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 long-standing U.S.-Yemeni counterterrorism partnership, but even those familiar with the country’s tumultuous politics were taken aback by the government’s collapse.
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“The phrase, ‘Yemen on the brink' is one of the most pervasive cliches 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 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.