July 19, 2011

West, Saleh Unite Against Yemen’s Transitional Council

On the geopolitical surface, the Obama administration has yet to respond to Yemen’s revolutionary transitional council; both the White House and State Department failed to comment on Monday and Tuesday, adhering to its silent policy over six months of peaceful revolution. Except the surface isn’t where Yemen’s real action is found. Building on private warnings from U.S. officials, including White House counter-terror czar John Brennan, Britain's ambassador rejected the revolution’s council on Monday.

"Yemen is in need for a political change right now under its constitution which enshrined that the president should transfer power to his deputy in case the president is incompetent," said Jonathan Wiliks, who stressed “the importance of involving all political forces in tackling the current situation to achieve a positive political change.”

He added that “no country will support such a council.”

Once again Washington has tasked London to do its dirty work in Yemen, a consistent pattern that has witnessed the E.U. stick to the U.S. line at every point of the revolution. Sometimes E.U. ambassador Michele Cervone d'Urso is sent in to back the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC), or else Catherine Margaret Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, is deployed. Joseph Silva, the French ambassador, has accompanied U.S. ambassador Gerald Feierstein on numerous meetings with Vice President Abed Rabou Mansour Hadi, who remains a pawn despite their best efforts to label him as Yemen’s “acting president.”

In this case the UK’s Wilkes has been trotted out to spare the Obama administration from an immediately negative reaction, and to buy time to spin its response. Saleh’s new call for dialogue, though nothing “new” in itself, also employs identical rhetoric to Wilkes's statement.

Just last Friday, State spokesman Mark Toner reiterated U.S. support for the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative through repeated use of the phrase “political reform.” Washington bluntly opposes a transitional council that would supplant its mechanism of control, the Saudi-dominated GCC. A great quantity of influence would be lost if this initiative was scrapped, as the GCC aims to keep the GPC in power and has granted the U.S. government immunity from supplying Saleh’s personal military forces. The Obama administration, like Saleh, demands that the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) obey the GCC instead of the revolutionaries, even though Saleh’s state media has repeatedly denounced the JMP for its “relations between al-Qaeda.”

According to Toner, the “future” “path forward” in Yemen is “the proposal put out by the Gulf Cooperation Council. He, his acting president, or Saleh should sign it and move the country – put the country squarely on a path that’s going to lead to political and democratic reform.”

This position is unlikely to have changed, leaving the White House scrambling for a reply.

Yet the EU cannot wholly substitute for a U.S. response either, only function as a stop-gap on the Western front. Prolonged silence from Washington will further encourage Saleh’s regime and the revolution to intensify their operations. Every other actor (except Riyadh) has now issued a formal response, starting with the government’s immediate rejection. Abdu Al Janadi, a spokesman for Mr Saleh’s government, said slandered the council as a “coup” that “pours gas on the fire.”

The Obama administration is clearly afraid to position itself on the wrong side of Saleh's regime, meaning it views the revolution as the wrong side of Yemen’s future. Washington ignores the fact that the GCC’s initiative renders its own arguments obsolete. The U.S. cannot warn protesters that their plan will lead to “chaos," then offer the GCC's initiative as the only alternative. This move amounts to a coup against the revolution - and will generate more instability. Nor can Washington claim that it’s leveraging Saleh out of power when the Pentagon is still supplying his murderous security forces. The GCC's initiative is simply a tool to maintain and potentially increase U.S. military influence in Yemen.

The JMP, on the other hand, appears to have chosen fear of the streets over the international community. Reacting quicker to the transitional council announced by Tawakkol Karman, the JMP hinted at its own council on Monday, citing interference from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. On Tuesday Mohammed al-Sabri, a JMP spokesman, said the “National Council for the Forces of the Revolution” would be announced within two weeks.

"Due to obstructions by Saleh's aides and the lack of seriousness of the Gulf mediators to press Saleh's followers to implement the GCC initiative and accelerate the power transition to Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in accordance with the Yemeni constitution, it has been imperative for the opposition to form a transitional ruling council as soon as possible," the JMP said in a statement.

Saleh's regime naturally views the JMP's proposal as an equal threat to Karman's announcement. Janadi would further respond, “If those [people] want to announce a transitional council, they can do that in the sky or in any district, for millions of people still back up the president.” Tarik al-Shami, the GPC’s information minister, added that, "such council will not be recognized by the Yemeni government, nor by the international community, because President Saleh is still the legitimate leader of the country until 2013, and he will return within next few days to Sanaa to resume his duties as the president of Yemen."

al-Shami slandered the council as a “coup” against the GCC’s initiative.

Problematically, the JMP’s decision also appears to target the popular council announced by Karman. Yahya Abu Osba, an official in the JMP, said that while the group is “tired of waiting for the international community to support the revolution,” a transitional council “will come with a hefty price.” This could mean a military response from Saleh but also international criticism. Sure enough, reports are now surfacing of Congressional testimony from Janet Sanderson, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. Since Jeffrey Feltman met widespread opposition against his recent visit to Sana’a, why not sacrifice his own assistant?

“We strongly support the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative which would lead to a peaceful and orderly political transition,” Sanderson and State Department Counterterrorism chief Daniel Benjamin said in a joint statement. “Only the GCC initiative was put into writing and signed by both the ruling General People’s Congress party and the opposition coalition Joint Meeting Parties... We believe that political dialogue is essential to unravel this set of knots that the Yemeni political process finds itself in. And we believe that Saleh's role in that is going to be critical."

Although Sanderson's remarks on Yemen are her first since the revolution began, this "expert" ignored recent attacks on peaceful protesters while asserting of Saturday's transition council, "It seems to us that at this point this council does not have a lot of traction, but the political environment in Sanaa remains quite fluid.” Given that the low-level Sanderson has been tasked to quietly patch U.S. policy, her testimony is designed to both undermine the revolution’s credibility and relieve pressure on the White House.

As several members of the JMP were included in Karman’s council, and Karman herself belongs to the JMP through al-Islah, it remains unclear whether JMP’s council will subvert or subsume the streets. But the JMP’s objectives appear two-fold: negate Western (and local) resistance while holding its pole position for the transition. That leaves the revolutionaries, whose council is beginning to take shape, to continue protesting until their demands are fully met. On Tuesday countless protesters massed to protest U.S.-Saudi interference, tearing apart pictures of Obama and King Abdullah.

Judging when Yemenis will lose all trust in America is a challenging prediction; despite rising anti-Americanism under the Obama administration's militaristic policy, Yemenis were still ready to accept U.S. support against Saleh. Many would have forgiven the Obama administration if the right decisions had been made. Even now, six months and hundreds of deaths later, the time might not be too late. However Yemen’s popular sentiment will reach an irreversible level at some point in the near future. For all the trouble Pakistan’s trust deficit is still giving Washington, the Obama administration is primed to repeat the same mistakes in Yemen.

Having criticized the revolutionaries and political opposition for being too divided - who are instead more united against Saleh - the international community is guilty of personal insecurity. Behind America, Europe and Saudi Arabia’s surface unity lies the real divided alliance.

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