May 29, 2011

Don’t Believe Yemen’s Mythical “Civil War”


Ignored for months compared to those uprisings America has actively supported during the Arab Spring, Yemen suddenly finds itself back in the news with the flick of a switch. Both U.S. and international media rushed to Sana’a after President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to cede power - nearly a month ago. Although a select crew of journalists on the ground continue to broadcast Yemen’s revolution through the U.S. media blanket, their superiors fled the crime scene once they realized their mistake.

A mistake so many Yemenis have become immune to: never trust Ali Saleh.

Returning intermittently as
Syria’s revolution took center stage, mainstream media seemingly landed for good last Sunday when Saleh’s loyalists besieged the UAE embassy, trapping U.S. ambassador Gerald Feierstein. A helicopter rescue triggered a small debate over whether Saleh had violated international law, until then a non-issue despite his ruthless crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. This informed media is now warning of civil war, the kind of prediction that would follow five months of inattention to an extraordinary non-violent revolution.

A Master of "Creative Chaos"

The buildup in Sana’a was felt for months. However this expectation had less to do with the real possibility for tribal conflict and more to do with Saleh’s continual threat of civil war, exploited along with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to keep Washington and Riyadh on his side. Perhaps a cog in his scheme to provoke Yemen’s various and well-armed tribes, Saleh’s brutal crackdown on street demonstrators eventually forced the youth coalitions to request additional protection. Thousands of tribesmen flooded into the capital in May. Many regional leaders declared their support for the peaceful revolution, but cautioned their readiness to use force if attacked.

Officials of the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) countered that tribesmen affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) were “smuggling” weapons into Sana’a. Abdu Ganadi, the deputy Minister of Information, said at the time, "The youth are calling for peaceful protests while they know that inside their camps they have hundreds of machine guns, especially in the Houthi camps.”

Saleh’s trademark duplicity and divisive tactics explain why a Libyan-style civil war is not threatening to engulf Yemen. Having perfected his art with deadly precision during three decades of misrule, Saleh triggered an artificial chain reaction throughout the past week to stave off elimination. Security forces had removed themselves from the streets by the time Saleh’s armed “loyalists” surrounded the UAE embassy in Sana’a. Here he gathered with officials from Western capitals and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), who held out hope that Saleh would finally sign their “power transfer” after months of resistance.

Most Yemenis have no doubt that Saleh planned to interrupt the ceremony. He had, in fact, informed everyone of his intention not to sign on Saturday, when he rejected the revolution as “creative chaos” orchestrated by foreign powers.

In a premeditated response to the ensuing international firestorm, Saleh ordered his remaining security forces to raid the residence of his own Hashid chieftain, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar. Fighting quickly spread to government buildings as al-Ahmar mobilized his own army, a substantial number of disciplined militiamen. Saleh then killed part of his own mediation team after sending them to negotiate a ceasefire, including Bakil tribal sheik Muhammad bin Muhammad Abdullah abu Lahum.

This melee sparked fresh clashes outside Sana’a with Nehm tribesmen of the Bakil; Saleh’s government and local fighters claim they came under attack from each other. Residents reported, “terrifying scenes throughout Friday of civilian houses coming under missiles and rocket-propelled grenade attacks by the government trying to rout out militants from villages.” Although al-Ahmar declared a ceasefire that night, sporadic gunfire and explosions still interrupt the tense capital.

The al-Ahmars made for a naturally artificial target, one that Saleh saved for an emergency. Having passed the point of no return, moving on the powerful tribal federation is being interrupted as the finale of his 33-year rule. Saleh and the al-Ahmars share a rocky relationship; Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, who headed Yemen's parliament and worked with Saleh until his death in 2007, supposedly opposed his rule in private. The al-Ahmars also possess a vast business empire and the accompanying wealth, making them a necessary but suspect ally. Conversely, Saudi Arabia funded the al-Ahmar family as a countermeasure to Saleh's instability.

Neither side trusted the other completely and Hamid al-Ahmar, Sadiq’s younger and more ambitious brother, even informed U.S. diplomats in 2009 of his plans to spark a revolt. Hamid was one of the first tribal leaders to jump ship in February, and Sadiq would follow him after the brutal March 18th sniper attack in Al-Taghir (Change Square). Saleh unsuccessfully attempted to guarantee the al-Ahmars’ removal during two months of negotiations with the GCC, outraging him and adding to his list of excuses not to sign. The end result is a largely manufactured crisis wrapped in legitimate grievances against the al-Ahmars, with the purpose of interrupting a non-violent revolution and scaring Washington and Riyadh.

Even Maj. Gen. Abdullah Ali Elewa, Saleh’s freshest defector, announced with eight fellow officers, “He wants to confirm his false claims that if he gives up power, the homeland will be destroyed."

Think Egypt, Not Libya

Elewa, like rogue General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, by no means enjoys the support of Yemen's revolutionaries. His statements merely illustrate how many people see through Saleh’s transparent ploys, and that his grand scheme failed to distract the millions who march against him. Duplicity isn’t the only reason to disbelieve a civil war - the revolution’s youthful purity provides a second counterweight. Hashem Nidal of the Independent Movement for Change explained, "They wanted to push the revolution towards violence and we refuse this completely."

For now Yemen’s tribes also remain unified against Saleh. His constant rhetoric has inoculated every actor to the point where he contributed to the revolution’s cohesion. His fall could still trigger the very war he has attempted to spawn, yet the threat of civil war is diminishing compared to pre-revolutionary Yemen.

“Saleh is a member of our tribe, but he turned bloody," al-Ahmar said from Al-Taghir at Sana’a University. "Saleh wanted to create discord in the country and he wanted to drag us to a civil war. We wanted it (revolution) to be peaceful but Saleh, his sons and his clique wanted war. We will not leave them the opportunity to turn it into a civil war.”

This possibility is rejected by established U.S. analysts such as Christopher Boucek of Carnegie Endowment for Peace and Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University. Boucek recently warned, “The opposition appears to be united only in their opposition to President Saleh. This tactical cooperation will likely dissipate if Saleh steps down.”

Johnsen believes, "The more tribes and groups that get sucked into the fighting, the greater the danger of civil war becomes," and U.S. officials fear a suspiciously similar outcome.

One administration official deployed to leak the current U.S. position warned, "We are very concerned that the unsettled situation in Yemen is bringing longstanding tribal rivalries to the surface, which is further complicating the process of reaching an agreement on an orderly transfer of power. Tribal as well as extremist elements are attempting to exploit the current instability in order to advance their own parochial interests."

How coincidental - Saleh’s exact threats! Not to mention parochial is the perfect description of U.S. policy in Yemen.

Yemen’s tribal situation isn’t complicating the environment. The one of Saleh is attacking the many, stimulating Yemen's unity. Although danger remains in a post-Saleh environment, the Hashid and Bakil (Yemen’s most powerful and numerous tribal federations) have closed ranks in an attempt to bury past animosity. Bakil sheikhs immediately declared the attack on al-Ahmar as an attack on all tribes. At a popular level, the political opposition remains open to reconciliation with Saleh’s average supporters.

On the tactical side, Saleh has already lost much of the country and begins far more isolated than Gaddafi. Rather than seizing the country’s eastern half and moving west, these regions already fall under the opposition's tribal authority. The north and south, largely under the control of the Houthi sect and Southern Movement’s network, can be taken over after widespread government defections. AQAP poses its own dilemma, but Sana’a is and has always been the epicenter of Yemen’s revolution, and would remain ground-zero in a climactic battle.

Any major military conflict won’t pit Yemeni against Yemeni, but Saleh's last Republican Guards against a sizable majority of the country. In trying to divide everyone against each other, he finally united the majority against him.

Turning U.S. Inaction into Action

With the proper strategy, Yemen doesn’t require U.S. air support to counter Saleh’s decaying military and ineffective air force. Tribes are also armed to the point where they can match Saleh’s firepower, relatively speaking, and got the upper hand of many battles last week. Rather than intervene, Washington needs to stop obstructing the revolution and sever all life-lines to Saleh, political and military. These funds should be switched to humanitarian assistance. The Obama administration must publicly oppose Saudi Arabia’s steadfast obstruction rather than acquiesce to its counter-revolution.

And if Washington's fear of another Libya is sincere, now is the time to prevent the worst case scenario from happening. As NATO jets pound Gaddafi’s compounds, the Obama administration and European Union (EU) continue to hold out the GCC’s proposal as an escape ladder for Saleh. Reports of civil war expounded by the Western media also outline the GCC rather than announce the revolution’s demands. The GCC proposal isn’t just dead, it’s been dead since the beginning phase. The youth gave it one chance two months ago and the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) destroyed the last of its credibility.

In its latest letter to President Barack Obama, the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC) explained, “We understand that the United State continues to hedge on the initiative on the Gulf Cooperation Council, in which, in all honesty, the overwhelming majority of the Yemeni people had no faith from the very start.”

The GCC will keep Saleh in power, not remove him, by allocating a 30-day transition period. Immunity for his family will rob the oppressed of justice, while his party harbors intentions of seizing interim power. Thus a completely new document must satisfy the will of Yemen’s incalculable revolutionaries. If the GCC is to revive from the dead, it must include his immediate resignation and remove his immunity clause. Saleh will resist, of course, but he has manipulated the GCC and Washington the entire time, stirring mayhem without consequence.

Only the Obama administration seems to continue biting as U.S. policy remains unchanged: “the GCC proposal is a good one and Saleh should sign it.”

This policy must undergo an immediate reversal from its current position. Cutting military aid may not make an immediate difference and sanctions are dicey; Saleh has outmaneuvered Washington by lining up Beijing and Moscow on both fronts. The real push must be political, legal and moral in nature: unilateral declarations and sincere support for the revolution, not the unjust extraction of a U.S. asset possessing incriminating evidence. Yemen’s health will immediately improve once Saleh is removed and isolated from power.

Fulfilling the revolution’s demands and building a new Yemen remains an uphill battle from there. However Saleh’s fall will cleanse much of the poison accumulated over his turbulent rule.

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