Violence exploded across Yemen over the weekend and through Monday, as protesters throughout the country were met with live fire from military units loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The number of dead in just three days is at least 75, with 26 killed and more than 350 wounded in the capital city of Sanaa alone. Hundreds of thousands of protesters poured into the streets in several cities, demonstrating as they have for eight months against the oppressive Saleh regime, while rebel military units fought pitched battles in the streets with regime forces. Major General Ali Mohsin Saleh Ahmar’s 1st Armored Division, an opposition mainstay since he defected in March, exchanged artillery fire with Saleh’s Republican Guard in the streets of Sanaa, causing many casualties among the protesters.
Yemen has been placed on the backburner for the last several months by the US and its allies, as first the Libyan operation and then the violence in Syria overshadowed the struggle in Yemen for political change that has dragged on since the early months of 2011. The chaos has opened the door for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to dig in and strengthen its hold in the south. The terrorists have also been able to expand their operations outside of Yemen, thanks to the lack of control in the region by the government. And there is no end in sight to the conflict despite efforts by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to find a political solution that would satisfy President Saleh, the protesters in the streets, and the largest opposition bloc, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP).
Some of the demonstrators want the rebel army to stop shooting because it is mostly civilians who are getting caught in the crossfire. One young revolutionary said, “I am upset and angry. My friend has been severely injured. I curse Ahmar’s soldiers and I curse the troops of the regime.” He added, “The demonstrators wanted this revolution to be peaceful, but the soldiers on both sides want this to turn into a civil war.”
Snipers took aim at the civilians from rooftops near Change Square, the epicenter of the revolt, gunning down children as young as 4 years old and exacting a fearful toll on the unarmed demonstrators.
Satisfying Saleh appears to be a near impossibility. Three times since the outbreak of the “Arab Spring” began last February, Saleh has promised to step down and make way for a transitional government. And three times he has reneged, or the opposition has objected to his conditions. His ploy to delay and muddy the waters of any deal that has been proposed has worked – Yemen has fallen out of the headlines and the US moved on to deal with other crises. This has left Saudi Arabia to try and work out a deal that would be acceptable to both sides.
But, as Marc Lynch points out in his blog at Foreign Policy, Saudi interests are definitely not those of the protesters. The US and the international community “essentially delegated the Yemen file to Saudi Arabia and the GCC, which quickly proved that it was either not up to the task or not interested in finding a real solution.” The last thing that King Abdullah wants to see is a democratic revolution on his doorstep. Instead, he has sought to guide the two parties to reach an agreement that would leave Saleh in power for a period of time, while elections were scheduled. Saleh has deputized his vice president to negotiate a deal with the JMP using the GCC framework as a basis for an agreement. But significantly, he is refusing to step down until elections could be held. And the way his negotiators are talking, it could be six months or more before that eventuality occurs.
Not surprisingly, this has left the young protesters cold. The Saudis are also attempting to work out an amnesty agreement for regime members who are responsible for ordering the firing on unarmed protesters. This has proved to be another sticking point for the movement. Marc Lynch points out that, “With the list of dead and wounded Yemeni civilians growing and rage swelling across the country, few are likely to be interested in the GCC’s deal granting amnesty to those responsible for a fresh massacre.”
The GCC is saying that an agreement is close that would have Saleh, who has been in Saudi Arabia since June, recovering from an assassination attempt, agree to abide by the results of an election to be held at some unspecified future date. Given the president’s history of double-crossing the opposition, it seems unlikely he will accede to his own demise. This is unfortunate because the months of conflict have bankrupted a country that already was one of the poorest in the world. This pro-opposition website (which features several horrific videos of the violence) reports that shortages of food, fuel, and even water are plaguing the population. Prices for staples like cooking oil, rice and wheat have gone up as much as 46%, and government assistance is no longer being handed out. The humanitarian group Oxfam reports that Yemen is near “the breaking point” and that “[o]rdinary families are telling us they simply don’t have the money to buy even the basics. Many say they don’t know where their next meal is coming from.”
The United States continues to claim it is on the side of democratic change, while working with the government to battle AQAP and keep it from expanding its operations outside of Yemen. Many protesters believe that the threat from AQAP has been wildly exaggerated by the government in order to justify the crackdown. That may be true, as far as the terrorists being able to seriously threaten the government of Yemen, although as Saleh’s regime has been engaged in a battle for its survival, AQAP has moved into several cities and towns.
But the US is more concerned with AQAP’s growing ability to strike targets abroad. The terrorists are taking advantage of the chaos thrown up by the “Arab Spring” to extend its reach in Yemen and further its goals of establishing an Islamic state, as well as target US interests and allies in the region. There are also some US homeland security officials who believe that AQAP may already have the capability of striking inside the United States.
Matt Olsen, who heads up the new National Counterterrorism Center, told the Senate Homeland Security Committee, “It [AQAP] has shown itself to be – to have both the intent and capability of carrying out attacks against the United States in the homeland.”
The Obama administration has recently stepped up drone attacks on AQAP, trying to fill the void created when Saleh’s troops were pulled from many remote outposts in order to battle protesters in Sanaa. AQAP has taken advantage and actually seized several small towns in the south. The drone strikes have been with the knowledge of Saleh’s government, and it is unclear if such cooperation were to extend to any new regime that took power once Saleh agrees to leave.
With the opposition fracturing between the street level protesters and the more established political parties, and President Saleh holding out by brutalizing his own people, it is difficult to see how Yemen can avoid another bloody civil war. Meanwhile, a humanitarian disaster is in the making, as the bulk of Yemen’s population has little to eat, no employment, and little hope that the future will bring anything but more misery.