April 10, 2011

White House Can't Hide Saleh's Defiance Forever

The depth of the White House’s silence on Yemen observes no perceivable limit. Aided by a looming government shutdown on Friday, the Obama administration clamped the flow of information and cut off every revolution - Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Syria. At the expense of the former uprisings, President Barack Obama was forced to double-back on Syria’s escalating violence with a Friday night press release. Meanwhile State spokesman Mark Toner issued a statement praising Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s “peaceful” cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Without anyone to correct Saleh’s political defiance and suppressive tactics, which killed at least a dozen Yemenis and wounded hundreds more, the embattled president was left to carry out his intimidation campaign in peaceful silence. All he needed to do was bat away the GCC’s call to resign as "foreign intervention."

Silence is always an interesting phenomena to observe - and the White House could defy predictions again - but Saleh’s actions will greet it first thing Monday morning. Contrary to the usual plain-clothed units, uniformed government forces explicitly fired on protesters in Sana’a and the southern cities of Aden and Taiz. In some places protesters tried to storm government buildings only to be repelled by disproportionate force. Several funerals marches, a staple of fourth-generation warfare - were fired upon. Vital facilities in Sana’a have been surrounded by snipers, forcing the opposition to cancel a march on the presidential palace. Meanwhile the government continues its use of tear gas within a confined space, exposing a higher number of people to a higher concentration.

Al Jazeera's unnamed correspondent reported from the capital, "There were more than three hours of the constant sound of tear gas being fired, and live ammunition being fired. The police are becoming increasingly intolerant of protesters. It seems [president] Ali Abdullah Saleh is once again really trying to show his force."

Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF’s representative in Sana’a, added that over 24 children have been killed in the unrest: "This is extremely alarming. I am gravely concerned about this escalation of violence, especially with regard to the number of child casualties, which keeps increasing."

The entirety of these events unfolded due to Saleh’s rejection of a favorable agreement between the GCC and Yemen’s oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). According to the terms, Saleh and his sizable family would receive immunity in exchange for his resignation and exile. Power would transfer to Abd Rabbo Mansoo Hadi, who has served as Saleh’s vice president since 1994. Such a deal was considered too sweet by the popular elements within Yemen’s opposition, yet Saleh has repeatedly voiced his intent to lead the opposition if he’s thrown out.

Although Saleh is a talented flip-flopper, a situation thinker disconnected from permanent reality, changing his mind for good isn’t like him either.

Saleh’s latest rejection greatly angered those protesters willing to give him one final chance to leave with “dignity,” as he puts it. Many have now joined the rest in calling for his unconditional surrender. Naturally the decisively indecisive Saleh reverted to welcoming the GCC’s assistance. Yet as the GCC reconvened its foreign ministers to discuss these obstacles, a Gulf diplomat claims that Saleh wants “assurances that the group would only mediate and not dictate any outcomes.”

"If there is a [mediation] meeting it will be under the auspices of the GCC secretariat under one condition that the GCC will not get involved in the final decision,” he said. “The Yemenis won't agree to the talks in Saudi unless they get a promise from the GCC that they won't get involved."

All code for Saleh’s refusal to quit.

Now another stab is in the works. According to Gulf sources, Saudi Arabia will sponsor “a government of national unity led by the opposition” which would be responsible for “establishing a constitution and organizing elections." Somewhat surprisingly, Saba state media has released GCC Secretary General Abdullatif al-Zayani’s call to transfer power, possibly at the behest of Riyadh. Not much appears to have changed though; the GCC once again requested that Saleh transfer power to Hadi, a soft play hidden within a hard line. More stall tactics, it would seem.

Abu-Bakr al-Qirbi, Saleh’s foreign minister, also fell back to the same routine. While telling reporters, "He has announced personally that the Yemeni government is studying the Gulf initiative,” al-Qirbi said that Saleh “objected to the assumption he had no choice but to accept a deal to go.” As a final touch, Saleh paraded Bahrain’s support for Yemen’s “unity” and “stability,” a desperate, counterproductive choice of association.

The weekend’s results portend another violent week ahead, one that Washington will find increasingly difficult to ignore. Although maintaining an amazingly resilient cone of silence around Saleh, the GCC’s involvement will attract additional and potentially unavoidable attention. First, the State Department may be forced to confront its weak statement after Saleh uprooted it. If not, the Saudi connection will sink its claws into the U.S. narrative.

The GCC’s initiative is, at the bottom line, nothing more than Washington and Riyadh’s plan B to cushion Saleh’s fall. After Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met with King Abdullah to oversee the weekend process, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon will land on Tuesday for a three-day meeting with Abdullah and Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan. According to an accompanying statement, "The National Security Adviser's visit underscores the importance of our relationship with these two key partners.”

While these meetings undoubtedly stretch beyond Yemen, ensuring a favorable outcome in the teetering nation is surely a top priority. If (and when) the latest negotiations fall through, we will finally have something to observe in Washington beyond silence.

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