What does Yemen turmoil mean for US partnership?

The US campaign against the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula won’t necessarily suffer a staggering blow, security experts say.

Hani Mohammed/AP
Houthi Shiite Yemenis stand guard at the parliament during a meeting in Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 9. Yemens Shiite rebels are meeting with political rivals for the first time since cementing their power grab last week by dissolving parliament and making their top security body the de facto government.

Yemen’s rapid descent into chaos and threatened collapse adds another country to the Middle East’s list of unraveling states and denies President Obama the success story he has cited in describing the US strategy of building “front-line partners” to fight terrorism and violent extremism.

But at the same time, the US campaign against the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – which US intelligence officials consider to be the terrorist organization’s most potent branch – won’t necessarily suffer a staggering blow, regional and national security experts say.

“It’s not going to make things easier, for sure, but consider how our counterterrorism activities continued in Pakistan despite the problems and disruptions in bilateral relations there,” says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official and now national security expert at the Center for American Progress (CAP) in Washington. “The reality is that the political chaos doesn’t stop us from taking action [against AQAP].”

Yemen went from crucial US partner to failed-state candidate in January when the US-backed president stepped down in the face of a surging insurgency by Houthi rebels. Since then the Houthis, a minority group following a sect of Shiite Islam, have taken control of the capital, Sanaa, but face growing resistance from Sunni Muslim tribes and militant groups including AQAP.

AQAP was behind at least two foiled terrorist attacks in the United States, including the attempted Christmas Day 2009 bombing of an airliner over Detroit. One of the attackers in the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris trained with AQAP in Yemen, and AQAP claimed it organized the Paris attack, though terrorism experts remain skeptical of that claim.

In the political turmoil and mounting violence, most Western countries including the US closed their embassies in Sanaa this week. Growing anti-Houthi protests and fighting among militias have sparked worries about Yemen’s disintegration.

“Yemen is collapsing before our eyes,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council Thursday. “We cannot stand by and watch.”

Mr. Ban has a special representative in Sanaa trying to negotiate a settlement among political factions, but prospects appear bleak.

For the US, some of the most troubling news came Friday with reports that AQAP fighters had seized a Yemeni Army brigade headquarters in the country’s oil-producing southeast. That raised concerns about the terrorist group taking control of part of Yemen.

But some regional experts express doubts about the reports, which originated from AQAP-affiliated news sources. It’s “not clear what happened and far from clear that AQAP was successful,” says Simon Henderson, director of the Washington Institute’s Gulf and Energy Policy Program.

If indeed AQAP took the base – and reportedly a cache of heavy weapons – that would “call for an airstrike or two,” Mr. Henderson says.

US drone operations against AQAP and related US military activities “appear to be run out of Saudi Arabia and Djibouti,” he says, so he expects them to continue.

Indeed, the US carried out a drone strike targeting AQAP soon after the Houthis seized control of Sanaa.

On the other hand, an extended US absence from the capital – and lack of a government “partner” – could eventually take a toll on the effectiveness of the counterterrorism campaign, Henderson says.

“It is very hard to imagine that abandoning the embassy in Sanaa is without any negative impact,” he says.

Some regional experts have warned the US against burning all bridges to the Houthis, but Henderson says he remains dubious that the US could find a partner in a Houthi government.

“What’s the Houthi slogan, ‘Death to America?’ Any notion of cooperation sounds a risky gambit,” he says. He calls the degree of Iranian influence in Yemen “unclear” despite others’ claims that Iran is behind the Houthis’ rise. At best, he says, the US might be able to cultivate an indirect channel to Houthi leaders.

But others cite the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach to international relations and suggest a common interest in defeating AQAP could bring the US and Houthis together.

“Yes, the Houthis got rid of a government we backed, but don’t forget the Houthis really don’t like AQAP, which is our biggest threat over there,” says Mr. Korb of CAP.

The US may not cooperate with the Houthis “any more directly than we do with the Iranians on our actions in Iraq,” but he says the US priority on stopping any attacks that AQAP might plan for US soil will trump other concerns about the Houthis.

“The fact of the matter is, we have the same agenda as these guys when it comes to AQAP,” Korb says. “If they gave us some information on AQAP, I’m sure we’d take it willingly and act on it.”

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