Who is Ali Abdullah Saleh? U.S. ally? Sworn enemy of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)? Defender of universal rights and free expression? Helpless victim?
Yemen’s strongman claims that he’s all of the above. A fork-tongued rhetorician who revels in duplicity, Saleh is sweating from a 10-month revolution against his 33-year misrule. After ordering his officials to court UN envoy Jamal Benomar and veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, Saleh is currently resisting a resolution that he intermittently embraces. Now he accuses protesters of influencing the UNSC’s looming decision - the hunter accusing his prey of setting a trap.
Saleh would naturally denounce Yemen’s civil protesters and political opposition for swaying the UN ahead of its vote. Not only does he divert attention from his own actions, he may not believe that a revolution is occurring in Yemen. Saleh has attempted to contain urban demonstrations with snipers and plainclothes units, blaming them for crossing lines guarded by security forces. Meanwhile his U.S.-trained Republican Guard and Central Security Organization, two “counterterrorism” units led by his son (Ahmed) and nephew (Yahya), provide the muscle and air support against anti-government tribesmen. To all of these men, Yemen’s revolution is nothing more than a coup against a legitimate, democratic government.
Because democratic heads of state appoint their family to oversee the military, pilfer the state’s treasury and kill its people with impunity.
“The outside world treats this as if it is a peaceful revolution against a political regime and does not see the government’s supporters,” Saleh declared at a recent meeting between the Ministries of Defense and Interior. His supporters are seen though - as the minority caught in a revolution. Some (not all) are paid to attend Saleh's rallies, whereas oppositional protesters receive no compensation for their struggles beyond a meal. Over 1,000 people have been killed, with many thousands injured, during nine months of sustained demonstrations; casualties figures are clouded by political detentions and the hiding of bodies.
AQAP has influenced Yemen’s revolution over this time, but not in the manner expected in the West. Several hundreds fighters and their commanders have assumed priority over millions of Yemenis, obstructing a genuine resolution to their uprising.
Adhering to a historic pattern of disengagement, Saleh facilitated a May takeover of Yemen’s Abyan governorate by withdrawing personnel and ceding weapons caches. The 25th Mechanized Brigade was stranded as Saleh’s personnel units concentrated their firepower on protesters, and external fears of an AQAP haven spread as planned. Yemeni ground forces eventually reengaged Abyan's local capital of Zinjibar and U.S. air-strikes maintain a steady pace, scoring hits on Anwar al-Awlaki and several other propagandists. If Saleh wasn’t “needed” to curb AQAP’s spread and maintain political hegemony, the U.S. and European Union would have condemned his crackdown with the same vigor reserved for Gaddafi and al-Assad. Instead Saleh is ignored, excused or slapped on the wrist and allowed to continue killing.
Constantly laying mines for the international community through AQAP, and against the civil movement and JMP by assaulting both, each party (the U.S. included) has been blamed for starting Yemen’s revolution. Saleh acts as though he isn’t responsible for a single death. Thus his agreement with the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), an initiative organized by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at the behest of Washington and Riyadh, is rendered void through no fault of his own. Two-faced as always, Saleh told his security council over the weekend, "Today, they stage demonstrations, which are welcomed. We are with freedom of expression but peacefully. We do not accept heavily armed marches.”
“We have strong proofs of the cooperation between Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda,” he added.
So what is Saleh’s next trap to scuttle the UNSC’s resolution? Only one course of action furthers his objectives: combining rhetoric and force to bait the JMP into over-committing militarily. One moment he claims to have signed the GCC’s proposal, the next he's describing the JMP as "insane people who can't sleep and only want to take power,” or promising that he will step down through “the ballot box.” Information Minister Hasan al-Lawzi similarly accused defected general Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar’s “insurgents,” the JMP’s Islah Party and the al-Ahmer brothers (Sadiq and Hamad, two JMP players) of holding “unauthorized and heavily armed marches.”
While Ali Mohsen’s First Armored Division and the al-Ahmar’s tribal militia are partly responsible for antagonizing the situation, Saleh’s forces have committed systematic abuses against peaceful protesters and inflamed a preexisting humanitarian crisis. Many Yemenis believe that this violence is designed to provoke a large-scale confrontation with the armed opposition.
Unfortunately Saleh is too hardheaded to accept the UNSC’s generous offer. Although stipulating the prosecution of those involved in human rights abuses, Yemen’s resolution hinges on a GCC initiative that grants his regime immunity from its crimes. The proposal also schedules an election within an unreasonable two-month deadline, a tight window that favors Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) and the JMP, and offers him 30 days before officially resigning. Confronted about his notorious duplicity, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon could only respond, “President Saleh should take immediately decisive political reforms so that people can live in a better world without fear of oppression...”
The UN Human rights office ultimately needed to warn the UNSC against violating itself: “international law is pretty clear on this issue. It prohibits the use of amnesties that prevent the prosecution of individuals for war crimes.”
Given that Saleh “accepts” the GCC initiative while simultaneously condemning the UNSC’s legitimization, the strongman has no sincere intentions of cooperating with either party. Flipping back to courtship by lauding “any UN resolution on Yemen,” Saleh told a GPC meeting that he “would sign,” but not before receving “guarantees” from the GCC, EU and the Obama administration. This demand appears irrational because each party already guaranteed his immunity, but Saleh is rightfully worried about the clause being overturned. He doesn’t intend to formally resign, only stall the international community until he runs out of time.
“We don’t believe any further guarantees are necessary,” the State Department’s Mark Toner explained on Wednesday, before urging Saleh to sign the GCC initiative and “move forward.”
Unsatisfied with safe exile, transferring executive power to his vice president and giving his party a chance to steal a future election, Saleh’s destructive behavior has been enabled by external forces. On one level his resistance is a positive development - if the international community finally abandons his regime - since the GCC initiative is muddled beyond repair. Billed as the “only” exit out of Yemen's "political crisis," the document is merely the first and only attempt made by Saleh's allies. The Saudi-bankrolled GCC lacks confidence and legitimacy amongst Yemen's revolutionaries, and the UNSC cannot stop their pursuit of the regime or a transition on their terms.
Yemen’s Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC) recently warned,“The GCC Initiative totally ignores the unequivocal fact that there is a large massive revolt by the people of Yemen, led by peaceful youth protesters, who have been calling for an immediate and unconditional removal of the long time reigning dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family mob, who are in control of almost every meaningful functioning organs of Government in Yemen (military, civilian and economic). This most important demand of the Yemeni people should be granted similar status and acknowledgement as granted to the similar demands of other popular revolts in the region, in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.”
Saleh, the schemer that he is, could still twist his plots and trip over his usual traps; he’s sinking because his web of strategies finally entangled. Bloodshed brings his regime closer to collapse and his party would be overwhelmed in a fair election. However the international community, in coordination with Yemen’s youth and civil coalitions, must act immediately to devise an alternative to the GCC initiative. Having rejected the proposal at UN headquarters, Nobel Laureate Tawakel Karman submitted a letter to Ki-moon requesting sanctions and an ICC trial for Saleh's regime. Only Karman has bigger plans in mind.
“I want to talk to the Obama administration," she later revealed, "to get support for the Yemeni Revolution."