In the immediate aftermath of Anwar al-Awlaki’s death, President Barack Obama issued a contradictory statement regarding al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) former cleric, propagandist and foreign plotter. Understandably resistant to discussing operational details, Obama assured the American people that al-Awlaki, “met his demise because the government and the people of Yemen have joined the international community in a common effort against Al Qaeda.” The sad reality is that the White House has no working relationship with the Yemeni people.
Tracking al-Awlaki was “something that we have been working with the Yemeni government for quite some time,” Obama added, seemingly unaware that cooperation with Ali Abdullah Saleh is the root problem of U.S. policy.
Last Friday Tawakel Karman’s Nobel Prize brought a peaceful radiance to Yemen, cutting through the darkness that Saleh and AQAP have thrived on. Her recognition, hard-earned after years of advocating female equality and civil rights in general, also highlighted the incongruity between Yemen’s revolutionaries and the international community’s response. While some conservative elements in the U.S. media questioned Karman’s “Islamic” association with Yemen’s Islah party, the Obama administration isn’t open to negotiating with her populist faction. Instead the Joint Meeting Parties’ (JMP) established core, which includes Islah’s main branch, has been engaged over Yemen’s popular protesters, obstructing national unity by pitting the traditional opposition against Yemen’s democratic uprising.
Far from working with the people to combat AQAP’s dispersion, a trend facilitated by Saleh’s regime, the Obama administration has coordinated with Yemen’s eroding government to undermine their revolution. The vast majority of Yemenis want nothing to do with AQAP; anti-government protesters have rallied against AQAP and vow to give no sanctuary to the group. Many believe that Saleh’s misrule provides the fertilizer for AQAP’s growth, funneling proxy "jihadists" into the contested southern governorates and avoiding engagement until it serves his purpose - milking the Western cash cow for political immunity and military assistance.
Karman’s initial protests in January accelerated a "secret" CIA base somewhere on the Arabian Peninsula, and only in April did the Obama administration publicly backtrack from Saleh by introducing an unpopular power-sharing initiative.
Despite international calls to resign, Saleh remains buffered by the administration and House of Saud’s proxy, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Although his resignation is now being interpreted as immediate, the GCC initiative grants him 30 days to resign after formally agreeing. Executive power would then transfer to his vice president Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who would oversee a transitional process until a presidential election can be held in two months; during this time a “national unity government” would act as Yemen’s central authority. Washington and Riyadh threw in an immunity clause when Saleh’s family of security commanders initially balked.
The GCC initiative also stipulates an end to protests, contrary to U.S. assurances that "peaceful protesters have the right to demonstrate."
For months anti-government protesters, activists and international supporters have warned against negotiating with a murderous tyrant, to no avail. The Obama administration falsely claims that the GCC initiative complies with the aspirations of Yemen’s people, when the international community’s idea of regime continuation is incompatible with the revolutionaries’ civil demands. President Obama and Secretary Clinton praised Karman as an inspirational leader only to ignore her own platform. One of the first to welcome Saleh's return as an opportunity to try him, Karman rejected the GCC initiative during interviews for her Nobel.
“We are disappointed in Obama,” The New Yorker's Dexter Filkins quoted her as saying in March, a feeling that hasn’t changed judging by her fresher rhetoric.
Yemen’s revolutionaries have a different transition in mind, starting with Saleh’s immediate and unconditional resignation. They realize that he intends to hold out until a snap election can be manipulated. They also seek a trial for his extended family, not a rescue mission, and have requested sanctions as a temporary fix, along with the freezing of U.S. military assistance. The release of political prisoners remains an unfulfilled demand. How a popular transitional council will be chosen has yet to be decided, but most protesters have limited faith in the impotent Hadi (already perceived as a U.S. puppet) to break away from the old regime and oppositional elite.
And they aren’t going home until their demands are met.
Saleh doesn’t believe a revolution is happening inside Yemen - only a conspiracy - and he doesn’t merely renege on signing the GCC initiative. He often responds violently while offering a poisonous olive branch, besieging the UAE Embassy through his loyalists and following with an assault on the neighborhood of Hashid tribal chief Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar. Saleh’s son, Ahmed, and nephew Yahya turned their U.S.-trained units loose on protesters after “authorizing” Hadi to negotiate the GCC’s "mechanism," provoking urban warfare with armed oppositional elements. They were then accused of a coup.
After his latest false promise to resign, regime loyalists attacked a group of women marching in Karman’s honor, an incident that drew no rebuke from the Obama administration.
The Executive Board of Yemen’s National Revolution Council, “would like to clarify their stance after Saleh's recent statement, as it deems repetitive and of no new substance from what he stated in the previous months. He continues to cling on to power, and desperately deceives the public opinion in Yemen and abroad prior to the UN Security Council meeting on Yemen and discussing the report prepared by the UN Envoy to Yemen Mr. Jamal Benomar, which highlights clearly the responsible party for blocking of the GCC initiative.”
The GCC initiative doesn’t encourage Saleh and his family to leave Yemen - it makes them believe they can manipulate Western and Gulf states with impunity. The GCC would usher in a corrupted transition that allows the remnants of Saleh’s regime to oversee the next election, while his immediate scheme is to attack unarmed protesters and force defected General Ali Mohsen or the al-Ahmar brothers (Sadiq and the politically ambitious Hamid) into retaliating. Government-initiated violence grinds on peaceful protesters - the main party opposed to conditional negotiations - and scares the international community into chasing a “political solution.”
The UN Security Council is currently in the process of legitimizing the GCC initiative rather than listening to Yemen’s civil movement; AQAP’s influence cannot be nullified so long as Saleh's regime survives. The Obama administration, European Union and UN must jumpstart a process of empowerment with Yemen’s revolutionaries, engaging them instead of scheming (and flying) above their heads. A lack of political will, not the lack of viable options, is sinking international policy in Yemen. The belief that Washington’s options are limited rests on a flawed assumption that political and military support must continue in the absence of an alternative solution.
Cutting Saleh’s life-line is the beginning of that alternative.