Yemen’s Gears of Counter-Revolution

By James Gundun – Washington, D.C.
The rise of asymmetric warfare has suspended the possibility of entrenched conflicts fought between conventional armies, bringing dreaded ‘meat grinders’ to a halt. Now entire populations are subjected to the political gears of fourth-generation warfare (4GW), and the fear of uncertainty is drawn equally from their own governments and fellow citizens. Yemenis currently find themselves smashed between enormous grinders: Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime, the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) and foreign powers holding interests in their country.

These forces recently collided amid al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) high-profile “capture” of Rada’a, a modest town located 100 miles south of the capital. Like Yemen’s southern governorates and the local capital of Zinjibar (Abyan), Rada’a serves as a microcosm for everything wrong with international policy in Yemen. While headlines blared “AQAP takeover,” JMP officials and democratic activists busied themselves detailing Saleh’s mastery of sacrificing a town. The process combines a number of factors to simulate chaos: opportunistic militants, government-controlled “jihadists,” and the withdrawal of Saleh’s Republican Guard, which is later redeployed to the scene. Yemen’s strongman feeds on instability to maintain his rule, perversely arguing that only he is capable of stabilizing the country.

Saleh also understands – far too well – that al-Qaeda provides the quickest means of manipulating the international community. Emboldened by his immunity but still refusing to cede executive power under the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) terms, Saleh continues to exploit his cooperation against AQAP to sustain influence in Washington. The group also doubles as his go-to bogeyman in the Western audience; Rada’a produced more media coverage than Saleh’s political resistance.

Given that AQAP has increased its activities since U.S. forces escalated their operations in December 2009, the Obama administration is holding onto Saleh’s regime beyond the point of security or democracy. The longer the international community obstructs Yemen’s pro-democracy movement through an unrepresentative GCC deal, the longer Saleh will direct his energy towards survival and allow AQAP to expand. His son also sits on the military commission that is supposed to decommission his relatives; Ahmed commands the Republican Guard, a U.S.-trained “counter-terrorism” that spent 2011 terrorizing anti-government protesters and tribesmen. Concerned neither with democracy nor stability, U.S. policy is pursuing control of the Arabian Peninsula at any cost – even a stateside vacation for a potential war criminal.

This doppelgänger policy requires instability to justify hegemony.

"Neither Vice President Hadi nor anyone else will succeed in ruling and implementing real reforms if they do not preside over a unified and obedient army,” Tawakel Karman, Yemen’s resident Nobel laureate, warned upon her return. “If this doesn’t happen the next president will be nothing but a pawn of the old regime.”

Despite local reports of friction between Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s Vice President of 17 years, Saleh continued to oversee government functions and communicate through Hadi until leaving for New York City on Monday. The Vice President speaks regularly with GCC Secretary General Abdullatif al-Zayani, whose bloc negotiated a power-sharing agreement between Saleh and the JMP, and al-Zayani recently praised himself for “putting an end to the Yemeni crisis according to the initiative and the United Nations resolution 2014.” Ending Yemen’s “political crisis” is a constant theme amongst Western and Gulf diplomats – a theme that will prolong the Revolution. Many protesters want to complete their quest with minimal bloodshed, making Saleh’s exile appear bearable, but the GCC’s deal is too undemocratic to achieve a popular consensus.

Washington, Riyadh, their satellites and the UN are also viewed with widespread suspicion after ignoring the streets’ demands. Accordingly, Hadi is responsible for hosting veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, even allowing them to attend meetings with Yemen’s cabinet and security officials. All parties are looking to drum up financial support the GCC-controlled election in February, an "election" that will feature Hadi as a consensus candidate of Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) and the JMP.

Meanwhile the JMP’s Salem Basindwa, Yemen’s new Prime Minister, just concluded a GCC tour to raise his own political and financial support. Fearful of irreversibly alienating Yemen’s pro-democracy movement, the JMP continues to hedge itself around the divisive issues of Saleh’s legal status and exile. Basindwa would tell Reuters from the United Arab Emirates, "I’m hopeful he will leave (before February 21)… but let us wait and see.” A week before, the Prime Minister defended Saleh’s immunity while urging those “who think a revolution can force Saleh out of power” to “try.” Considering the repeated delays over approving Saleh’s immunity, JMP officials could be accumulating their resources for a gradual takeover after February’s election. However the umbrella organization appears most interested in securing political and financial capital, a process that would divert foreign aid from its intended recipients.

The JMP may have sincere intentions of removing Saleh’s family, but their track record prior to and during Yemen’s revolution suggests that oppositional figures desire power for themselves. Basindwa’s office later denied his statements, nor does he leave any room for Yemen’s protesters when saying things like, "the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] agrees to play a major and leading role in the development of Yemen. This is not surprising from the Kingdom that always has stood by us.”

The only foreign entity more unpopular or meddlesome than America is Saudi Arabia.

Those protesters “looking forward” to Yemen’s referendum of Hadi are easily outnumbered by Saleh’s men, the JMP and foreign powers. Last week UN envoy Jamal Benomar highlighted the Security Council’s commitment to “ending the crisis in Yemen" during meetings with Hadi and Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi. Another UN report will be released on January 25th, when Benomar is due to note Yemen’s political progress as all parties steam toward February 21st. Some UNSC members (Germany, France) have mounted sporadic resistance against the GCC’s undemocratic process – now Benomar is lamenting Saleh’s “blanket immunity” – but these are the same countries that unanimously approved Resolution 2014 in late October.

Every part of the international plan is in working order except for Saleh himself. Shortly after Rada’a went viral, al-Qirbi told Al Arabiya that the country’s deteriorating security could delay the UN-GCC sponsored election (an excuse that can be used indefinitely). U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would respond in passing that Yemen’s election must be held on schedule to ensure a “peaceful transition,” comments that temporarily knocked al-Qirbi back into line. However the situation’s odds indicate that Washington’s efforts to remove Saleh will continue to fail in the absence of a genuine disconnect.

After multiple itineraries had him stopping in Dubai or Riyadh, the Obama administration’s latest flight plan sent him through Oman on his way to New York City. This “plan” suffers from an extensive list of flaws, starting with a general lack of transparency. Putting John Brennan, the White House’s counter-terrorism adviser, anywhere near Yemen’s diplomacy is an automatic red-flag; although considered friendly, Brennan has been routinely outmaneuvered by Saleh. Bringing him to America after a month of international warnings – and during Obama’s State of the Union address – also demonstrates the administration’s continual insensitivity, and running him through a middle party won’t prevent his return.

His son will reportedly hold down Yemen’s presidential palace until he returns.

While the White House has theoretically banned Saleh from engaging in political activity, what are the consequences of resistance? Keeping him in America? Shipping him back to a Gulf state? Little of U.S. policy makes sense beyond the need to maintain influence in Yemen and keep Saleh from testifying on Washington’s military cooperation. Both the White House and State Department deny that his trip to NYC is for "political purposes," calling the timing "fortuitous" for completing the GCC’s unpopular transition. This deceptive rhetoric prompted one reporter to ask the State Department, "why are you playing this game with him on semantics? I mean, he’s doing what you want him to do."

Saleh may be willing to play along now that he possesses immunity at the national and international level, but his trip is simultaneously relevant and irrelevant. He and the Obama administration are treading opposite paths to the same end: one would ideally keep Hadi as Vice President, the other wants February’s election to “keep the transition on track." Saleh naturally desires to remain in Yemen while the White House plans to secure influence through his exile. Saleh has allegedly requested permanent sanctuary in neighboring Oman, a sensible choice that facilitates quick access back into Yemen, or perhaps the administration will accept a compromise along his lines. After promising to lead his party when the ballot boxes open, Saleh triumphantly declared upon his exit, “We will inaugurate Abdo Rabbo Hadi as head of state after February 21st in the Presidential Palace.”

Any outcome based on the GCC’s initiative leaves the JMP to scrap for power and locks Yemen’s pro-democracy movement out of the political process. Revolutionaries demand a representative transition and a clean break from Saleh’s regime, not ongoing impunity and cooperation with a tyrant.

– 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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