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US Seeking Political Solution in Yemen, Despite Unrest

A Houthi Shiite fighter stands guard as people search for survivors under the rubble of houses destroyed by Saudi airstrikes near Sanaa Airport, Yemen, Thursday, March 26, 2015

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammed Javad Zarif, have discussed unrest in Yemen, where Iranian-backed Shi’ite Houthi rebels are trying to oust President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said Kerry “briefly” raised the issue with the Iranian foreign minister Thursday, as they met for Iran nuclear talks in Switzerland. He said Kerry also spoke to foreign ministers in the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is leading an effort to bomb Houthi targets in Yemen.

But Rathke said Yemen’s chaos has not become a focal point of the talks, in which negotiators are trying to reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear status.

Hadi Departure Raises Concerns about AQAP

President Hadi is a top U.S. ally. His departure from Yemen, as Houthi rebels closed in on his presidential complex in Aden Wednesday, could undermine U.S. efforts to battle al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The U.S has long viewed al-Qaida’s Yemen branch as the global terror network’s most dangerous affiliate.

In spite of concerns, Rathke said the U.S. has not reached out to the Houthis, who now control large swaths of Yemen, for help in battling the militants.

“We have not had direct contacts with the Houthis,” said Rathke. But “we have ways to make our views known,” he added.

No Direct Collaboration Between US, Houthi Rebels

Although the Houthis also oppose al-Qaida, it is unlikely that they would collaborate with the U.S. to fight the terrorist group, says Middle East Institute analyst Charles Schmitz.

“They present themselves as authentic Yemen and beholden to no one foreign, even though they are getting Iranian backing,” said Schmitz.

“They can not be seen as cooperating directly with the Americans,” he said.

Publicly, the U.S. has continued to support a Hadi government in Yemen. At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. continues to urge Yemen’s factions to resolve their differences through a negotiated political process.

“However, that path can not be pursued as long as you have the Houthis working with former President Saleh to foment a lot of instability in the country,” said Earnest.

“We call on them to stop that instability and that violence,” he said.

US Influence in Sectarian Unrest Minimal

But the U.S. ability to influence a political outcome to Yemen’s crisis is minimal, says Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

“In Yemen, we had such a light footprint,” said Corker.

“We really did not do much to try to build strength with the administration that was there that we were, in essence backing, as was our Arab friends,” he added.

While the U.S. is not involved in the Saudi-led military campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, the U.S. has offered logistical and intelligence support.

In spite of that support, Rathke said the U.S. continues to believe there is “no purely military solution” to Yemen’s crisis.