Yemen in Crisis: U.S. Closes Key Drone Base & Withdraws Forces as U.N. Warns of Civil War

March 23, 2015


Iona Craig

a journalist who was based in Sana’a for four years as the Yemen correspondent for The Times of London. She was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2014.

After touting its "successful" counterterrorism model in Yemen, the United States has evacuated its remaining personnel, including 100 special operations forces from a military base seen as key in the drone war against al-Qaeda. This comes amidst worsening violence between government forces and Shia Houthi rebels, and an attack claimed by the Islamic State that killed dozens of worshipers at two mosques. The United Nations has warned Yemen is on the brink of an "Iraq-Libya-Syria"-type civil war. We are joined by Iona Craig, a journalist who was based in Sana’a for four years as the Yemen correspondent for The Times of London.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin in Yemen, where the government is on the edge of civil war amidst intense clashes with Shia Houthi rebels and an attack on two mosques that left more than 130 people dead. Over the weekend, rebels took over the country’s third largest city, Taiz, and its military airport. Now the United States has evacuated its remaining military personnel, citing the country’s deteriorating security situation. Meanwhile, the U.S. has recalled approximately 100 special operations forces from a southern military base seen as key in its drone campaign against al-Qaeda militants. The Obama administration had previously praised the Yemeni government as being a model for successful counterterrorism partnerships. But it closed its embassy in the capital city of Sana’a earlier this year after Houthi rebels overtook the city and deposed President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. In recent days, unidentified warplanes have reportedly bombed Hadi’s Aden headquarters. He recently wrote a letter to the United Nations requesting, quote, "urgent intervention." On Sunday, the U.N. Security Council convened an emergency meeting to discuss Yemen’s political crisis. The U.N. special adviser to the country, Jamal Benomar, warned the situation could become a, quote, "Iraq-Libya-Syria" scenario.

JAMAL BENOMAR: It would be an illusion to think that the Houthis could mount an offensive and succeed in taking control of the entire country, including Marib, Taiz and the south. It would be equally false to think that President Hadi could assemble sufficient forces to liberate the country from the Houthis. 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-Syria combined scenario.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, during Friday prayers, suicide bombers attacked two mosques in Sana’a, killing more than 130 worshipers and wounding hundreds. The so-called Islamic State took credit for the coordinated attacks. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke denounced both the mosque attacks and the ongoing attacks on U.S.-backed President Hadi.

JEFF RATHKE: We express our condolences to the families of the victims, and we deplore the brutality of the terrorists who perpetrated today’s unprovoked attack on Yemeni citizens who were peacefully engaging in Friday prayers in their places of worship. We also strongly condemn the March 19 airstrike targeting the presidential palace in Aden. We call upon all actors within Yemen to halt all unilateral and offensive military actions. We specifically call on the Houthis, former President Saleh and their allies to stop their violent incitement and undermining of President Hadi, who is Yemen’s legitimate president. The way forward for Yemen must be through a political solution.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to London, where we’re joined by Iona Craig. She’s a journalist who was based in Sana’a, Yemen, for four years as the Yemen correspondent for The Times of London, was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2014.

Iona, welcome back to Democracy Now! Please just describe what’s happening in Yemen today.

IONA CRAIG: Well, at the moment, you’ve got a complex fracturing of various different political groups. So, in the north now, you have the Houthis in control in Sana’a, and Hadi, the president, is down in the south, in Aden. In the midst of all that, you’ve got tribal groups who are aligning themselves one way or the other. You’ve got the secessionists, the Southern Movement in the south who are calling for independence. Some of those, the militia groups, have aligned themselves to Hadi. But really, a lot of them are looking for this opportunity to fight the north, because they really see the Houthis as Ali Abdullah Saleh in disguise and have long-held grievances against him. So, you’ve got multiple factions who are ready to fight—some of them are already fighting—for different motivations.

AMY GOODMAN: How it has come to this point, at this point?

IONA CRAIG: Well, really, this has been a car crash in slow motion, to watch it. This has come after the Arab Spring in 2011. When Ali Abdullah Saleh signed over power, he was granted immunity from that point, and he was allowed to stay in Yemen. And so, he was allowed to still continue in politics, really, and keep manipulating as he always had done, but from then on from the side. And really, this was—then seemed to be a plan of action then to use the Houthis as a way of almost getting revenge against Islah, Yemen’s equivalent to the Muslim Brotherhood, and creating this scenario that we are now in, in Yemen. And Hadi has been forced into a corner as a result of all of this. So it’s really as a result of events after the Arab Spring and the transition deal that was then signed, that didn’t address the grievances of the Houthis or the Southern Movement and others. And despite the international community pushing on with the transition, it was almost inevitable that this was going to come to a head at some point.

AMY GOODMAN: On Saturday, the Yemeni president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, accused the Houthi militia of staging a coup against him. He said he would "raise Yemen’s flag" in the Houthis’ northern stronghold. Hadi called on all political groups to attend peace talks in Saudi Arabia.

PRESIDENT ABDU RABBU MANSOUR HADI: [translated] I call on all political parties to feel the seriousness of the current phase and ignore inadequate partisan views. I call on them to actively participate in the talks to be held in the Secretariat General of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh, to come up with resolutions in order to avoid Yemen’s plunging into secession and violence, and to have determination to correct the track of the political process.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. has supported the president, Hadi, but who in Yemen supports him, Iona Craig?

IONA CRAIG: Well, at the moment, in Hadi’s position in Aden, he’s been encouraging and employing, really, local militias there, the popular committees that existed in the south anyway, and had done since 2011, who were set up to fight al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Ansar al-Sharia, and now are aligned to Hadi. More recently, after the bombing of his compound in Aden just a couple of days ago, there have been units of the air force that have also aligned themselves with Hadi. So, there were fighter jets that were flown from the eastern province of Hadhramaut down to Aden, because, obviously, without air power, he’s also going to be struggling to defend himself. So who is stronger militarily? It really looks like the Houthis and the supporters and sympathizers of Ali Abdullah Saleh are. They have the heavier weapons. They did have the complete, you know, control of the air force, although that’s now divided. The military still remains divided. But if it came down to an all-out fight, it’s not clear who would win that fight, but it probably looks like the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh.

AMY GOODMAN: On Friday, a journalist asked State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke if the U.S. is worried about Yemen collapsing. This is what Rathke responded.

JEFF RATHKE: Well, a civil war would be a terrible development for Yemen, but that’s why we believe it’s essential for all the parties and groups to avoid unilateral actions, to avoid violence, as I mentioned at the top. And that’s why we, along with international partners, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the United Nations, are supporting a Yemeni political transition process. Political instability is a threat to the well-being of all Yemenis.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s State Department spokesperson Jeff Rathke. Your response, Iona?

IONA CRAIG: Well, I mean, of course, the main concern of America, really, is the counterterrorism issue. And certainly, you know, the only way out of this domestically in Yemen is negotiations, but it’s looking increasingly like there’s going to be more conflict and more war. And really, the international community has very little, now, influence in the outcome of that. The Americans, along with the other Western embassies, all left earlier this year, left their embassies in Sana’a. Now, you know, Jamal Benomar is really the front for the international community in trying to arrange these talks. And then, of course, you’ve got the regional powers who also have an interest. But, you know, the American focus has always been in Yemen primarily one of counterterrorism, and that sort of model for Washington now has all but been erased.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about—let’s talk about those regional interests. You’ve got Saudi Arabia and also Iran. What role are they playing?

IONA CRAIG: Well, always, you know, the Houthis’ opponents have said that they are supported by Iran, and certainly, you know, the rhetoric over recent months from Tehran has suggested and made it pretty clear that they do support the Houthis. And once the Houthis took Sana’a, there were daily flights started between Tehran and Sana’a.

And meanwhile, there’s, you know, Saudi Arabia’s interest; obviously, they have a concern over the rise of the Houthis. They’ve fought the Houthis before. But at the same time, they run something of a risk by supporting Hadi if he is not going to survive. So the Saudis have been very much involved in backing and supporting some of the tribal groups who are looking to oppose the Houthis’ expansion and are preparing to fight the Houthis if they move into their areas, particularly in Marib and in Shabwah. So, the Saudis are obviously concerned, because a complete collapse in Yemen not only raises the issue of terrorism issues, but it also means that they’ve got the risk of Yemenis running over the border looking for money, employment, and also, when you get—with the worsening humanitarian situation, which there is in Yemen right now, if it does fall into an all-out war and a civil war, then there are going to be many people looking to flee Yemen over the border into Saudi Arabia.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, a prominent Yemeni journalist was assassinated in the capital Sana’a. Abdul Kareem al-Khaiwani was reportedly shot dead near his home by gunmen riding a motorbike. This is a clip of him speaking in 2010 at the Oslo Freedom Forum, talking about the Yemeni government’s crackdown on journalists.

ABDUL KAREEM AL-KHAIWANI: [translated] The independent press is considered treasonous for its alleged ties to foreign powers, whenever it deviates from the official personality cult around President Saleh. I have been a journalist since 1990. I am not the most brilliant journalist in Yemen, but an example of what journalists are subjected to—oppression, kidnapping, imprisonment, beatings, newspaper bans, or even closures, and Internet website censorship. We didn’t give up on our belief in democratic values, as we believed initially the government’s promises of pluralism. However, as journalists, we warned against dangers, envisioned Yemen’s future. We were drunk. Drunk as we were with dreams of liberty, we exposed corruption, rights abused, and called things as they were. We discussed publicly how the country is ruled, and pointed to the root causes of terrorism. We shared with Yemenis the whispers from under the rulers’ table. The government response came in even tougher repression of journalists, imprisonments, kidnappings and newspaper closures.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Yemeni journalist Abdul Kareem al-Khaiwani. He was assassinated last week near his home in Sana’a. Iona Craig, you worked in Yemen, and particularly in Sana’a, for years. Did you know him?

IONA CRAIG: Yes, I knew Abdul Kareem. I think, you know, everybody knew him. He was something of a legend amongst the journalist community in Sana’a. He was a Houthi activist. He was—but he was also a very outspoken critic of Ali Abdullah Saleh. He had been a journalist for 25 years. And he—during the wars in Sana’a—sorry, in Sa’dah in the north against the Houthis from 2004, he had really tried to cover that conflict and show the atrocities that had been carried out by the government when they had been bombing their own population in Sa’dah, when it was a very difficult place to access. Journalists couldn’t get there. Even the U.N. agencies couldn’t get access to the area. And he ended up in jail as a result of criticizing Ali Abdullah Saleh. So, although he was a Houthi supporter and activist, he was much more than that, and a very outspoken voice for a long, long time against the old regime and against Ali Abdullah Saleh.

AMY GOODMAN: Any thoughts on who killed him?

IONA CRAIG: Well, he was one of the last moderate voices of the Houthi movement, really. I mean, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for his assassination, but, really, it’s got to be viewed as a politically motivated assassination. As I said before, he was a very outspoken critic of Saleh, and he certainly didn’t pose a threat to al-Qaeda in any way. You know, he wasn’t a fighter, he was a journalist. So, for him to be assassinated in this way and for al-Qaeda to claim it, it certainly doesn’t seem to have appeared in—happened in isolation, that there was certainly some kind of political motivation behind that killing, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Iona Craig, the U.S. says they’ve pulled out their last remaining military, 100 special operations forces that ran a drone base in Yemen. Can you talk about the significance of that base?

IONA CRAIG: Well, Al Anad is in southern Yemen, and it’s between sort of Taiz and Aden, where Hadi is positioned now. And, of course, the Houthis are now taking control of Taiz. So it’s a strategically important air base, as well. And it’s a very important place for Hadi to have control of, if he was going to be able to protect himself in Aden. And so, when they withdrew, it was not just a consequence of apparent attack by al-Qaeda in a town, in Houta, just down the road, but it was also about the domestic political struggle and who was in command of that base, which had been led by a commander loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, and when, you know, Hadi had an interest in making sure that he had control of that base. So it became part of the domestic political struggle. And the American troops there were really stuck in the middle, and so they had little option but to withdraw by that stage.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the U.N. had a rare U.N. Security Council meeting on Sunday to talk about the situation in Yemen. What came out of that? And where do you think Yemen will be going from here right now? And what do you think can be done?

IONA CRAIG: Well, I think, you know, a lot of what was said at the U.N. Security Council meeting is nothing new, and it’s not really going to change the situation on the ground. And the Houthis aren’t really adhering to or listening to anything the Security Council have got to say. You know, it’s all about calling for dialogue, which is kind of essential but is really struggling to progress at the moment. There was Qatar calling for the use of force under Chapter VII, which the Gulf community has been doing anyway, but nothing has come of that.

And, you know, really, most immediately now in Yemen, it’s certainly looking inevitable that there’s going to be more conflict, the way the Houthis are progressing, the way that Hadi is trying to build up militias on his side, and every day we’re seeing more and more conflict in rural areas, as well as in Taiz at the moment, but at—in regional points, both in Marib and al-Bayda, in Lahij, and that seems to be becoming more regular and more widespread. So, really, the prospects of a peaceful resolution are looking remote at the moment.

But obviously Jamal Benomar is trying to do his best to initiate those talks and get a resolution at the end of it. But even with the agreements that have been made before—there was an agreement made in September when the Houthis took over Sana’a, and that’s, you know, all but collapsed, really. It’s vanished. And the Houthis just didn’t adhere to that agreement. And certainly, from Hadi’s point of view and from Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the leader of the Houthis, the speeches they’ve been making over the last couple of days have both been mentioning dialogue, but really have been posturing for war and really kind of looking like conflict is going to be inevitable on both sides.

AMY GOODMAN: Iona Craig, I want to thank you for being with us, a journalist who was based in Sana’a for four years as the Yemen correspondent for The Times of London. She was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2014.

When we come back, we remember Danny Schechter, "The News Dissector." We’ll be speaking with the acclaimed South African journalist, filmmaker, Anant Singh, who made the film The Long Walk to Freedom, and Danny Schechter’s longtime colleague and friend, Rory O’Connor. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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