April 30, 2011

Saleh Pulls Another Saleh

Throughout the week Ali Abdullah Saleh and his officials insisted that they “unconditionally” accepted a power transfer brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Although Yemen's president of 32 years never agreed himself, he told Russia Today on the eve before the signing ceremony that the initiative “must be carried out in whole.” The proposal, which calls for Saleh’s resignation after 30 days and presidential elections after 90 days, was to be signed on Saturday by Saleh, then flown from Sana’a to Riyadh. Here, Yemen’s Joint Oppositional Parties (JMP) would finalize an agreement that, in the document’s words, “will lead to the preservation of Yemeni unity, security, and stability.”

Yet JMP officials were far from surprised when Saleh aborted at the last moment. Spokesman Mohammad Qahtan announced shortly after the news broke, "President Saleh refused to sign the GCC proposal, and this is what we expected all along.” As did thousand upon thousands of protesters demonstrating against Saleh’s immunity and the GCC’s “interference.”

To think they still have something in common.

The only people who might be surprised by Saleh’s latest stalling tactic are Abdullatif Al-Zayani, GCC secretary-general, media personnel with a surface understanding of Yemen’s revolution, and possibly U.S. officials who were supposed to witness his signature in Sana’a. The Saudis seem to have expected a trap by setting their own, announcing through the Saudi Press Agency, "President Saleh welcomed the GCC initiative to establish peace and stability in Yemen and protect its territorial integrity.” The Obama administration doesn’t appear too concerned that Saleh ruined the GCC’s “historic agreement” either.

But Al-Zayani had good reason to appear “visibly angry” when leaving Sana'a. Although the secretary-general got in a few hours with Saleh, he was eventually passed off to “high-level leaders” of the president’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC). Leaving without Saleh’s signature doesn’t begin to express Al-Zayani’s eventual realization that Saleh intended to play him the entire time.

As with his orchestrated suppression in the streets, Yemen’s embattled president has premeditated his rejection of the GCC’s proposal at every turn. Combined with his personal skill of pitting Yemen’s opposition and tribes against each other, Saleh immediately saw his escape hatch widen once U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates landed in Riyadh. Although Gates’s trip was billed as a strategic meeting on regional unrest and Iran in particular, the GCC soon entered Yemen’s revolution under the authority of Riyadh and Washington. Having crossed their wires in Egypt, the two powers were determined not to make the same mistake in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.

Saleh didn’t need much imagination to believe he could dodge anything the GCC had to offer.

As GCC, U.S. and E.U. officials spent the next two weeks authoring the GCC’s final proposal, Saleh and the GPC spent their own time formulating a list of reasons to reject the GCC’s initiative. After GPC spokesman Tariq Al-Shami “accepted” the plan last weekend and sparked international speculation that Saleh would resign, other GPC officials voiced their approval at a flawed document - including Al-Shami. By forcing the JMP to sign an agreement widely condemned by the revolution, Saleh and the GPC not only hoped but expected to scapegoat the coalition for its collapse.

Locked in a game of chicken, the JMP has held strong while issuing a number of qualifiers to account for escalating violence against protesters. Not wanting to blink first, Saleh reached deeper into his bag of tricks and began to play his many political schemes. First accusing Qatar, home of Al Jazeera, of interfering with Yemen’s internal affairs, Saleh warned that he wouldn’t sign the document in the presence of its representatives. Saleh also deployed a calculated ambush on Wednesday, killing over a dozen protesters and wounding hundreds more. Again the JMP voiced its opposition to the GCC’s proposal but failed to break away completely, as Saleh intended.

Again Saleh reflected the blame in the JMP's direction. According to Saba state media, “In respect to opposition's accusation of repressing the protests by using extreme force, he said this is not correct and accused the JMP of attacking camps of supporters of GPC. The riots they created resulted in killing five and injuring 300. The security had not directions from the authority.”

No surprise that gaps have begun to tear in Saleh’s jumbled logic.

He did, however, hint at his latest attempt to circumvent logic on Thursday and Friday, when the GPC released a statement claiming that Saleh would sign the GCC’s proposal only as GPC chairman. Fulfilling this tactic on Saturday, Al-Shami said the party appointed Abdul Karim Al-Ariani, Saleh's political adviser, to sign with the JMP in Riyadh. One anonymous official argued, "It would be illegal if Saleh signs this agreement first,” while another member, Ahmed al-Soufi, responded to questions of Saleh’s participation by claiming he is “not a party” to the conflict.

Refusing to fall for such an obvious ploy, Qahtan said that Saleh himself must sign, whether in Sana’a or Riyadh.

Sultan al-Atwani, another JMP official, similarly told Reuters, "The authority has thwarted the deal. The Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council told us that Saleh refused to sign in his role as president. He said he wanted to sign as head of the ruling party, and this is a violation of the text of the Gulf initiative.”

Thus the situation remains largely unchanged from previous weeks, if one factors in the unrealistic nature pervading the GCC’s initiative. Stalling remains Saleh’s primary objective; he doesn’t even want to chance a proposal that favors the continuation of his GPC. Another round of backtracking has already unfolded as well. According to the aforementioned anonymous official, Saleh told Al-Zayani that he would seal the document after the GPC and JMP signed in Riyadh.

This pinball strategy could go back and forth for weeks, which is likely the objective of this particular tactic. One week may be squeezed out of the agreement already. Stall again and another week may pass. Saleh believes that he can stall for months, long enough to exhaust the three-month old revolution - except few revolutions give up so quickly. Saleh seems to be running on a conventional time-table rather than the protracted revolutionary cycle, something that will doom him in the end.

Yet there’s no denying the temporary effectiveness of Saleh’s crude but numerically superior tactics. While one strategy would fail to contain the revolution, Saleh has employed violence, bashed the JMP for said violence, exploited minimal U.S. condemnation (and, at times, outright support), and preyed on Yemenis’ fears of civil war. As this fear slowly diminishes in the face of increasing unity, Saleh has relied on political roadblocks to grind the GCC’s power transfer to a crawl.

All of these tactics have combined to produce the present gridlock.

Where, then, does that leave the U.S. officials who were supposed to witness Saleh sign the GCC’s accord? A lack of response to both today’s events and reoccurring violence doesn’t necessarily mean that Washington wishes to see the GCC’s plan delayed. Contrary to Saleh’s position, the Obama administration wants to sign off and move past the uprising as fast as possible. Unlike Saleh, who has consistently downplayed the initiative, the White House has devoted its energy to hyping it as Yemen's only alternative to civil war. It meant every word when, shortly after Saleh allegedly accepted the GCC’s proposal, it urged the opposition to "swiftly implement the terms of the agreement."

Together with Riyadh, Washington believed it had pulled off its scheme to extract Saleh and deflate Yemen’s revolution. They had crafted a favorable package for Saleh that ensures his party’s continuation and buries the U.S. connection to human rights abuses. Saudi Arabia could continue interfering in northern Yemen without reprisal from a democratic government. Now Saleh is praising Russia for blocking any activity in the UN Security Council, while criticizing “some Western countries” for asking who will take over power.

But, “The opposition will not take over power as the GPC has the majority. They refuse presidential and parliamentary elections because they know they do not have majority.”

Now America stands to fall even further in the eyes of Yemenis after Saleh rejected a U.S.-authored proposal.

Ali Al-Emad, a member of the youth council in Sana’a, denounced the U.S. Embassy's announcement to avoid “provocative marches.” Explaining that, “the announcement aimed to deprive us some of our rights and it was really seen as an unacceptable interference in the Yemeni affairs,” Al-Emad wondered why the White House singled out the protest movement rather than Saleh.

Washington does understand that violence could derail the GCC’s efforts. Yet instead of threatening punishment against Saleh’s repression, Washington has tried to disperse protesters so that Saleh doesn’t shoot them.

At first glance Saleh and the Obama administration's positions may appear to diverge. While Saleh doesn’t want to leave power at all, Washington wants to cool Yemen off by replacing Saleh’s regime with a new face. The revolution will die down and U.S. counter-terror operations can resume under their normal activity, a plan that ignores the entire concept of counterinsurgency. Whether or not U.S. officials flipped after Saleh backed out is up for debate, but their goals remain parallel rather than perpendicular.

Different means, same side - same end.

Pentagon, Taliban Battle for Summer Perceptions

Less than a week after the Taliban freed over 400 fighters from Kandahar City’s main jail (and two weeks after assassinating Kandahar police chief Gen. Khan Mohammad Mujahid), the Pentagon released its latest optimistic assessment of its “progress” in Afghanistan.

A pattern that General David Petraeus has finally attracted a reputation for.

After dispensing with the “fragile” tag, a label designed to postpone a decision on July 2011, Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins praises coalition forces for putting "unprecedented pressure on the insurgency.” Claiming that the Taliban’s momentum has been “reversed,” she advised her audience to look past the Taliban’s recent infiltration of the Afghan military and view the Pentagon’s wider strategy.

Robbins concludes after respectable opposition from reporters, “the pushback of the Taliban out of these key areas the last year is really a strategic defeat for the Taliban. They’re going to have to respond, most particularly to being pushed out of areas like Zhari and Panjwai and Arghandab and Kandahar. How they respond, whether it’s attacks there, attacks elsewhere, I don’t know. But given that strategic setback that they’ve suffered, they’re going to try and send messages to the population in other ways that they’re going to be able to come back. And that’s going to be a big challenge for the Afghan forces, for us, as those efforts are made.

However, again, if you think as you look beyond the day-to-day violence statistics and at the increasing amount of security Afghans enjoy, and the effect that it has on them, people are making choices. They’re making choices to side with the government or to side with the insurgents. And this summer, we certainly expect to see many, many more people making that fundamental decision to reject the Taliban.”

Four days before his death, Muhahid told the Christian Science Monitor, “I am hopeful that we will have a safe and secure environment in our city. We have destroyed and eradicated [militants’] safe havens, so they don’t have bases to plan their attacks and operations.”

Robbins also adds, "In the coming months at some point, the violence level may peak.” This comment triggers a brief comparison between Afghanistan and Iraq, which Robbins herself admits she would rather cede to General David Petraeus. According to his “bell-curve,” Petraeus expects Taliban attacks to peak within the next year. Perhaps if U.S. and NATO forces actually begin withdrawing once their governments accept the reality that the Taliban isn’t going to break.

Robbins’ statement remains disturbingly ambiguous in a war that many observers believe bares only marginal resemblance to Iraq. Robbins even admits to the divergence between Afghanistan and Iraq.

Islamabad should also love the Pentagon’s message - “do more” - right in the middle of their reboot. Although U.S. officials believe Afghanistan would stabilize quicker with Pakistan’s sincere help, most Pakistani officials and citizens sincerely believe the war was unwinnable from the beginning. Islamabad continues to believe that America will ultimately abandon a stalemated Afghanistan, despite evidence that the Pentagon wants to “go long.”

Expecting some help is reasonable, but expecting Pakistan to see Afghanistan as America does isn’t. The general belief is that Pakistan, in order to create favorable conditions for America and India, is being forced to rearrange its entire policy. The U.S.-Pakistani relationship will never achieve its full potential under this arrangement.

At the war’s opposite end, the Taliban declared the start of their spring offensive on Saturday.

"The war in our country will not come to an end unless and until the foreign invading forces pull out of Afghanistan," said the announcement released by the Taliban’s leadership council... "Operations will focus on attacks against military centers, places of gatherings, airbases, ammunition and logistical military convoys of the foreign invaders in all parts of the country.”

Such a statement hints at a more focused attack on “soft” military targets, although whether the Taliban can truly minimize civilian collateral remains to be seen. But the Taliban may switch up more than its military strategy; it’s probably unfolding a new political strategy as well. Despite the alleged disorder in their ranks, the Taliban appear fairly confident heading into 2012.

The Pentagon added in its biannual report on Friday that, “an overall increase in violence was due in part to increased targeting of safe insurgent safe havens and unseasonably mild winter weather.”

So what happens if the next few winters are “unseasonably mild?”

April 29, 2011

Day and Night in Syria and Yemen

Throughout the Arab Spring, as Obama officials have grown fond of saying, a disjointed argument has been deployed to counteract mounting criticism of U.S. foreign policy. First insisting that America’s response has remained constant and consistent with U.S. values, reporters often question the perceived double-standard between U.S. allies and enemies, a pragmatic distinction now collapsing under equal democratic forces. The answer, inevitably, is that a “one-size-fits-all” approach isn’t functional during such a diverse and rapid chain of events.

This argument contradicts itself regardless of geopolitical demands.

Although nothing is certain in the Arab Spring, a consistent message to all dictators - friend and foe - cannot be ruled out so quickly as impractical. Supporting one regime over another has created more chaos and order, contrary to Washington and Riyadh's plan; a “pragmatic” strategy has only postponed those revolutions it opposes. These gains are temporary in the face of ceaseless energy from the youth, and jeopardize long-term U.S. interests in the Middle East and Africa.

Then again, maybe U.S. values are being held up in Syria and Yemen alike. As casualties mount under the fire of Syrian security forces, the international community has finally started to gather its own forces in the name of freedom and justice. Meanwhile Washington is fully-engaged in another American pastime in Yemen - weaseling out of punishment.

On Friday the White House released a “fact sheet” describing President Barack Obama’s executive order in response to Syrian human rights abuses. This Order, “provides the United States with new tools to target individuals and entities determined to have engaged in human rights abuses in Syria, including those related to repression; to be a senior official of an entity whose property is blocked pursuant to the Order; to have provided material support to, or to be owned or controlled by, persons blocked under the Order.”

The Order specifically targets Mahir al-Asad, President Bashar al-Assad’s brother and brigade commander in the Syrian Army’s 4th Armored Division, who has played a leading role in the government's crackdown in Dar’a. Sanctions will also be imposed on Atif Najib, al-Bashar’s cousin and the head of the Political Security Directorate (PSD) for Dar’a Province during March 2011, in addition to the entire General Intelligence Directorate (GID). Finally, Iran’s Qods Force (IRGC-QF) is singled out for providing material support to al-Assad.

The order’s conclusion demonstrates why a similar response in Yemen is not only unlikely but illogical: “As a result of this action, any property in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons in which the individuals listed in the Annex have an interest is blocked, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.”

How does the United States sanction or seize its own property?

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's iron-fist hasn't been as hard, relatively speaking, in his crackdown on Yemen’s democratic uprising; al-Assad might have killed more protesters in the last week than Saleh has disposed of since February. However Yemen’s civilian death-toll is likely much higher than the estimated 150, given persistent reports of government kidnappings (similar to Egypt). The wounded number in the thousands, with injuring ranging from knife and bullet wounds to tear gas spasms.

Their blood is largely traced back to Saleh’s Republican Guard and Central Security, his loyalist forces amid a wave of defections. These two units, as in al-Assad’s scheme, are commanded by Ahmad and Yahya, Saleh’s son and cousin. Unlike al-Assad’s relatives, however, Ahmad and Yahya enjoy life on the U.S. payroll.

So how can they be targeted for sanctions when they serve as Saleh’s military liaisons with the Pentagon? How can their units be targeted for sanctions when they’ve been outfitted with U.S. equipment? Or if they remain in place throughout Yemen's "transition?" Washington knowingly closed its collective eyes as Saleh redeployed from al-Qaeda to his enemies, the northern Houthis and secessionist Southern Movement, another policy that the White House doesn't want to rehash.

Going further, why can’t Iran provide material support to al-Assad but America can provide military support to Saleh? Why can Saudi Arabia invade Bahrain at the government’s request?

It’s safe to say that the U.S.-authored proposal, to be presented by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on Saturday and Sunday, isn’t totally consumed with saving Saleh. No, Washington's first priority is saving its own skin from complicity in past and ongoing human rights abuses. Immunity for Saleh's family was written into the GCC proposal for a variety of reasons, mainly to preserve his political future and to protect U.S. counter-terrorism operations.

But the document is feeling more and more like Washington’s personal “get-out-of-jail-free” card. It certainly isn't a legitimate political resolution to Yemen's revolution.

Immediate help isn’t on the way for Syrians, as they should know by following the UN at all. While UN sanctions have proven beneficial in Libya and Côte d'Ivoire, Syria’s larger economy will likely provide al-Assad with additional time to stall. The sanctions themselves are limited in scope, though they do represent a start. Conversely, U.S. or UN sanctions imposed on Saleh’s decayed economic position would suck the remaining air out of his stall tactics, which are already running low on funds. Unfortunately the Obama administration has yet release a fact sheet announcing the halt of U.S. military support to Saleh’s regime.

He’s too busy trying to whitewash America’s bloodshed in Yemen.

Yemeni Quotes of the Day

"Qatar is now financing the chaos in Yemen, Egypt and Syria and in every Arab country. We will not sign the Gulf initiative if a representative of Qatar attended the meeting of foreign ministers of the GCC."

- Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh

“We insist that the same delegation that traveled to Abu Dhabi will travel to Riyadh, and will sign the Gulf initiative. The final clause, if necessary, will be adopted by Ali Abdullah Saleh as president of the General People's Congress, and not as the President of Yemen, because the agreement is a deal between the parties and political organizations."

- Statement from the ruling General People's Congress

"The president is looking for ways to evade signing the Gulf initiative, so now he's using the excuse of Qatar. Next time he'll look for another excuse."

- Aida Mohammed, female protester in Sana'a

April 28, 2011

Around Yemen’s Ring of Fire

On Thursday countless protesters took to Yemen’s streets denouncing the latest outburst of violence and political negotiations in Saudi Arabia. Today unfolded in relative peace, but a doctor at a Sana’a hospital described Wednesday's crackdown to the Associated Press: "Most of the injuries were lethal, most of them were with live ammunition and knives and stones; 780 cases arrived, 125 were with live bullets. Thirteen were martyrs.”

The following is a cross-spectrum reaction to Wednesday's attacks and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) proposal between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP):

JMP closing door, leaves ajar

In a statement released Wednesday night, the JMP stopped short of vetoing the U.S.-GCC’s weekend signing ceremony in Riyadh. The coalition did, however, threaten to pull out if government-sponsored violence refuses to abate, as the pro-democracy movement has escalated its civil disobedience in response to the GCC. The JMP labeled Wednesday’s attacks as a "savage massacre" that “constituted a crime against humanity by Saleh and members of his family.”

Meanwhile General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, commander of the 1st Armored Division and a key defector of Saleh’s regime, called on "all honest people" to rise up against the regime. Aligning himself with the street demonstrations against the GCC, al-Ahmar explained, "By this, President Saleh has been seeking to drag the military and security forces into full-armed confrontation in a bid to abort the initiative brokered recently by the foreign ministers of the GCC.”

Although realizing it continues to bleed credibility in the streets, the JMP has declined to reject the GCC’s plan in fear that Saleh will flip the situation on their heads. This same reason may explain why the JMP has steadfastly ignored Saleh’s incessant threats against the coalition. But the JMP must set a limit to the level of blame it’s willing to take, a decision that appears to remain unresolved. Surely the JMP wants Saleh to blink first - and he almost has - but will this reward actually follow the risk?

Saleh strikes back... again

No sooner had the smoke cleared from Wednesday’s violence did Saleh point his rhetorical gun at the JMP. The embattled president began his day by telling Russia Today, "We have accepted this initiative in order to avoid bloodshed and return the Yemeni political and economic situation to normal... I will stay the political head of the General People Congress (GPC).”

He then blamed the JMP for Wednesday’s attack while meeting “a number of women leaders from the Youth Movement for Correcting Path.” Saba state media reported that, “women leaders condemned the blatant assaults carried out by elements of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) on Wednesday on youth protesters in Al Thawrah city.”

Separately, the GPC released a statement claiming, "The JMP's leaders aim to make more demonstrators killed in deadly clashes through committing such violent acts and chaos in a bid to fail the GCC plan that proposed to solve the political standoff in Yemen.”

Thus the JMP finds itself blamed for Wednesday’s events and accused of derailing the GCC’s plan, when the opposite is closer to the truth. In connection with these developments, Saleh told Russia Today that he “reserves the right of refusing to sign the GCC plan if Qatari representatives attend the signing ceremony.” As the host of Al Jazeera, one of Saleh’s favorite scapegoats, Qatar provides an excuse to reject the GCC’s initiative at any time. This scheme predates the GPC’s initial decision to accept the GCC’s accord, rightfully believing it would isolate the JMP from the streets and thereby nullify itself.

"We're going to show the world who Ali Abdullah Saleh really is," said Salah al-Sharify, a youth organizer who has been injured on multiple occasions. "And if the JMP wants to join Saleh and become part of his government, these deaths will be on their hands too."

The youth have already succeeded in exposing Saleh’s tyranny, judging by his words and actions. Unfortunately the world doesn’t seem to care.

UN bends in the wind

Off in New York City, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has likely been advised that continual meetings on Syria would appear more legitimate if Yemen isn’t ignored. For what it’s worth Ki-Moon released a statement that, while still pulling up short on the Yemeni people’s side, “emphasizes that broadly inclusive political dialogue and mutual understanding are critically important for overcoming the current crisis and preserving the country’s unity and integrity.”

Ki-Moon has a habit of back-tracking under pressure from global powers, and the UN is unlikely to provide any significant assistance in Yemen. At least his warning attempts to mirror reality though. The U.S. remains lost in its own world - or Saleh’s world.

U.S. digs in behind Saleh

The Obama administration’s response to Wednesday was predictably wild: no White House or State Department briefings and no special statements. Following Saleh’s lead again, the US Embassy in Sana’a released a backwards statement urging the adopting of a divisive agreement. According to the release, “It is especially disturbing that the violence took place on the eve of signing an historic agreement between the Government and the Joint Meeting Parties that will achieve through peaceful, democratic, and Constitutional means a transition of authority leading to new Presidential elections in July 2011.”

“The Embassy urges Yemeni citizens to demonstrate their commitment to this peaceful transition by avoiding all provocative demonstrations, marches, and speeches in the coming days and to welcome this opportunity to lay the foundation of a strong, peaceful, prosperous Yemen for the future. We also urge government security forces to refrain from using violence against demonstrators.”

Such a statement is clearly crafted by Washington spin doctors, who laid on thick propaganda by hailing a “historic agreement.” The U.S.-Saudi authored proposal appears destined for the violent kind of history, not the peaceful kind. Protesters were demonstrating against the GCC’s initiative, demonstrating because they haven’t been included in political process. They also claim that snipers had been deployed along their routes. Although the JMP reportedly managed to eliminate Saleh and Washington’s demand that the protests end after the GCC’s signing, limiting their demonstrations is the next available option.

The Embassy basically warned protesters to stay away from the Saudi Embassy.

Elsewhere Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counter-terrorism, sounded Yemen’s terror alarm during a conference call on April 27th. Benjamin warned that Yemen’s instability has “offered opportunities” to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), then goes on to claim “we’ve adopted a comprehensive and sustained approach taking into account political, cultural, socio-economic, and security factors.”

Although Saleh is largely responsible for his own fall, Yemen’s revolution may not have erupted like it did if Benjamin’s statements were accurate. The reality is that U.S. strategy in Yemen compromised its political and economic spheres in favor of military domination, hastening Saleh's collapse. Reaching out to Yemen’s future government is wise - if the U.S. and Saudis weren’t pushing for “Saleh-lite” over a pure revolution. Benjamin repeats a common phrase that U.S. policy “does not rely solely on one individual,” when Washington obviously did.

So important is Yemen that, in lieu of daily briefings, the director of policy planning at the State Department addressed reporters in a lengthy debate on the Middle East. Busy defending U.S. policy in Syria and Libya, Jake Sullivan never gets around to Yemen as reporters continue to lump its revolution with Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. One reporter asks, “are you at all concerned that unelected leaders in the region would look at the U.S. response to, say, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, compare that to the U.S. response to Syria, and conclude that a friendship with the United States is perilous in the event of a democratic uprising?”

Except U.S. friendship tried to keep Mubarak’s regime from sinking and has kept Saleh afloat.

This line of thinking seems to emanate from Saudi Arabia, which points out the fate of U.S. “allies” to undermine regional regime change. Washington isn’t considering punishment for Saleh despite the impression that the White House is forcing him out. Instead, Saleh has been rewarded for bad behavior and continues to be after Wednesday's bloodshed.

Long road to the endgame

Whether or not Saleh and the JMP sign the GCC’s agreement over the weekend, Yemen’s revolution possesses enough fuel to go the distance. Either the protesters overcome the GCC's ceremony and continue their uprising, or they scrap the agreement through demonstrations and push for a completely new deal. Both courses of action would extend Yemen’s crisis beyond any time-frame Washington and Riyadh are willing to stomach; they want the revolution to end as soon as possible.

Two quotes can sum up today’s events. In Sana’a, one young protester named Khaled told TIME’s Erik Stier, "Where is President Obama now? He is obsessed with al-Qaeda but why does he trust the lies that our president tells him and not the people?”

In a BBC report asking, "Has US policy catalyzed Yemen unrest?" Charles Schmitz of Towson University concludes, "I think the reason Washington is not clear on what they are doing, is because they don't know what they are doing.”

April 27, 2011

U.S., E.U. Suffocating Yemen’s Revolution

They gather in their leather chairs and air-conditioned rooms, dine on delicacies in their fitted suits. White-robbed Saudi officials mingle with Gulf ministers and Western diplomats as they negotiate the future of a foreign people. Some 600 miles south of Riyadh in Sana’a and Aden, Yemeni protesters face walls of tear gas and live bullets while pursuing an end to Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime. Wounded in droves, their vow to continue resisting evokes a hallowed American declaration - liberty or death.

Two political scenes manifesting into their physical essence: an “orderly transition” vs. the fire of revolution. How ironic, though, that order may lead to chaos and chaos to order.

As scrutiny intensifies over the Obama administration's response to Syria, pro-democracy protesters should realize that their plight has at least captured the international community’s attention. A regular topic during White House and State Department briefings, UN ambassador Susan Rice told the Security Council’s “stakeout” on April 26th, “The Syrian Government's actions to repeal the decade's old emergency law and allow for peaceful demonstrations were clearly not serious, given the continued violent repression against protesters. The United States is currently pursuing a range of possible policy options, including additional targeted sanctions, to respond to the crackdown and make clear that this behavior is unacceptable.”

Soon afterward, the Human Rights Council based at the UN’s European headquarters in Geneva agreed to a U.S. request to hold a Syrian session on Friday. Responding to questions over singling out one country, U.S. ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe argued, "It is entirely appropriate that the Human Rights Council condemn willful government violence against peaceful political protesters.”

This consolation won't produce immediate results on the ground, but Western governments don’t appear to be forcing Syria's opposition into accepting al-Assad’s terms either. Compare this situation to the paradoxical circumstances of their Yemeni counterparts. Copying the tactics of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has foolishly escalated his suppression to a point that Western states cannot ignore. Meanwhile Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has escaped punishment by mimicking Hosni Mubarak’s “limited” force: plainclothes security forces, snipers, kidnappings and clouds of tear gas to disperse protesters.

Although the UN Security Council finally got around to Yemen’s revolution last week, the council failed to agree on a statement due to Russia and China’s objection. Were they to agree, however, the statement would likely remain the same. Condemning the actions of Saleh’s security forces, Rice then committed the same disconnect that other U.S. officials have preached in Yemen. Rice told reporters after the session, "Many delegations, including our own, stressed the importance of an end to violence and a political process that resolves swiftly in a credible transition.”

In Syria, ongoing violence proves that al-Assad’s reforms are "clearly not serious.” In Yemen, ongoing violence offers a reason to sign a political agreement with Saleh as soon as possible. It still pays to be needed in the war against al-Qaeda.

The GCC’s “efforts” are about to be sealed on Sunday during a ceremony in Riyadh, according to Gulf sources. Saleh’s representatives may join the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) in Saudi Arabia, but plans also exist to have Saleh sign in Sana’a in the presence of U.S. and E.U. officials. As stipulated in the GCC’s document, authored with heavy input from U.S. and Saudi diplomats, Saleh is to transfer power to his vice president of 17 years, Abd Rabbo Mansoo Hadi. The GCC calls for Saleh to resign 30 days later, after which a 60-day transition period will organize the country for a national election. As Saleh’s General People’s Council (GPC) also been allocated majority control over a transitional council, the deal also stipulates immunity for Saleh and his family.

He’s particularly worried about the fate of his son, Ahmad, who as commander of the Republican Guard is responsible for many crimes against the Yemeni people. Not long ago Saleh envisioned Ahmad as his successor, a dream that has yet to die.

Believing that the constitution’s legitimacy means nothing as Saleh defines it, Yemeni protesters have rejected most aspects of the proposal: a postponed resignation, immunity, Saleh's personal selections and a clause ordering them to return home. Growing increasingly desperate as they watch Saudi Arabia and the West rescue Saleh from their revolution, protesters are strategizing a new campaign to interrupt the GCC’s summit and capture Yemen's narrative. A daunting challenge to be sure, desperation has increased pressure to march on the fortified presidential palace and other government installations. For now protesters have chosen wisely by starting “smaller,” launching a mass civil disobedience campaign aimed at the GCC and planning marches on the Saudi embassy.

If there is to be violence, let Saleh be the one to keep committing it. Hussein al-Suleily, 28, a protest leader in the central city of Taiz, rationally explained, “It is important for putting pressure in peaceful ways to protest our demands as the youth. This is part of our peaceful method. Yet the regime continues to use violence against us. It’s a series of violence that has only escalated in these 80 days of demonstrations.”

Some pro-democracy protesters admitted to forcing themselves on police and throwing stones to provoke them, and others have distanced themselves from these acts. Many youth leaders continue to preach a non-violent message to contain the streets' swelling energy. However stones over bullets is a basic and necessary equation in fourth-generation warfare; true to form, low-intensity resistance provokes a disproportionate response from the government. Wednesday’s death toll was tallied between 12 and 15, with hundreds more wounded, after protesters rallying against the GCC attempted to march on Al-Thawra stadium, the Ministry of Information and the Saudi embassy.

"Police forces and government backers fired on a march of thousands of anti-government protesters near the Yemeni state television station, leaving 12 protesters dead and about 160 others injured, 18 of them were in critical condition after being hit with live bullets," two doctors accompanying the march told Xinhua.

An attack also took place in front of Al Iman University. Activists and lawyers in the movement further alleged that the Republican Guard and Central Security kidnapped dozens of protesters, claiming some were taken to Al-Thawra (which has been dubbed Revolution Stadium). One witness added, "Some tried to help, but the forces fired live bullets at them forcing them to run away.”

Nothing has changed since Ambassador Rice explained, “We also, as did many others, express support for the facilitation effort of the GCC." Yet the White House, after encouraging the GCC’s plan over the weekend, continues to refuse any further comment on Yemen’s revolution. U.S. and Saudi officials appear determined to sign the agreement regardless of the situation on the ground. The EU has followed off the cliff, with foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton telling Arab News, "I would like to thank the GCC for its hard work toward securing political agreement for transition in Yemen. I believe that the GCC initiative represents the best chance for Yemen to address the economic, social and security challenges ahead and to avoid escalation of violence."

This vain self-congratulations - an ignorant display of fourth-generation warfare - was immediately exploited by Yemen’s Saba state media.

The reality is that Saleh’s forces continue to kill and wound Yemenis with impunity, and the West is prepared to sign a deal that the majority of protesters oppose. This illegitimate and immoral document neither stabilizes Yemen nor promotes U.S. and European values, only salvages a short-term policy that isn’t worth salvaging. The GCC essentially offers a quick fix, which is a myth in conflict resolution. Offering Saleh immunity has simply encouraged his crackdown. Once more he has duped Western and Gulf states into believing Yemen is safer with him than without him, when his presence has generated the revolution they’re currently panicking over.

No path offers a sure means to stabilizing Yemen, but the one with higher odds leads to the protest camps in Sana’a, Taiz and Aden. A legitimate political resolution must factor in their demands and cleanse the old regime, rather than fulfill Saleh's every demand and fill the transitional council with his ruling GPC. "Orderly" certainly defines this "transition," and scant change is likely to come from it.

“This is a youth revolution, not a political crisis,” al-Suleily concluded in frustration.

The wave of violence, estimated as Yemen’s worst since the March 18th sniper attack in Sana’a, has rattled even the JMP. Yemen’s only political opposition has soldiered on with Saleh despite his persistent slander, either chasing fleeting political aspirations or believing it has no choice. To be fair Saleh awaits the slightest weakness in the JMP’s position in order to reject the GCC’s initiative outright; agreeing through officials represents another stall tactic to trap the JMP. Then Yemenis would be stuck with Saleh for an unknown length of time.

“We demand a serious and clear stance if the agreement is going to proceed successfully by condemning these crimes that were carried out by the military and security,” the statement read. “We have agreed to this proposal in order to save our people from more bloodshed.”

Problematically, the GCC fails to guarantee Saleh’s resignation in any tangible way, having played to his strengths and given him everything he’s asked for. Saleh loves to back-track and pulling out of the GCC's initiative at a later date shouldn't surprise anyone. The JMP concluded that there is “no reason to participate” in the GCC’s summit if Saleh and his “family continues to kill our sons and people.” Only Washington and Riyadh see a reason to - their own interests. Everyone else can be snuffed out.

But as these governments struggle to contain the Arab Spring, they blindly fan the revolutionary flames that they're trying to outrun.

Egyptians High On Democracy, Low On U.S.

Highly informative poll from Pew:

Only 20% of Egyptians hold a favorable opinion of the United States, which is nearly identical to the 17% who rated it favorably in 2010. Better educated and younger Egyptians have a slightly more positive attitude toward the U.S. than do other Egyptians.

Ratings for U.S. President Barack Obama are also basically unchanged from last year – currently, 35% of Egyptians express confidence in Obama to do the right thing in world affairs, compared with 33% in 2010. The American president gets more negative than positive reviews for how he is handling the political changes sweeping through the Middle East: 52% disapprove of how Obama is dealing with the calls for political change in nations such as Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Libya. A plurality of those who disapprove say Obama has shown too little support for those who are calling for change.

When asked specifically about the U.S. response to the political situation in Egypt, 39% say the U.S. has had a negative impact, while just 22% say it has had a positive effect, and 35% volunteer that the U.S. has neither positively nor negatively influenced the situation in their country.

Looking to the future, few Egyptians (15%) want closer ties with the U.S., while 43% would prefer a more distant relationship, and 40% would like the relationship between the two countries to remain about as close as it has been in recent years.

More details here.

These figures stand a good chance of duplicating outside of Egypt. Another unfavorable sign for U.S. policy across the region.

April 26, 2011

Yemeni Revolutionaries Plot Next Step

They’ve been branded “criminals,” thieves,” “drug-dealers,” “saboteurs,” and “sick souls.” They’ve been linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. They’ve been accused of corrupting the youth, starting riots, fomenting anarchy and driving the country towards civil war. They’ve even been summoned for interrogation into their actions during the last three months.

Yet none of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s threats have deterred the leaders of Yemen’s Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), the country’s only political opposition and Saleh’s sole negotiating partner, from accepting a final invite to Riyadh.

Today Tarik al-Shami, spokesman for the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC), said the government will travel to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to sign an agreement drafted by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Washington. JMP spokesman Mohammed Qahtan added that the group’s delegation would also depart for Riyadh on Wednesday: “I'm not quite sure that the deal would be sealed on Wednesday, but the GCC mediators confirmed that they arranged everything to make the deal inked on Wednesday.”

Separately, an anonymous source in Saudi Arabia told Gulf News, “The delegations of the Yemeni government and the opposition will sign the agreement on Monday at a ceremony in Riyadh.”

Despite Yemen’s prevalent confusion, the collective strategy of Saleh, the GCC and Western allies shines through in high resolution: steamroll an unfavorable agreement on an unpopular opposition. Never accepting the proposal himself, Saleh continues to malign the JMP and greet pro-democracy protesters with tear gas and live bullets. More injuries and deaths were reported in Aden, Taiz and elsewhere following GCC negotiations, while Saleh maintained his hard-line stance of “peacefully exchanging power” through the “ballot box.”

"We are not against change, but by the peaceful democratic means and within the constitution and respect for the people's will," he said during a meeting with GPC officials.

The GCC’s proposal currently calls for Saleh to transfer power to his vice president, Abd Rabbo Mansoo Hadi, in line with Yemen’s constitution. However most of his opponents in the streets don’t take this to be his meaning. Instead, they believe Saleh is literally hinting at remaining in power until his term ends in 2013. Referring to his own supporters as the “majority” and the opposition as the “minority” feeds into this perception. Rumors also speculate that the GCC’s last resort calls for a popular referendum on Saleh’s immediate resignation, something the government would be naturally tempted to corrupt.

Then there’s the fact that multiple sources have ridiculed the JMP for “rejecting” the GCC’s proposal, even as it prepares to sign an unpopular initiative. According to one of Saleh’s advisers, “This will be good for the president, because now it’s clear that the opposition has refused everything. The opposition has shown that they fear going into a coalition, and they are not ready to deal with international initiatives. They are divided and weak.”

This statement represents Saleh’s plan from the beginning: divide the JMP from the wider revolution and destroy any remaining chance of electoral success. Saleh has fed the JMP to the lions by defying popular demands for his immediate resignation and extracting immunity from the GCC. Meanwhile, during his interview with the BBC, Saleh accused the JMP’s camps of being filled with AQAP, Nasserites, Socialists and Muslim Brothers. These parties correspond to the JMP’s umbrella: Nasserite Unionist People's Organization, Yemeni Socialist Party and Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah).

Eager to slander and scapegoat them - and just as eager to “negotiate” with them - Saleh plans to make the JMP as unpopular as possible before running against them. Whether he remains in power or maintains an external grip through his GPC doesn’t alter their plan.

Although U.S. and E.U. officials will witness the signing of a document crafted in the West’s looming shadow, the White House remains deathly silent on Yemen’s developments. Meanwhile its statement congratulating Saleh and the opposition’s acceptance quickly disappeared from Yemen’s Embassy site. So supportive of the GCC's proposal is the State Department that it appears to have released its own statement off record. State also skipped its briefings on Monday and Tuesday, a possible sign of wider disarray within the Obama administration.

Spokesman Mark Toner reinforced this impression by releasing a belated statement on Uganda’s unrest, remarks that needed to be voiced a week ago.

All available evidence points to escalation and division rather than deescalation and unity, yet the Obama administration has stubbornly supported its own initiative to extract a favorable outcome for itself and Gulf allies. The fruits of Karmic law stem from positive and negative seeds, and such a biased, insincere document doesn’t favor Yemeni or U.S. interests in the way that Washington seems to envision. Assuming the GCC’s proposal is signed between Wednesday and Monday, a 30-day period before Saleh “resigns” takes the crisis to June. A 60-day transition period aims a national election before the start of Ramadan on August 1st, a window likely to open during the last week of July. U.S. officials went on record pushing an election before Ramadan, viewing a delayed election as “good for al-Qaeda and bad for us.”

Problematically, Washington and the GCC’s scheme poses a high risk of collapse between and at these intervals. The Western media ate up Saleh's “resignation” on Saturday, then largely fled the scene after realizing his end isn’t close to near. Duplicity is Saleh’s forte and most protesters in Yemen’s streets expect him to default on the GCC at some point. Having received his demands in full, Saleh’s confidence suggests that he doesn’t expect Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to move against him in the end.

An election, whether in the immediate future or in 90 days, also stands a good chance of opening under GPC control. Fraud and gridlock should be expected (think Afghanistan and Iraq), furthering the country’s stalemate rather than unblocking it.

"This agreement disappoints our hopes,” said Hamdan Zayed in Sanaa, where thousands of protesters have been camped out for weeks. “The president hasn't left power. He got what he wanted -- he and his supporters will leave without being tried for the killing of protesters and the money they've embezzled. He has achieved victory over the opposition, but as for us, we'll continue our revolution. We won't leave the streets because of this embarrassing agreement."

So where does Yemen’s popular movement go from here? One protester, Abdul Akram, explained from Taiz, "Every day is the same now. We march, they shoot at us - but we will not stop, whatever the JMP and Saleh have agreed."

Tired may not be the word to describe them, but demonstrating for three months under intense violence and social tensions inevitably takes a toll. Although a myriad of groups have done what they can to consolidate, no dominate umbrella has emerged as the revolution’s definitive face. No level of organization would have crashed the GCC’s dialogue - this room was only open to the malleable - but Yemen's popular opposition must achieve a crystalline form in order to mount a meaningful resistance in the upcoming election.

For now they’re being forced to consider the alternatives - increasing violence and marching on the heavily-guarded presidential palace. Instead of relieving pressure in the streets, the GCC’s initiative has generated new desperation amongst protesters as they face a brief lull in demonstrations. Mass marches only accomplish so much by themselves, and the need now exists to divert attention away from and discredit the GCC’s summit in Riyadh. There is, admittedly, no way for Yemen’s popular movement to deny the GCC’s initiative as the bloc plows ahead. Desperate times often lead to desperate actions.

Ahmed Abduh, a member of Young Movement for Change, told Arab News, “We know that there would be bloody clashes, but we have no choice. The protesters are frustrated and want their demands to be met urgently. We would like to say ‘enough’ to the elusive and tricky behavior of the regime.”

Unfortunately for the protesters their desperation is factored into Saleh’s plan. While his threats of civil war have been negated by a relatively non-violent uprising, a strategy the protesters cannot afford to jeopardize, Saleh will jump on any escalation in violence to discredit the revolution. Increased organization, continual development of a detailed transition and relentless media interaction remain central to success. Yemen’s youth must ensure that they’ve reached the limits of their present means before compromising their non-violent stance, which has preserved the moral high-ground over Saleh.

Although this advantage hasn’t been worth much to the international community, the cost of losing it is bound to be disproportionately high.

April 25, 2011

Saleh’s Personality Rubbing Off On Obama

It seemed impossible that the Obama administration could dodge Yemen on Monday.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh touched off a media storm on Saturday by ordering his officials to hint at accepting a power transfer, as negotiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Western diplomats. Personally defiant in addressing the nation, Saleh refused to step down over the weekend and accused the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) of sowing “chaos.” Security forces continue to fire on protesters on Monday even as U.S. and E.U. officials praise Saleh’s “willingness” to “peacefully” transfer power.

Yet in a stunning feat of media silence, the White House and State Department once more skipped Yemen’s revolution on their way to Syria and Libya. While the State Department failed to brief reporters at all, White House press spokesman Jay Carney took immediate fire on Syria and never looked back. 7,000 words without a single mention of Yemen or Saleh should qualify as a minor miracle - or policy-makers and reporters are simply failing to do their job.

Carney spent a sizable portion of his time defending President Barack Obama’s response to Syria’s violence and President Bashar al-Assad’s loss of confidence. Despite its vocal presence in Syria’s revolution, the White House has come under increasing scrutiny for saying and doing too little, speculation driven by theories that Washington and Saudi Arabia prefer al-Assad’s “stability” to the opposition. Saad Khan is one of many who point out the superficial nature of press statements, a feeling we certainly sympathize with.

Condemning the “deafening silence over Syria,” Khan writes of its opposition, “They also know that no one in the world would support them. They have to wage their battle on their own. Deafening silence is the apt word for describing the diplomatic reaction on the massacre that is being carried out by the Assad Empire. The 'reformer,' as Hillary Clinton has called him, is now out implementing his agenda of reforms: the most violent repression. Obama has given a lame statement urging the same dictator who is behind the carnage to show restraint. European Union has paid lip service to the cause of Syrians and many countries in the world have not even done that.”

Khan concludes, “There is still time to be on the right side of history. Syrians need international support, half-hearted diplomatic statements won't do any good.”

They are, however, better than the absolute darkness that Yemenis protest under.

U.S. policy hasn’t fared well in either state. Because of U.S, Israeli, and Saudi interests - political, military, financial - and a perceived double standard between friendly and hostile dictators, Washington has been unable and unwilling to move against al-Assad. Carney explains during his defense of Obama, “this administration for two months has been repeatedly encouraging President Assad and the Syrian government to implement meaningful reforms, and yet they have refused to respect the rights of the Syrian people or be responsive to their aspirations.”

Nevertheless, Carney retreats to the safe position that, “in all these countries has been that it is up to the people of those countries to decide who their leaders are, and we call for processes of reform that allow that to take place.”

This position has frozen those opposition movements currently ruled by U.S.-supported dictators out of the decision-making process. Contradiction cannot be avoided in the fact that “processes of reform” inherently favor the current regimes, as Carney observes in Syria, and thus cannot respond to the people’s aspirations. As this false duality fails in Syria, so too has the White House’s contradiction rampaged through Yemen by forcing an unpopular agreement upon an unrepresentative opposition.

For the moment Yemen’s Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of political groups now operating under “The Common Front,” has accepted the GCC’s initiative. After voicing a number of reservations about the wording, time-frame and demands in the document, all of which favor Saleh’s regime, the JMP maintained its support for the GCC on Monday. According to spokesman Mohammed Qahtan, "We have given our final accord to the GCC initiative after having received assurances from our Gulf brothers and American and European friends on our objections to certain clauses in the plan.”

Neither the JMP nor Saleh have formally accepted the GCC’s plan, and the Common Front insists that Saleh resign before a transitional "unity" government is formed. An altered document, then, may have been resubmitted as a final offer rather than accepting the GCC’s offer as final. One major concession appears to have eliminated the demand calling for an immediate end to protests, which the streets vehemently opposed on top of Saleh’s delayed resignation and immunity.

“We have accepted the Gulf proposal on condition that the protests are allowed to continue until Saleh leaves office,” Qahtan explained. “Leaders of the J.M.P. met with the American ambassador today, and he confirmed for us that the protests can continue through this month; this is why we agreed to the proposal.”

Why, though, was this clause inserted to begin with? To nudge Saleh out? A doubtful excuse given how favorable the term is for him. A more plausible explanation would perceive the creation of an artificial bargaining chip for the JMP to offer the streets. This ploy, however, merely increased suspicion of anything related to the JMP or GCC, nor has Saleh accepted the document's amendment. Allowing protests to continue without his consent fuels Yemen’s combustible cycle, whereby U.S.-trained security forces violently suppress the opposition under Saleh’s immunity blanket.

Each day brings new crimes against the Yemeni people, aggravating the situation rather than deescalating it.

And what about next month? Do protesters still have to return home if Saleh stonewalls beyond 30 days? Furthermore, what guarantees have been offered when Saleh is summoning JMP leaders to be “interrogated” for their "chaos?” How ironic that the man many believe should be put on trial is now trying to open a trial on the opposition.

Attempting to steal the youth away from the JMP when they never backed the JMP to begin with, Saleh declared to “massive gatherings of youth,” ''We would like to thank you for your kind feelings and the efforts you exert, and we call on all youth to join the Yemeni revolution, unity, freedom, republic, and democracy but not rebellion or destruction. No for chaos, plotting, blocking roads and killings, yes for the revolution of the youth, September, October and May 22… No for chaos revolution."

The JMP doesn’t need enemies with its current “friends.” No warning emanates from Western or Gulf states on Saleh’s defiant rhetoric or actions, silence that encourages the belief that he can defy the international community without real punishment. The Common Front's “change of heart” was forced “after the US ambassador to Yemen pushed the coalition to accept the GCC deal,” according to the BBC. A Saudi Cabinet meeting chaired by King Abdullah also urged Saleh and the opposition to accept a flawed agreement, as did Britain's Foreign Office.

Despite the disconnect between Yemen’s reality and the GCC’s initiative, Foreign Minister Alistair Burt told reporters after meeting with his UAE counterpart Anwar Mohammed Gargash, “We strongly support the GCC initiative to resolve the crisis in Yemen. The GCC initiative represents our best hope for a constructive and peaceful way forward.”

This is a sad statement if so.

Burt’s remarks appear suspiciously identical to Washington’s response, which urged “swift implementation” of the GCC’s flawed proposal. Britain has already sunk itself into enough trouble following America’s poor strategies, and should consider developing its own policy instead of copying Washington’s flailing response. Before and after the revolution, U.S. policy has destabilized Yemen’s government, contradicted U.S. values and failed to negate AQAP’s growth, ultimately compromising U.S. national interests.

Neither the U.S., E.U. or Gulf states have adopted the Yemeni people’s interests above their own. Washington, London and Riyadh have all praised Saleh’s “cooperation” and urged the opposition to accept a futile “resolution.” If the youth should be engaged, why haven’t they been? If they can protest, why were they initially told to go home? U.S. policy would be unrecognizable in comparison to the present if Yemen’s future were truly up to its people.

Khaled Al-Ansi, a leading member of the organizing committee of the youths, told Arab News that they welcome any initiative that demands Saleh’s immediate and unconditional resignation. But he blamed the opposition for negotiating without popular consent and with untrustworthy partners. Al-Ansi warned, "The problem lies with those two parties (the government and the opposition). They have been engaged in fruitless dialogues for ages that have led the country to this crisis.”

He then accused the international community of “paying lip service to the protesters while the regime killed them with impunity.”

Following Saleh’s lead, Washington and Riyadh have employed duplicity and coercion to divide Yemen’s opposition while dictating their own terms. Private diplomacy equates to biased diplomacy. After butting heads in Egypt, the two governments are determined to catch any dominoes before they trigger wider regime change in the Gulf, and are justifying the suppression of opposition movements with hollow reform.

"We appreciate any effort conducive to Yemen's stability, but if we go into details, we find out that our main and firm demands were not met through the proposal..." said Hosam al Sharjabi, another spokesman for the youth protesting outside Sana'a University. "The international community should not deal with Yemen out of their own interests."

Al-Assad, for all of his faults, isn’t unilaterally supported by Washington, complicating its response to Syria. But as one of Saleh’s lone supporters, the White House must stop pushing an unfavorable initiative upon the opposition. The time has long called for Obama to personally demand his immediate resignation.

Anything less employs Saleh’s tactics and plays on his side - and it will be the losing side in the end.

Taliban Rescues Captured Soldiers, Morale

The Taliban has executed a mass prison break from Kandahar City’s main prison. Afghan officials are currently investigating how militants dug a 1,050-foot tunnel under the jail without being noticed, allowing them to slip out an estimated 475 prisoners overnight. Although Governor Tooryalai Wesa says some have already been recaptured, around 100 mid-level and four provincial commanders are believed to have escaped.

The highest level of Taliban prisoners are held at Bagram air-base.

While 400+ fighters may not make much difference tactically - the Taliban’s ranks are still estimated above 20,000 - the moral boost should account for something as fighting intensifies into the summer. Morale probably isn’t as low as U.S. officials claim, but an unrelenting blitzkrieg by U.S. Special Forces and CIA-trained Afghan “hunter/killer” teams has eroded the “Quetta” leadership’s feeling of invulnerability. This feeling reverberated from the top down and bottom up, as low and mid-level commanders are tiring from being run ragged in the field.

Kandahar’s breakout stemmed from a months-long buildup to regain momentum and rebuild trust. By responding to the chatter that it’s losing more fighters than it can replace, the Taliban targeted a immediate source of replenishment. A bold move can have dramatic effects on the battle, and springing his imprisoned comrades carries the wider message that Mullah Omar won’t leave “the faithful” behind.

"There were four or five of us who knew that our friends were digging a tunnel from the outside," said Mohammad Abdullah, who said he spent two years in Sarposa prison after being captured in the notorious Zhari district. "Some of our friends helped us by providing copies of the keys. When the time came at night, we managed to open the doors for friends who were in other rooms."

Thus the attack may achieve a strategic advantage through psychology rather than tactics, a common occurrence in guerrilla warfare. The White House and Pentagon continue to argue that the Taliban will be permanently displaced from southern Afghanistan within the next year. If the Taliban can delay their perceived defeat for six months beyond July, they will cast doubt onto the White House’s entire time-frame. 2014 will evaporate as July 2011 has, creating further divisions within the U.S. political and public spheres.

U.S. military officials rarely speak of how fragile America’s own political situation is.

The raid on Kandahar’s jail achieves a second psychological objective equal to and potentially greater than a morale boost on the front-lines. U.S. officials warned months ago that the Taliban will employ a “softer” counter-offensive this summer, avoiding “hard” NATO units while targeting Afghan officials. These predictions began to take vivid forms this month as Taliban infiltrators launched a series of attacks on government installations. The military objective - remove competent government officials - combines with a political message to paint the Afghan government as inept.

Propaganda from shooting up the Defense Ministry in Kabul is worth more than two dead Afghan soldiers.

This attitude of “nowhere is safe” extended down to the provincial level on April 15th, when a suicide bomber in disguise killed Kandahar’s police chief in his own office. As a prominent official, the death of Khan Mohammad Mujahid achieved the dual goals of military subversion and political intimidation. While U.S. forces continue to occupy Kandahar, the two impressions synchronize into the Taliban’s message: the city remains under our control.

A prison break involving the guards caps this wider strategy. It also remains an opening salvo of the Taliban's summer assault.

April 24, 2011

U.S. Drone Strike in Yemen?

The Yemeni news site Barakish.net has reported a drone strike in the southern Abyan governorate, where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has seized territory from security forces. Local sources claim two strikes occurred in Al-Mahfad district, one in Rafdh area and another in Thaika, and that an unexploded missile bore a label reading "Made in USA.” Propaganda is a definite possibility and other Yemeni sites aren't responding yet, so we will withhold commenting until reports are fleshed out.

We will warn that relaunching Predators, having been grounded in May 2010 after multiple errant strikes, would represent a colossal strategic error on Washington’s part. Unless AQAP chief Nasir al-Wuhayshi was riding in one of the targets, the political collateral of these strikes would vastly outweigh any military success.

Even then al-Wuhayshi will be replaced as quickly as he replaced AQAP’s previous heads.

America's image is approaching zero after Washington's counter-terrorism strategy collapsed, forcing the White House to stall for Saleh and possibly rescue him. The mere thought of drones could provide the final blow - this isn't the way to wage fourth-generation warfare.

The Day After Saleh’s “Resignation”

Forced to go from zero to 100 in an instant, sections of the global media are still catching their breath as they chase Yemen’s storm. These reports note President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s “about-face” to transfer power under an initiative from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and list the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties’ (JMP) grievances before speculating whether it will join Saleh in “accepting.” The guilty party includes the White House, which “applauded” Saleh and Yemen’s opposition before urging them to “swiftly implement” all terms of the agreement.

As if Saleh himself had agreed.

Yet other parts of the media, Western and international, have begun to catch up to Saleh’s real intentions as he maintains a defiant front. While limiting the reporting out of Yemen’s revolution was a relatively simple task - the Obama administration publicly ignored the country for as long as possible - Saturday’s blatant falsities were bound to be exposed in the immediate future. Saleh never personally accepted the GCC’s proposal, which calls for him to transfer power to vice president Abdu Rabuh Mansour Hadi within seven days and resign after 30.

Instead two of his officials tentatively accepted. They also made clear that the opposition must first accept - and return home - before Saleh approves the GCC's plan, an obvious scheme.

Meanwhile Yemen’s embattled president stood his ground in a fiery speech to future military officers in Sana’a, denouncing the Joint Meeting Parties’ (JMP) “coup” and refusing to submit. The mainstream media widely ignored this passionate declaration to remain in power, leading to back-tracking headlines on Sunday; the normally reputable Reuters blared, “Saleh defiant, day after agreeing to handover plan.” However ignoring another hard-line speech has proven exceedingly difficult. During a BBC interview on Sunday, Saleh conjured the usual bogeymen by warning Western governments, “The opposition is confused. At the site of the protest camps there is a mixture of Nazareths, socialists. Muslim brothers and al-Qaeda.”

"You call on me from the US and Europe to hand over power," he said. "Al-Qaeda are moving inside the camps and this is very dangerous. Why is the West not looking at this destructive work and its dangerous implications for the future?"

Although Saleh’s usual tricks utterly failed to convince Yemen’s popular opposition of trusting the GCC, his stall tactics continue to produce short-term results. Soon after Saleh’s officials welcomed the GCC’s plan, members of his ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) hinted at intentionally accepting a hostile proposal in order to fracture and scapegoat the JMP. The popular opposition already opposes a time-table for Saleh’s resignation and his immunity, as negotiated by Washington and Riyadh. Ataif Alwazir, one organizer in Sana, said the street consensus stood heavily against the GCC’s proposal.

“It’s just another game,” she insisted. “Let the J.M.P. do what they have to do politically, negotiate, and the youth will do what they have to do and stay in the streets.”

More unacceptable terms were then slipped under the JMP, including a parliamentary veto of Saleh's resignation and an oath to be sworn before him. Theory is quickly becoming reality as Saleh condemns the JMP’s “confusion," while foreign news revolves around an increasingly divided opposition. It’s true that the JMP partially fell into Saleh’s trap; as the only party he's willing to negotiate with, the JMP has allowed him to stall and negotiate an unjust resolution in its name. On Sunday he declared, “from the first reply of the opposition to the initiative, they are refusing to participate in the government.”

This plot has been in the works for weeks. Tarek al-Shami, the GPC spokesman who "accepted" the GCC's proposal on Saturday, previously bashed the JMP for rejecting an undefined proposal: "This is proof that the opposition doesn't want dialogue or peaceful solutions, but want to come to power through chaos."

Beyond its own political aspirations, the JMP blocked out Saleh’s threats and cautiously accepted the GCC’s proposal to evade his ploy. Now the JMP is falling back into the masses for cover, and an escape appears possible despite being compromised by Saleh. Chairman and lead negotiator Yassin Said No’man, who has expressed suspicion throughout the GCC’s dialogue, warned of “serious” reservations on Sunday.

“The idea that President Saleh would step down in 30 days means nothing to us,” No’man said. “We would like the current government to continue in its current form until the president steps down – and we would like that to be as soon as possible. “Only after the president steps down can a genuine national dialogue take place.”

Saleh won’t enjoy nearly as much room to maneuver if Yemen’s political opposition can align with the popular revolution.

Yet Saleh’s propaganda attack on the West could also bear fruit in the near future. Keeping in mind that much of the GCC’s proposal is authored by Washington and Riyadh, and that the White House urged the opposition to accept a flawed resolution, Saleh’s fear tactics haven’t abandoned him entirely. Allowing him additional time to stall may have something to do with the fact that, according to U.S. estimates, over half of Saleh’s U.S.-trained counter-terror units have withdrawn from their posts to the capital. The security vacuum has enabled Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to gain ground in the southern Abyan governorate.

Stalling may seem contradictory, but Washington is determined to get these troops back on the front-lines (even though they were often misappropriated to begin with).

“The two-page draft political deal, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, doesn't mention defense or counterterrorism issues. People familiar with the document say that U.S. and Gulf Arabs expect that Mr. Saleh's son and nephews - who run the country's intelligence service, Republican Guard and elite Interior Ministry forces and are key counterterrorism liaisons for American officials - would remain in their positions until new elections.”

Here The Wall Street Journal offers one piece of evidence against a free and fair election in Yemen, which the GCC’s proposal calls for 60 days after Saleh’s resignation. Such an election would be held under the control of Saleh’s GPC, given a 50-40 majority in a transitional parliament, and within a charged environment that lacks security guarantees from the government. The election’s urgency is also driven by political expediency rather than a desire to legitimately resolve Yemen’s crisis. Western diplomats involved in Yemen’s political negotiations claim they want to see elections held before the August start of Ramadan.

"If we don't have elections before Ramadan, then we lose two more months," said a diplomat familiar with the negotiations. "That [political vacuum] is bad for us and good for al Qaeda."

The Yemeni people don’t seem to register.

Unfortunately the U.S.-GCC plan gets worse. Although the GCC has billed its offer as final, Washington is prepared to support a popular referendum on Saleh if he and the JMP deadlock again, according to Yemeni sources. These rumors have since been reinforced by Saba state media: “there is a consultation on the call for early elections in light of the GCC initiative.” Repeatedly referring to his supporters as the majority and the opposition as the minority,” Saleh’s own remarks should leave no doubt that he intends to use this argument to rig an election.

"Who shall I hand it over to?” Saleh asked on Sunday. “Those who are trying to make a coup? No. We will do it through ballot boxes and referendums. We'll invite international observers to monitor. Any coup is rejected because we are committed to the constitutional legitimacy and don't accept chaos."

Both of the GCC’s plans, as dictated by Washington and Riyadh, envision an “orderly transition” in Yemen rather than a conclusive outcome. Both options sadly display a high propensity for chaos. Either an unfavorable agreement is forced on the opposition, or else Saleh is given a free hand to manipulate his own referendum. Yemen’s revolutionaries immediately knew that Saleh hadn’t agreed to resign - and that he intends to fight to the end. Foreign news organizations would have known too had they paid more attention.

Too bad getting the story right isn’t the top priority during the Arab Spring.

April 23, 2011

Washington’s Nuclear Option in Yemen

As the U.S. and international media busy themselves prematurely declaring the fall of Ali Abdullah Saleh, two gaps stand out amongst a generally shallow analysis. Though most reports make some mention of his speech to future military officers, a defiant address with no sign of weakness, the depth of his speech has failed to properly register.

“Confront challenge with challenge!” Saleh urged his remaining followers. “Yemen is precious and so is the blood that is being shed, but we will sacrifice our blood for the sake of Yemen, and for the sake of its unity. We will sacrifice for the sake of Yemen and will never accept any custody on our country. The financial aid granted to the elements of sabotage and rebellion in the Joint Meeting Parties is malicious and vile. They are offering money to the Yemeni people, but sooner or later all conspiracies will be destroyed and will be defeated by the will and steadfastness of our people and our the military institution.”

After playing an integral role in creating false perceptions that the White House has “shifted” against Saleh, The New York Times inadvertently stumbled upon a second piece of truth. In its last paragraph, the NYT writes that Saleh’s “skill at duping and dividing his enemies may account for the opposition’s deep concern,” as if something else fostered that distrust. The NYT then mentions, “even as he agreed to the proposal for his exit, he delivered a speech at a military academy in which he accused the Yemeni opposition of ‘dragging the country into civil war.’”

His speech, according to the NYT’s astute observation, “added to the impression among his critics that Mr. Saleh never expected or intended for the transition offer to be accepted.” Naturally this news was placed at the report’s end rather than its beginning.

Trench news literally lands on the bottom, so we try to push back to the surface.

The second information gap is opened by less certain forces, but it’s worth recording in the event that the following occurs. Several Yemeni officials have told Arab and Chinese news sources that Washington and Riyadh hold one last card to stall Saleh’s exit. If the JMP refuses the GCC's (and Washington's) present terms and Saleh rejects any amendments, the U.S. will support a popular referendum on whether he should resign immediately.

This plan sounds irrational as the current agreement hangs on Saleh's immediate resignation, with the popular opposition heaping more and more pressure on the political opposition. However Washington’s final play doesn't lead to Saleh's certain defeat.

A snap election is designed for controlled chaos, to buy time and exploit “Yemen’s majority,” as Saleh refers to his supporters. How can an election be held immediately and under Saleh’s control? How can the polls be safeguarded from government or allied forces? Will Saleh allow international monitors after blaming Washington and Tel Aviv for orchestrating “conspiracies” from their “control rooms?” If the White House’s last card truly calls for a popular referendum, it has desperately chosen a dangerous move that could play into Al-Qaeda’s hands on top of Saleh’s.

A controlled implosion may turn into a nuclear disaster.

Devilish Details Extending Saleh's Rule

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has reportedly accepted the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative to transfer power and end the country’s three-month revolution. If only it were that easy.

With the U.S. media flooding the public sphere with wall-to-wall information and disinformation, a prolonged silence has been shattered as the lights flip on to catch Saleh's potential fall. Information is fluid, then, but nonetheless predictable. Following Saleh’s “willingness to step down unconditionally,” according to several members of his ruling General People’s Congress (GPC), The New York Times inadvertently expressed the situation with precise clarity.

"The ruling party informed the foreign ministers of the GCC of their acceptance of the Gulf initiative in full," GPC spokesman Tariq Shami told Reuters, while spokesman Muhammad al-Basha added, “The General People’s Congress and its coalition partners have officially accepted the plan without condition.”

The NYT opened its report, “Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, agreed on Saturday to leave power after 32 years of autocratic rule, according to a top Yemeni official, but only if the opposition agrees to a list of conditions...”

Saleh’s worst case scenario - essentially the best option for America and Saudi Arabia - still remains unfavorable to Yemen’s general opposition. As the GCC-U.S. plan currently stands, Saleh must step down within 30 days and transfer power to a preferred choice, listed as Vice President Abd Rabbo Mansoo Hadi. Mohammed Qahtan, spokesman for the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), told Al Jazeera, “The vice-president will take over for a certain period and then we will see what happens.” This government will theoretically operate under a “national unity” government until elections can be held in two months.

The agreement also stipulates immunity for Saleh and his family, and calls for an immediate end to nation-wide protests.

These generous terms should minimize any surprise that Saleh would accept such an agreement, which exchanges one waiting period for another. The GCC’s offer still allows him room to maneuver in the short-term, within the next week and month. An election held within three months and under the GPC’s control will also provide ample opportunity to corrupt the vote. If these stall tactics fail to abort the revolution, he can fall back on his immunity and escape the fate of Hosni Mubarak.

His remaining supporters and the opposition would then battle for control of Yemen’s future government. Were the GPC to emerge as the dominate party again, Saleh could find himself back in the country after a cool-down period.

Despite its many flaws, GCC’s proposal appears to offer Yemen’s opposition the best chance to remove Saleh from the presidency. Force is the only alternative at this point. However the GCC has offered a worst case scenario with a high risk of collapsing. That the JMP doesn’t speak for the wider uprising must be factored in at all times. Although the coalition has momentarily accepted the proposal, it also faces an overriding dilemma stemming from its lack of popular legitimacy. Thus Saleh could be forcing an untenable agreement upon the opposition to force a rejection, at which point he could blame them and further divide the opposition against the popular revolution.

The Los Angeles Times just quoted a government official briefed on the GCC talks as saying: "It was argued that, given the opposition's guaranteed rejection of the document in its current form, the government would appear more conciliatory in front of the international community by signing off on the plan."

Under pressure to deliver a sellable agreement to the public, the JMP is playing right into this strategy by refusing an integral part of Saleh’s conditions. While JMP chairman Yaseen No’man welcomed the transition of power, both he and Qahtan voiced their opposition to a national unity government led by the GPC. Qahtan explained, “We cannot accept taking part in a unity government with President Saleh still as its head. We want the president to quit immediately... The opposition cannot possibly agree with this scheme. We enter into a new government only after the president resigns."

Otherwise, "We would have to swear an oath to Saleh, who has already lost his legitimacy.”

The JMP also expressed suspicion over a clause that allows the GPC, through its control of parliament, to veto Saleh’s resignation. Coupled with rumors that the GPC will keep Saleh on as “honorary” president for five months, and not even the JMP is willing to accept a delayed resignation. Beyond the popular objection to Saleh’s immunity, opposition members say the fate of the Republican Guard and Central Security remains ambiguous as well. The two units, commanded by Saleh's son and nephew and trained by U.S. Special Forces, are considered the most flagrant offenders during Yemen's revolution.

Topping these reservations, Shami said the opposition must agree to a deal that stipulates the protests' end before Saleh accepts.

The Obama administration has consistently ignored Saleh's defiance while encouraging a resolution under the guise of the GCC. Unable to remain quiet any longer, the White House is now using this opportunity to push an explosive “agreement” on Yemen's opposition. The State Department’s Mark Toner, having remained silent all week, was the first to comment in remarks the NYT described as “somewhat cautious.” Perhaps it read a different statement.

“We’ve seen the press reports regarding President Saleh’s acceptance of the GCC proposal,” Toner said in a press release. “As we’ve said, we welcome the recent Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative to address the challenging political situation in Yemen. The participation of all sides in this dialogue is urgently needed to reach a solution supported by the Yemeni people. President Saleh has publicly expressed his willingness to engage in a peaceful transfer of power; the timing and form of this transition should be identified through dialogue and begin immediately.”

Such a highly contradictory statement isn’t surprising given the White House’s incoherent response to Yemen. Toner has defended Saleh with the same line before, but never have the embattled president's actions “expressed a willingness to engage in a peaceful transfer of power." Toner goes on to urge “genuine participation by all sides including the youth,” despite the fact that Yemen’s popular opposition has been intentionally locked out of negotiations. Odder still, he urges the government to address protesters’ calls to “quickly bring all perpetrators of violence to justice,” seemingly oblivious to Saleh’s immunity. Toner then defends the Yemeni people’s right to demonstrate peacefully, even though the U.S.-GCC proposal calls for an end to demonstrations before Saleh agrees to resign.

"We agreed that the General People's Congress, the governing party, forms the national unity government from the government, the opposition and other political forces on condition the protests continue on the streets," Qahtan explained amid widespread discontent over the demand.

Finally, in concluding “it is ultimately for the people of Yemen to decide how their country is governed,” Toner completely ignores the reality that Washington and Riyadh co-authored the GCC’s initiative with Saleh’s GPC. A Yemeni official, who asked not to be named, even admitted that the White House wanted the Saudis to play a more prominent role in deliberations, as the agreement appears too connected to Washington. Were Yemen’s future “ultimately for the people to decide,” the opposition’s resolution wouldn’t have been dictated by external forces.

Saleh’s government would have negotiated directly with representatives of Yemen’s youth and popular movement, instead of freezing them out and ordering them to stop protesting.

It remains to be seen whether Saleh will actually accept the GCC’s proposal, but all available evidence points to the negative. Somewhat telling, Saba state media hasn’t announced a definitive response after previously welcoming the GCC’s dialogue. It did, however, carry Saleh’s latest speech to military personnel, which sounds like a victory address more than a resignation. Repeatedly condemning the JMP for violating “the constitution and law, rejecting elections and the people’s choice,” Saleh continued to label the group’s cooperation with the GCC as “sabotage” and a “coup.” He also blamed the JMP for his own government's corruption.

“The so-called revolution of youth and change is hatred and sabotage and aims to establish the culture of hatred,” Saleh declared. “If you follow their ramblings and political rhetoric on TV channels, you would find that they do not flow smoothly, but hostile towards the people. If they are hostile towards the people when they have still not assumed power, how would they be when they assume power?”

One GPC member claimed that the GCC presented only a framework for a political solution, not a specific plan. “The devil is in the details,” he cautioned, to be hammered out in the month before Saleh “resigns.” This arrangement allows Saleh to continue negotiating his terms in addition to setting the government for a potential departure. Nor does any guarantee exist that he will resign at the end of 30 days. To most of Yemen’s popular opposition, the real devil doesn't lie in the details but in Saleh.

One youth organizer in Sana’a remarked in disgust, “the GCC plan is a joke.”

So where does the White House truly stand? According to a second statement released by press secretary Jay Carney, "We applaud the announcements by the Yemeni Government and the opposition that they have accepted the GCC-brokered agreement to resolve the political crisis in a peaceful and orderly manner... We encourage all parties to move swiftly to implement the terms of the agreement so that the Yemeni people can soon realize the security, unity and prosperity that they have so courageously sought and so richly deserve.”

Sounds like Saleh and Obama administration are still reading from the same script, one that wishes to see an anticlimactic end to Yemen's revolution.