May 18, 2011

Forging a New Future in Yemen

Abdullatif Al-Zayani, Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), received a nice welcome when he landed in Sana’a: your deal is dead. That was the message delivered by officials within Yemen’s oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), as pro-democracy protesters carried coffins labeled “GCC initiative” through the streets. GCC diplomats put an optimistic spin on similar language.

"The GCC ambassadors have had several rounds of talks with different factions during the last few days, including a meeting today in Sana'a," a GCC source explained as al-Zayani made his rounds on Saturday. "The visit of Al-Zayani to Sanaa, the first after the GCC consultative council summit last week, is part of an effort to revive the power-transfer deal."

Except the GCC’s proposal to relieve President Ali Abulldah Saleh from office should stay dead.

Nearly four months have elapsed since Tawakul Karman, Yemen’s leading female activist, planted the final seeds of revolution in mid-January. Two months have vanished since a pair of atrocities unfolded on March 8th and March 18th, one a mass gas attack and the other a rooftop sniping assault that left at least 45 protesters dead. On April 4th, two weeks after these incidents, The New York Times reported that the Obama administration had finally “shifted” against Saleh.

However the GCC entered Yemen’s revolution soon afterward to resolve its “political crisis,” interfering on insincere terms and permanently compromising any future agreement. By negotiating terms between Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC), U.S. and Saudi officials, and the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), the street coalitions were frozen out of negotiations due to their “disorganization.” So were the northern Houthis and secessionist Southern Movement, two of Saleh’s enemies that must be brought back into the political equation.

A biased proposal naturally tilted in Saleh’s favor, and Yemen's embattled president has predictably stalled for time while working to isolate the JMP. Under the GCC’s terms a power transfer would begin in one week, followed by Saleh’s resignation 30 days later, and culminate with an election 60 days afterward. The GCC’s initiative also stipulates immunity for Saleh and his family, particularly his son Ahmed and his nephews, Yahya and Ammar. As the commanders of the Republican Guard, Central Security and National Security, these U.S.-trained (and equipped) forces have led Saleh’s crackdown against pro-democracy protesters.

Perhaps worst of all, Saleh has steadfastly clung to his demand that protesters first return home, a stipulation added by U.S. and E.U. diplomats later in negotiations. Yemen’s popular opposition rejects all of the GCC’s Western-authored terms, knowing too well that Saleh routinely goes back on his word. Over 40 days have already elapsed since the GCC activated on Washington and Riyadh’s orders. During this time GPC figures have repeatedly signaled Saleh’s false intent to resign, while immunity encouraged his violent response to protesters.

They demand his immediate resignation and a transitional council purged of GPC officials.

Yet Western officials continue to support the GCC’s proposal as “the only way out” of Yemen’s "political crisis." In an appearance with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton righteously declared, "President Assad talks about reform, but his heavy-handed brutal crackdown shows his true intentions... We will be taking additional steps in the days ahead." No such warnings have targeted Saleh in the past months, nor does Clinton address Yemen in her remarks.

Ashton only makes a single (and clueless) passing reference: “And we worry too about Yemen and call upon the president there to fulfill his obligations and to sign the agreement.”

After three rounds of negotiations, JMP representatives rejected Zayani’s proposal on Tuesday due to repeated changes in the document. “Every time Saleh is not happy, the GCC change a little in the proposal,” warned Mohammed Basendowah, the president of the opposition preparatory dialogue committee. Meanwhile a GCC official involved in the dialogue admitted, "Zayani is extremely disappointed with the negotiation tactics of Yemen's ruling party and opposition.”

Reports now indicate that Saleh and the opposition will sign today, following U.S. mediation. Although clearly designed to boost President Barack Obama before his Thursday speech on the Middle East, this “agreement” will trigger a whole new round of false alarms rather than address Yemen’s root problems.

The entirety of these developments vividly prove that U.S. policy requires a complete transformation, not overcommitment to a failed strategy. Far from a practical instrument, the GCC’s proposal has contributed to Yemen’s instability and obstructed America’s war against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Obama administration’s personal silence further contradicts the fundamentals of fourth-generation warfare (4GW), which advocate active engagement at the political and information levels. The White House has ignored Yemen’s revolution since Osama bin Laden’s death, only responding with an errant drone strike on AQAP cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

The Wall Street Journal reported the following day that Saleh had begun feeding the Pentagon information again, to get on its good side.

While America has abandoned the information sphere at great cost, complicity in Saleh’s crimes is even worse. One cannot argue that America should stay out of Yemen when it sits waist deep in it; values have been compromised by protecting U.S. assets at Yemenis’ expense. That no Syrian sanctions are forthcoming is explained by the fact that Saleh’s son and nephews serve as the Pentagon’s military liaisons. The U.S. military is desperate to keep the lid on all of his crimes, as Saleh would turn on Washington if caught.

Nothing that he says can be trusted except his promises to resist to the end. That means Washington will sink with him unless it switches over to the revolution. Mohammed Basendowah, president of the opposition preparatory dialogue committee, cautioned, “We know Saleh and his tricks and the GCC nations are only starting to understand him.”

Now it’s time for the America to wake up. U.S. policy is currently backwards: either the Obama administration is willing to let Saleh ride the revolution out, or it’s excusing itself on a “pragmatic strategy” to ease him from power. U.S. officials may argue that abandoning Saleh could provoke a violent backlash. The flaw in this logic is that, by not abandoning Saleh, Washington has instead abandoned Yemen’s pro-democracy movement to that same backlash. Nor can Saleh be eased out; he never planned on leaving.

Saleh believes that he’s smarter than Obama and can outmaneuver him, prolonging the stalemate. Thus severing ties with him offers the best chance of countering AQAP’s advances.

Obama cannot sweep away years of bad policy and months of a futile response with one speech - unless he finally does right and cuts Saleh’s life-line. If the GCC is willing to grant all of the protesters’ terms then so be it, but Saleh’s intransigence and Saudi Arabia’s interference may be impossible to overcome. Yemen isn’t even a full member of the GCC. Its revolution must be laid onto the international table, not a regional bloc with little interest in supporting pro-democracy movements. The GCC’s proposal has been so mixed up that scrapping it entirely appears to be the only practical option.

The key factor will be replacing the GCC’s proposal with one built on the revolution’s foundation - on a legitimate document that fulfills the popular demands for freedom and equality. Negotiations are supposed to build confidence, and what little confidence originally existed in the GCC is long gone. That hasn’t stopped Washington and Riyadh from pushing the GCC’s initiative, but recent condemnation will isolate this position that much more.

If Obama continues to back the GCC or remains silent on Yemen’s revolution in his Middle East address, he will miss the very opportunity that his administration claims it is taking advantage of. Washington’s futile search for a “peaceful and orderly transition” won’t be found in the GCC’s proposal or any other dictated by Saleh. True peace and order will be achieved through the masses in the streets, who are still more organized than U.S. policy. Otherwise the new Yemen won’t look much different than the old.

“Yemenis are counting on the U.S. to take a more active position to this end,” the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC) urged in a personal letter to The President. “Please, don’t let us down.”


  1. This basic overview was intended to be submitted to Western news outlets, before the latest rumors scrapped it. Disturbing that nothing changed before and after though.