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Why Washington May Side With Yemen's New anti-American Rulers

They may be shouting 'Death to America,' but the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who took over the government of Yemen, are also bitter enemies of Al-Qaida.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Yemeni protesters burn representations of American, French and Israeli flags during a demonstration to show their support for Houthi Shi'ite rebels in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 23, 2015.
Yemeni protesters burn representations of American, French and Israeli flags during a demonstration to show their support for Houthi Shi'ite rebels in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 23, 2015.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Recall the U.S. ambassador from Sana’a and close the embassy there, or keep going as if the storm is about to pass? This isn’t a cliffhanger plot from the show “Madam Secretary” but an actual debate now raging in Washington in the wake of the fall of Yemen’s capital to the Houthi rebels. The American ambassador, Matthew Tueller, decided to stay, but the embassy was closed “until further notice.” When the Houthis, who took Sana’a in September, are shouting “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” best watch out.

But Yemen’s new rulers, who receive direct aid from Iran — as Ali Shirazi, a representative of the Qods Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guards pointed out — are also America’s “natural partner” in its war against Al-Qaida. This week, for the first time this year, the Americans launched a drone that struck a group of Al-Qaida militants in the south of the country, and there was no response from the Houthis. This is the bizarre paradox now facing the U.S. administration, which had enjoyed the full cooperation of the previous Yemeni regime and its president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who resigned last week.

Now the administration could end up embracing the Houthi regime, with whom it sees eye to eye in the war on Al-Qaida. But this paradox is growing increasingly knotty. America’s ally, Saudi Arabia, which is also struggling against radical terrorist organizations, views the Houthis as an agent of Iran, which it fears aims to establish a Lebanon-like state on its border.

As President Obama performs a delicate tango with Saudi Arabia’s new monarch, King Salman, the critical question facing Washington is this: Does the United States stand with the Houthis against Al-Qaida, i.e., on the side of Iran and against Saudi Arabia? And, if that is the case, how can Washington expect Saudi Arabia’s cooperation in its war against Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL)? A partial answer to this question came from Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers, who said there is intelligence cooperation with the Houthis against Al-Qaida and that the war against terror in Yemen will go on as planned.

Meanwhile, there’s no one to talk to in Yemen. The Houthis, who belong to the Zaidi stream of Shi'ite Islam, which differs from the Shi'ite stream in Iran, rule the north of the country, but would prefer a president acceptable to all who would serve as their puppet and be responsible to them. They still need to obtain legitimacy from the major tribes in Yemen and to find a formal, but powerless leadership, to give the semblance of a real government.

The president and prime ministerresigned claiming they couldn’t provide a cloak of legitimacy for Houthi rule. If the Houthis, who make up about a third of the country’s population, want legitimacy, they must hold an election, say their opponents. But the Houthis have another alternative. Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted during the Yemen revolution in 2011, is eager to return to power. Saleh, who once fought against the Houthi rebellion, is now taking their side and providing reinforcements in the form of armed militias that are loyal to him, made up of several of the country’s major tribes. But the Houthis are having trouble making up their minds: They still recall how Saleh spilled their blood. But if they are unable to win the cooperation of the government that replaced him, they could bring Saleh back.

Such a move could accelerate a re-partition of the country into north and south entities. In the south, especially in the Aden province by the Red Sea, new political groups and armed militias have formed and announced that they will not obey orders from the capital, and that they will fight the Houthis if they try to take over the south, too. Reports from Yemen say that these organizations could possibly join forces with Al-Qaida to form a joint force against the Houthis. According to various reports, many have been joining the ranks of Al-Qaida and declaring their loyalty to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, leader of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. If Yemen were situated in the heart of Africa or in the mountains of Tora Bora, it would remain a poor and uninteresting backwater. But Yemen sits on the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, the entryway to the Red Sea, one arm of which leads to Eilat and Aqaba, and the other to the Suez Canal. This strategic location is now turning it into Syria’s main competitor for the world’s attention.

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