June 20, 2011

Reading Between Washington’s Unbending Lines

Last Friday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held an interesting teleconference with Saud bin Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign minister. The exact details of this conversation remain unknown since the U.S. position, apparently, is too obvious to describe. On Monday State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland mounted resistance to discussing their call, explaining “there are times for quiet diplomacy.”

Because the Muslim world and U.S.-Saudi counter-revolution enjoys such trust and open communications.

What we do know is that Clinton phoned Prince Saud for more than an update on Saudi women protesting their right to drive. In a “broader diplomatic context,” the two discussed ongoing developments in Syria and Yemen. However future details only sharpen through a haze. When pressed on Bahrain’s uprising, Nuland said the country was left out of Clinton and Saud’s conversation. Much can be inferred from this silence alone, which is no coincidence. Washington and Riyadh don’t like to talk about Bahrain’s uprising due to their unpopularity with the opposition.

Bahraini protesters would be surprised, then, to learn that America supports their quest for freedom, as Nuland insists. Yet she does so with the oddest of word choices. One reporter follows up, “Is the United States advising the Saudis to withdraw their forces from Bahrain at this juncture?”

“Our view on the forces in Bahrain is that Bahrain is a sovereign state, has a right to ask for support,” Nuland replies. “You know that we continue to believe that the internal situation in Bahrain is best addressed through dialogue, through national reconciliation, and we’ve been encouraging those efforts, including when the Bahraini Crown Prince was here last week, two weeks ago.”

When pressed whether Saudi forces are destabilizing the situation in Bahrain, she responds, “I think I’ve stated our position on those forces. Thanks.”

To be fair Nuland does state the U.S. position: support for Saudi troops in Bahrain. How support for Saudi troops and Bahrain’s opposition coincide isn’t explained, but glossing over reality provides a quick fix. The same pattern also occurred in Yemen, where Nuland repeated the standard U.S. line: “Beyond saying that they share the goal of getting Yemen on the course to a democratic transition, that they both continue to support the GCC agreement, I don't think it would be appropriate to get into the back and forth in the conversation. But it was very much in the context of supporting, moving Yemen in the right direction.”

Translation: Washington and Riyadh discussed their strategy to suppress Yemen’s revolutionaries and move Yemen in the wrong direction.

As pro-democracy protesters intensify their debate on how to block the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) proposal, U.S. and Saudi diplomats continue to pile pressure onto Vice President Abdo Rabu Hadi. Hadi, Yemen’s “acting” president would receive formal power under the GCC’s initiative, which also allocates half of a joint transitional government to the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC). An immunity clause is supposed to extract Saleh’s son, Ahmed, from his murderous position atop the Republican Guard, although none of his family has demonstrated their willingness to leave the country. "Quiet diplomacy" cannot become a euphemism for bad diplomacy.

The GCC’s proposal flies right over the top of Yemen’s revolutionaries - like those U.S. drones jetting into their country.

This arrangement will be exposed over a series of revelations, similar to Saleh’s “secret” agreement with General David Petraeus that authorized U.S. air-strikes. While “secret” CIA operations have transformed into a “secret” base inside Yemen, approved by Saleh’s regime, GPC officials are denying a direct role in the operation. An estimated 18 attacks have struck the Shabwa and Abyan governorates since June 1st, but Saleh’s regime claims it only authorized cooperation against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Most strikes have resulted in civilian collateral, according to local sources.

Now reality is descending again. Reporting for The National, the Yemen Post’s Hakim Almasmari cites a government official as saying most casualties are local militants battling government forces. This official claimed, "More than 85 per cent of the fighters killed in Abyan over the last three weeks have not been Al Qaeda members. Militants in Abyan and other areas in the south are well-known Jihadists, but we cannot prove their links to Al Qaeda.”

Qasem Bin Hadi, head of security in Zinjibar, Abyan, rhetorically asked, "Who said that only Al Qaeda is a terrorist group in Yemen? These militants are causing as much problems for Yemen as Al Qaeda.”

“These militants” reportedly include fighters loyal to Khaled Abdul Nabi, whose Jaar farm was targeted by U.S. air-strikes. Having been “rehabilitated” by the government in 2005, Nabi is suspected of functioning as a double-agent for Saleh. Allegedly heading the Abyan Aden Islamic Army, Nabi pledged his military support for Saleh’s war against the northern Houthi (Shia) and secessionist Southern Movement (SM). He’s now accused of stirring up trouble in Zinjibar to scare the West and prove the government’s capabilities.

Whether U.S. drones actually targeted him at the request of Saleh’s government remains unverified, but this arrangement is disturbingly two sided. We are reminded of the end to Lord of War, when Yuri Orlov secures his freedom because Washington funds both sides of global conflicts.

Other groups in Yemen's south include "Ansar Share'a” (defenders of Islamic law), a militia unaffiliated with AQAP according to Saleh’s regime. The SM also maintains its own militia, viewed as a primary threat to Saleh’s thrown, and has suffered repeated attacks from U.S.-trained counter-terror forces. Saleh’s regime perceives all of these groups as an existential threat and has coerced the Pentagon into eliminating these forces, possibly under the excuse that AQAP will be easier to combat.

Not that this possibility matches reality. Local medical officials in Abyan say that over half of the 200 casualties they’ve treated are civilian. Because U.S. intelligence faces an extremely hostile and complex environment on the ground, reducing their information flow, U.S. strikes will remain errant for the foreseeable future. Relying on government intel is a constant gamble; while accurate coordinates have been provided, Saleh’s regime is just as likely to feed false information on state targets.

Politically and militarily trapped in the middle of larger powers, Yemenis will suffer the consequences of both sides’ errors.

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