December 23, 2011

Relative Calm Before Yemen’s Next Battle

With Yemen’s Life March expected to officially arrive in the capital of Sana’a on Saturday, the country’s internal and external actors are positioning themselves for the next round of confrontation. Further analysis will follow these updates:

Life March Encountering Government Ambushes

Yemen’s current security is a mixed bag, depending on the area. While the Houthi-contested north has destabilized considerably in December and southern governorates remain in their usual disarray, some military checkpoints were removed from Yemen’s cities during the last week. Oppositional fighters followed as part of an internationally-mediated truce between Ali Abdullah Saleh, his defected general Ali Mohsen, and the al-Ahmar brothers.

However demilitarization is far from complete; both sides maintain an active presence around Yemen’s pro-democracy protesters.

Friday’s attacks mimicked Saleh’s low-key pattern of feigning cooperation before an assault; the regime’s strategy seeks to divide and conquer, rather than directly confront the Life March. According to local sources, Republican Guard and Central Security forces offered protection against pro-regime loyalists as the march passed through Dhamar, Yasleh and Khidar areas. Parts of the strung-out march were then attacked by security forces, splitting protesters from the group and isolating them in the cold. Government forces are reportedly harassing protesters along the way, preventing locals from supplying them, and allegedly kidnapping a handful of marchers.

Since the Life March aims to connect various “freedom squares” between Taizz and Sana’a, Saleh’s forces have also planned to stop others from joining. As the march swells into the “March of the Revolution,” a group of protesters came under attack in northern Sana’a as they attempted to link with the forward party. Republican Guard troops reportedly opened fire after ubiquitous plain-clothed men assaulted the crowd with sticks.

Conversely, Yemen’s government is actively highlighting the Guard’s protection as the first marchers near Sana’a; Saleh’s son (Ahmed) and nephew (Yahya) have supposedly “formalized a security plan” as commanders of the Republican Guard and Central Security. Yet the trust gap between Yemen’s pro-democracy movement and Saleh’s regime is irreversibly vast. Government forces may be slightly less inclined to attack the march under tribal protection, but this protection is regularly exploited by the regime.

Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) has already threatened that it "would not be responsible for the collapse of the initiative, while others violate its letter and spirit.”

Immunity Clause In Quasi-Limbo

The Life March encompasses many demands of Yemen’s pro-democracy movement, from political to economic to religious freedoms. Beyond the rejection of Yemen’s “unity government” between the GPC and oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), Life Marchers are walking in memory of the 1,000+ protesters killed over the last 11 months. The timing worked out perfectly: Saturday’s festivities coincide with Saleh’s theoretically transfer of power and a parliamentary debate on his immunity as stipulated in the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative.

Hard results are another matter though, and the immunity issue was dropped from the government’s weekend agenda. UN and JMP officials are making an effort to deny Saleh’s immunity clause - claiming all parties responsible for violence "should be held accountable" - but their rhetoric has amounted to nothing more than a diversion. Neither the UNSC nor JMP want to clarify this issue at the highest level, instead keeping transparency low as they cooperate with Saleh's regime.

Until immunity is explicitly stricken from UN resolution 2014, one must assume that the clause lurks in Yemen’s political shadows. The same goes for Saleh’s status after Saturday passed without clarification, and Yemen’s strongman is set to remain “honorary president” until February’s election. Washington has left too many counterterror-related secrets in Saleh's possession to cut him loose.

West Maintains Status Quo

Since ordering the Life March to disband would be overtly unreasonable, Western and Gulf powers have progressed to their next course of action by ignoring Yemen’s protesters. Not that Life Marchers didn’t expect this possibility - they organized because the international community is ignoring them. Amid the backdrop of America’s silent consent, allied UNSC powers have taken the diplomatic lead in backing Yemen’s “unity” government.

“Yemen was on a cross section between war and peace,” UK Ambassador Jonathan Wilks said between meetings with government officials. “Thanks to Allah, Yemen chose peace and in last week we have done the first step, and we saw many improvements in the political and security aspects.”

As if Allah drafted the GCC initiative.

Separately, the European Union’s Catherine Ashton called Vice President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi on Wednesday to inform him of her impending arrival. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy will assume her counter-revolutionary duties by legitimizing the new government, ignoring Yemen’s Life March. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe also phoned the JMP’s Mohammed Salem Basindwa, now acting as Yemen’s Prime Minister, to congratulate him on “forming the national reconciliation government.”

These statements boil down to self-adulation given the West’s heavy hand within GCC negotiations. Saba state media proudly displays Saleh’s support in the UNSC, where Russia (of all countries) reaffirmed the UN’s support for the GCC initiative. The pro-government Yemeni Observer was even more blatant: “10 international and Arab ambassadors seem to be determined to work day and night for helping the vice president, who is authorized from Saleh to act as president.”

These aren’t the actions of an international community preparing to hold Saleh accountable for extensive human rights abuses and corruption. Two forces are thus marching head to head in Yemen: the pro-democracy Life March, and the international community’s lockstep march behind Saleh's regime.

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