By James Gundun
Although she didn’t leave a scratch on his brutal crackdown, Hillary Clinton recently launched a metaphysical barrage at Syria’s strongman, Bashar al-Assad. In an op-ed to Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat, the Secretary of State boldly declared, “There is no going back in Syria.”
“President Assad’s violent crackdown has shattered his claims to be a reformer,” Clinton wrote on June 17th. “For years, he has offered pledges and promises, but all that matters are his actions. A speech, no matter how dutifully applauded by regime apologists, will not change the reality that the Syrian people, despite being told they live in a republic, have never had the opportunity to freely elect their leaders. These citizens want to see a real transition to democracy and a government that honors their universal rights and aspirations.”
Although her every word applies to Yemen’s revolution, never has Ali Abdullah Saleh been flayed like this. Only six months ago a smiling Clinton shook his hand in Sana’a, wrongly believing that she had diffused a political crisis sparked by Saleh’s attempt to remove term limits. Now Yemen’s embattled president of 33 years is laid up in a Saudi hospital after suffering critical injuries from a June 3rd assassination attempt. Yet the White House and State Department refuse to debate “hypotheticals” surrounding his health, secrecy that has amplified the revolution’s suspicions. In the meantime the Obama administration continues to urge Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) to transfer power to itself.
This illegitimate process would flagrantly violate Yemen’s revolution. Drafted by U.S. and Saudi officials through the proxy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Obama administration’s “power transfer” is all talk and no action. In Voice Of America’s own words, “The initiative would create a transition government wherein 50 percent of the positions would go to the GPC and 50 percent to the JMP [Joint Meeting Parties].”
“The youth want to coordinate and create a transition council but we are trying to involve all political factions in the process other than the ruling party,” said Waseem Qirshi, spokesperson for the revolution’s Organizing Committee.
The vast schism between U.S. policy in Syria and Yemen is perceptible throughout Clinton’s condemnation of al-Assad. Targeting his belief that he “can act with impunity because the international community hopes for his cooperation on other issues,” Clinton hoped to awaken the delusional dictator by warning “he and his regime are certainly not indispensable.” Perhaps al-Assad isn’t responding because these words ring across Yemen’s diverse landscape, where Saleh has abused Washington’s political cover and military aid to divide and conquer his opposition. Clinton encourages Syrians to “insist on accountability” in full knowledge that the GCC is shielding Saleh’s regime from human rights abuses committed with U.S. arms. With Zine El Abidine Ben Ali sentenced to 35 years in absentia, Hosni Mubarak facing trial, NATO warplanes searching for Muammar Gaddafi’s headquarters, and international condemnation raining down on al-Assad, the White House continues to offer Saleh and his family an extraction point that leaves his regime in power.
Al-Assad must envy his fellow autocrat.
Not that Saleh’s family is prepared to leave office. Contrary to the Obama administration’s efforts to portray Vice President Abd al-Rahman Mansur al-Hadi as “acting” president, Saleh’s son Ahmed believes he’s entitled to his father’s palace. The White House has avoided spearheading UN sanctions because the same familial commanders targeted in Syria operate as Pentagon liaisons between Saleh’s regime. U.S. counter-terror support flows into his security apparatus despite ongoing violence against peaceful protesters, and 18 drone strikes have been reported in the southern governorates since June 1st. According to GPC officials, 85% of these operations targeted local militants over al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Local medical officials disagree, claiming that half of the 200+ casualties they’ve treated are civilians.
General Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, Saleh’s ex-fist in the north, isn’t a popular figure despite his early defection. However he isn’t afraid to say what everyone else is thinking: “As long as this regime is in power, Al Qaeda will continue to exist in Yemen. Now, counterterrorism cooperation is based on material cooperation only. It is for the exchange of funds. How much will you give me if I can kill a person for you?”
Rather than correct this meltdown in U.S. foreign policy, President Barack Obama dispatched Jeffrey Feltman to Sana’a with orders to renew support for the GCC’s proposal: “We continue to believe that an immediate, peaceful and orderly transition is in the best interest of the Yemeni people.” At least the White House is inching forward in Syria; the administration’s response to Yemen’s revolution remains stubbornly immovable from five months ago. State Department officials clung to the GCC’s proposal throughout the past weeks of upheaval, indicating complete disarray within Clinton’s domain. Feltman, the Assistant Secretary of State for Mideast Affairs, didn’t waste time validating this reality.
“We strongly condemn all forms of violence and terrorism,” he said after meeting with Hadi and Ahmed Saleh.
The White House should look outside its windows more often. Saba state media highlighted Feltman’s visit as a show of support for his regime, and most Yemenis believe that Saleh is the primary source of violence and terrorism. They hold his regime responsible for inducing shortages in fuel and commodities to starve the revolution. Nor are millions of protesters marching in favor of the GCC’s proposal, but in opposition to it. Protests turned decisively anti-American and anti-Saudi over the weekend, as popular coalitions boycotted Feltman’s visit “because of the U.S.’s negative attitude against the revolution in Yemen.”
Whether Saleh signs the GCC’s proposal or not, Yemen’s streets will witness mass counter-demonstrations by its revolutionaries “until all political forces surrender to our demands.”
The time is past due for America to convert its negative talk into positive action. If the Obama administration truly supports Yemen’s revolutionaries, it will void the GCC’s proposal and engage the popular opposition directly. Negotiations between Hadi and the JMP have failed to extend beyond the security and economic crisis, excuses to stall for time. The GPC even accused the JMP of orchestrating these acts, particularly blocking roads and blowing up oil pipelines. Although Hadi announced a “four-point plan” to restore the situation to “normal,” Saba explicitly, “denied reports that those meetings had discussed other political issues, confirming the political issues can be discussed after President Ali Abdullah Saleh returns home.”
Another stall tactic, as usual.
U.S. policy needs its own four-point plan to stabilize Yemen without compromising support for the revolution. First, Saleh’s status must be clarified and he must be detained upon a potential return to Sana’a (so must his family of commanders). Open conflict is inevitable if he’s left to his own schemes and Washington cannot obstruct the delivery of justice. Second, the GCC’s proposal must be scrapped or rewritten to unequivocally favor Yemen’s revolutionaries, who demand a transitional council of their own choosing. The JMP is contemplating a national coalition that would include the youth, Houthis and Southern Movement, but endorsing the GCC bled the last of its credibility. Instead off fomenting a power struggle between the GPC and JMP, the Obama administration must break from Saudi Arabia’s counter-revolution and support Yemen’s popular opposition.
Third, pro-democracy protesters intend to author a new constitution – unlike U.S. calls to maintain “constitutional legitimacy” through Hadi – and an election must adhere to the revolution’s demands. The GCC’s “30-60” initiative stands for a 30-day power transfer followed by a 60-day transition, a rapid pace that the youth cannot keep up with organizationally. Designed to favor the GPC, U.S. officials also lobbied for an election before Ramadan (August 1st) because they “didn’t want to lose a month against AQAP.” Yemen’s next election could be its most important in modern history, and must take place on the revolution’s time-line of six to twelve months.
Finally, until these terms are granted, escalating military operations must cease in southern Yemen. Already exploited by Saleh’s regime to target local, non-jihadist militias, U.S. air-strikes are inflicting more damage on Yemen’s political system than AQAP. Connections with Ahmed’s murderous Republican Guard and other security units must be severed as well. This ceasefire must transition into a proportional increase in humanitarian aid, as the country requires emergency assistance.
There is no going back to Saleh’s regime. These steps are the first of a thousand to winning the trust of Yemen’s people, the only real safeguard against al-Qaeda.
– James Gundun is a political scientist and counterinsurgency analyst. His blog, The Trench, covers the underreported areas of U.S. foreign policy.