Beyond Yemen’s opportunistic opposition and meddling foreign powers, few individuals or parties are willing to join Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime. That leaves the majority of his opponents to think like him in order to defeat him. Saleh has gradually exposed his blueprint to confuse Yemenis and foreign powers: where will he end up, when will he land, how long will he stay or if/when will he return to Yemen?
Thus Yemen’s revolutionaries and concerned observers must entertain Saleh’s games to anticipate his end.
On Tuesday the White House confirmed a standing invitation for medical leave, prolonging a debate that briefly assumed priority in the U.S. media. Washington’s double-standard is readily demonstrable by switching Saleh’s approval with Bashar al-Assad, and Saleh’s potential arrival drew more mainstream attention than Yemen’s 11-month revolution. Despite its visible concern behind closed doors, the Obama administration has treated Saleh’s visa request and Yemen’s pro-democracy movement as inconvenient afterthoughts. Jay Carney continued this pattern by offhandedly clarifying U.S. policy three days after the strongman announced that he would remain in Yemen until further notice.
Asked about a potential time table, the White House’s press secretary responded “that the situation remains the same, that the United States is still considering President Saleh’s active request to enter the United States for the sole purpose - the sole purpose of seeking medical treatment.”
This political gamesmanship should reach its next stage in nine days. Citing government sources, the Yemen Post reports that Saleh is “under immense pressure from the west and gulf nations to leave the country and give it a chance to succeed.” Few protesters or observers are willing to believe any of Saleh’s rhetoric until he steps on a plane, and subsequent maneuvers are expected once he lands. For now his most probable location remains the U.S. by default, having declared that he only “postponed” his trip to attend unfinished political business.
Business that includes quelling dissent within his personal security units, or suppressing an ongoing government-economic strike known as the “Parallel Revolution.”
Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) recently “agreed” that he couldn’t travel abroad unless received as “President,” countering the possibility of a brief vacation to New York. Now Saleh’s party has again “decided” that he remain in Yemen and “lead his party” to February 21st’s presidential election; this news was heavily spun by his unpopular spokesman, deputy Information Minister Abdo al-Janadi. If Saleh does travel before January 12th, Washington has supposedly required him to fly through a third party to limit his control.
One official described as a “ruling family member” told the Yemen Post, “Saleh will have other options to enter the US, he will have to go to the Emirates or Ethiopia then head to the United States.”
“We’re not going to dictate his travel plans one way or the other,” the State Department’s Victoria Nuland added on Wednesday.
Given that all of this information comes from government sources, a list of jump-points could range from Kuwait to Jordan to the comfortable Saudi Arabia. Nor does any international guarantee exist to prevent Saleh from returning. Each time he withdrew to Saudi Arabia - to receive medical treatment and sign the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative - he’s triumphantly and violently returned to Washington’s “surprise.” Saleh also promised to return when he first declared his intention to travel, and shouldn’t be doubted in these particular situations.
As for the Obama administration, its strategy remains a delicate dance to remove Saleh personally while maintaining authority through his vice president, ruling party and oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). The GPC and JMP would then compete for international favor, further solidifying external hegemony. Another senior official (or perhaps the same) planted a story suggesting that Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi is resisting Saleh’s attempt to reclaim authority (by not answering his calls).
"We need to move vigorously and effectively to implement the Gulf initiative and its mechanisms," Hadi told the first official session of Yemen's "new unity government."
Although a clear rift was exposed between the Vice President and Saleh’s inner circle during his absence, the consensus candidate for February’s election is too reliant on Saleh’s regime to survive without him. Saleh maintains authority as president while his relatives remain at their military commands, and the GCC’s deal has preserved his ruling party for future elections.
The final outcome of these maneuvers is a joint-PSYOP campaign between Washington and Sana'a. Loosely coordinated interests and disinformation leads toward the same goal - suppression of Yemen’s revolution - and both capitals have relentlessly countered the possibility of regime change. The administration seeks to remove Saleh so that Yemen can essentially return to normal, adding cosmetic political reforms and economic incentives to reduce popular pressure.
Upon hearing that Saleh will remain in the country, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor responded, "I would note that as part of the agreement to resolve the political crisis in Yemen, Saleh transferred executive powers to Vice President (Abdrabuh Mansur) Hadi, who is now overseeing the transition process in Yemen... Saleh signed this accord in front of the world. The United States and the international community are committed to holding him accountable to the agreement."
An open politico-military relationship isn’t in the interest of either party.
Digging through propaganda usually yields a few truths from the accumulating pile of disinformation, so the Yemen Post’s cache of intel cannot be disposed in bulk. Saleh is reportedly “worried that his ruling family will be toppled if he leaves the country for a long period of time,” a real possibility. Western and Gulf pressure does exist for the reasons mentioned above - crafting their entire narrative around completing the GCC’s initiative - so Saleh might withdraw while he still has time to return before February 21st.
Or he may choose to “overthrow the Gulf initiative and its implementation plan,” in the words of defected General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar.