March 30, 2011

U.S. Backs Deeper Into Saleh’s Corner

Who wants to be on the wrong side of them?

The White House owes Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad secret thank yous. Libya and Syria’s tenuous presidents kept Washington and the U.S. media busy all Wednesday, once again leaving Yemen’s revolution to languish in the dark. Apparently three events cannot be addressed simultaneously; Gaddafi’s counterattack against Libyan rebels, al-Assad’s conspiratorial address to the nation, and the sequence of events between Ali Abdullah Saleh’s latest political offer and mass demonstrations against him.

Clearly Yemen isn’t so devoid of activity that it warrants being dropped entirely, however its revolution did haunt the State Department in spirit.

At first spokesman Mark Toner appeared to give Syria the same treatment as every other Muslim state experiencing political upheaval. According to the Obama administration’s standard position, the government must deliver reforms as demanded by the people, the opposition must respond accordingly, and both sides must refrain from violence. U.S. officials have held fast to this script despite its juxtaposition towards a revolution, as many governments cannot be trusted and low-intensity violence forms a basis for fourth-generation resistance.

While blatant violence against non-government elements often discredits a revolution, low-intensity violence targeting the government is instrumental in provoking a disproportionate response and gaining international sympathy. Civil-disobedience and low-intensity violence - rocks in particular - are natural acts of revolution.

But Toner offered up stiff words for al-Assad, saying, “it’s going to be the Syrian people, obviously, who are the ones that judge what they heard today and whether or not Assad – President Assad demonstrated positive movement forward in meeting their aspirations and in hearing their call for political and economic and social reform. But we expect they’re going to be disappointed. We feel the speech fell short with respects to the kinds of reforms that the Syrian people demanded and what President Assad’s own advisors suggested was coming.”

Such a statement, while fully applicable in Yemen, has yet to be reserved for its renegade president, Ali "The Boss" Saleh.

And Toner concluded, “he’s [al-Assad] confronted with popular demonstrations calling for change. We’ve seen these kind of demonstrations all over the Middle East, and it goes back to the Secretary’s speech in Doha that leadership of many of these countries need to respond to the legitimate aspirations of their people. It’s far too easy to look for conspiracy theories...”

Maybe al-Assad looked at Saleh and believed he could get away with it too.

At the beginning of March Yemen’s endangered president decided to blame President Barack Obama and Israel for destabilizing not just his own country, but the Arab world in general.
Obama never responded personally despite being called out by name, as Saleh wondered, “Why is he interfering? Is he the president of the United States or the president of the Arab world?" Instead Obama delegated a phone call to counter-terrorism chief John Brennan, who a week later, “reiterated that representatives of all sectors of the Yemeni opposition should respond constructively to President Saleh'ss call to engage in a serious dialogue to end the current impasse.”

As the opposition gradually tightens its circle around him, Saleh resorts to conspiratorial threats that the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), Islah party, northern Houthi tribe, Southern Movement, and al-Qaeda have allied to “rip Yemen apart.” No revolution exists, he claims, only a criminal minority that's misleading the youth.

Although the Muslim revolutionary wave presented the unique opportunity for change that Obama asked for, his administration has worn down on the wrong side of history. Coming in disadvantaged by previous presidents, Obama and his cabinet are still expending a great deal of energy fighting perceptions of being too disconnected, slow, overwhelmed, or not in control. U.S. officials swim against constant criticism of a double-standard between allies and enemies, a line often delineated by Israel and the hegemon war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And the night before Hosni Mubarak left office, Obama tried to jump the bangwagon to much embarrassment by prematurely declaring Mubarak’s exit.

A similar jump occurs after each offer from Saleh; U.S. officials welcome his dialogue and advise the opposition to negotiate with their ruler of 32 years. Problematically, trusting men like Saleh keeps throwing America on the wrong side of revolution.

Yesterday a string of reports surfaced claiming that Saleh would transfer power to a candidate of the opposition’s choice, while he would remain as a figurehead until national elections. Despite reports that it was considering the offer, Yemen’s oppositional coalition wasted no time in rejecting it. Mohammed Qahtan the parliamentary opposition's spokesman, cautioned, "The president throws his different cards here and there every minute and every day and maneuvers... in an attempt to remain in power.”

"There's no choice for Saleh but to resign, and the opposition's stance is tied to that of the protesters," he told AFP. "The opposition is heading towards escalating its civil peaceful movements until the regime falls."

To be safe the opposition re-released its list of demands, starting with Saleh’s removal and a ban on his family from involvement in military and civil affairs (which Saleh adamantly opposes). The constitution would be abolished, giving way to a six-month transition period where local councils, governors, parliament,
and the Shura Council are dissolved, all to be replaced by a supreme constitutional court. The process would be overseen by a five-member national transitional council, including a youth representative (perceived as pure from Saleh’s influence).

One final demand includes abolishing state security - the Political Security and Central Security Organizations - in addition to the Ministry of Information, all moves designed to permit freedom of expression and an independent media. Saleh has accused the foreign media, Al Jazeera in particular, of fomenting unrest and harassed them accordingly.

Yemen’s opposition realizes the hard political fight ahead to clear Saleh’s regime, and wants Mubarak’s deal at the minimum: removing the head of state before proceeding into the unknown. But as Saleh met rejection from the opposition, Washington threw itself behind his latest initiative in an attempt to prematurely end Yemen’s revolution. Although the White House has visibly backed Saleh over Yemeni protesters out of fear of AQAP, their unhealthy relationship turned grossly overt as America’s ambassador sat side-by-side with Saleh’s ruling party.

In a symbolic press conference with the General People’s Council (GPC), ambassador Gerald M. Feierstein released a statement with GPC Secretary-General Sultan al-Barakani declaring, "The U.S. government wishes both sides to reach swift solutions to the political crisis in Yemen.”

One month after scapegoating Obama and his “Zionist propaganda,” Saleh now proudly displays “United States supports Yemen’s unity, stability, security” right on the front page of Saba state media.

Obviously Saleh is manipulating the Obama administration for his own gains, and Washington has allowed him to. Saleh vows to stay on as GPC chairmen if removed from office, and he’s even threatened to undermine the new government in parliament. So stumping for the GPC is currently a suicidal association. The opposition further accuses Saleh of orchestrating al-Qaeda’s takeover of security bases in Abyan province, either by intentionally withdrawing his forces or directly conspiring with the group. They also point to the fact that state media immediately blamed AQAP for the explosion in Jaar, even though it was supposedly caused by a lit cigarette.

A connection between Saleh and AQAP is unlikely, but Yemenis have interpreted the events as Saleh orchestrating chaos to play in Washington.

Opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabri criticized recent statements made by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates: "The remarks are clear indications that the U.S. administration stands by Saleh who gave al-Qaeda elements a green light to create chaos in the south to scare the Americans."

For its part AQAP just released the latest Inspire magazine to counter fears of a religious takeover. The cover story - "The Tsunami of Change" - was penned Anwar al-Awlaki, AQAP’s Western spokesman and renegade U.S. citizen. Although al-Awlaki predicts that Yemen will be a boon for extremists, he writes, "The outcome doesn't have to be an Islamic government for us to consider what is occurring to be a step in the right direction. Whatever the outcome is, our mujahidin brothers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and the rest of the Muslim world will get a chance to breathe again after three decades of suffocation."

Naturally Yemen’s opposition reads state media and sees Feierstein backing Saleh’s GPC. They realize the U.S. government would rather see Saleh remain in power by issuing reforms, and considers their revolution an inconvenience rather than an opportunity to counter AQAP. But today’s events strengthened Saleh and Washington's bond to an extreme level. Unsurprisingly, Saleh once more denied reports of an offer, a frequent tactic that the White House continues to fall for. Ahmad Al Sufi, the president's spokesperson, described the new offer to Gulf News as "mere illusions and imaginations" of the opposition.

Feierstein pushed America into Yemen's line of fire for nothing - and trapped the Obama administration in the same dead end as Saleh.

[Investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill's latest piece, "The Dangerous U.S. Game in Yemen," provides a primer on U.S. activity that may interest those unfamiliar with its history.]

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