December 31, 2011

Syrians Daring al-Assad To Shoot

They heard that Syria’s situation isn’t “frightening.” They hear themselves branded as "terrorists" for a crime that they may be innocent of. Syrians decided to prove both accusations wrong on Friday, massing in enormous demonstrations across oppositional territory and daring Bashar al-Assad to shoot in front of the Arab League’s monitors.

Sadly, his soldiers did.

By the day’s end an estimated 35 casualties had been reported in Idlib, Homs, Hama, Deraa, and Douma. This assault stretches the battlefield 200+ miles from north to south, creating an unrealistic space for the League’s observers to cover. Half of Syria could qualify as “revolting” in various degrees, an area that would encompass some 30,000 square miles - leaving 150 monitors to cover 200 square miles each.

At least nine more protesters were killed on Saturday. The street-oriented Local Coordination Committees at least 140 casualties since AL personnel arrived on the 22nd.

Bloodshed aside, Syrians are ready to move while the League’s presence lasts (one month, plus an option on a second). They also have no choice in the absence of foreign media, and drawing an absolute line against the regime is vital to their struggle. For months al-Assad has demeaned the opposition as “terrorists,” fed upon the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) insurgency, and accused foreign militants of instigating Syria’s revolution. This smear campaign recently culminated with a dual bombing in Damascus hours before the League’s arrival. Five minutes hadn’t passed when Syrian officials “revealed” a joint-attack by the opposition and al-Qaeda.

Activist Abu Khaled told Reuters, "We are deter
mined to show them (the monitors) we exist. Whether or not there's bloodshed is not important.”

For now al-Assad’s AL shield remains operational, albeit dented. Themselves caught in a political settlement with his regime, League officials got off to a rocky start by downplaying Syria’s violence and “getting good cooperation from the government.” The initial “reassuring” assessment by Sudanese General Mustafa al-Dabi, the mission’s commander, was parroted by Russia and China as a sign of al-Assad’s goodwill. Fronting a backdrop of “massive spontaneous gatherings” against the League’s “intervention,” al-Dabi’s statements and background have already triggered oppositional calls to replace him.The League’s most “assuring” moment came late Friday, when one observer found himself surrounded by residents in Deraa. Naturally al-Assad won’t give up the Damascus-centric south easily, but this reward naturally increases the risk. Speaking with local residents, the monitor was quoted as responding, “You're telling me there are snipers? You don't have to tell me, I saw them with my own eyes."

"We're going to ask the government to remove them immediately. We'll be in touch with the Arab League back in Cairo. If the snipers are not gone in 24 hours, then there will be other measures taken."

Yet the phrasing of this warning gives the impression that al-Assad can simply remove and redeploy them, and state media rejected “reports of biased satellite channels” on Saturday. Furthermore, al-Dabi went public to “clarify” that “this man said that if he saw - by his own eyes - those snipers he will report immediately. But he didn't see [snipers]."

It should be noted that the Sudanese general allegedly denies saying that he didn’t see anything “frightening.”

A dramatic softening in al-Assad’s iron fist is unlikely to follow the last 10 days of brutality; his tactics are far more likely to conform around the League’s monitors. Live rounds will be watered down with additional tear gas, rubber bullets and other non-lethal measures, and large-scale assaults will be avoided in the League’s presence. Knowing each monitor’s location is no less important than shadowing them for intimidation purposes, and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights counted 27 casualties in areas where no monitors were present.

One activist, Omar Idlibi, explained how al-Assad’s forces "pulled the tanks from the main streets as the team was passing by the area. They brought them back after the monitors left. This regime is maneuvering to cover up realities on the ground.”

Al-Assad undoubtedly intends to manipulate and outlast the League’s mission for two months and send them home packing. Then, like a tank pulled down an alley, government forces can reemerge for a wider crackdown.

The League’s main benefits to the opposition will come from what protesters and the revolutionary leadership make of their visit. Haytham Manna, a Paris-based dissident and spokesman for the Arab Commission for Human Rights, told The Associated Press. "Whether we like it or not, the presence of observers has had a positive psychological effect, encouraging people to stage peaceful protests...” Protesters must increase their political organization maintain a consistent energy throughout the League’s tour, as they cannot rely on the League’s good intentions to stop al-Assad’s assault.

Syria’s National Council (SNC) and National Coordination Committee (NCC) took a step in the right direction on Friday night by drafting a joint roadmap in Cairo. The opposition’s primary networks have experienced friction over key issues, including al-Assad’s immunity and Western intervention, but they must operate in tandem to overcome al-Assad’s regime.

They must also prepare for a future showdown over Riad al-Asaad’s potential contact with League officials. The FSA’s commander recently ordered a halt to all non-defensive actions “to prove that there are no armed gangs in Syria,” but the League has yet to accept his invitation to meet. The SNC, NCC and Local Coordination Committees need to put the next phase of their strategy into effect as soon as an irreversible breakdown occurs.

No more time than necessary can be wasted in the Arab League’s diplomacy, bureaucracy and deception with al-Assad’s regime.

December 30, 2011

Egypt's SCAF Steps Forward, Leaps Backward

Scrambled information emerged from Egypt on Thursday.

Amid ongoing discussions between the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and its recently created Advisory Council, Egypt’s election cycle has allegedly jumped ahead from March 11th to February 22nd. A second three-part election for the country’s Shura Council is scheduled to follow the current voting for Egypt’s People’s Assembly, and the SCAF faces popular and oppositional pressure to speed up its transition to civilian rule. However many political actors oppose a premature deadline - such as January 25th - without a constitution to legally bind the SCAF.

The council hopes to boost confidence by offering a minor compromise, but its position remains ambiguous for the moment. Mohamed al-Khouly, the Advisory Council's spokesperson, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that "we cannot expect an official decree by the SCAF in that respect.”

What the SCAF did deliver publicly is 17 messages (six confirmed) across Cairo, couriered by “heavily armed men wearing the black uniforms of the central security police.” Among the recipients: the U.S.-financed National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI). These organizations make for easy targets given their prior run-ins with Hosni Mubarak’s regime and overall reputation in non-democratic states. More jarring is the fact that Egypt’s military rulers count on support from the Saudi King and U.S. government, which some SCAF members tacitly accuse of fomenting protests and manipulating the elections.

The Obama administration has stuck by the SCAF at semi-great cost to America’s reputation Egypt. While the U.S. brand lost its luster years or even decades ago, the promise of Tahrir Square creating an opportunity to invert America’s unpopularity. The administration would miss its chance by first supporting Mubarak, then his spy chief and finally his military establishment, giving the SCAF a green light to pursue its own “transition.” Each subsequent abuse of power, whether seizing control of the constitutional process or beating protesters to death, has been met with obligatory resistance.

SCAF members speak with relative accuracy when accusing “foreign” or Western elements of interfering with Egypt’s democracy - the Obama administration is functioning as an enabler to the council. The Washington Post observed that Egypt's generals, "have banked on the notion that Washington continues to look at Egypt primarily through one lens: the security of Israel."

Thursday recreated a scene that has played out dozens of times since the SCAF assumed absolute command of Egypt’s affairs. Asked about U.S. conversations with Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri (a former Mubarak official) and Ambassador Sameh Shoukry, the State Department’s Victoria Nuland wouldn’t “get into the details of our private diplomatic exchanges, except to say that we were very clear that this issue needs immediate attention, and we look forward to hearing back from the Egyptian Government as soon as possible.”

Undaunted, reporters continued to probe Nuland on U.S. support for the SCAF despite her assurances that Washington “doesn’t think this action is justified.” Of course no Egyptian protester or Western capital justifies these raids, and Nuland straddled the fence by arguing, “we’ve just had a number of successful rounds of elections, elections that were generally judged to be free, fair, with open, broad participation, so that is a good thing. This is not a good thing, so we are obviously expressing our concern.”

Buttressing the State Department’s position, another senior administration went off record to clarify the White House’s private message: “This crosses a line.”

The problem with this thinking is that Washington consistently advances the SCAF’s line. Protests in Tahrir have been regularly suppressed since Mubarak’s fall, yet U.S. officials often respond by urging “all sides to refrain from violence.” Protesters rarely - if ever - generate the disproportionate violence applied to them by government forces; equally important, Washington wants protesters to avoid instigating a government response. Another fierce crackdown in November was swept away by a jubilant round of voting, followed by a less successful second round and renewed clashes with security forces.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a frequent contact of the SCAF, would express her “deep concern” about the “continuing reports of violence in Egypt.” Before adding that protesters should refrain from provocative acts, a necessary component of revolution, the Secretary called “upon the Egyptian authorities to hold accountable those, including security forces, who violate these standards.” However the notion of holding the SCAF accountable to itself degraded even further after video surfaced of Ghada Kamal’s brutal assault.

Clinton did not take kindly to female abuse, saying the “particularly shocking” incident “disgraces the state and its uniform." Defenders within the SCAF’s establishment countered that Kamal, a member of the April 6th movement, “had been insulting the army through a megaphone.”

While back-channel negotiations play an indispensable role in diplomacy, Egypt is experiencing a revolutionary juncture rather than a typical diplomatic crisis. Private diplomacy with the ruling power manifests as friction with the popular movement, and many protesters accuse Washington of shielding the SCAF on the international level. This process also encourages the council to advance the tolerance of Washington’s “red line.” On the same day that Field Marshall Hassan Tantawi pledged to investigate police abuses - which he termed “media accusations - he decided to raid U.S. NGOs in full knowledge of Washington’s response.

SCAF subsequently promised not avoid future raids and return seized property, a move “welcomed” by the administration.

That U.S. officials vocalized their feelings in this particular episode cannot be denied, but the end result fits into a familiar pattern. During a conference call with
Tantawi, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “expressed his deep concern about the raids” before “conveying his appreciation for Field Marshal Tantawi’s prompt decision to halt the raids.”

"The secretary reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Egyptian security relationship,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said in an emailed statement, “and made clear that the United States remains committed to the strategic partnership and stands ready to cooperate with Egypt as it continues its democratic transition."

Mainstream media such as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are busy disseminating this narrative throughout the news sphere. Ignoring Panetta’s friendly conversation with Tantawi, the WSJ noted that “the decision to highlight the phone call signaled its intention to continue to pressure the Egyptian military.” The NYT similarly claimed that the Obama administration “has been especially vocal on the need for the transfer of power as the government has brutally cracked down on demonstrators demanding the generals step down.”

The Obama administration would like to see an eventual transfer of power in Egypt - but not before the SCAF blunts the rapid political realignment that could have followed Mubarak’s fall. Needing to maintain Egypt’s security status in the region, Washington is applying insufficient pressure on the SCAF to consistently abide by democratic law. From the moment of Mubarak’s fall, Washington and its allies envisioned the SCAF completing its term and securing a position of authority after transferring power.

The Saudi-bankrolled Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is also eager to absorb Egypt.

As a result Egyptians must continue demonstrating to hold SCAF accountable, ensuring a dual (if loose) political track with parliamentary actors. The SCAF would surely grab more power in the absence of popular checks and balances, and the international community only provides a self-interested layer of accountability. Despite their unpopularity with certain segments of Egyptian society, protesters remain the country’s vanguard against diversions to the revolution. "Efforts to suffocate them will be a major setback and will surely backfire,” Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt’s Nobel laureate, Tweeted in the moments after Thursday's raids.

The same warning applies to Tahrir Square.

December 29, 2011

White House Still Playing Saleh’s Game

Weekly overview of U.S. policy in Yemen:

In accordance with the demands of America’s presidential office,
Barack Obama has been flooded with a river of updates throughout his Hawaiian vacation. From economic hardball with the GOP to terror attacks in Iraq, Syria and Nigeria, his administration encountered one interruption after another - including a visa request from one of the Arab world’s besieged dictators.

Christmas weekend in Yemen produced a chaotic microcosm of Washington’s response to 11 months of revolution. First the White House allowed Ali Abdullah Saleh’s theoretical December 23rd deadline to expire without clarification, leaving executive power firmly in his hands (instead of Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi). Over two months had passed since the UN Security Council approved a power-sharing initiative by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), stipulating that Saleh transfer executive power to his vice president within 30 days. He would eventually sign in Riyadh on November 23rd, but Friday ended without significance.

After shaking up his cabinet through the GCC’s “mechanism,” Saleh continues to rule above his faithful Hadi and dream of reclaiming absolute authority. State media hails him as “President.” With the GCC’s immunity clause in his back pocket, Saleh remains free to assail protesters without consequence from the international community.

Yemen’s Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC) sent Obama an emergency missive warning, “This craving for the bloodletting of innocent peaceful protesters comes even as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) brokered ‘transition deal,’ backed by Your Excellency's Administration's strong support and guarantees, is presumably being carried out by the signing parties to the accord. You should be aware that the peaceful protesting youth and their fellow Yemeni supporters, who continuously still come out by the millions, were not party to such an unprecedented feat of political engineering drawn up mainly by despotic tyrants.”

For now Saleh’s expressed desire to visit New York represents his pledge to transfer power. Speaking as though his visa was already processed, Yemen’s president of 33 years denied that he would receive medical treatment for wounds suffered in a June assassination attempt. He simply planned some R&R before returning to lead his party through February’s presidential election, another of the GCC’s terms. This development was only briefly covered by U.S. media during its embryonic stage, but multiple reports confirmed the administration’s initial reaction: “A U.S. State Department spokesman had no immediate comment on Saleh’s plans. White House spokesman Josh Earnest declined to comment.”

Saleh’s latest maneuver finally exploded into international view once the Obama administration leaked its position on Monday night, only to retract and create an even larger scene on Tuesday.

Unable to fully explain America’s support for Saleh beyond “the War on Terror,” the White House has continually operated behind Yemen’s political and media curve. Last weekend unfolded no differently, starting with the silence that normally accompanies Yemen’s revolution. Next comes the information that Washington is “considering” Saleh’s request, followed by an alleged approval and the necessary spin: he can visit for medical treatment only. Administration officials told The New York Times that removing him from Yemen’s power struggle was “worth managing the criticism that we’d get.” One official argued that pro-democracy protesters might accept the arrangement because it would "send a signal that he's not next door [in Saudi Arabia].”

This explanation was greeted with immediate ridicule from Yemen’s growing network of online activists, and no more than an hour passed before the White House patched its own leak. However a high amount of damage has already been inflicted by “considering” Saleh’s request.

The dispersal of Yemen’s fog reveals a crystal image of cooperation between Washington and Saleh’s regime. Despite assurances that it won’t entertain his political games, the White House is playing directly into Saleh's hands by fraternizing with his officials. The administration even conceded the fact that Saleh still manages Yemen's government and military; the "condition" of leaving behind his "entourage" will ensure that. While the State Department’s Mark Toner refused to discuss Saleh’s visa in detail, he did add that the White House wishes to see the GCC initiative “continue regardless of where President Saleh is.”

“President Saleh” publicly agreed by lauding the GCC’s mediation during Saturday’s press conference. He also defended his “pluralistic regime” and praised his General People’s Congress (GPC) for sharing power with the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). A loose bloc of political and tribal networks, the JMP' is viewed as unrepresentative of Yemen’s revolutionaries.

Abdu al-Janadi, Saleh’s deputy information minister, now claims that his boss will skip his vacation due to the JMP’s “bad intentions,” and instead focus on grooming Hadi for Yemen’s upcoming election. Seemingly unable to secure an unconditional visa (Yemeni officials allegedly received confirmation), Saleh has already shifted to his popular front by declaring, “I won’t leave my people and my comrades.”
An elaborate hoax remains a possibility given his duplicitous history and the attention surrounding his proposed vacation. Saleh could be engaging in political reconnaissance-in-force: measuring the White House’s level of support by provoking a reaction. He’s watched the administration approve his visa, monitored the spin of his entry and estimated his chances of returning to Yemen.

Believing that Washington will ultimately cooperate in his favor, Saleh feels secure enough to stay in Yemen and act with impunity. Thus the Obama administration remains opposed to Yemen’s democratic movement whether it grants him entry or not.

This ongoing political drama builds on a secondary diplomatic crisis that attracted minimal coverage from U.S. media. Following the GCC’s signing ceremony, Saleh promptly ordered his security units to besiege the city of Taiz and crush its revolutionary movement. The lack of international response motivated a group of protesters and activists to start their “Life March,” a 170 mile trek from Taiz to the capital of Sana’a. Galvanizing
protesters by rejecting the GCC’s initiative and remembering the fallen, Yemen's Life March entered Sana’a on Saturday only to be met with lethal force.

At this point Saleh had already capitalized on the JMP’s donations to marchers, branding the Life March as an “act of anarchy and sedition, incitement and attempt to storm the capital.” On Saturday he accused marchers of "committing acts of riot as they set off from Taiz and until they reached Sana’a,” slandering the march as “a violation of the initiative and its mechanisms, an obvious violation.” U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein then appeared to echo Saleh’s statements and soon found himself on the end of a grassroots campaign to remove him.

The pro-government Yemeni Observer quoted him as saying, “It seems to have the intention not to carry out a peaceful march, but to get access to Sana'a in order to generate chaos and provoke a violent response by the security forces.”

Part of Feierstein’s comments can be attributed to the specific act of marching on Saleh’s heavily-guarded palace, and he added that “the United States supports peaceful demonstrations.” However the ambassador's rhetoric matched up too closely with Saleh's for protesters to stomach. Freedom of movement, provocation of disproportionate force and international awareness also represent the pillars of civil disobedience, and Feierstein enjoys no margin for error after cooperating with the regime. CCYRC advised Obama, “the Yemeni people have only seen your Ambassador as taking on the position of advocate and defender of Saleh's ruthless oppression of his people, almost from the start of his assignment.”

In a vain attempt to rescue Feierstein from his self-inflicted wounds, the administration again demonstrated its insensitivity by deploying John Brennan as backup. The White House’s counter-terror chief has played an active diplomatic role throughout Yemen’s revolution, defending Saleh’s counter-terrorism support and earning himself a more unpopular reputation than Feierstein. Most of Yemen’s protesters and political opposition attribute al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) growth to Saleh’s misrule, and accuse him of exploiting terrorism to leverage the international community.

Although Brennan would phone Hadi to “emphasize... the need for Yemeni security forces to show maximum restraint when dealing with demonstrations,” tasking him was like ordering an air-strike to put out a fire.

If foreign powers do expect to salvage the GCC initiative, they must remove the deal’s immunity clause and reschedule an election cycle on fair terms. Yemen's youth movement, civil activists, Houthi sect and Southern Movement must be regularly engaged in order to minimize a political vacuum, otherwise Saleh's countless opponents will reject the GCC initiative in full. A showdown over February’s election and prolonged instability should follow. A qualitative difference exists between maintaining diplomatic protocol and coordinating with an authoritarian government, and the Obama administration must exercise maximum restraint when communicating with Saleh’s officials.

Dissolving his regime into history is a prerequisite to ridding al-Qaeda from Yemen and opening a new democratic era.

December 28, 2011

Tehran Giftwraps Washington’s Wishlist

Sometimes the threat of war is necessary to avert war. Other times the threat of war completes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Where Iran’s threat to close the Straight of Hormuz falls on this scale remains obscured, but blocking any part of the vital waterway will give its adversaries exactly what they want - pretext to begin military engagement.

Tehran’s fresh threat to close Hormuz - this is far from the first time - presumably makes sense at the popular level. Although Western politicians and populaces commonly perceive Iran as the Gulf’s unilateral aggressor, its behavior is partially explained by hostile encroachment. No real outreach has occurred under President Barack Obama, only a dual track of superficial diplomacy and covert operations. Surrounded by international sanctions and a regional military “umbrella” constructed by Washington, Riyadh and Jerusalem, Iranian officials such as Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi have no choice except to puff up their chests.

Iran’s navy commander, Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, added that closing the strait is “easier than drinking a glass of water.”

This threat is, ironically, as transparent as water. Unnamed Iranian officials and named economic analysts have already conceded the reality that closing Hormuz “would be committing economical suicide,” according to an official at the Ministry of Oil. In addition to a variety of traded goods, more oil flows through the 21-mile wide straight on a daily basis than any other global choke-point. Unless Iranian forces can maintain control of the straight while denying every other actor - practically impossible - Tehran is stuck on a counterproductive threat.

The timing of Rahimi’s statements is equally questionable. Peruse Iran’s media and one is sure to find ample condemnation of America’s response to the Arab revolutions; Tehran has now shifted the entire region’s focus to itself. This diversion will produce minimal effects in Syria, where Iran seeks to draw attention away from whatever Arab League monitors find during their survey. Conversely, Tehran’s threat sucked the available oxygen away from Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, a public enemy, amid comparisons to the Shah.

Iran’s political and military spheres ultimately merge in Bahrain, where Shia protesters are demonstrating against historic marginalization under King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. After releasing his Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which found minimal evidence of Iranian involvement, the King exercised his authority by delving into classified intelligence. BICI chairman Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni had reached his own conclusion after being denied access, but Hamad and his men assured Bahrainis that Tehran was driving the uprising.

Last Friday government forces opened fire on Al Wefaq’s office, generating no response from Washington. Now Iran is directly widening Bahrain’s blackout by giving a defined purpose to America’s Fifth Fleet. This pattern should continue for an indefinite period of time - as long as Washington can maintain it - and leads directly into the possibility of armed confrontation. The U.S. Navy is “ready to counter malevolent actions,” spokeswoman Lt. Rebecca Rebarich declared in an emailed statement.

“Anyone who threatens to disrupt freedom of navigation in an international strait is clearly outside the community of nations. Any disruption will not be tolerated.”

Threatening to close Hormuz is like throwing a life raft to U.S. policy in the Arab world. Washington remains in a position of strength due to its overwhelming resources and political weight, but some areas of interests are taking on heavy water. Iran’s rhetoric buoys these weak spots - Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq - by feeding Washington’s appetite for fear. Any large-scale confrontation over Hormuz could also transition into an exhaustive strike on its nuclear program.

Given that heightened tensions in the Gulf reinforce U.S.-Saudi hegemony, Tehran appears to have lost its psychological battle by default.

December 27, 2011

NYT Continues Infowar Against Yemen’s Revolution

After a misfired attempt to spin Ali Abdullah Saleh’s vacation in America, The New York Times’ editorial board fires a second blast of propaganda to defend itself and the White House. Full support for the Gulf Cooperation Council included:
The Obama administration is reportedly preparing to admit President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen into the United States for medical treatment. It is not an easy call. But admitting Mr. Saleh, under strict conditions, offers the best hope for speeding his exit from power and ending the repression that has cost hundreds of Yemeni lives.

We understand why the administration has moved cautiously. It does not want to be seen as giving sanctuary to a bloody dictator — one who previously curried Washington’s favor by cooperating in the fight against Al Qaeda — or to give Mr. Saleh an overseas platform from which he can stir up more trouble for Yemen. And it does not want a replay of 1979, when Iran’s ayatollahs used the excuse of Washington’s admission of the deposed shah for medical treatment to orchestrate the seizure of the American Embassy and capture of American diplomats.

The arguments for admitting Mr. Saleh are still persuasive. Most important of all, with Mr. Saleh out of the country, Yemen will have a better chance to hold credible presidential elections, now scheduled for February. While Mr. Saleh’s departure to the United States does not guarantee a fair vote or a peaceful outcome, his continued presence in Yemen makes one almost impossible.

All this year, Yemenis have risked their lives demanding an end to Mr. Saleh’s 33 years of corrupt authoritarianism. Mr. Saleh has repeatedly promised reform and then failed to deliver. After he was badly wounded in a bomb explosion in June, Mr. Saleh left for treatment in Saudi Arabia and many hoped he would not come back. Months later he did, and the abuses continue.

As news circulated this week of his possible departure, Yemeni views were divided. Some wanted him gone as soon as possible. Others bridled that he might escape justice. Many Yemenis would like to see Mr. Saleh eventually stand trial for his many bloody crimes. And Washington should not grant Mr. Saleh permanent asylum, which could shield him from future prosecution. Getting him out of Yemen right now increases the chances that his country will finally be able to move beyond his repressive rule.
Compare with the more conservative Washington Post’s rejection of Saleh’s visa, which also supports the GCC’s power-sharing agreement.

December 26, 2011

U.S. Maintains Universal Blackout In Yemen

Puppet show between Feierstein and Hadi

Western and Gulf organizers leveraged a perfect day for Ali Abdullah Saleh to sign Yemen’s power-sharing agreement. Although foreign powers aimed for maximum international exposure to convince casual observers of their proaction, Yemen’s revolutionaries continue to persevere in Western obscurity. International powers from Washington to Beijing are in too deep with Saleh’s regime to let go completely, generating a media blackout worthy of its own study.

Yemen’s lack of international transparency greases the flip from coincidence to conspiracy.

November 23rd in Riyadh offered an ideal setting for Saleh’s signing ceremony, away from Yemen’s presidential palace and mass of pro-democracy protesters. Despite an international audience that included UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the appropriately-sized press gaggle, Yemen’s “transition” was drifting even further from American minds than usual. Thanksgiving brings shopping, football and more economic related matters to the table, along with a White House statement welcoming Saleh’s signature. A minority of Americans took notice of their government’s support for another dictator.

Blacking out stories through Fridays, weekends and holidays amounts to routine information control. At the same time, November 23rd’s built-in media blanket was nothing more than a favorable counter-revolutionary draw; by stamping the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative on October 20th, the UN Security Council created a rhythmic holiday cycle through monthly reviews. The notion of a holiday blackout resurfaced after Saleh declared his intent to visit America, except the White House released numerous statements over Christmas weekend.

Every day witnesses a blackout in Yemen.

The time between Friday and Monday revealed only what could be gleaned between Washington’s political lines and by translating the unspoken. First the Obama’s administration allowed Saleh’s theoretical December 23rd deadline to pass without clarification, leaving executive power firmly in his hands (instead of Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi). For now Saleh’s expressed desire to visit America stands as his pledge to transfer power. This development was only briefly covered by U.S. media, but multiple reports confirmed the Obama administration’s reaction: “A U.S. State Department spokesman had no immediate comment on Saleh’s plans. White House spokesman Josh Earnest declined to comment.”

Monday morning unfolded with minimal divergences. CBS reported, “Until now, the White House had not commented on Saleh's assertion Saturday that he would be leaving Yemen and traveling to the U.S.” A senior administration official has since explained that the White House is “considering” Saleh’s request, which will only be approved “for legitimate medical treatment." Although Saleh is notoriously deceitful, Washington’s reaction from Saturday through Monday was geared towards spinning his arrival.

The White House and State Department skipped today’s press briefing.

Armed with diversionary material, White House Deputy spokesman Josh Earnest was able to brief reporters on John Brennan’s conference call with Hadi. Seeking to calm any lingering public anxiety over Yemen, the White House’s counter-terrorism chief insisted that Obama’s administration is a "strong and fervent supporter of the Yemeni people.” He also commented on the recent violence in Sana’a, promising an investigation from Hadi and urging “Yemeni security forces to show maximum restraint when dealing with demonstrations.”

Despite the tough rhetoric against Saleh’s security forces, pushing Brennan back into public diplomacy is no less insensitive than Gerald Feierstein’s recent statements. America’s ambassador to Yemen has come under intense fire for placing the responsibility of violence on Yemen’s protesters, generating local protests and an enormous social mushroom cloud, yet the White House is allowing Feierstein’s story to run out of control. Brennan’s statement offers the only indirect evidence of awareness.

In a letter titled, “The US Ambassador to the Republic of Yemen is an Advocate for a Tyrannical Mob and Must be Removed Immediately,” Yemen’s Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC) demands, “that the US embassy and State Department issue an official apology and that Mr. Feierstein be immediately dismissed as Ambassador of the United States to Yemen and sent home without any further delay.”

The chances of removing Feierstein appear to sit at 50-50; the ambassador is a good tool but broken tools need replacing. However Feierstein has dug too deep of a hole to climb out, opening the very real possibility that he must be rescued. CCYRC explains how “Mr. Feierstein stated, among other things, without any shred of evidence that the peaceful convoy [Life March] was armed and that the convoy was a violation of the GCC Initiative.” This complaint traces to Feierstein’s warning against marching near Saleh’s presidential palace, where government forces assaulted and killed protesters over the weekend.

The ambassador then warned against collapsing the GCC’s initiative, prompting ridicule from Yemen’s pro-democracy movement: “Mr. Feierstein surely knows that the majority of Yemenis, led by the peaceful youth protesters, oppose and are not in any way represented thereto by any signatory.”

“Almost from the start of his tenure in Yemen, Ambassador Feierstein has never been very cordial with his personal (we certainly would hope that they are not viewed as official US views, accepted by your Administration) disappointing declarations on Yemen and the Yemeni people, and Feierstein's mostly defensive stances with the tyrannical Saleh regime.”

CCYRC is speaking disingenuously to blunt the impact of its message. Protesters know that Feierstein’s microphone is controlled by Washington, and they watch him meet with Saleh’s officials on a regular basis. They witnessed their Life March toil under a media blackout. They accept the temporary reality that foreign powers (led by America and Saudi Arabia) forced the GCC initiative on them, but they cannot afford to permanently sever their U.S. outreach either.

Far from supporting Yemen’s people, the Obama administration remains primarily concerned with perpetuating Saleh’s regime through the GCC initiative. U.S. policy represents the opposite of a proactive strategy - maintain the status quo at all costs. As if to comfort Yemen’s revolutionaries, White House sources told U.S. media that Obama is being kept up to date on Yemen’s developments.

Translation: Obama's National Security Council is monitoring Yemen's media blackout from Hawaii and preparing new spin for Saleh's own vacation.

This outcome is now becoming reality. In a loaded piece of propaganda from the New York Times, U.S. have green-lit Saleh's admittance to
New York-Presbyterian Hospital "as soon as the end of this week." If he chooses to accept a temporary visa, Saleh will arrive in Washington under the excuse that U.S. policy is "moving forward" without him. The Obama administration, apparently, doesn't "want to play into Mr. Saleh’s penchant for keeping people off balance," and won't play into his political games.

“The main goal is to remove him physically from Yemen so there’s no way he can meddle in the political process there,” says one official. “Getting him medical treatment seemed a logical way to do this.”

The administration's rhetoric, of course, admits that Saleh is still leading Yemen's government; the "condition" of leaving behind his entourage will ensure that. Nor will many protesters and international activists believe any part of the White House's explanation to "avoid his games," since admitting Saleh will play into his games. His visit cannot be rendered apolitical through politicking, as the White House has attempted to do, but it should provide a revolutionary opportunity.

If Saleh and Obama want to turn themselves into a lightening rod, let them.

[Update: Demonstrating the White House's overall disconnect with Yemen, press secretary Josh Earnest has already denied the NYT's report after consulting with its editors.]

Neutralizing America's Presence In Iraq

In the hours after Kim Jong Il’s death went viral, U.S. intelligence agencies found themselves under rapid-fire criticism for failing to time-stamp the death of North Korea’s dictator. Unnamed “supervisors” quickly jumped on the story, defining an intelligence failure as “leaving policymakers unprepared to deal with the scenarios.” Once a significant event occurs, “the key point” is “having a solid framework to assess what might come next."

Unlike Kim’s death, U.S. officials have a good idea when Nouri al-Maliki moved on two high-ranking Iraqi politicians. And unlike a standard response to the Korean peninsula, the Obama administration's entire framework in Iraq is crumbling by the year.

The administration naturally argues that it did plan to contain Iraq’s political fallout after the final withdrawal of U.S. combat troops. Speaking to the Daily Beast, Colin Kahl says the White House worked its phones all weekend to “cool down” al-Maliki’s decision-making. The message from the Pentagon’s recently-departed military adviser for Iraq: “everybody has to be careful right now.” Vice President Joe Biden also sprung into motion, privately and publicly walking al-Maliki back from an arrest warrant for Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi.

Accused of funding a Sunni assassination squad against Shia politicians, al-Hashmi has denied the charge as he weathers Iraq’s political storm in President Jalal Talabani’s guesthouse. He also blames Washington for ignoring al-Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies until a national crisis erupted.

The ongoing breakdown in U.S.-Iraqi relations indicates that the Obama administration was ill-prepared for 2012’s transition. Biden’s politicking reinforced the chummy relationship between Washington and al-Maliki, overshadowing his talks with other political leaders, while the White House risked a dangerous argument by using Baghdad’s crisis to highlight Iraq’s political growth. Press secretary Jay Carney told reporters last week, “The key metric here is that those political disputes have increasingly been resolved through negotiation, not through violence, and elections were held, a government was established - these are all signs of important progress - all while violence declined significantly.”

That Iraq’s violence has “declined significantly” from 2006-2008 is a statistical truism. Instead of thousands, hundreds of Iraqi security personnel and civilians fall victim to insurgent and terrorist attacks each month (including a vicious string of bombings over the weekend). More encouraging is the vigorous popular energy that al-Maliki’s government failed to channel after 2010‘s parliamentary election - democratic tendencies with few roots in American influence. Many parts of the country are returning to a sense of normality without Saddam Hussein lurking in the shadows, but Iraqis complain about the lack of services, economic opportunity and political freedoms. Particularly unfortunate is Washington’s simultaneous support for al-Maliki and disengagement from Baghdad as a whole.

“There is no democracy in Iraq,” says his main Sunni rival, Iraqiya leader Ayad Allawi.

Al-Maliki's current behavior should have been expected, as Mike Rogers told Reuters on Thursday. Joining his fellow Republicans, the House’s intelligence chairman warned “that the sudden rapid withdrawal with no troop presence on the ground was going to leave this vacuum that would be filled with the kind of problems that you're seeing.” GOP officials and presidential candidates spent December holding President Barack Obama personally accountable for a premature withdrawal, except this logic runs into a major obstacle. If al-Maliki feels politically exposed without U.S. combat troops, extending America’s military presence would empower him to continue consolidating power.

For starters many Iraqis want U.S. troops out of their country despite the potential consequences. The explosive issue could have divided Iraq’s parliament at an earlier date, a possibility that al-Maliki acknowledged by avoiding a vote. This outcome also opens the door to a power struggle (with Sunnis, Kurds and his own coalition) and consolidation of power, along with the inevitable criticism that Obama intervened too forcefully. Iraq’s urgent dilemma isn’t a lack of U.S. troops, but al-Maliki’s governing style and the administration's soft handling of him.

The United States "left Iraq in a terrible situation,” Hashemi told the Daily Beast on Tuesday. “We are just very much closer to an autocratic system, this is the country America has left us.”

No party is happy with al-Maliki outside his shrinking coalition. Muqtada al-Sadr would have led a populist rally against the extension of U.S. troops, and the Shia cleric seized on al-Maliki’s distractions to release his own “peace code” (he also called for Hashemi’s trial under parliamentary law). Sunnis have never trusted al-Maliki, one more reason to explore their own autonomous regions. Meanwhile the Kurds, whom Washington expects to broker a negotiated settlement, won’t hand Hashimi over since “he is our guest.”

Maintaining a military presence throughout al-Maliki’s term would have delayed an explosion, potentially increasing its magnitude and injecting U.S. troops in the process.

Pulling Obama from Iraq’s detail qualified as a rare moment of sensitivity. The GOP has demanded that he intervene in Baghdad’s parliament while ignoring his direct involvement in the latest crisis: his praise of al-Maliki and the defiant response of deputy premier Saleh al-Mutlak. Maybe al-Maliki was “waiting to pounce” on Hashimi once U.S. combat troops withdrew, but Mutlak’s declaration that al-Maliki is “worse than Saddam” traces straight to Obama’s rhetoric. He’s fortunate to escape the blame he deserves, but he also needs to engage the situation personally.

"There will be a day whereby the Americans will realize that they were deceived by al-Maliki,” Mutlak predicted, ”and they will regret that.”

Nevertheless, the administration is already paying a high price for growing too comfortable with al-Maliki and Iraq’s status quo. The premier confidently strutted his true colors by rejecting Iraqiya’s proposed boycott, threatening to replace its ministers with his own allies. However the Interior and Defense ministries don’t require replacements since he never gave them up, offering easy access to Iraq’s security forces. al-Maliki’s threat is real enough to keep Iraqiya “suspended” in Baghdad’s recessed parliament, but this atmosphere isn’t conducive to governing a country - let alone repairing a war-torn country.

The situation demands that Washington draw a hard line against al-Maliki and back him down into a true coalition government. Calling on “all sides to work together” isn’t going to work - al-Maliki must be openly confronted with building an equitable Iraq. If his behavior continues, Washington will enjoy the political and popular support to employ a range of political actions in Baghdad.

Scrounging up support inside America’s capital and across the country should be a greater challenge.

December 24, 2011

Saleh Hiding In America’s Bubble

The rumor seemed to crop up every week only to be chopped down by government denials and reality. Shortly after signing the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative in Riyadh, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh was allegedly headed to America for medical treatment before reappearing in Sana’a. Government officials were forced to deny this rumor just last week.

Now comes word from Saleh himself: he’s taking a short vacation stateside.

"I will go to the United States,” he told a high-profile news conference on Saturday. “Not for treatment, because I'm fine, but to get away from attention, cameras, and allow the unity government to prepare properly for elections... I'll be there for several days, but I'll return because I won't leave my people and comrades who have been steadfast for 11 months.”

Saleh’s comments prompted a perplexed fury amongst Yemen’s revolutionaries. They’re experienced enough to expect the unexpected from a self-proclaimed “snake dancer,” but doing so daily basis remains a constant grind. Friday also passed without any official transfer of power to his Vice President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, giving rise to the possibility of disinformation. These rumors appear legitimate though; in contrast to local and Internet sources, Saleh himself confirmed in front of dozens of microphones. So did Mohammed Albasha, spokesman for Yemen’s Embassy in Washington.

The White House remains silent after 10 hours, evidence of confirmation, and the New York Times explicitly notes, “The American Embassy in Sana and officials in Washington said they had no comment about Mr. Saleh’s plans.”

Although some observers presume that Saleh’s visa is unfeasible, the Obama administration has spoken by allowing his statements to go unchallenged. Only Saleh - the “master” of al-Qaeda - could get away with this act, and arresting him would defy Washington's established logic in Yemen. U.S. officials are likely working through back-channels to formulate their next course of action.

What’s ironic is how Saleh thinks he should escape Yemen’s “attention” in America, when Yemen is the darkest place to hide. Having dodged the media frenzy around Egypt, Libya and Syria, he only deals with local press and the occasional foreign report. International media has gradually tuned out to even lower levels of awareness, ignoring many of his statements and abuses. Going to America is one of the quickest ways to attract attention.

If Saleh did just plant the seeds of another feign, he will remain cocooned in the Western and Gulf protection afforded by the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative. The power-sharing agreement left a large part of his regime in power to contend with the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), and has so far protected his military from restructuring. Ahmed, his son and commander of the Republican Guard, consulted with Western and Gulf officials only days ago.

He’s set to receive his father’s immunity as RG forces attack the finale of Yemen’s Life March.

Launched from Taizz after the government assaulted protesters throughout November and December, the Life March represents a collective rejection of the GCC initiative, Yemen’s "new" government, immunity and foreign intervention in general. Marchers arrived in Sana’a on Saturday. Some protesters proceeded down an avenue containing the presidential palace and were met with lethal force from RG and Central Security Forces. The GCC’s Western-sponsored immunity clause (still obscured under UN law) has allowed Saleh’s security forces to assault protesters with minimal international criticism and no accountability.

"The blood of the martyrs has been sold for dollars," protesters were heard shouting before coming under attack.

Not only does Saleh vow to return, the wily strongman is already re-styling himself as Yemen’s opposition for February’s presidential election - when his VP has been preselected as a consensus for the next two years. Speaking through his General People’s Congress (GPC), which currently holds the Defense and Foreign Ministries, Saleh declared that he will return and “lead political action in the heart of my party in opposition... I'll withdraw from political work and go into the street as part of the opposition."

The Obama administration appears prepared to allow this illogical act under the GCC’s initiative.

Saturday’s developments crafted a particularly unfavorable stage for Gerald Feierstein, America’s ambassador, after the unpopular diplomat rhetorically synched with Saleh. Yemen’s strongman labeled the Life March as incitement of anarchy and attempt to gain media attention before publicly reversing (and reversing again), and Feierstein reportedly demeaned the Life March as “a provocative act” as it approached the palace.

“We do not believe that such action is in the interest of the country,” he was quoted as saying.

Feierstein’s personal situation remains fluid due to limited sources; few U.S. media covered his statements and ensuing outrage, diverting the issue into social media. Some people cannot believe that Feierstein would make such inflammatory statements - others go so far as to diagnose a “panic attack” - and his comments can be attributed to the specific act of marching on Saleh’s heavily-guarded palace. He added that the United States supports peaceful demonstrations. Yet freedom of movement and the provocation of disproportionate force represent two goals of fourth-generation warfare (4GW), and Feierstein enjoys no benefit of the doubt after cooperating with the regime throughout Yemen’s 11-month revolution.

The unpopular ambassador didn't reject Saleh's statements or his immunity clause, and he's now facing a Twitter campaign to evict him: #GetoutFeierstein.

The suggestion contains a kernel of good intentions since he’s lost all legitimacy with the revolutionaries - just like the Obama administration - however Washington needs him to coordinate Yemen’s counter-revolution. A replacement would simply duplicate his rhetoric as well. Whether Saleh bunkers down in Yemen, jets to Riyadh or lounges in Virginia Beach, the international walls around him remains intact.

Syrian Bombings Trigger Massive Conspiracy

The magnitude of Syria’s last 24 hours shouldn’t be surprising. Bashar al-Assad’s security forces reportedly massacred a village of people on Wednesday, two days before Arab League monitors were scheduled to arrive, and the first group touched down early Saturday morning. Everybody expected something to happen.

Yet the dual blasts at Syria’s State Security Directorate and a regional military office outside Damascus have taken al-Assad’s delirium to a whole new level.

It’s too tempting to jump as far ahead as the regime has in blaming al-Qaeda for Saturday’s bombings. Rapid precision and condemnation suggests that the government launched a fourth-generation assault on itself. In a statement released soon after the bombings, the Ministry of Interior intricately explained how “a terrorist suicide bomber in a booby-trapped car broke into the main door of the Area Security Branch in Damascus at 10:18 AM.” One minute later, “another suicide bomber drove a booby-trapped GMC 4WD car into the General Intelligence Administration building.”

The death toll sits at 44, many of them civilians, with 166 people wounded.

This horror is exactly what Syria’s government promised, creating the impression that it just delivered. Arab League monitors were immediately ushered to the scene where they were told the bombing “had the fingerprints of Al Qaeda all over.” Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad declared,
"On the first day after the arrival of the Arab observers, this is the gift we get from the terrorists and al-Qaeda."

"We said it from the beginning, this is terrorism. They are killing the army and civilians."

SANA state media added, “these terrorist attacks reveal the true face of the plot targeting Syria and its security and stability at the hands of terrorist tools inside and abroad.”

By bombing its own people, Damascus hopes to unite Syrians against the opposition and counter the international community in one strike.

To be safe Western capitals and the UN condemned Damascus’s bombings in overnight statements; Washington is already facing its own wave of online conspiracies. Although these forces have applied counter-revolutionary pressure across the Arab world, they have no reason to organize these bombings. Neither does any branch of al-Qaeda - at least not at this exact moment - and its means would be equally unbelievable.

A conspiracy could pop out of any shadow (Hezbollah, Iran, Turkey, NATO) but al-Assad’s regime has positioned itself as the only beneficiary from Saturday’s terror attack.

December 23, 2011

Relative Calm Before Yemen’s Next Battle

With Yemen’s Life March expected to officially arrive in the capital of Sana’a on Saturday, the country’s internal and external actors are positioning themselves for the next round of confrontation. Further analysis will follow these updates:

Life March Encountering Government Ambushes

Yemen’s current security is a mixed bag, depending on the area. While the Houthi-contested north has destabilized considerably in December and southern governorates remain in their usual disarray, some military checkpoints were removed from Yemen’s cities during the last week. Oppositional fighters followed as part of an internationally-mediated truce between Ali Abdullah Saleh, his defected general Ali Mohsen, and the al-Ahmar brothers.

However demilitarization is far from complete; both sides maintain an active presence around Yemen’s pro-democracy protesters.

Friday’s attacks mimicked Saleh’s low-key pattern of feigning cooperation before an assault; the regime’s strategy seeks to divide and conquer, rather than directly confront the Life March. According to local sources, Republican Guard and Central Security forces offered protection against pro-regime loyalists as the march passed through Dhamar, Yasleh and Khidar areas. Parts of the strung-out march were then attacked by security forces, splitting protesters from the group and isolating them in the cold. Government forces are reportedly harassing protesters along the way, preventing locals from supplying them, and allegedly kidnapping a handful of marchers.

Since the Life March aims to connect various “freedom squares” between Taizz and Sana’a, Saleh’s forces have also planned to stop others from joining. As the march swells into the “March of the Revolution,” a group of protesters came under attack in northern Sana’a as they attempted to link with the forward party. Republican Guard troops reportedly opened fire after ubiquitous plain-clothed men assaulted the crowd with sticks.

Conversely, Yemen’s government is actively highlighting the Guard’s protection as the first marchers near Sana’a; Saleh’s son (Ahmed) and nephew (Yahya) have supposedly “formalized a security plan” as commanders of the Republican Guard and Central Security. Yet the trust gap between Yemen’s pro-democracy movement and Saleh’s regime is irreversibly vast. Government forces may be slightly less inclined to attack the march under tribal protection, but this protection is regularly exploited by the regime.

Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) has already threatened that it "would not be responsible for the collapse of the initiative, while others violate its letter and spirit.”

Immunity Clause In Quasi-Limbo

The Life March encompasses many demands of Yemen’s pro-democracy movement, from political to economic to religious freedoms. Beyond the rejection of Yemen’s “unity government” between the GPC and oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), Life Marchers are walking in memory of the 1,000+ protesters killed over the last 11 months. The timing worked out perfectly: Saturday’s festivities coincide with Saleh’s theoretically transfer of power and a parliamentary debate on his immunity as stipulated in the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative.

Hard results are another matter though, and the immunity issue was dropped from the government’s weekend agenda. UN and JMP officials are making an effort to deny Saleh’s immunity clause - claiming all parties responsible for violence "should be held accountable" - but their rhetoric has amounted to nothing more than a diversion. Neither the UNSC nor JMP want to clarify this issue at the highest level, instead keeping transparency low as they cooperate with Saleh's regime.

Until immunity is explicitly stricken from UN resolution 2014, one must assume that the clause lurks in Yemen’s political shadows. The same goes for Saleh’s status after Saturday passed without clarification, and Yemen’s strongman is set to remain “honorary president” until February’s election. Washington has left too many counterterror-related secrets in Saleh's possession to cut him loose.

West Maintains Status Quo

Since ordering the Life March to disband would be overtly unreasonable, Western and Gulf powers have progressed to their next course of action by ignoring Yemen’s protesters. Not that Life Marchers didn’t expect this possibility - they organized because the international community is ignoring them. Amid the backdrop of America’s silent consent, allied UNSC powers have taken the diplomatic lead in backing Yemen’s “unity” government.

“Yemen was on a cross section between war and peace,” UK Ambassador Jonathan Wilks said between meetings with government officials. “Thanks to Allah, Yemen chose peace and in last week we have done the first step, and we saw many improvements in the political and security aspects.”

As if Allah drafted the GCC initiative.

Separately, the European Union’s Catherine Ashton called Vice President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi on Wednesday to inform him of her impending arrival. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy will assume her counter-revolutionary duties by legitimizing the new government, ignoring Yemen’s Life March. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe also phoned the JMP’s Mohammed Salem Basindwa, now acting as Yemen’s Prime Minister, to congratulate him on “forming the national reconciliation government.”

These statements boil down to self-adulation given the West’s heavy hand within GCC negotiations. Saba state media proudly displays Saleh’s support in the UNSC, where Russia (of all countries) reaffirmed the UN’s support for the GCC initiative. The pro-government Yemeni Observer was even more blatant: “10 international and Arab ambassadors seem to be determined to work day and night for helping the vice president, who is authorized from Saleh to act as president.”

These aren’t the actions of an international community preparing to hold Saleh accountable for extensive human rights abuses and corruption. Two forces are thus marching head to head in Yemen: the pro-democracy Life March, and the international community’s lockstep march behind Saleh's regime.

December 22, 2011

Yemenis March To Energize Their Revolution

A number of new slogans have emerged from the frosty path between Taizz and Sana’a. Among them: “What cold? To be revolutionary, is the source of greatest warmth.”

Triumphantly declared by Yemeni protester Rahmah Aghbary, her thinking is as metaphorical as it is literal. Frozen out of national and international negotiations, protesters are clinging to the burning desire for a new Yemen - one free of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime.
Protesters left Taizz with one overarching objective to their 150-mile “Life March”: determine their own future.

Yemen’s pro-democracy movement is more organized than generally credited. Unwillingly coupled with the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a fragmented oppositional umbrella, youth and civil protesters have endured the natural growing pains of revolution. Many protesters concede their own lack of progress as they navigate Yemen’s political maze and its international extension. Yet given their otherwise enthusiastic spirits, protesters are exceeding the expectations of their limited means.

Yemen’s civil revolutionaries have organized into groups and can establish political parties if afforded the time and environment to grow. They’ve also submitted alternative proposals that are no more flawed than the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative.

Negotiated under the oversight of American and Saudi officials, the foreign initiative gave birth to a power-sharing agreement between Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress and the JMP. This political settlement divided Yemen’s cabinet between the parties and left Saleh in power to oversee Yemen’s “transition” for 30 days. His Vice President of 17 years, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, is now scheduled to assume executive authority on Friday, and will run as a consensus candidate in February’s presidential election. Meanwhile Saleh’s security officials (many of them relatives) remains at their posts despite a purposed committee to restructure Yemen’s military command.

Rejecting the GCC’s initiative as foreign intervention, Yemeni protesters are particularly opposed to the immunity granted to Saleh and his family. They point out the lunacy of allowing the GCC, a monarchic bloc, to control a non-member’s future.

“These GCC states are not at all competent to deal with popular requests for liberty and freedom, not to mention democratic government, because they themselves are mostly despotic regimes,” observed Yemen’s Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC). “They themselves would never welcome such requests from their own people, let alone be ready to accommodate such demands by people in neighboring states.”

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) added its legitimacy by unanimously approving the GCC’s initiative in late October, roughly a month before Saleh would officially sign in Saudi Arabia. In the weeks following Riyadh’s ceremony, Saleh’s mechanized security units laid siege to the oppositional stronghold of Taizz. The mountainous city was long predicted as Yemen’s revolutionary epicenter - its Benghazi or Homs - and Saleh’s regime felt the need to crush Taizz’s daily protests (exploiting the JMP’s armed elements as scapegoats in the process).

Dozens of deaths failed to attract international scrutiny as involved foreign powers pressed forward with the GCC’s initiative.

Their plight ignored, Taizz’s protesters still saw an opportunity to align their march with the GCC’s timeline. Jamal Benomar, the UN’s special envoy to Yemen, recently informed the UNSC that Saleh requires additional medical treatment outside the country, pushing his immunity clause back in the spotlight (Yemen's immunity list is allegedly due on Saturday). According to Benomar, "Efforts are being made for arrangements to be concluded for him to get this treatment.” However Saleh has returned to Yemen on multiple occasions and is likely to return before February’s election.

Medical leave is, in all probability, a ruse to conceal his puppet strings and allow the GCC’s initiative to run its course.

Thus Yemenis decided on a course of preemptive action. Organized in Taizz with the intention of entering Sana’a around Saleh’s transfer day, the Life March symbolizes a collective rejection of immunity and a call for justice. As his immunity fits into the GCC’s wider initiative, organizer Waddah al-Adeeb told Reuters that protesters “reject the unity government, because it just reproduces the regime itself.” They want the world to know that Yemen is experiencing a popular revolution, not a political crisis between its two established parties.

The march's active nature is also boosting protesters' spirits.

For now the international community still refuses to listen; Russia’s Vitaly Churkin announced the UNSC’s full support for the GCC’s initiative after Benomar’s latest briefing. Western officials continue to meet with Hadi and various security commanders instead of youth representatives, reinforcing Yemen’s imperialism. Although Benomar recently claimed that Saleh won’t enjoy immunity under UN law, UNSC diplomats just met with his son Ahmed, whose Republican Guard is responsible for countless abuses before and during Yemen’s revolution.

The UN’s envoy even admits that Yemen’s youth, civil protesters, Houthi sect and Southern Movement were left out of the GCC’s deal.

Saleh’s officials have now resorted to accusing the JMP of scuttling the GCC’s initiative, and are supposedly threatening to withdraw unless foreign powers pressure the JMP into capitulation. His GPC termed the Life March as “acts of anarchy and sedition, incitement and attempt to storm the capital.” Expecting Saleh to destroy the deal himself, many protesters are anticipating assaults from his plainclothes security forces and loyalists (or thugs). They’re also holding Hadi accountable for any actions taken by Saleh’s forces - since he’s “president.”

The day when international powers finally listen to Yemen’s revolutionaries may never come, but they are equally unlikely to halt their quest for democracy.

December 21, 2011

Syrian Massacre Spotlights U.S. Double-Standard

Few people are certain of the last 24 hours in Kfar Owaid - and most people probably wouldn’t want to know the details.

For the past two days Syrian security forces have engaged army defectors in Idlib province with brutal efficiency. Local activists estimate their casualties above 100, including one incident that saw upwards of 70 defectors gunned down near Idlib. Following these events (according to a composite account from opposition groups, independent activists and local witnesses), a large group of army defectors and protesters fled Kfar Owaid village in anticipation of a security unit.

One villager told the Associated Press that Syrian troops subsequently quarantined and shelled Budnaya Valley with tank artillery, guided rockets and gunfire. A handful of witnesses claim that no survivors have emerged, and allege that security personnel beheaded a local imam in the process. Initial casualties are being set at 111.

Syrian’s National Council (SNC) reacted by calling for an “emergency UN Security Council session to discuss the regime’s massacres in Zawiyah mountain, Idlib, and Homs, in particular.” Regarding al-Assad’s defiance towards the Arab League and its political initiative, the council demanded an “emergency meeting... to condemn the bloody massacres...” SNC member Murhaf Jouejati warned that Bashar al-Assad “may be trying to crush this thing before the monitors get in.”

“It was an organized massacre,” said Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based activist group. “The troops surrounded people, then killed them.”

The Syrian government, of course, denied the opposition’s version of Idlib: “Competent authorities in Daraa and Idleb countryside stormed dens of armed terrorist groups.” Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi insisted that Damascus “has been fully committed to facilitating the mission of the Arab League which will come to see the reality of the crisis.” Falling back to its secure political line, al-Assad’s regime blamed the SNA and Free Syrian Army (FSA) for “trying to sabotage the protocol.”

As the opposition is using Kfar Owaid to lobby for international protection, Makdisi charged that the SNA is “seeking to push for foreign intervention rather than accept the call to dialogue.”

While armed defectors have become a clear piece of Syria’s opposition (wanted or not), none of their actions justify the disproportionate force currently applied by al-Assad’s regime. What exactly transpired in Budnaya Valley remains undetermined, but Syria’s available intelligence appears to justify the White House’s rhetorical counteroffensive.

“The United States continues to believe that the only way to bring about the change that the Syrian people deserve is for Bashar al-Assad to leave power. The words of the Assad regime have no credibility when they continue to be followed by outrageous and deplorable actions. Only two days following the Assad regime’s decision to sign the Arab League initiative, they have already flagrantly violated their commitment to end violence and withdraw security forces from residential areas.”

Yet these words begin to lose their legitimacy outside Syria’s vacuum.

Ask any U.S. official and they will tell you that the Obama administration supports all pro-democracy movements. Many Americans and protesters know this isn’t the case. Belief isn’t necessary - Washington’s engagement in Libya and Syria offer a stark contrast between Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain. Granted, what took place near Kfar Owaid could be “a massacre of unprecedented scale in Syria on Tuesday," in the words of France’s Foreign Ministry. 100 Egyptians, Yemenis or Bahrainis haven’t been killed in one day, at one place - but dozens did lose their lives in December alone.

Nor are universal rights intended to be relative.

Undaunted by external criticism, Washington has applied a day-and-night strategy to Syria and U.S.-allied regimes. This double-standard is once again spiking in Egypt, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a “very good call” with Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri. The White House’s condemnation of heavy-handed security forces has persistently lagged behind Tahrir’s crackdown (officials naturally dispute this criticism), and U.S. statements avoided confrontation with the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) until no longer politically feasible.

In addition to private assurances, the Obama administration generally continues to voice public support for the SCAF regardless of its previous statements.

The parallel between Syria and Yemen is especially vivid; foreign blocs negotiated a political settlement with the regimes of both countries. Syria’s revolutionary opposition enjoyed minor input in the Arab League’s process, and now appears discontent, while Yemen’s pro-democracy movement was shut out of GCC negotiations. A crucial divergence stems from Washington’s desire to toss al-Assad and keep Ali Saleh. Since the White House directly authored the GCC’s proposal, Saleh has escaped the thorough condemnation levied against al-Assad. The administration ignored months of violence as it pushed onward to the GCC’s signing, only criticizing Saleh for failing to approve an unpopular proposal in Yemen.

John Brennan, the White House’s counter-terrorism adviser, would recycle a phrase throughout 9/11’s 10th anniversary: “counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen is better than it's been in years."

Once Saleh did sign in Saudi Arabia, Obama extended his personal praise as Yemeni security forces besieged Taiz (Brennan would “congratulate the people of Yemen on initiating a political transition”). In polarizing contrast to the State Department’s rhetoric against al-Assad - “a signature on a piece of paper from a regime like this, that has broken promise after promise after promise, means relatively little to us” - U.S. officials welcomed Saleh’s “unity government” for proceeding with the GCC’s initiative.

What’s left of his regime remains on friendly terms with Western capitals, whose diplomats attend regular meetings Vice President Abdo Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi and various security officials related to Saleh.

Meanwhile in Bahrain, the same praise awarded to Tantawi and Saleh was quick to flow after King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa released his “Independent Commission of Inquiry.” Funded by the King, the BICI whitewashed Bahrain’s crackdown by admitting to limited abuses and punishing selected police officials. The Obama administration has proceeded to ignore the monarchy’s systematic suppression of protests and funerals - and would never touch the language of Navi Pillay.

“We continue to receive reports of the repression of small protests in Bahrain,” the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights warned upon the return of her team, “and although some security officers have reportedly been arrested, we have yet to see any prosecution of security forces for civilian injuries and deaths. Such impunity – at all levels – is a serious impediment to national reconciliation.”

America’s double-standard may have a modest effect on Russia’s political stance, but it still feeds into an obvious narrative that Washington is biased against Syria. Beyond the direct damage inflicted by Washington’s favoritism, selective democracy applies a continual source of friction between U.S. diplomacy and the region’s grassroots movements. The Obama administration expects “actions, not words” from threatened dictators - and millions of protesters expect the same from America.