- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The United States is shuttering the doors to the U.S. Embassy in Yemen and evacuating its diplomats following a violent uprising of Shia Houthi rebels that led to the resignation of the nation’s president.

The evacuation comes just as political talks have stalled and the security situation on the ground has deteriorated, The Associated Press reported.

Embassy staff will be evacuated out of the country Tuesday and the embassy will suspend operations until conditions in the country improve, according to two U.S. officials who spoke with AP.

The State Department also tweeted advisories for U.S. citizens not to travel there and for Americans in Yemen to depart.

Yemen has been in turmoil ever since Houthi rebels overran its capital city of Sana’a in September. The rebels further strengthened their grip on the country after they seized the presidential palace in January, prompting President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the government of Prime Minister Khaled Bahah to resign.

The U.S. government has slowly decreased embassy staff over the past few weeks due to rising “concerns about their safety and security,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday.

“We have indicated for a number of weeks now that we have been closely monitoring the security situation on the ground in Sana’a and throughout Yemen, with an eye toward taking the necessary steps to protect the safety and security of American personnel who are in Yemen,” he said.

The U.S. Embassy in Sana’a has been a focal point of terrorist attacks in the past. Rocket fire injured two Yemeni guards when rebels took control of Sana’a in September. Prior to that, in 2008, al Qaeda militants in police uniforms launched a sophisticated car bomb attack on the embassy that killed 10 Yemeni guards and civilians.

Had those al Qaeda attackers been able to penetrate the embassy wall, they would have been entered the compound “and probably killed everyone,” said Lincoln Bloomfield, former assistant secretary of state and the chairman of Washington-based think tank The Stimson Center.

Officials have for years been aware of the risks associated with operating out of strife-torn Yemen, Mr. Bloomfield said. Still, the U.S. government has continued to maintain a large State Department presence at a consulate that former diplomats have described as a “an armed bunker.”

Yemen is a very tribally government country,” Mr. Bloomfield said. “It’s not industrialized outside of the city. It’s heavily armed. It’s a gun culture and it’s divided by sects and by religion.”

The State Department’s decision to remove personnel from the country after maintaining a staff presence through various risks is mostly “symbolic,” said Stephen Ganyard, former deputy assistant secretary of state for plans, programs and operations in the bureau of political-military affairs and president of Avascent International. Closing the embassy is not really that big of a deal, Mr. Ganyard said.

“It’s not like it’s going to stop all diplomacy,” he said. “We’ve got some back channel ways that we can do that.”

Other U.S. government agencies are sometimes used to facilitate diplomacy after an embassy has been forced to temporarily closed, Mr. Ganyard said. Their interaction with key power players in Yemen may be necessary in the coming months as the country possibly devolves into various states and factions becomes a “more interesting” political battlefield, he said.

Tuesday’s embassy evacuation in Yemen comes only several months after heavy militia violence prompted the State Department to remove its staff from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya. In July 2014, the department used ground vehicles to move 150 personnel, including 80 U.S. Marines, from the capital of Libya to Tunisia. One month after their departure, a local militia group took over a part of the compound.

Prior to that, in February 2012, the U.S. government shuttered the doors to its embassy in Damascus, Syria, amid a surge in violence and bombing attacks on the city.

The U.S. Embassy in Yemen is the third in an Arab country that has closed since the turmoil of the Arab Spring began in December 2010, The Associated Press reported.

President Obama has long touted Yemen as a counterterrorism success story. U.S.-led drone strikes in the country have been instrumental in combating al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a dangerous Islamic extremist group that has frequently plotted large-scale terror attacks against western targets.

Mr. Obama’s has upheld that counterterrorism campaign as the blueprint for a U.S.-led military operation to quash Islamic State militants operating out of Iraq and Syria.

A senior U.S. official told The Washington Times Tuesday that U.S.-led counterterrorism operations would continue over Yemen even though the country is in a political tailspin. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the operations, declined to say how many U.S. spy planes would remain in the region.

Mr. Earnest also told reporters Tuesday that the U.S. government would continue to take the steps necessary to mitigate the dangers posed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

“What we’ve done in Yemen is sought to work with local officials in Yemen,” he said. “We have sought to support ground forces in Yemen who can take the fight to the extremists in their own country. And we have backed up those ground forces with intelligence and with airstrike capabilities that have succeeded in applying significant pressure to extremists that are operating in that country and curtailed their ability to strike American targets. This is a threat that we remain very vigilant about.”

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