An al-Qaeda stronghold on the rise.
A potential agreement brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council between Yemen's embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his opponents was rejected on Sunday pending substantial alterations to the pact. Now, with chances for a peaceful resolution to the crisis fading, fears are growing in Washington and Saudi Arabia that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) will have even more freedom to carry out attacks against America and its allies. Perhaps most troubling of all, a quick end to the chaos may result in a government that is unwilling to cooperate with the United States in its battle against AQAP terrorists, who are based in Yemen's northern provinces bordering Saudi Arabia.
The putative agreement negotiated by the Saudi-led GCC would have required Saleh to leave office in 30 days, transferring power to his Vice President in exchange for the legislature passing a measure that would have given the president and his family immunity from prosecution.
But the opposition -- the Joint Meeting Parties or JMP -- while agreeing in principle to the outline of the deal, has rejected some of the details. The agreement calls for protestors to cease their demonstrations immediately -- something the opposition parties sensibly protest is beyond their power. There is a large and influential youth movement that dominates the Yemeni streets and they say they won't leave until Saleh is out of power. "This is the most productive solution for the Joint Meeting Parties, not for us," says Adel al-Surabi, a leader of Sanaa's opposition youth movement.
But the level of distrust for Saleh's motives is so high that it has resulted in other elements of the pact being rejected, including a stipulation that the parliament, dominated by Saleh's party, would have the option of accepting or rejecting the president's resignation. The bottom line is that no one can be sure that Saleh won't find a way to finagle his way into somehow staying in power. Thus, the death knell for the GCC agreement.
This is bad news for Saudi Arabia who greatly fears the unrest on its border. Last month, the Kingdom announced the arrest of more than 100 suspected terrorists, many of them from Yemen. The terrorists were plotting to blow up key oil installations and other sensitive targets. The arrests were made after an investigation that grew out of a shoot out on the Yemen border where two militants were killed. According to information released by the Saudis, several of the terror suspects were in email contact with AQAP, and were in the initial stages of plotting to attack economic and security targets.
The Saudis have a direct stake in finding a peaceful outcome in Yemen. But America's interest in guiding Yemen out of this morass toward stability is no less urgent. For 15 years, President Saleh has successfully parlayed America's desire to fight terrorism into aid for his regime and a hammer that he could use against the opposition. Many in Yemen wonder just how serious the al-Qaeda threat truly is, as Saleh has used terrorism as an excuse to undertake several crackdowns on those wanting democratic change. And while Saleh is considered a strong ally in the war on terror, a debate has raged in Washington for years about his real value, given his autocratic nature and his less than persistent efforts to attack the terrorists ensconced in the mountainous Northern provinces.
Nevertheless, Saleh has allowed our drones to attack al-Qaeda targets, given permission for special forces to train Yemeni counterterrorism units, and gone over to the offense in the battle against AQAP. All of this is now by the boards as Saleh has retrenched and withdrawn his army and the counterterror forces, concentrating them around the capitol of Sanaa. He has also forbidden drone strikes. This has given AQAP the opening it needed and the terrorists have now moved into towns and villages, filling the void left by the army and police.
AQAP has reportedly taken over a town in Abyan province and declared an "Islamic Emirate." Most observers scoff at the idea of an independent al-Qaeda emirate, but the AQAP move demonstrates that the chaos roiling the streets and provinces of Yemen is benefiting the terrorists as Saleh's control of the country continues to shrink to Sanaa and a few other urban centers.
In addition to AQAP in the north, there is another insurgency in the formerly independent south. Separatists there have also taken advantage of the chaos to push into areas formerly controlled by the central government. It would appear that the longer the political crisis goes on in Sanaa, the more advantageous the situation will be for AQAP and the Iranian backed Houthi rebellion in the north, and the separatists in the south.
What has the Obama administration done about the situation? As in Egypt, they have abandoned a long-time ally, while pushing for "reforms." On April 5, the White House released a statement condemning the violence in Yemen and calling on President Saleh to step down. Privately, they were hoping that Saleh could broker a deal that would have him remain in power in some capacity. Richard Fontaine of Foreign Policy Magazine believes that a "best case scenario" would see a situation where "Yemeni politics could reach a more stable footing and, through a new openness, undermine the appeal of extremism." Fontaine also hopes that "Washington might pursue a broad relationship that extends beyond security cooperation and aid to active support of a budding democracy." Out of this relationship might be forged a new counterterrorism dynamic based on a more stable foundation than the mercurial Saleh.
But the collapse of the GCC agreement makes that scenario a remote possibility. Hundreds of thousands of protestors were in the street on Sunday calling for Saleh's immediate departure. Meanwhile, the GCC announced that it would conduct no more negotiations; the two sides must accept the agreed framework.
Saleh may not have a choice in a few days. The army is far from loyal and the possibility of civil war grows by the hour. A Sanaa-based political analyst, Abdel Ghani, believes "If this is the end, then Yemen is facing a major crisis. After all these negotiations we've exhausted all of our potential mediators. If we don't have a solution now, then violence will be the next logical step."
And only Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will be the beneficiary.