Scholar and journalist Waalid Al-Saqaf says continued US drone strikes and foreign involvement will push Yemen towards a civil war and do nothing to address the growing humanitarian catastrophe


Story Transcript

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. The AP is reporting a U.S. drone strike in Yemen has killed three suspected al-Qaeda militants. The strike follows the ousting of Yemen central government in Sana’a by Houthi rebels, a move that has plunged the country into turmoil. The resignation of Yemen’s leadership has raised the question whether going forward the U.S. has a partner for its so-called war on terror in the embattled country. And on Friday, Oxfam warned the country is on the brink of humanitarian disaster. Now joining us to discuss all this from Örebro, Sweden, is Walid al-Saqaf. He’s a media researcher, freelance journalist, a former editor of the Yemen Times. He’s a lecturer at Örebro University in Sweden. Thank you so much for joining us. WALID AL-SAQAF, NEW MEDIA AND GLOBAL JOURNALISM SCHOLAR: Thank you. NOOR: So can we start by touching upon this breaking news that the U.S. has carried out its first drone strike in Yemen since the fall of the central government? And bring us up to date with what the status is with the central government right now. AL-SAQAF: Thank you. Obviously, it has been really a bit of a shock to know that the operations of the U.S., including drone strikes continuing with no government in a place and no leadership–so it was a bit of a shock for many journalists like myself seeing that this is going. We’re just wondering, with whom does the U.S. government coordinate? I mean, who is the authority giving the right for such attacks to take place? Nonetheless, like anyone else, we received the news. We still do not know, though. It’s always the case that the first glimpse says that those suspected radicals are al-Qaeda members. But, unfortunately, on many occasions it turns out to be false news, and sometimes civilians are killed. So what I’d say: we need to be cautious with such reports and wait and see what comes later. As for the central government, we know already that there is none. And the Yemeni president, Hadi, had actually resigned. So now we’re in a power vacuum. Not many people in Yemen know where the country is heading, and even can’t predict where it’s heading, because dynamics are shifting every day. For example, a few days ago we were told that–by Sunday, that the Yemeni parliament would meet and discuss the future of the president and see if they can accept his resignation or not. Unfortunately, even that didn’t happen. And now the parliament itself has given us the impression that even those who’ve been elected to upset the people are in a disarray themselves. So the situation is rather delicate and sensitive, and we are really going through something that I’ve never witnessed in my life. We are quite worried that this may be the first step towards a more serious situation, where maybe a civil war will break loose. NOOR: And talk about who the Houthi rebels are and what their ascent means for the country. Critics call them a proxy of Iran. And for years Yemen has been a target for the U.S. drone campaign carried out both by the Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC, and the CIA. And just in September, Obama hailed Yemen as a success story for its counterterrorism operations. AL-SAQAF: I mean, the Houthis, first of all, are a group of religious sect militia that have heavy weaponry and support and backing from Iran. I cannot confirm the level of the coordination or support they get from Iran, but we do know that oftentimes when any achieved military gain is recorded for al-Houthi, the Iranian state officials, and many times high supreme leaders, hail it as success for Iran. So we see that happening over and over again. But we’ve come to understand over the many months that have passed that the former regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh had actually been facilitating, if not even supporting, the Houthis to take over major cities and military bases. And this has caused serious concern, because we know that for a leader like Saleh, who has been in power for over 30 years, he has deeply entrenched interests in resuming or retaining, regaining power. So what we’ve seen here is perhaps one of those steps through which he could use al-Houthi to come back to power. We cannot know how and when this could happen, but many predict that slowly and gradually Saleh will slowly enforce his power centers within the military and try to regain part, if not all power. And what we’ll see next is probably a conflict between the Houthis on the one hand and the former regime on the other, because both see this, what happened, as a victory of their own. And so the days ahead might hold this confrontation. While the international community has been–unfortunately, including the U.S.–has been somewhat on the sidelines when it comes to understanding the serious damage that the former regime has been putting by infiltrating many of the establishment, let’s say, military bases, serious military power still in its hands, Saleh in the country messing around with politics through the ruling parties. So, much of this has been, unfortunately, ignored over the years, and now we are seeing the consequence of this. So, I mean, as Saleh remains in the country and still has these entrenched connections, as he might as well have the military power behind him, we don’t see any easing of the situation. NOOR: And we know the U.S. stuck with Saleh throughout when Yemen was experiencing the Arab Spring for most of that time. And it’s the civilian population caught in the middle of this. We know Oxfam just released a report saying that about half the population was under the threat of starvation or had trouble accessing food. Just what is the humanitarian situation right now? AL-SAQAF: Well, as Oxfam said, if not even worse, I’ve seen myself, when visiting Yemen recently, as late as September and October, that there has been a serious increase in the level of poverty in the country throughout all the different regions. And we’ve come also to see that the lifting of, or, let’s say, reducing the subsidies of fuel products, including gasoline and diesel, had actually affected marginal groups and the poor. So we have seen this going over continuously with not much attention to address it. And now we have come to the peak of suffering, with the ongoing chaos, as not much protection is offered to those marginalized people. And what we have also seen over the years: that the interests of the international community has mostly been on the so-called war on terror, not looking into the sufferings of the population, which have over the years been one, perhaps, main factor behind the growth of radicalism and terrorism, because, as you can see, there’s not much for the youth to lose. They may join any radical group and expand its influence and outreach. And so, by ignoring all of these factors, the West and the U.S. perhaps have contributed at some point to the growth of the radicals. NOOR: And, finally, the crisis in Yemen is being called the first test for the new Saudi King, Salman. He’s meeting with President Obama today. And one of their topics of discussion is going to be Yemen. And we can only speculate that they’re going to be discussing how to expand influence within Yemen. Talk about what moves Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s neighbor to the north, will likely–may carry out, and what you hope to see come out of these type of discussions, and what could actually help Yemen leave this humanitarian disaster, and also get a stable and democratic government in place? AL-SAQAF: Well, these are quite tricky questions I may not be able to answer. But what I’d say is that they need to look into the roots of the issue. And one of the main roots of the issue is basically understanding the entrenched interests of the former regime to regain power over the–even if the price to pay would be the country as a whole. And we’ve also heard many analysts, and even in the neighboring Saudi Arabia, saying that one of the major flaws in the Gulf Cooperation Council’s agreement that allowed Saleh to let go of power was to keep him in the country and let him control the ruling party and half of the government. So you can imagine, for someone who’s tasted power for so long, and given the many different actors or, let’s say, facilities to help regain the government or regain power, this person would actually go on in distorting or, let’s say, destabilizing the new government to show the public that, look, I was a better leader, I couldn’t regain security–bring back security to you, I could actually improve the overall performance in the war on terror. So all of these acts that have been done in the past few years have proven that the measure of not taking–let’s say, controlling Saleh, not allowing him or, let’s say, keeping him free to do whatever he wanted had actually major consequence. So if there is any serious action to take is to first ensure that Saleh is pacified, that he can no longer make trouble to the ongoing transition. And another important thing is to focus on putting pressure on Houthis, perhaps through Iran, and trying to find out a way to minimize its outreach and aggression throughout the country, and letting them go back to where they were before the north. So by pressuring Saleh on the one hand and the Houthis on the other, perhaps we can defuse the situation and regain some control and stability, allowing the transitional government to move forward. NOOR: Walid Al-Saqaf, thank you so much for joining us. AL-SAQAF: You’re welcome. Thank you. NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.

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Walid Al-Saqaf

Walid Al-Saqaf is a media researcher specializing in Internet censorship. He is a freelance journalist and the former editor of the Yemen Times. He has written for the Gulf News and the Wall Street Journal and is the founder of yemenportal.net. Currently, Walid Al-Saqaf is pursuing his PhD at the Department of Media and Communication at Orebro University, Sweden.