Who will fill Yemen’s power vacuum?

In Yemen, Houthi Shiite rebels now control the capital, have spread south and west, and are making an advance on Aden, driving out President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Who will rise to power and how does the turmoil affect the region? Leslie Campbell of the National Democratic Institute joins Judy Woodruff to offer analysis.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Joining me now to help us sort through what all this means for Yemen, the region, and the United States, is Les Campbell. He's regional director for Middle East and North Africa for the National Democratic Institute.

    Welcome to the NewsHour.

  • LESLIE CAMPBELL, National Democratic Institute:

    Thank you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, wherever President Hadi is, whether he's left the country or not, has his government collapsed?

  • LESLIE CAMPBELL:

    I don't know if it has completely collapsed, but it's certainly on the verge.

    His ministers had already been — in fact, his prime minister was kidnapped a few weeks ago. He got away. The ministers are held in house arrest. The president is clearly on the run, if he hasn't already left the country.

    But I don't think that it means it's over for him. The Houthi group, the Houthi rebels have not shown any inclination to govern. Former President Abdullah Saleh, who I think is behind much of this, is waiting in the wings.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Behind what the rebels are doing?

  • LESLIE CAMPBELL:

    I think he's behind most of what the rebels are doing.

    I think this is not so much a sectarian struggle, it's not so much a civil war as it is a play for power. The former president was humiliated, from his point of view. He left office unceremoniously with a GCC, Gulf Cooperation Council, agreement.

    I think he wants back in. And he doesn't like the fact that his former vice president took over. So it's not over yet, but it's obviously a messy, chaotic situation.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, to the extent President Hadi is struggling right now, and he had the backing of the U.S., who is helped by this? Is it the former president, Saleh? Is that clear?

  • LESLIE CAMPBELL:

    I think it's clear that the former president is making a play to get back into power. But there are other — there are other power vacuums in Yemen — or there's a big power vacuum in Yemen.

    The Houthi rebels, I guess we will call them, they have swept through the country. They took over the capital city, but it's clear that they have done so with at least the acquiescence of the — some of the military units that are still loyal to the former president.

    But Iran is helped by this. I don't — I wouldn't say that they're actively the ones that are controlling it, but this is a group, the Houthi group, which is a Zaidi Shia, which is a form of Shiism. They have — certainly have Iranian ties. Maybe Iran benefits. Maybe this puts the U.S. off balance. Maybe this puts Saudi Arabia off balance.

    But I don't think that's primarily what's going on. Primarily, what's going on is a power struggle in the country. People that had power want power back.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    OK. So, to the extent the former president, Saleh, is benefited by this, what does he want? Who is he allied with?

  • LESLIE CAMPBELL:

    Well, he's — unfortunately, Yemen is a country of many alliances. I think we would probably boggle everyone's minds trying to figure out all the alliances tonight. You have got — you do have…

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    He's not pro-American.

  • LESLIE CAMPBELL:

    He was pro-American. He was for a long time. He was cooperating, as President Hadi was, with the American anti-terrorism campaign, the Western anti-terrorism campaign.

    But, right now, he's not. It doesn't suit his purpose. President Saleh has been aligned up until — almost until he left office with the Saudis. Even though right now he seems to be aligned with the Houthis, President Saleh actually led many wars against the Houthis, who are now his ally.

    So this — I don't — I think it's hard to put this into an easy category. This is a country — it's not a failed state. And I want to make that clear. There are many people in Yemen that still want things to go well. There is a parliament. There are parties, civil society groups.

    But you have very powerful interests who were able to basically pillage the wealth of the country, such as it was. And they're on the outside. They want back in.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, let's talk about — quickly about the region. You talked about — we know President Hadi reached out to the Arab Sunni states in the region, countries in the region. What is their stake in all this?

  • LESLIE CAMPBELL:

    Well, they have a huge stake.

    I think, first of all, no one wants an unstable state. Yemen has a large border with Saudi Arabia, so they have a big stake in this. The GCC countries, the Gulf countries, sponsored a dialogue — they call it the National Dialogue Conference — over the last two years which was supposed to bring stability to Yemen, so they have some stake in this. They don't want that — those two years to be wasted.

    The international community, obviously the United States, I think primarily because of the presence of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, wants a stable, a good address, a good leader, a set of people that they can go to, to negotiate various things that have to do with security in the region. So, so many people have — or countries have a stake in this.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, bottom line, what does it mean right now for the United States? Most Americans can barely — we have — Yemen is not a country that's been in the headlines.

  • LESLIE CAMPBELL:

    Sure.

    It's a faraway place that is remote to most Americans, but the stakes, I think, are huge. First of all, the security stakes are huge. Al-Qaida is in Yemen. There's no question about that. The Iranians do have an interest in the Houthi rebels that appear to be taking over much of the country. That's a problem.

    The Saudis, the other — Egypt, for example, the other Arab Sunni states don't want another unstable sort of post-Arab Spring country. But, on the other hand, it's a big country, a lot of population, poverty. The whole world has a stake in making sure it goes well and that it doesn't become a sectarian war or a civil war. It's not that yet, but it is teetering on the brink.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, we're watching that one, too.

    Les Campbell, thank you.

  • LESLIE CAMPBELL:

    Thank you.