Yemeni president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi resigned today, capping a 3-day span in which the major institutions of the Yemeni state dramatically plunged into ever deeper levels of irrelevance.
With Iran-assisted Houthi rebels surrounding the presidential palace, kidnapping the presidential chief of staff, and opening fire on an American diplomatic vehicle, the entire Yemeni cabinet, the vice president, and president acknowledged the reality that they are no longer in any meaningful control of the country.
The situation in Yemen is remarkably complex: The Houthis are Shi’ite Muslims allied with Iran, but aren’t directed by Tehran to the degree that Iran’s Lebanese or Iraqi proxies are; Houtis also adhere to a different cultural and ideological strain of Shi’ite Islam than does Iran’s revolutionary regime.
Yemen’s long running geographic cleavage — a fault-line in a 1990s civil war — may result in the south seceding, returning Yemen to the state of disunity that endured between 1967 and 1990.
But one short-term consequence is already clear enough: Hadi’s resignation means the US has lost one of its most cooperative counter-terrorism partners in the Middle East, in a country that’s home to the western branch of Al Qaeda Central. And it’s unclear who or what will replace him.
Hadi came from a military background and served as Vice President under Ali Abdullah Saleh for 17 years, assuming the presidency when Saleh resigned amid widespread protests in early 2012.
Despite his high office, Hadi was an unknown figure for most people in Yemen. He was viewed as someone experienced enough to plausibly lead the country, yet obscure enough to pass as a consensus figure within a badly fractured political environment.
He was tasked with holding the country together during Yemen’s post-Saleh national dialogue and constitutional reform process.
A far less conniving figure than the notoriously slippery Saleh, Hadi never had the complete loyalty of the security services, parts of which remained aligned to elements of the former regime.
Hadi did have one clear objective in his foreign relations: Enlisting international (particularly American) assistance in the fight against Al Qaeda.
As Yemen Peace Project executive director William Picard noted in a Sept. 28, 2012 blog post, Hadi’s speech at the opening of the UN General Assembly that week — his highest-profile international visit since becoming president that February — framed nearly all of the country’s various political and economic problems purely in terms of security.
In an interview with journalists from the Washington Post and Foreign Policy that same week, Hadi improbably claimed that he personally approved US drone-strike targets and “marveled” at the US’s drone technology, describing it as “more advanced than the human brain.”
For Picard, Hadi’s emphasis on security during this crucial US visit conveyed the true state of relations between the Arab world’s poorest country and Washington. “The president of Yemen firmly believes that security and counter-terrorism are America’s only concerns in Yemen, and the only causes that will draw American (financial) assistance,” he wrote. “And if that’s what President Hadi believes — after a week of meeting with high-level US and international officials — I think we should take his word for it.”
Hadi launched two major offensives against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in 2012 and the spring of 2014. The US State Department’s Country Report on Terrorism for 2012 called Hadi “a strong US counter-terror partner” and lauded his attempts to reform the country’s security apparatus. Yemen was held up as a model for effective counter-terror cooperation during President Barack Obama’s Sept 10, 2014 speech announcing the start of military operations against ISIS.
But Hadi was faced with problems that he couldn’t solve, and that maybe no Yemeni leader could solve. Though tactical successes, the offensives did little to permanently erode Al Qaeda’s foothold in the Yemeni periphery. The Shi’ite Houthi rebels, who had fought six wars against the Sa’ana government in the previous decade, were using the country’s vacuum to advance their own, daunting range of political, social, and sectarian grievances. And the Yemeni state was simply too dysfunctional and too weak to handle it all.
“Hadi did as much as he could to combat Al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen,” Oren Adaki, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider. “But the problem wasn’t Hadi or his unwillingness to help out. The problem was the failures of the Yemeni state and the Yemeni system that were there before Hadi came to power.”
Hadi’s willingness to cooperate so closely with the US may have lessened his legitimacy inside of Yemen and made it harder to deal with the country’s other issues. He was also indecisive on a few major points: for instance, he never exiled or imprisoned his predecessor Saleh, who remained in the country and has been credibly accused of assisting the same Houthi rebels he once fought as president. And Hadi oversaw a state-building process that inevitably failed.
But with an Iranian-aligned group holding much of the power in Yemen, and Al Qaeda primed to take advantage of the country’s even more gaping power vacuum, officials in Washington may start to miss him anyway.
Meanwhile, Washington’s other partners in the region are offered jarring proof that even close counter-terror cooperation with the US isn’t enough to preserve their rule.
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