Yemen Protests: U.S. Policy in Crisis
The spread of political unrest in the Middle East to Yemen brings American policy in the home of an active and dangerous al Qaeda franchise to a crisis. The U.S. has been relying on an uneasy partnership with Yemen’s autocratic president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to operate against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) for the last few years. The uneasiness has resulted both from Saleh’s own ambivalence about al Qaeda groups and from his desire to channel U.S. support into combating internal challenges to his own rule from the al Houthi movement in the north and the Southern Movement. Both of those challenges have joined with the apparently spontaneous opposition that emerged in the wake of the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in pursuing the goal of driving Saleh from power. Important blocs and power-brokers within the regime, including some leading military officers, have recently partially broken with Saleh, raising the real prospect of regime change or even state collapse. That prospect undermines the entire basis of American counter-terrorism operations in Yemen and should force the U.S. to re-evaluate its approach to this challenge.
The collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt on February 11 sparked spontaneous anti-government demonstrations throughout Yemen. Previous protests had been limited in nature: they were either highly-localized, such as Sana’a University student protests, or highly-scripted, such as those organized by the political opposition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). Saleh made a number of limited, preemptive political reforms and economic concessions after the successive collapses of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, but these reforms did not placate the public. Both the al Houthi rebels and the Southern Movement, moreover, mobilized their networks in support of the peaceful youth movement and expressed solidarity with those protesting against the government. The anti-government protests in Yemen have spread into areas that are traditionally regime strongholds; the protestors, however, do not have a united voice or common objectives beyond Saleh’s immediate departure.
Tuesday, a spokesman for Saleh announced that he had offered to step down within the year in a negotiated transition of power. He refused to transfer power to the military and warned his commanders against attempting a coup. The JMP had submitted a five-point plan at the beginning of March that called for the president to transfer power by the year’s end, but Saleh refused to compromise at the time. The JMP now rejected the president’s offer in turn and called for his immediate resignation.
Many of the political figures who have joined the protestors cite the Yemeni regime’s violent crackdown on the demonstrators as their motivation. The JMP announced at the beginning of March that it could not negotiate while the government endorsed violence against peaceful protestors. On March 18, unidentified snipers opened fire on demonstrators in Sana’a, killing over 52 people. This incident led key figures to defect from the regime, including Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar, a leader within the Hashid tribal confederation (Saleh’s tribal grouping), and General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, who is in charge of the northwest division of the army. A significant number of diplomats and government officials also defected, citing the violent response as cause, and at least four other generals and over a dozen other officers joined General Ahmar.
Currently, forces still loyal to Saleh such as the Republican Guard, which is led by his son, have deployed around the presidential palace in Sana’a and, in areas, around military installations commanded by defectors. Clashes between Yemeni military loyalists and defectors in the southern port city of Mukalla killed two soldiers, and could potentially spread to the capital, where General Ahmar has positioned his forces around the central bank, the ruling party’s headquarters, and other key installations. There is also increased potential for state fragmentation: the Southern Movement still seeks to secede from the north. Regardless of the direction that Yemen takes, counter-terrorism operations against AQAP will not top the agenda of Saleh or his successors for some time.
Meanwhile, AQAP continues to conduct attacks in Yemen. Tuesday, AQAP militants attacked a Yemeni army unit in Lawder in Abyan governorate and last Thursday, militants attacked a checkpoint in Ma’rib governorate. The group also actively seeks to attack the U.S. and its allies. AQAP has attacked the U.S. homeland twice since its formation in January 2009, aided by Anwar al Awlaki, a radical Yemeni-American cleric who is now an operative within the group.
Saleh has proven himself to be an inconsistent counter-terrorism partner in the fight against AQAP. Progress made in the early years of the decade against al Qaeda in Yemen was lost when terrorist suspects escaped en masse in a February 2006 prison break, believed to be assisted by members of the regime. Those who were not killed or re-captured now head AQAP. Counter-terrorism cooperation resumed in 2009 and 2010, but Yemeni operations against AQAP are sporadic at best. The current climate of unrest in Yemen has adversely affected counter-terrorism efforts and will provide AQAP with further opportunities to operate in its sanctuaries.
U.S. officials have remained notably silent on Yemen. Official statements condemn the use of violence and urge dialogue, but, unlike American official reactions to events in Egypt and Libya, have not broached the subject of the president’s legitimacy. The instability of the regime and the current U.S. stance raises certain questions. Should Saleh remain in power, would he have the political capital to continue the unpopular counter-terrorism operations in cooperation with the U.S.? Should there be an alternative Yemeni government, does the perception of U.S. support for Saleh put the U.S. in a disadvantageous position with the future government? Would it be possible to build a new relationship with an opposition-led government under tenuous circumstances? How will the U.S. manage the risk level of an attack from AQAP over the course of any transition?
The current instability in Yemen and its potential consequences have made a difficult problem even more complex and dangerous. The U.S. needs a carefully crafted policy in Yemen to come out of the political uncertainty with a counter-terrorism partner in the country and mitigate the risks associated with state collapse.