but even those familiar with the country’s tumultuous politics were taken aback by the government’s collapse.
“The phrase, ‘Yemen on the brink’ is one of the most pervasive clichés in coverage of the region. But Yemen is clearly more on the brink than it’s ever been in its history of being on the brink,” said Adam Baron, a longtime McClatchy correspondent in Sanaa who was expelled from Yemen last May and is now a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London.
The most urgent concern for the Obama administration was protecting U.S. personnel who remain in the country: the State Department announced late Thursday that it was shrinking the already pared-down staff of the embassy, though the embassy would remain open. The Pentagon has moved two Navy amphibious ships into the Red Sea to help in an evacuation scenario, though so far that measure hasn’t been taken. A U.S. diplomatic vehicle came under fire from the Houthis earlier this week, with no injuries reported.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest, speaking to reporters on a flight from Kansas to Washington, said Obama is receiving regular briefings on the security situation but for now hasn’t decided to change the security posture of the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa. On the question of the counterterrorism partnership, Earnest would say only that U.S. officials remained vigilant on that front.
“We’re very cognizant of the threat that they pose to the United States and to our interests around the globe,” Earnest said of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
As recently as a speech in September, President Barack Obama was holding Yemen up as a success story for his government’s so-called “light footprint” approach of dispatching U.S advisers and drones rather than ground forces. There’s been no U.S. drone strike in Yemen this year, Baron said, and neither U.S. nor Yemeni officials have given much of an update on where joint counterterrorism efforts stand amid the turmoil.
While the Houthis have been vocal critics of U.S. activities in Yemen, blaming drone strikes for strengthening al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, they’re also enemies of the Sunni jihadists.
On the ground, analysts said, that creates a situation analogous to Iraq or Syria, where the Obama administration and Iran-backed forces find themselves on the same side of the fight against the Islamic State, itself an al Qaida splinter group.
At the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki wouldn’t say whether the United States had been in contact with the Houthis. She said Washington remains troubled by the Houthis’ “history of work” with the Iranians. She added that she had no new information on such cooperation and noted that the Houthis also oppose al Qaida extremists. She spoke just as the news emerged from Sanaa and had no details or official reaction.
“We’re not in a position – and I don’t think any of you are, either – to assess what it means at this point in time,” Psaki said.
Ibrahim Sharqieh, a Brookings Institution scholar who monitors Yemen, touched on the strange bedfellows issue in an interview with NPR on Wednesday, a day before the collapse of the leadership in Sanaa.
“That’s exactly what happened almost a month ago in the city of Rada, where the Houthis raised the slogan of, ‘Death to America,’ were fighting along with the U.S. drones, one from the air and one from the ground,” Sharqieh told the radio program. “So this has created and led to a complex situation and, for the first time, we are seeing signs and signals about a possible civil war.”
The Houthis appeared to be trying avoid a power vacuum, with statements Thursday announcing the formation of a presidential council that won’t recognize the sitting Parliament. It remains to be seen whether they can harness enough credible partners to create a viable interim authority.
The signs so far are less than encouraging. Hadi’s resignation came only minutes after the Yemeni cabinet quit, saying in a statement that it refused to be part of “an unconstructive political maze.”
Reported moves toward secession in the south added another troubling wrinkle to the crisis.
Questions flew across social media and online forums, rarely with clear answers: Could Hadi be persuaded to reverse his resignation and lead a transitional government with the Houthis? Would al Qaida pick up recruits among Sunnis who find Houthi rule anathema?
There was also much speculation about the timing of the moves, with the resignations coming while U.N. special envoy, Jamal Benomar, was in the country to help implement an agreement both sides had reached only a day before.
Reflecting one of the most widely held theories, many Yemenis and Yemen watchers pondered whether this all was just a plan for former strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ceded power to Hadi in early 2012 as part of a transition deal during the Arab Spring protests, to reassert his claim to the presidency. Saleh was known as a reliable U.S. partner in counterterrorism efforts, analysts say, but also as an autocrat whose 33 years in power saw unchecked corruption and kleptocracy in one of the world’s poorest and least-developed countries.
“There’s speculation that what’s coming is Saleh using this to take power, positioning himself as some kind of savior,” said Baron, the Yemen specialist in London. “That wouldn’t be bad for U.S. counterterrorism.”
Lesley Clark contributed from Washington.