December 19, 2012

Yemen President's Military Restructure Elicits Praise, Skeptisim

President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi meets with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during his November day-trip to Sana'a.

Hesitant celebration has broken out in Yemen and beyond following President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s latest military restructuring, which finally confronted the major pawns of Ali Abdullah Saleh. The strongman's nephew, Yahya Mohammad, now finds himself replaced by Ahmed al-Magdashi as Chief of Staff of the Central Security Forces, a unit that directed its intimidation towards Yemeni protesters and tribesmen throughout the country's ongoing revolution. Hadi also merged Yahya's Anti-Terrorism Force to the Defense Ministry as part of a command overhaul of Yemen's counter-terrorism forces, namely Saleh's U.S.-trained Republican Guard.

This force, previously commanded by Saleh's cold-blooded son Ahmed, is now coming under the Defense Ministry's authority and Hadi's direct command.

The sudden moves have triggered a mixture of joy, pride, relief and caution amongst Yemenis and their international supporters. Months after Hadi's referendum in February, protesters continue to demonstrate for the removal and prosecution of Saleh's relatives, who took the lead in viciously assaulting Yemen's revolutionaries. On Monday a group of political representatives met with Hadi to demand a high-level restructuring before he opens an anticipated National Dialogue in early 2013. Failure to restructure would delay the conference for a second time and rob Hadi of the political opportunity he needs to establish his own track record, with an eye towards 2014's presidential election.

Removing Saleh's family from their positions is necessary for both Hadi's individual progress and the revolution's grand objective of a free Yemen.

However uncertainty naturally remains in a country where false news seems to outpace real news. No future positions have been assigns to Ahmed or Yahya, and both are capable of operating independently through Saleh's network of loyalists - some inside and others outside Yemen's military. While this network is slowly dwindling in numbers and resources, underestimating Saleh's capabilities or his willingness to subvert Yemen's national government equates to foolishness. Information of Saleh's "approval" is already surfacing and raising suspicions in the process.

Rogue General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar also remains active after theoretically losing his 1st Armored Division, telling Al Jazeera, "There is no choice but to execute these decisions, no one can ignore them. This is where everyone is headed, this is the direction of the revolution. If anyone wants to put a blockage in the way (of the decrees), they will be ruining Yemen; the entire country is in favor of the presidential decree."

Mohsen is no less likely to resist a loss of power than Ahmed Saleh, and neither is prepared to cede power to the other. Thus both must be stripped of authority in order to have any chance of evicting both from Yemen's politico-military environment.

"Yahya was going out anyway," observed Farea Al-Muslimi, an otherwise upbeat youth activist. "The real problem is with Ahmed Ali & Mohsen. I mean why celebrate this minor change? I thought we did a revolution."

A good amount of speculation is also questioning the influence of Riyadh and Washington lurking behind Hadi's announcements. Timed to the decrees was a meeting with UN envoy Jamal Benomar, along with a subsequent announcement that threatened  the "possibility" of UN sanctions "against whoever creates an obstacle or attempts to delay the track of the [political] settlement." These types of statements have been directed at Saleh since his fall from office, but largely as part of a disingenuous attempt to control him and Yemen's future government (a continuation of U.S.-Saudi policy).

Although "any challenge will be a challenge to international community," the select foreign powers overseeing Yemen's power-sharing deal will benefit either way. Saleh and company could resist their demotions - or attack Yemen's vulnerable oil pipelines and power lines - and bring new heat on them, just not enough to yield tangible punishment. The reality is that Saleh possesses too much information of Saudi and U.S. crimes against Yemenis to see an international court; sanctions are meant to silence like a Witness Protection Program, not bring justice to three decades of corrupt and savage misrule.

Hadi's decisions, if properly executed, should benefit the state and allow a national dialogue to open with momentum, except greater control of Yemen's military is key to Washington and Riyadh's regional plans. Now they can work with a more compliant president and military; the U.S. devoted ample energy during Yemen's revolution to making new friends in the army. Drones, Marines, Special Forces, CIA and their accompanying logistics have done their part in militarizing Yemen's conflict against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a group that cannot be defeated with the present strategy. 

The result: U.S. policy now gels with Yemen's government, as opposed to Saleh's notorious duplicity, but American and Saudi influence remains highly unpopular and unstable.

Mohammed Albasha, Yemen's spokesman at its U.S. Embassy, says an English transcript will be posted on the government's website by Thursday morning. The time between now and an eventual dialogue will shake out more details than are currently available.

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