Illusions of ‘the Yemeni Model’

By James Gundun – Washington, D.C.

They couldn’t believe their ears.

After months of backroom negotiations and a week of intense lobbying reduced the United Nations to Moscow’s ‘consensus,’ nyet still reverberated throughout the Security Council’s chamber. Russia and China’s veto of a potential resolution in Syria triggered immediate outrage and disgust, exploding throughout Western capitals, oppositional Arab states and global social media. Unable to contact her counterpart during the resolution’s internal debate, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ascended the UN’s stage to ask Moscow, "Are you on the side of the Syrian people? Are you on the side of the Arab League?"

She would drop the rhetorical questions after Saturday’s double-veto with China, declaring, “The Syrian people have asked the Security Council to act. The Arab League has asked the Security Council to act.”

Whose side, though, is the Obama administration on? Despite lacking the moral high ground in Syria’s revolution, Moscow’s counter-propaganda against the Western-Gulf winds of regime change is floating on indirect truths. Russian officials persistently argue that foreign powers are invested in their own interests, and that regime change was approved as soon as Syria’s uprising accelerated in March 2011. Most of Moscow’s rhetoric is applicable to itself, but Western and Gulf leaders have condemned Russia and China for vetoing a resolution that Syria’s opposition doesn’t fully support. Instead, the UN Security Council (UNSC) has opted to copy the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) unpopular power-sharing initiative in Yemen.

Cross-pollination of Yemen and Syria’s “transitions” could have preceded last October, when the UNSC unanimously passed the GCC initiative with minimal Western coverage (Yemen has received the least U.S. attention of any major uprising). The GCC’s power-sharing agreement between Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) and the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) slowed the pace of regime change to a crawl, freezing the organic pro-democracy movement and various actors out of the political process. Saleh’s vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, was formally promoted to the presidency on February 21st, courtesy of a UN-authorized referendum that is being wrongfully billed as an election.

President Barack Obama broke his silence over the weekend by christening a redundant exercise, telling Hadi that he’s “optimistic that Yemen can emerge as a model for how peaceful transition in the Middle East can occur when people resist violence and unite under a common cause.”

Conceived by U.S. and Saudi minds in April as a post-Mubarak model, the GCC initiative combined elements of Egypt’s contingency to quell Yemen’s revolutionary forces. Most of Saleh’s relatives – those that haven’t defected or succumbed to oppositional pressure – remain in their military positions, including his son and nephew. Ahmed and Yayha still coordinate with U.S. officials as the heads of Saleh’s Republican Guard and Central Security Organization, the leading perpetrators of violence against anti-regime protesters. His half-brother also commands the Air Force, which has bombed al-Qaeda positions as well as anti-government tribesmen.

Although direct military support is reportedly on hold, the White House’s counter-terrorism chief recently announced an increase in equipment and training as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) continues to assert its reach. John Brennan and U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein have also shunned Yemen’s pro-democracy movement in favor of Saleh’s regime, and Hadi’s new ranking of “Field Marshall” completes the parallel. One Yemeni minister even told Reuters that “the American administration… will strongly confront any attempts to keep Hadi from being elected as the country’s president.”

Western and Gulf powers view the GCC’s agreement as a model of counter-revolution; the diplomatically-immune Saleh has been “removed,” a controllable figure from his regime sits in his place, counter-terrorism operations are unaffected, Yemen’s opposition is cornered by the ruling party and foreign powers, and the revolutionaries were forced to choose between a single-candidate “election” and further political isolation. The GCC’s power-sharing was constructed from the ground up to prevent regime change, a reality that will become more apparent during the volatile two-year “transitional” period to Yemen’s next election cycle.

Moscow eventually realized that a similar process could be replicated and internationally approved in Syria, contributing to a stalemate that now haunts the region. Choosing Abu Dhabi’s first Russian-GCC ministerial as his strategic setting, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov launched his campaign less than two weeks after the UNSC passed Yemen’s Resolution 2014. Lavrov told reporters that Moscow is “convinced that this approach to Yemen’s developments, presupposing a dialogue between authorities and opposition forces, must be applied to the situation in Syria as well.” The Minister’s positive description of Yemen’s power-sharing agreement demonstrates just how counter-revolutionary it is.

“The GCC’s initiative was launched, and everyone – the Cooperation Council itself, Arab League, EU, US, Russia and China – have acted very responsibly, not dictating artificial deadlines but providing sufficient time – months – for the stated purpose to be achieved.”

Seemingly expecting a quid pro quo in Syria, consultations between U.S. and Russian officials began before Lavrov went public. Reports of private negotiations surfaced through January, many of them alleging that the Obama administration left Moscow to compose a soon-to-be-released "Russian initiative.” This plan would be rejected by Syria’s opposition and Western capitals alike, but the conditions of “dialogue” and “a cabinet of national unity” remain identical to Yemen’s. The crossover was solidified after Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani, Qatar’s Prime Minister, unveiled the Arab League’s Syrian initiative with the following line: “This plan is similar to the plan for Yemen, where there was certain progress.”

Al-Thani called on Bashar al-Assad to "delegate powers to the vice president to liaise with a government of national unity,” to which Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem replied, “We do not imitate Yemen.”

The Obama administration and Europe’s full support for the Arab League’s "remarkable" proposal has generated one more obstacle for Syria’s revolutionaries. Admittedly divided on their leadership and international demands, oppositional groups find themselves caught in the jet wash of competing foreign powers. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed, "What happened yesterday at the United Nations was a travesty,” she failed to mention that the UN’s text was significantly diluted for Russian approval. UN Ambassador Susan Rice singled out Moscow and Beijing’s “empty arguments and individual interests” despite Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin’s confidence that “we have a much better understanding of what we need to do to reach consensus."

Russia has dutifully obeyed in Yemen and is even charged with overseeing a national dialogue, giving new meaning to Rice’s assertion that Syria’s opposition “is faced with a neutered Security Council.” What she means is that Washington easily acquired Moscow’s vote in Yemen and insists on the same obedience in Syria. Looking at the region through their eyes, Russian officials have lost Libya and are jealously monitoring the Obama administration’s counter-revolutions in Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain. They must fume over the double standard of Ali Saleh, who escaped Western sanctions and is currently traveling in California before he makes a triumphant return to Sana’a.

Now Washington has the audacity to control Syria’s transition.

Considering that Moscow received its terms in Syria, Russia’s veto jars with Lavrov’s vocal support for copying Yemen’s power-sharing deal. Russian officials may have felt uncomfortably rushed, as Churkin later told PBS’s Charlie Rose, but Moscow also feels that it cannot lose Syria at any cost – a dangerous zero-sum game. The Arab League’s transition will be pocketed as a last resort, and for now al-Assad’s “unconditional” dialogue remains the centerpiece of any political resolution. Lavrov would later announce after an emergency visit to Damascus, “Today we received confirmation from the president of Syria that he is prepared to cooperate in this effort.”

Beijing also sent Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun to play up al-Assad’s constitutional referendum, which has been dismissed by Western capitals and oppositional networks.

An inherently unstable deal that avoids the country’s fundamental divisions, Syria’s GCC clone has been greeted with predictable hostility from al-Assad’s regime. The situation is far past the point of “dialogue” and cannot be reversed through superficial reforms. Exile and immunity may offer a last hope at averting a large-scale civil war, but an emulation of Yemen’s breakdown will likely follow a U.S.-Russian compromise. Instead Western and Gulf officials continue to disseminate the false notion that Yemen’s deal is “working,” having forced Saleh out of the presidency and temporarily halted wide-scale bloodshed.

Clinton briefly alluded to this scenario when addressing Syria’s prospects, saying, “it took a long time, it was a lot of false starts, but we just kept at it day after day. And they’re going to have an election; they’re going to have the chance to at least try to move forward.”

Clinton naturally leaves out the resistance from Yemen’s revolutionaries, Houthi Sect and Southern Movement, who were blackballed due to their refusal to accept the GCC’s terms. Now the majority of Yemen’s violence has redirected into the north and south, and no sincere outreach to either movement has been attempted. Investigations and trials into Saleh’s abuses (before and after the revolution) are unlikely to materialize since his family is protected by national and international immunity, leaving old wounds to create new friction. The GCC initiative trades democracy for security, ignoring the probability that its imbalanced conditions will result in neither.

While the consequences of regional warfare are chillingly real in Yemen and Syria, the ultimate political effect reinforces a long-established double-standard: removing U.S. enemies while preserving friendly regimes. Those foreign powers that truly support Yemen and Syria’s people should put their interests first.

– James Gundun is a political scientist and counterinsurgency analyst. His blog, The Trench, covers the underreported areas of U.S. foreign policy. He contributed this article to Follow him on Twitter @RealistChannel.

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