Saturday, January 24, 2015

Yemen, a U.S. Partner Against Terrorism, On the Brink of Collapse
Supporters of Houthis stage demonstration in Sanna.
By Editorial Board
Chicago Tribune

The CIA, U.S. military and the White House missed warning signs in Yemen

Yemen is home to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a group that last week claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. The United States military and CIA work closely with Yemen's government in the fight against terrorism. Twice last year, President Barack Obama cited Yemen as a model partner.

But even with all eyes focused on al-Qaida, something disastrous happened in plain sight in Yemen, the model partner, that complicates U.S. anti-terrorism efforts. Yemen is in political chaos, near a collapse in order.

A Shiite rebel group from Yemen's north, the Houthis, is now the strongest force in the capital, Sanaa.

The Houthis seized control of Sanaa months ago, after negotiations stalled on a power-sharing agreement with the government. Tensions boiled over this week, with gunbattles and shelling that led Houthi forces to take up positions outside the home of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, preventing him from leaving.

The two sides resumed their talks Tuesday, with the Houthi holding an obvious negotiating advantage: Their forces not only had the president surrounded, they had kidnapped his chief of staff. On Wednesday, there were signs of a truce that would free the president and chief of staff and re-establish negotiations on a new constitution.

So who controls Yemen today? It's entirely unclear.

The Houthis are not part of global jihad; they are enemies of al-Qaida. But they are friendly to Iran and don't visibly support America's agenda in the region. They are a potentially dangerous free agent with growing influence over a shaky, distracted ally.

Al-Qaida in Yemen benefits from the crisis. The less functional Yemen's government is, the more room al-Qaida has to operate. On Jan. 7, the same day as the Paris attack, a vehicle filled with explosives blew up in front of a police academy in Sanaa, killing at least 35 people. Al-Qaida is believed to have been responsible.

Looking back at Yemen's downward spiral to the Houthi occupation of Sanaa, it's certain that the CIA, the U.S. military and the White House missed warning signs. Obama went on television Sept. 10 to lay out his strategy for fighting Islamic State, saying the U.S. approach to defeating terrorism will rely in part on mobilizing partners. It's a strategy, he said, "we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years."

Just 11 days later, on Sept. 21, the Houthis pushed into Sanaa.

The Obama administration apparently was caught by surprise, as it was by the sudden territorial gains of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

One faint bit of hope: If the Houthi intended to seize complete control of Yemen, they probably would have done so. It's more likely they are serious about forcing a political settlement that gives them autonomy in parts of the country, or a greater say in government, without the responsibility of running the entire country.

The question now is whether a power-sharing arrangement will undermine U.S. efforts against the virulent al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

The first step to mitigating the damage is to re-establish the central government's authority, which requires getting the Houthis to pull out of Sanaa. There doesn't seem to be a path in which the Houthis aren't some kind of participant in power.

The crisis in Yemen is an obvious reminder — as if Afghanistan and Somalia weren't enough — that terrorism breeds best in unstable petri dishes. These troubled countries need constant attention, or their problems will fester. Yemen, long racked by poverty and corruption, is on the edge.

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