March 19, 2011

Saleh Losing Grip on Yemen, Reality

As the dust and blood from Friday’s mayhem began to settle, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the White House essentially shared a script in asking “who did it?” Protesters at Sana’a University never doubted for a moment that Saleh ordered gunmen to disperse the gathering masses. They wouldn’t believe his denial anyway after weeks of direct conflict, but reality became even clearer upon examining the victims.

Many bodies bore wounds to the chest, neck, and forehead, marks of professional or semi-professional gunmen.

Saleh’s hold on Yemen loosened by another finger on Saturday as protesters poured into the streets, more determined than ever to overthrow a regime that has ruled for 32 inefficient years. A violent, choreographed crackdown has solidified the opposition's unity and its resentment towards Saleh, who has futilely mixed Mubarak’s tactics with Gaddafi’s threats of civil war. Emboldened by Washington’s silence, his primarily political and military ally, Saleh accelerated his own demise through disproportionate force, falling prey to the opposition’s civil disobedience and low-intensity violence.

Inciting the government to overreact in order to destroy its political and moral position is a main objective in fourth-generation warfare. And Yemen’s opposition has the leverage to uproot him.

But Saleh’s reaction to his own security forces suggests that he could be losing more than his control over Yemen. Sources within the government claim Saleh saw a green light in Bahrain’s crackdown, yet they also claim he doesn’t take the revolution seriously. He refuses to believe the majority of Yemenis oppose him, and thus believes he can weather the storm through the usual methods of propaganda, bribery, intimidation, and force. This suggests an element of delusion.

So while his latest propaganda is certainly just that, one must wonder how much Saleh actually believes his own denials. The confusion orchestrated by his security forces ticks with methodical precision, the type of calculation found in a cold-blooded assassin.

Reports from Yemen generally paint the same picture of Friday’s events, an image confirmed by rapid counter-propaganda from state media. Forced to pick between government forces or “loyalists” shooting protesters and protesters shooting themselves, we are inclined to choose the first option. Protesters were finishing their mid-day prayer when gunmen opened fire with assault rifles from buildings at the Iranian Hospital Square, roughly half a mile from Sana’a University. Uniformed members of the Central Security specialized police forces "were watching without any reaction," according to witnesses. Roughly an hour later security forces sprayed water cannons at the buildings, and protesters stormed the buildings.

Central Security has since withdrawn from “Change Square,” for now.

Soon after the killings, Saleh “expressed his sorrow” during a public address and accused the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) of targeting protesters, a common denial to recent attacks. Promising a “neutral committee” would investigate Friday’s shootings, as he has the entire month, Saleh declared the peoples’ right to protest while denouncing the opposition’s refusal to negotiate. Notice that his reaction matches the U.S. script until the state of emergency. Saleh issued a curfew on armed protesters, one last delegitimization tactic, and as his finishing move took credit for his own “martyrs” by declaring a day of mourning.

The fallen are indeed martyrs - to those opposing Saleh. He made a few more on Saturday after storming protest camps in Aden, and next week will repeat the cycle barring any change to it.

Saleh’s regime is doing everything possible to incite Yemen’s opposition - Houthis, Southern Movement, tribal networks - to open hostilities. The relative peaceful nature of a diverse opposition, compared to the danger assigned by Saleh and the West, demonstrates a high level of organization and self-restraint. They realize that Saleh and the West will exploit potential violence against them as “proof” of civil war.

But at some point the opposition may fight back against brutality with real arms, not stones. Saleh believes their escalation will justify a harsher crackdown, except that could bring the finishing blow.

Yemen's opposition presents a workable alternative and Washington cannot fall victim to the false choice of “Saleh or al-Qaeda.” The delay caused by flawed reasoning has wrought a self-fulfilling prophecy; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is upping its tempo against distracted and out-maneuvered security forces. Now Saleh appears to be losing his mind as his allies gradually jump ship - even his own tribe has called for his removal.

Sticking with him transfers the insanity to the White House and Pentagon.

If Saleh chooses Gaddafi’s endgame over Mubarak's, the safest strategy for containing AQAP and avoiding deeper military intervention is outright support for the revolution. Opposing some delusional dictators while supporting others doesn’t equate to a sustainable foreign policy, but is doomed to crumble in the new Middle East. Just like Saleh’s regime.

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