The Plot Thickens In Yemen

By James Gundun – Washington, D.C.

A few rays of light recently shone though Yemen’s storm clouds. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) finally released its report on a grisly human rights environment, having compiled the data from a mission in early July. This account accuses Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime of committing a variety of heinous acts against peaceful protesters: arbitrary arrests, expired teargas, sewage-water cannons, the obstruction of ambulances and hospitals, torture and a prevalent use of live rounds, artillery and tanks. Children have been equally exposed as adults.

Of immediate consequence to millions of Yemenis, “The mission also observed that those seeking to achieve or retain power have deliberately sought to punish and cause severe hardship to the civilian population by cutting off vital access to basic services such as electricity, fuel and water.”

Yet the UNHRC leaves out some critical abuses, the aerial bombardment of anti-government tribesmen in particular. Mutilation has been recorded in many cases. The report also fails to isolate U.S. support for Saleh’s personal security forces, even though Special Forces and CIA trainers have equipped his Republican Guard and Central Security Organization to combat al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Instead Saleh deployed these “counter-terrorism” units against his political opponents, the northern Houthi sect and secessionist Southern Movement, before unleashing them on Yemen revolutionaries. The “elite ‘Republican Guard’ [commanded by Saleh’s son Ahmed] is present throughout Yemen,” UNHRC delegates observed, “but is concentrated near the main towns.”

Unfortunately the UNHRC’s mission and recommendations are incompatible with the UN’s current “roadmap” for Yemen. Based on an unpopular power transfer negotiated between Saleh’s officials, the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) and external powers (namely the U.S. and Saudi Arabia), the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative is designed to preserve the current regime through a “national unity government.” Yemen’s popular revolutionaries largely oppose the proposal as a violation of their eight-month struggle, which has cost well over 1,000 lives and compounded their country’s enduring hardship. Among other favorable terms, the GCC offers Saleh and his familial security commanders immunity for the very crimes documented by the UNHRC.

Washington and Riyadh approve of this clause for several reasons. Having never sincerely agreed to sign the proposal, Saleh wouldn’t have flirted with the GCC in the first place without an escape route. If removed from office, U.S. political and military support for his regime can continue without a national or international investigation, and the Saudis can continue purchasing influence amongst Yemen’s tribes.

“The people of Yemen are bewildered by the silence of the international community and the lack of response to the daily calls for help by millions of peaceful protestors across the country,” the National Council for Peaceful Revolutionary Forces (NCPRF) remarked in a detailed response to the UNHRC’s report. “The continued aggression of the regime, currently under the control of Saleh’s sons and relatives, against the people of Yemen, its failure to honor international human right treaties and fulfill its commitments to reform makes it an undesirable and unreliable ally.”

The UNHRC’s call for an independent investigation would put the UN Security Council at odds with U.S. policy, if the organization decided to bite the hand that feeds it. However this outcome is unlikely given unilateral opposition to Yemen’s revolution. Contrary to Syria and Libya, where West and East have divided, all vetoing-wielding members of the Security Council support a continuation of Saleh’s regime through the GCC’s initiative. The UNHRC’s report is the first of its kind after eight months of bloodshed, and should have been conducted and released months ago. A slow response time, coupled with intensive meetings between Saleh’s regime and UN envoy Jamal Ben Omar, gives off the impression that the UN finally cracked under local Yemeni pressure.

While a positive step in itself, the UN could be adjusting its morally untenable position more than anything else.

The UNHRC’s monitors, like journalists and many Yemenis, weren’t allowed access to the combustible southern governorates of Aden and Abyan. As the main battlefield between Yemeni security forces and AQAP, many abuses have occurred around the city of Zinjibar, Abyan’s local capital, where Saleh is employing his trademark duplicity to survive. U.S. personnel, warplanes and UAVs find themselves engaged with AQAP cadres because his “counter-terrorism” units are busy suppressing urban demonstrations. After enabling AQAP’s takeover of Abyan governorate – a relatively simple matter of withdrawing troops and ceding weapons – Saleh’s regular forces spent the last two months “retaking” Zinjibar. Many civilians have been displaced in the process and some fell victim to U.S. air-strikes.

Brigadier General Mohammed al-Sawmali, commander of the 25th Mechanized Brigade, refused to question his own ranks when attempting to explain Zinjibar’s suspicious circumstances. He does, however, know where AQAP got the weapons it would use to besieged his abandoned unit. Asked about the militants’ firepower during a late July interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the general responded that, “it is not a surprise. You can thank our colleagues in the Public Security, Police, and Central Security forces who pulled out of the [Abyan] governorate and left all their military equipment and munitions behind as a gift for these Al Qaeda elements. They left behind significant equipment and munitions, that these Al Qaeda elements continue to use, attacking us with our own weapons!”

Locals and Yemenis across the country accuse Saleh of an insidious double-game, to the point that many believe AQAP was created by him. The more plausible explanation is that he provides an ideal host for al-Qaeda’s virus. In either case Saleh’s regime, not AQAP, is the main source of terror in Yemen. This is the “partnership” that President Barack Obama poetically spoke of from Ground Zero on 9/11’s 10th anniversary.

For months Saleh’s regime has manipulated AQAP’s threat in the south to ward off the international community, specifically the U.S. and EU. The White House’s counter-terrorism chief recently added evidence to Saleh’s plot while attempting to highlight his cooperation. Speaking through a series of 9/11 media events, John Brennan testified that the administration implored Yemeni officials to send reinforcements to Zinjibar, and was forced to airdrop supplies when the government refused. Some of these drops ended up in AQAP territory, perhaps a shift in the wind but a fitting piece to Yemen’s double-games.

Although Brennan conceded that Saleh’s “elite” forces remain absent from the front-line against AQAP, he goes on to insist that cooperation with Saleh’s regime "is better than it’s been during my whole tenure." Having achieved his short-term objective, the latest “victory” in Zinjibar was packaged by Saleh as a gift on 9/11; Brennan and U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein would “congratulate” Yemeni security forces for their progress, even though the city isn’t fully retaken. Since cooperation has “improved,” he can still be trusted to sign the GCC’s generous proposal after stalling for five months. Thus the Obama administration first played along with Saleh’s military scheme, then manipulated 9/11 as justification for its own policy, before finally returning to Saleh’s political tactics.

Three birds are killed with one bullet: by suppressing urban demonstrations and targeting anti-government tribesmen with his “counter-terrorism” units, Saleh simultaneously fomented instability in the south, ultimately preserving U.S. support. There’s no predicting when he will flip back against America, only that he will when the timing favors his interests.

“The incapable and failed regime of Sana’a is surviving only on the claim that they are countering the threat of terrorism in the region,” warns the NCPRF, “but the facts show that this regime has released and created more terrorists than it ever arrested. Even if Western powers chooses to continue to view Yemen only through the prism of security and counterterrorism, the world should not turn a blind eye to the crimes and violations perpetrated by Saleh and his family against our people.”

Cooperation against AQAP is now concealing the attacks perpetrated against Yemen’s revolutionaries, and serves as a main driver of the GCC’s proposal. Rather than fit military operations into a legitimate political and moral framework, the Pentagon and CIA continue to dominate U.S. policy inside the country, seeking to replicate Pakistan’s client status. The GCC’s ongoing negotiations have unfolded as a backdrop to southern Yemen’s plot, receding the political sphere even further into the distance. The Obama administration must task civilian officials to lead Yemen’s diplomacy away from Saleh’s regime, yet has chosen to double down on its current policy.

Last Thursday spokeswoman Victoria Nuland issued the White House’s latest response through the State Department, one they may want back. “Encouraged” by Saleh’s latest “authorization for dialogue” to Vice President Abd al-Rahman Mansur al-Hadi, the administration ignored the UNHRC’s report entirely, only citing a “concern over reports of violence.” Left out was the elephant in the room – military support and immunity for Saleh, his son Ahmed, nephews Yayha and Tarek, half-brother Ali Saleh El Ahmar and other relatives accused of overseeing human rights abuses. Glancing over dozens of casualties in the last week alone, the State Department also reaffirmed an ambiguous GCC proposal that would leave Saleh in power for another 30-90 days, depending on the interpretation.

However the party that initially agreed to these terms (the JMP) has already rejected his latest stall tactics. Many protesters hope that a UN investigation will lead to an ICC warrant for Saleh’s arrest, not a “national unity government” of two unpopular parties. Although the administration hopes that he will resign in one week and pave the way for elections by the end of the year, various Yemeni officials also refuted these terms in the following days. Not only will Saleh keep his executive powers until an election is held sometime in 2012, he expects to retain his immunity and keep his son in the new government – when Yemen isn’t even an official member of the GCC.

The State Department’s inflammatory statement is now splattered with the blood of Sunday and Monday’s massacre in Sana’a, which left at least 56 protesters dead and hundreds wounded. This outburst in violence prompted the administration to repeat its previous statement.

Instead of isolating Saleh’s regime through international pressure, the Obama administration has grown even closer since Yemen’s revolution began in January. U.S. officials will have a difficult time explaining themselves to UNHRC, if they ever do. The revolution should be viewed as an opportunity to decouple U.S. policy from Saleh – starting with the dissolution of the GCC’s initiative – but has been perceived as a threat to his regime and the fight against AQAP. Evidently Washington and al-Qaeda have something in common: both prefer Saleh’s unstable rule over a potentially free Yemen.

– 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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