Washington Steps Up Communication With Houthis to Promote Stable Political Transition, Fight Against al Qaeda
By Jay Solomon, Dion Nissenbaum and Asa Fitch
The Wall Street Journal
The U.S. has formed ties with Houthi rebels who seized control of Yemen’s capital, White House officials and rebel commanders said, in the clearest indication of a shift in the U.S. approach there as it seeks to maintain its fight against a key branch of al Qaeda.
American officials are communicating with Houthi fighters, largely through intermediaries, the officials and commanders have disclosed, to promote a stable political transition as the Houthis gain more power and to ensure Washington can continue its campaign of drone strikes against leaders of the group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, officials said.
“We have to take pains not to end up inflaming the situation by inadvertently firing on Houthi fighters,” a senior U.S. official said. “They’re not our military objective. It’s AQAP and we have to stay focused on that.”
Washington’s outreach to the Houthis, who in January routed forces loyal to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a close American ally, represents a contrast from years of U.S. support for the Hadi government, which the Houthis have opposed.
The shift also could place it on the same side as Iran in the Yemen conflict. The Houthis are drawn from their country’s Zaidi population. Zaidis, who by some estimates make up roughly a third of the population, practice a form of Shiite Islam and are concentrated in northwest Yemen. U.S. officials believe the militia has received considerable funding and arms from Shiite-dominated Iran, something Houthi leaders have variously confirmed and denied.
White House and State Department officials confirmed to The Wall Street Journal the contacts with the Houthis, but stressed they were focused on promoting political stability in Yemen and safeguarding the security of Americans.
“In the context of talking to all of Yemen’s communities about the latest political developments and ensuring the safety of our personnel and facilities, we have engaged a number of Yemeni parties,” said Edgar Vasquez, a State Department spokesman. “As a participant in discussions about Yemen’s political direction, the Houthis will have many reasons to talk with the international community.”
U.S. officials said they also are seeking to harness the Houthis’ concurrent war on AQAP to weaken the terrorist organization’s grip on havens in Yemen’s west and south. The U.S. has charged AQAP with overseeing a string of terrorist plots on Western targets in recent years. In January, AQAP claimed responsibility for organizing a terrorist attack in Paris against the staff of aFrench satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.
Houthi Shiite Yemeni hold their weapons during clashes in near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Yemen, Monday, Jan. 19, 2015. Rebel Shiite Houthis battled soldiers near Yemen’s presidential palace and elsewhere across the capital Monday, despite a claim of a cease-fire being reached to halt the violence, witnesses and officials said. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)
“There are informal contacts” with the Houthis, said a U.S. defense official, who declined to discuss the extent of the emerging relationship. “It is not uncommon for us to have communications with them, even before all this stuff happened,” the official said, referring to the militia’s capture of San’a.
Military officials on Thursday said the Houthis took over a key military base south of San’a where U.S. advisers until 2012 had trained forces battling AQAP, the Associated Press reported. The base was currently led by forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the AP added.
The U.S. and Iran both already are backing Iraq’s Shiite government in its military campaign against Islamic State fighters who have captured parts of northeast Iraq and Syria in recent months.
Houthi commanders, in recent interviews conducted in Yemen, asserted that the U.S. began sharing intelligence on AQAP positions in November, using intermediaries, as the conflict in the country intensified. They specifically cited a Houthi campaign against AQAP positions in western Al Baitha province as one such operation.
One Houthi commander said the U.S. provided logistical aid to the militants and exchanged intelligence on AQAP to support the Houthis’ operations against the group and pinpoint drone strikes. The Americans passed on all this information, the officer said, through Yemeni counterterrorism officials. The commander said the Houthis have pressed the Americans not to fly drones over rebel-controlled territories and to get clearance before launching strikes on AQAP.
Senior U.S. defense and State Department officials said Washington isn’t providing intelligence directly to the Houthis. They said the communication largely is an effort to “deconflict” its military operations from the Houthis’.
“We do not have an intelligence-sharing agreement with the Houthis,” said Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House. “Intelligence sharing requires formal agreements, similar to the one between the U.S. and Yemeni government.”
The Obama administration increasingly has sought to describe the Houthis as a potential partner of Washington’s ever since the militia gained control of San’a in January. The U.S. has continued to cite Mr. Hadi as the rightful leader of Yemen, but it has also appeared to accept the Houthis as a legitimate part of a new government in San’a.
President Barack Obama in recent days cited the goal of maintaining counterterrorism cooperation against al Qaeda as one of his two top priorities in Yemen, along with protecting Americans on the ground there.
“By definition, we’re going to be operating in places where oftentimes there’s a vacuum or capabilities are somewhat low,” Mr. Obama said Sunday in New Delhi. “We’ve got to just continually apply patience, training, resources, and we then have to help in some cases broker political agreements as well.”
In November, a Houthi representative visited Washington for several days to attend a United Nations Development Program-sponsored dialogue to promote Yemen’s economic development. He also appeared at The Atlantic Council, a U.S. think tank, on Nov. 20, which analysts said was the first time a Houthi representative spoke publicly in the U.S.
The representative, Ali Al-Emad, told journalists, analysts and government officials at the event that the Houthis weren’t seeking to take over the government, but only desired to be fully integrated into government institutions.
“Ansar Allah will not and will never be as an alternative to the government, and we always sign whatever treaties we have,” Mr. Al-Emad said, speaking through a translator and using another term for the movement.
He said that since September, the Houthis had worked to return Yemen’s security environment “back to normal,” and said they had been “a bulwark” to stop AQAP’s expansion. “We were successful in combating and deterring this phenomenon that’s called al Qaeda in many provinces.”
Mr. Al-Emad participated in the economic-development conference alongside representatives from President Hadi’s government and Yemeni business leaders. He didn’t attend any meetings at the State Department while in Washington.
The level of Iranian support for the Houthis is in dispute.
Mr. Al-Emad denied major funding or arms were coming from Tehran. But a Houthi official in San’a who deals with Iran says assistance comes in the form of logistics, intelligence and cash. He said Houthis have received tens of millions of dollars in cash from Iran over the past couple of years.
The Obama administration says it believes Iran’s support for the Houthis is significant, but that it isn’t overseeing the current military command. They said Tehran’s involvement in Yemen is nowhere near its role in Lebanon, where it closely coordinates military activities with Hezbollah, the Shiite militia and political party.
“We don’t see any command and control in Yemen,” said an American diplomat.
U.S. cooperation with the Houthis could further complicate its relationship with Saudi Arabia and the leading Sunni states in the Persian Gulf.
Washington and Riyadh have been partnering in trying to stabilize Mr. Hadi’s government. But Arab officials have voiced alarm about the Houthis control of San’a, viewing it as a major regional victory for Tehran.
“American contacts with the Houthis would likely unnerve the Saudis,” said Emile Hokayem, an expert on the Persian Gulf at London’s International Institute for Security Studies. “Saudis are already nervous about U.S. policy in the Middle East and the sense that Washington is no longer interested in containing, let alone countering, what they see as Iran-allied Shia militias.”
Mr. Obama discussed Yemen with Saudi Arabia’s new monarch, King Salman, during a visit to Riyadh this week, U.S. officials said.
—Carol E. Lee, Felicia Schwartz and Hakim Almasmari contributed to this article.