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Yemen's crisis is so bad that we're not even sure if the president has fled the country

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
  1. Yemen's US-backed President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi may have fled the country on Wednesday, according to one report by AP, which cites senior officials stating that Hadi left Yemen by sea. However, other news organizations, such as the BBC, say that he is still in the country but has fled his palace in the city of Aden for a secure location.
  2. AP's report says Hadi's entourage fled in two boats after 3:30 pm on Wednesday, under heavy security. It has not been confirmed by other outlets.
  3. Hadi's government has been losing territory to Houthi militants based in Yemen's north since last summer. In September, the Houthis seized the capital of Sanaa, forcing Hadi to flee the city. If he has fled again, either from his palace or from the country entirely, it would be a sign of his deteriorating hold on his own country.

Yemen's government has been losing control for months

Regardless of whether Hadi has actually had to flee, even the suggestion reflects something that has been true for a while: his government is losing control.

The Houthi rebels, who have been fighting the government on and off since 2004, pushed Hadi out of his own capital in September — and are now close to overrunning Aden in the south, where he had been taking refuge.

The rebels have seized an air base 35 miles from the city, and there are reports they may have taken control of Aden's airport, too. Unidentified warplanes have been targeting Hadi's presidential compound in Aden this week.

Hadi has asked the UN Security Council to authorize a military intervention by any willing countries to stop the Houthi advance. The Arab League is set to discuss the request on Friday.

Iran and Saudi Arabia both see Yemen as a proxy for their competition

Iran's government is widely believed to be providing support to the Houthi rebels, though the extent of that support is unclear. Yemeni and Western officials say their intelligence indicates Iran has been training the fighters, as well as sending them weapons and cash; Reuters cited one senior Iranian official as admitting this was indeed the case, although the Houthis themselves deny they are receiving Iranian help.

The prospect of growing Iranian influence in Yemen has deeply worried Saudi Arabia, Iran's great regional rival and Yemen's neighbor.

The Saudis, who have backed Hadi, are unnerved by the prospect of a Shia takeover on their southern doorstep, and there are indications that the Saudi government is building up its military on the border.

"The Saudis are particularly concerned that, should the Houthis come to control Yemen for the longer term, the group’s next target could be its northern neighbor – with or without Iranian support," Peter Salisbury wrote in a policy paper for the Chatham House think tank last month.

The US fears this chaos could strengthen Al Qaeda

The ongoing unrest in Yemen has forced the US to scale back its operations against al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a group in Yemen that has shown it can strike abroad. The US National Counterterrorism Center has called AQAP the terrorist group "most likely to attempt transnational attacks against the United States."

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the Houthi surge since September has pushed local Sunni tribes into alliances with AQAP, enabling the jihadists to make territorial gains.

The US pulled its remaining special forces out of Yemen this week because of the deteriorating security situation; it had already closed its embassy in Yemen. US officials have voiced concern over the impact this lack of personnel on the ground will have on the ability to collect intelligence on AQAP.

"With the evacuation of the embassy and now the evacuation of these special forces, our intelligence on AQAP is going to go down," Morell told CBS.