The militant group that controls Yemen’s capital moved to extend its power southward with an attack on a major city, deepening chaos that has given terror groups greater room to proliferate and forced the U.S. to suspend military operations inside the country.
American officials now see Yemen teetering on the brink of a civil war involving the besieged president, a former president and a patchwork of militant groups. The leader of the Houthi militant group behind the southern offensive and a United Nations envoy both warned that Yemen is in imminent danger of becoming another Iraq, Syria or Libya—a conflict fueled by sectarian violence and warring terrorist networks.
The U.S. withdrew its remaining 100 military personnel from a base in southern Yemen over the weekend, American officials said on Sunday. Special Operations Forces had to halt, at least temporarily, the training of Yemeni troops and cooperation in operations against one of the world’s most dangerous al Qaeda offshoots. The U.S. had already closed its embassy in the capital San’a last month.
Hundreds of Houthi militants attacked Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, on Sunday. The assault came two days after coordinated bombings in two provinces targeted the Houthis’ Zaidi sect—an offshoot of Shiite Islam. A previously unknown Islamic State affiliate calling itself San’a Province claimed responsibility for the attacks that killed 152 people, introducing another dangerous new player into the impoverished country’s turmoil.
Houthi leader Abdel Malik Al Houthi warned Sunday that Yemen was becoming another Syria or Iraq—two countries where the Sunni radicals of Islamic State, or ISIS, have taken hold and seized large tracts of territory.
“What is happening in Iraq and Syria should be examples for Yemen. And sadly, we are starting to face what those countries faced,” he said in an address broadcast on Houthi-run Al Masirah television station.
The United Nations Security Council met in an emergency meeting on Sunday to discuss Yemen’s crisis and harshly criticized the Houthis. Jamal Benomar, the U.N. Secretary-General’s special adviser on Yemen, said that with Houthi forces in control of Taiz and moving southward toward Aden, he was deeply concerned about a civil war in the country of 26 million.
“There is a prevailing sense among Yemenis that the situation is in a rapid, downward spiral,” taking on worrying sectarian tones and deepening north-south divisions, he said. “Unless a solution can be found in the coming days, the country will slide into further violent conflict and fragmentation,” he added.
If that happens, it would lead to a protracted conflict that would resemble other civil wars in the region, the envoy warned.
Yemen was the scene of an Arab Spring revolt that ousted longtime dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012. He was replaced by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who maintained antiterror cooperation with the U.S.
The Houthis took over the capital and the government last month and Mr. Hadi fled from San’a to his stronghold in the southern port city of Aden, about 100 miles from Taiz.
On the sidelines, other powerful interests are at play in the tangled fight over Yemen’s future. Neighboring Saudi Arabia supports Mr. Hadi, while Shiite Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, backs the Houthis.
Yemen is of particular concern to American officials because its al Qaeda franchise, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP, has claimed responsibility for some of the most high-profile international terror attacks in recent years.
As AQAP’s headquarters, Yemen has been the cradle of a string of plots against the U.S. and its allies including the deadly January attack on the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and an attempted 2009 Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that ISIS and al Qaeda are trying to one-up each other, which has adverse effects because it can create more violence,” said Sahar Aziz, an associate professor at Texas A&M University who teaches national security and Middle East law. Because of Yemen’s central role as a staging ground for anti-American operations, the U.S. military has tried to maintain its presence in the country even as the political violence has spread. The U.S. has long cooperated with Mr. Hadi on counterterrorism operations including drone strikes and considers him the legitimate president.
Defense officials said the U.S. decided to pull its remaining forces out of al-Annad air base in the south after al Qaeda targeted the nearby city of al-Houta on Friday.
A U.S. defense official said there was no direct threat against its forces there but they were withdrawn because security had deteriorated.
The U.S. ability to carry out drone strikes in Yemen suffered a serious setback with the evacuation, officials said.
Key Players in the Conflict
President, former president and militant groups are fighting
• President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi: Mr. Hadi has held the presidency since 2012, when he succeeded strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh. His government’s arrival was initially hailed as an example of a successful transition to democracy. But Houthi militants forced the government from power last month. Mr. Hadi fled to the southern city of Aden, where he is trying to make a comeback.
• Ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh: Mr. Saleh was Yemen’s leader for more than two decades until 2012, when he was removed from power in a political transition spurred by Arab Spring unrest. Mr. Saleh is now allied with the Houthis against Mr. Hadi.
• The Houthis: A movement, mainly from northern Yemen, and part of the Zaidi offshoot of Shiite Islam. Houthi militants descended into the capital San’a last year and took over the government in February.
• Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula: AQAP is al Qaeda’s Yemeni arm and the largest terrorist group in the country. President Hadi, the U.S. and the Houthis are all fighting the Sunni radical group.
• San’a Province: Another Sunni radical group, it professes loyalty to Islamic State and was virtually unknown before it claimed responsibility for coordinated suicide bombings on Friday that killed 152 people.
“It definitely makes our pursuit of al Qaeda in Yemen more difficult,” the defense official said. “It affects our ability to interact on the ground with people who are friendly to us, which impacts our ability to gather information, and it affects our eyes on the ground.” But the defense official said the U.S. still has some ability to carry out drone strikes in Yemen as part of its counterterrorism program, which mainly targets militants using strikes by unmanned drones based in the region.
“We still, of course, retain the capability to do unilateral counterterrorism strikes anywhere in the world,” the official said. To the U.S., Yemen holds crucial significance both as a long-standing terrorism risk and, more recently, as a threat to the viability of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy.
President Barack Obama cited Yemen and Somalia as successful models for U.S. counterterrorism efforts last year when he expanded the U.S.-led bombing campaign against Islamic State from Iraq to Syria.
But in January, when Houthi rebels began tightening their control over Yemen’s capital and undercutting President Hadi, Mr. Obama was forced to explain his 2014 remarks, saying the U.S. goal was to “refine and fine-tune this model” of counterterrorism.
“But it is the model that we’re going to have to work with, because the alternative would be massive U.S. deployments in perpetuity, which would create its own blowback and cause probably more problems than it would potentially solve,” he said then. The removal of Mr. Hadi’s government has made it harder for the Obama administration and intelligence agencies to monitor the deteriorating situation, leaving an opening for terrorist networks to mobilize and plan attacks and for Iran to exert its influence with the Houthis.
“With the closure of our embassy in San’a, U.S. access to the Yemeni scene is sharply curtailed,” said Bruce Riedel, a former senior Central Intelligence Agency official who is now director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution. “We are more and more dependent on the Saudis who are also increasingly cut off from the action. Yemen is becoming another black hole like Libya only with the Iranians the big winner.”
The Security Council unanimously condemned the Houthis.
“Today, the Security Council spoke with one voice, reaffirming its support for President Hadi as Yemen’s legitimate president, deploring the Houthis’ failure to withdraw their forces from government institutions, and reiterating the Security Council’s condemnation of Houthi unilateral actions that undermine the political transition process,” said Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. “Yemen’s crisis can still be solved peacefully through the full implementation” of a Gulf Cooperation Council initiative and U.N.-brokered dialogue, she said.
The Security Council reiterated its concern that AQAP has benefited from the deterioration of the political and security situation. “It would be an illusion to think that the Houthis could mount an offensive and succeed in taking control of the entire country,” said Mr. Benomar, the U.N. envoy to Yemen. “It would be equally false to think that President Hadi could assemble sufficient forces to liberate the country from the Houthis,” he added.
“Any side that would want to push the country in either direction would be inviting a protracted conflict in the vein of an Iraq, Libya and Syria combined scenario,” Mr. Benomar warned.
Hundreds of Shiite-linked Houthi forces were involved in the assault on Taiz and by Sunday morning, they had taken the airport and some government buildings in the city, according to Houthi security officials. They took over the intelligence headquarters and court buildings, and surrounded the governor’s residence, the officials said.
The Houthi leader said the Taiz offensive aimed at rooting out al Qaeda terrorists and didn’t intend to target “our brothers in the south.” The message appeared aimed at forestalling unrest by reassuring southerners the group doesn’t want to take their territory.
As Houthi militants have spread southward in recent months, they have encountered resistance from local Sunni Muslim tribes and others opposed to their rule. Their attempts to consolidate control have also led to concern that a southern separatist movement active since 2007 could gain steam.
He denounced the U.N. Security Council by saying it was “on the side of the oppressor” and alleged wealthy Gulf states Saudi Arabia and Qatar were funding the region’s destruction.
Shortly after they overtook the city, anti-Houthi protests erupted there. Protest organizers claimed the Houthis fired live rounds to disperse them, but that couldn’t be independently verified.
‘A civil war would be a terrible development for Yemen.’
—U.S. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke
“Houthi militants in military uniforms fired at us directly,” said Sami al-Ghobari, an anti-Houthi protester. “They seek bloodshed, since they want to enter Taiz by force, a province they are unwanted in.”
The Houthis, who are estimated to make up about 30% of Yemen’s population, have long had a power base in northern Yemen. They began extending their control southward last year and overran San’a in September to demand a greater say in government under Mr. Hadi.
United Nations-brokered talks for a political compromise have so far failed, and the Houthis took over government in early February. They put Mr. Hadi under house arrest, but he soon fled to Aden, where he has strong support among local security forces. Mr. Hadi has since been trying to make a comeback.
The conflict between Mr. Hadi and the Houthis has grown increasingly violent over the past week. The latest round of violence began Thursday, when special forces loyal to former President Saleh assaulted Aden’s international airport. Mr. Hadi sent in government troops backed by a column of tanks and expelled them.
Two airstrikes, apparently carried out by the Houthi-controlled air force, later hit an Aden presidential compound where Mr. Hadi was staying, security officials there said.
Mr. Hadi was evacuated to a safe location, according to aides to the president. AQAP has a significant presence in the south, but they don’t currently control any districts or cities.
The height of AQAP’s control was about three years ago, when the group held almost all of Abyan province and the Azzan district of Shabwa province, both in the south. Military campaigns overseen by Mr. Hadi had expelled AQAP by mid-2012.
The Wall street Journal