The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa closed Feb. 11 after the few remaining staff members and the company of U.S. Marines guarding the embassy compound traveled to the airport to leave the country. The withdrawal of the U.S. diplomatic presence comes after the al-Houthi militia dissolved parliament Feb. 6 and announced the establishment of a five-member presidential council and a 551-member transitional national council to replace the government. The diplomatic decision also comes as the factions fighting for control of the country are threatening to become more violent than in past Yemeni conflicts.
Though the U.S. government's explanation for the embassy closure listed uncertainty of the security situation, the embassy has stayed open in times when security in Sanaa was far worse, such as in 2011 when the military units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh were fighting military units loyal to defected Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar for control of the capital. This fact, and a careful reading of the U.S. government statement, makes it clear that the decision to withdraw was more politically driven than security driven. The U.S. government does not recognize the al-Houthis as the legitimate government of Yemen and therefore does not have an entity with which to conduct diplomacy. Such a move is clearly intended to pressure the al-Houthis to back down, and now that the U.S. Embassy has withdrawn, we can anticipate European embassies to follow, as the British and the French have done.
The road ahead for Yemen is unclear. While U.N. and international efforts to find an inclusive solution for Yemen's political problems continue, it does not appear that such a solution can be reached without a military imposition of unity — essentially conquering the various factions and forcing them to join the process. The al-Houthis have made some significant military headway in Bayda province in recent days, and they appear to be preparing a major military offensive to expand their control in Marib province and take control of the energy fields there.
Meanwhile, the secessionist Southern Movement and many factions of the reformist al-Islah coalition have rejected the al-Houthi announcement. A coalition of tribal leaders in Marib has also pledged to oppose the al-Houthis, even floating the idea of declaring independence from the rest of Yemen. There are also reports that the Saudis are supporting the conservative tribes in Marib. These tribes are closely linked to jihadists in Yemen, including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). They fought alongside Saleh's government in several past wars against the al-Houthis, and Saleh used these tribal militias and jihadists against the Southern Movement in the Yemeni civil war.
It appears, however, that there may be a conflict between U.S. and Saudi interests in Yemen. Saudi support for the conservative tribes conflicts with the United States' view that AQAP is the primary threat in Yemen. While the United States is not supporting the al-Houthis, a strong and rapid al-Houthi military push that would weaken the conservative tribes will also weaken the jihadist group. Conversely, a prolonged period of conflict between the tribes and the al-Houthis could again permit AQAP to strengthen, as it did amid the chaos of 2011. However, a nascent challenge to AQAP by the Islamic State is dividing, and may weaken, the jihadists if it is able to grow. Indeed, reports came out Feb. 11 that a group of AQAP militants renounced its loyalty to leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and pledged its support to the Islamic State.
Yemen has long been a troubled country wracked by violence, civil war and political infighting. But these developments may be taking the county from the normal level of chaos it has experienced over the past few years and pushing it toward an even more violent and chaotic time.