Search (Features)

Tuesday, 13 August 2013 00:00

The crisis in Yemen

by Ramzy Baroud

The revolution that shook this poverty-stricken country in 2011 isn't over - despite the best efforts of the United States

The US panic and embassy closure in Yemen last week drew eyes towards this poverty-stricken country.

Although it is much less discussed than the crippling political upheavals in Egypt or even the unfolding crisis in Tunisia, Yemen's ongoing conflict - complete with regular US drone killings - is as complex as either.

Since the 2011 revolution deposed strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, a "transition" under Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi with the backing of the motley tyrannies of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) has been underway.

But a real transition would involve sincere efforts at reconciliation between the army, tribal militias and other forces battling it out in the country, as well as a rigorous challenge to the undeclared US war in the south. Alas, none of the parties of the Yemeni establishment has the sway, desire or moral authority to lead such an effort.

In one fortnight - from July 27 to August 9 this year - 34 people were killed in Yemen in US drone attacks.

The US mechanically considers all those killed to be al-Qaida terrorists, even when civilians are confirmed among the dead and wounded.

The media sometimes qualifies such statements by describing victims as "suspected militants."

But it's left to international human rights groups and the enraged Yemeni people themselves to try to count the civilian dead.

Entire Yemeni communities are in a constant state of panic because of the buzzing metal monsters that operate with complete disregard for international law or the country's own sovereignty.

Frankly, it is hard to think of Yemen as either a sovereign or territorially unified nation. The country's foreign policy has long been held hostage to the whims of outsiders.

There is a lack of trust in the central government, which has historically been corrupt and inept, and indeed has often allowed non-state actors to move in and fill the economic and security vacuums in large swathes of the country.

Prior to the January 2011 rebellion the US was the most influential outside power in Yemen. Its goal was to conduct its so-called war on terror unhindered by such irritants as international law, or even objections from the government in Sana'a.

Then president Saleh, Yemen's dictator for 30 years, obliged. He too had his personal wars to fight and needed US consent for his family-controlled power apparatus.

Just weeks before the revolt US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visited Sana'a. She applied gentle pressure on Saleh to dissuade him from trying to eliminate term limits on his presidency, but the point of her mission was something else.

The US was seeking expansion of its "counter-terrorism" campaign. This bloody US venture involving the Pentagon and CIA has been under-reported in the West. It's never classified as a war, partly because it is conducted under political cover from the Yemeni government and presented as mere military co-operation by two countries against their common enemy, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap).

The reality is slightly different. Much of Saleh's supposedly anti-Aqap efforts were in fact channelled against revolutionary forces and the political opposition that would assemble in their millions to overthrow him.

In fact, Aqap expansion was unprecedented during Yemen's revolution - though not because of the revolution itself.

Saleh seems to have made a decision to withdraw troops from much of the country, allowing al-Qaida to launch a sudden drive to acquire territory.

Within a few months Aqap was occupying large areas in the southern governorates. This helped to strengthen Sana'a's official line that the revolution was simply an act of terrorism. Crushing it could be part of the US "war on terror."

The revolution persisted despite the many massacres but Saleh's plan did allow for increased US military involvement in the country.

Unlike in Egypt, the US in Yemen does not simply buy loyalty with a fixed subsidy and sustain a friendly rapport with the country's army.

It requires greater control so it can conduct whatever military strategies it deems necessary. But unlike Afghanistan, Yemen is not an occupied country.

So the US has to strike a balance between military firmness and political caution. This explains the leading role it has played in negotiating a safe path for the central government, army and ruling elite - with the cosmetic exception of Saleh himself, though his son retains enormous power - to elude the uncompromising demands of the revolutionaries.

So far, the US has largely succeeded. Part of this success is due to the existing political and territorial fragmentation of Yemen.

Large parts of the north are controlled by the Houthi Shi'ite rebels. Much of the south is in the grip of the Haraki separatists.

Aqap militants have infiltrated the bulk of the country, and the political opposition in the capital lags behind the better organised and much more progressive politics of the streets.

More perhaps than with any of the other countries hit by the great upheavals of 2011, Yemen's revolution was not treated as an opportunity for real change but as a crisis that needed management.

The GCC-brokered "power transfer initiative" was the supposed road map out of this crisis, but it hasn't done much except replace Saleh with Hadi and open the National Dialogue Conference, which has been underway since March 18.

All this takes place under the watchful eyes of the "Friends of Yemen," so that the process leading up to scheduled elections in 2014 needs the blessing of those foreign players with an interest in the country.

It hardly helps that the opposition is almost irrevocably split, with widening differences between the coalition partners in the Joint Meeting Parties. The army's overthrow of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, for example, met with protests from the Islah Party which is considered an ally of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, but public celebrations from the other members and the Houthis.

Even if the revolution has yet to reap tangible results, the national mood is unlikely to accept half-baked solutions of the sort the US seeks.

The revolutionaries are still unbowed, the militants are regaining strength and the US intervention and drone war are escalating.

All contribute to burgeoning discontent and anti-US sentiment.

Yemen seems likely to embark on a new struggle. One whose consequences will be too serious for any disingenuous political "transitionists" to manage.

Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an internationally syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press)

Search (Features)

Search (Features)