The National Interest

Responding to the Stalemate in Yemen

The conflict in Yemen has reached new levels of tension, and violent confrontation, along the lines of that in Libya, seems increasingly likely. No matter the level of provocation by President Saleh and his loyalist forces, protesters will be poorly served by resorting to violence. Civil war is but a step away. And this will unleash forces of extremism. The international community, the United States and Saudi Arabia in particular, need to prevent the country from devolving into anarchy.

Since protests began in Yemen in February, over 120 have been killed, and 5,000 wounded. The government has already lost control of three areas (al-Jouf, Abyan, and Saada), and large-scale demonstrations continue in fifteen of the country’s eighteen governorates. This week, the most alarming indication of direct confrontation between opposition and government forces has been the protesters’ march to take over offices of the governorate and presidential palace in the city of Taez. The Republican Guard, security units lead by the president’s son—Ahmed Saleh—responded swiftly to stop their march.

President Saleh clearly believes it is critical for him show strength on the ground to position himself more favorably for negotiations with opposition parties. Mobilizing military and security forces, particularly the Republican Guard, now remains one of President Saleh’s only ways to assert his strength and demonstrate his ability to resist popular pressure. In fact, the president has repeatedly warned of the dangers of civil war in an attempt to justify his use of force.

Recent events have increased the president’s willingness to violently clamp down on the protestors. Saleh has now lost key tribal support and rival tribes are casting aside decades-long feuds to demonstrate their opposition to the president. In addition, important religious figures in conservative Yemeni society, such as Sheikh Zindani, have echoed the call for Saleh to step down. Further, the departure of General Ali Mohsen from the army and his support of the protesters’ demands have contributed to Saleh’s isolation in a country over which he has only ever had tenuous control in any case. This collapse of Saleh’s traditional allies has therefore left him with very few options.

If they hope to succeed in overthrowing Saleh, Yemen’s protesters should avoid challenging Saleh’s security apparatus, since this will only give him the excuse to escalate violence further. If civil war does break out, Saleh will not have to control the entire country to defeat protesters as his security units will give him the ability to control parts of the capital most critical to his survival. The military will also be able to draw out any negotiations for surrender or compromise over months—if not years. In this scenario, it is the opposition’s Joint Meeting Parties (JMPs) and the young protestors of al-Tagheer Square that will be the losers—neither is equipped to engage in a civil war.

In addition to the opposition, the international community will lose tremendously if violence escalates. Indeed, al-Qaeda has traditionally thrived in situations of chaos and instability. A civil war could transform Yemen into the next Afghanistan. Aside from al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia would have to manage a considerable influx of refugees along its 1800km border with Yemen.

The major players in this debacle are an aging dictator, JMPs’ opposition composed of Islamists, Baa’thists, and Socialists, and al-Qaeda. With all these dangers to consider, it is not surprising that it has taken the Obama administration months to etch out a clear position on the crisis while trying to arrange for a transition to a post-Saleh Yemen. As the situation continues to escalate, however, the United States can no longer delay.

Saudi Arabia’s call to host negotiations between Saleh’s government and the opposition parties is being viewed with high levels of suspicion. Ali al-Jaradi, a spokesperson of the al-Tagheer Square protesters, sharply criticized the Saudi role in the crisis. He mentioned in particular Riyadh’s part in installing President Saleh in power in the first place, back in 1978.

The United States and Saudi Arabia must take immediate steps to support the opposition’s non-violent approach. This is the only way to prevent the country from sliding into a civil war. To do so, Washington must take a clear and unequivocal position, publicly announced, that the time has come for Saleh to step down. The current U.S. position falls significantly short. Most American official statements have focused on the need for President Saleh to allow his people to protest peacefully, rather than calling for Saleh to leave office. The most aggressive statement came from Pentagon Press Secretary George Morell, who called for “a negotiated transition as quickly as possible.” This is not enough.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, will have to define publicly and very specifically the terms of negotiations. These negotiations should focus on the whens, whys and wherefores of Saleh’s departure, rather than on making compromises.

More broadly, the United States needs to stop worrying about who will replace aging dictators in the region as they are overthrown. Micromanaging political change in the Middle East has, in the past, proven to be destructive. By allowing citizens to choose their political representatives, the United States remains loyal to its democratic principles while also establishing the grounds for future partnerships. The Yemeni opposition has already made a commitment to democratic change and reform, thus providing a sound foundation for future collaboration. At this point, President Saleh is part of the past.