What Can the U.S. Really Do for Yemen?

Balancing counterterrorism, a tense U.S.-Saudi alliance, and Yemen's protest movement -- the longest of the Arab Spring -- is difficult, but may still be possible

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Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh delivering a televised speech in Sanaa / Reuters

After more than three months in Saudi Arabia, President Ali Abdullah Saleh returned to Yemen last Friday. The move surprised many Yemenis as well as U.S. diplomats trying to negotiate a transfer of power agreement that would see Saleh cede power. Yemen has been the site of the Arab Spring's longest popular uprising -- protesters have camped in tent cities and attended mass rallies every Friday for eight months. The movement has been punctuated by clashes between military forces still loyal to the regime and rebel tribal militiamen and troops who have defected to the opposition. After a lull in violence over the summer, the past week has been the bloodiest yet.

The Democracy ReportWith more than 140 deaths in the past several days alone, it is difficult to believe that only a couple weeks ago a peaceful transfer of power seemed nearly at hand. On September 12, Saleh transferred to his deputy, Vice President Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi, the authority to negotiate and sign a transition deal. Despite lingering doubts over Saleh's sincerity, the State Department last week expressed optimism that the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered initiative, first introduced in April, would be signed, finally, within the week. Three days later, government forces opened fire on protesters, and by week's end, Saleh had returned to Sanaa.

Even at the time, there were indicators problems lay ahead, according to Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University. "Yemenis have a finely-tuned sense of the unwritten subtext of political actions, and Saleh's offer to cede authority to Hadi set off a number of alarms," Johnson wrote by email. "Certainly as soon as Saleh announced a new proposition many Yemenis started to worry about the prospect of a new round of fighting."

The greatest hazard in Saleh's authorization of Hadi was that it cut out other remnants of the regime, including Saleh's son, Ahmed, and his nephews who command elite units of the military. With Hadi chosen to oversee the transfer of power, Ahmed and his cousins found themselves at the margins of a process that, if finalized, would cost them their careers and their prestige. Their easiest recourse was to use the military force at their command, which they did, firing at protesters in an apparent effort to reassert their own political importance.

After the week's bloodshed, it is unlikely that the Yemeni opposition can support the GCC deal as long as the proposal provides amnesty for Saleh and members of his regime. Despite advancing the GCC initiative in a speech on Sunday, Saleh's return suggests that it will not move forward, particularly now that he is more vulnerable to face prosecution. Hadi retains the power to negotiate and sign the agreement on behalf of Saleh, but whatever limited power Hadi had on the ground has been displaced by Ahmed and the rest of the military leadership.

The amnesty provision is just one of the GCC agreement's many faults, but in the five months since it was presented, no one has introduced a viable alternative agreement. From the beginning of Yemen's uprising, the United States has been careful to work through Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom has a long and complicated history with Yemen; Saudi royals have maintained extensive patronage networks to influence Yemeni sheikhs, and King Abdul Aziz's deathbed admonition to his sons in 1953 -- "Keep Yemen weak," he's purported to have told them -- makes it difficult to believe that Saudi diplomacy has Yemen's best interests at heart. For all their power and influence, the Saudis could not keep Saleh in their country, let alone deliver his signature on the GCC deal.

Despite this, President Obama seems committed to working through the Saudis and the GCC initiative. "We must work with Yemen's neighbors and our partners around the world to seek a path that allows for a peaceful transition of power from President Saleh," he said at the United Nations last week. This was a reasonable approach closer to the beginning of the uprising, when the U.S. was using its political capital to urge Saudi Arabia to show restraint in Bahrain; at the time, Yemen's domestic crisis was a lower priority. The United States could still pursue its counterterrorism efforts; on September 13, CIA director David Petraeus reported, "counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen has, in fact, improved in the past few months." Tensions are still high between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. is still promoting the GCC proposal, an almost certain diplomatic dead-end. The deal is unlikely to be signed or instituted in a way that will resolve the crisis, but the U.S., it seems, doesn't want to abandon a plan, however flawed, into which it has sunk so much time and political capital. The U.S., in other words, is wasting time.

"The United States and the international community have to stop delegating the lead role in mediation to Saudi Arabia and the GCC," Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University, told the BBC last week. "I think it's time for the United States and the UN and the international community to step in much more forcefully and insist on a transition."

Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project and correspondent for TheAtlantic.com, told me he agrees that the U.S. should be getting out front. "I think that Obama needs to be vocal, insistent, consistent, and on Arabic TV stations condemning Saleh's behavior, his regime, and the massacres," he wrote in an email. "And I think Obama needs to be calling for his resignation and for the creation of a constitutional convention that includes [the various and divided political and tribal] groups."

Because the U.S. is still indirectly financing some of the elite Yemeni military units now cracking down on protesters, launching drone strikes in Yemen's south, and working through the GCC, the United States may not have enough credibility within Yemen to write its own proposal. Even with the aid of an international body like the UN, the window of opportunity to bring all the different actors in Yemen to the same table may be closing.

With all the focus on the unrest in Sanaa, Yemen has been fragmenting at its periphery. Saleh's government was never particularly effective at controlling the entire country. Wide swaths of the interior were subject to tribal law and custom, and Saleh relied heavily on a network of patronage and allegiance among Yemeni sheikhs. Beyond the limits of the government's reach, northern Houthi tribesmen and southern secessionists organized rebellions, and al-Qaeda's Gulf franchise found shelter in the mountainous regions of several provinces. Now perhaps more than ever before, the Saleh regime is turned inward, leaving non-state actors to consolidate power for themselves. This includes Ansar al Sharia, an Islamist militia that may have ties to al-Qaeda. Ansar forces have battled government forces and defected military forces since late May, when they seized the southern town of Zinjibar.

As the Saleh regime fights to reassert control, the extent of the government's sovereignty over Yemen is shrinking by the day. Johnsen notes that the Houthis are "consolidating power in the north" and Islamists and secessionists are mounting efforts in the south. "The Yemen that emerges from this conflict may very well look a lot different than the Yemen that entered it," he told me.

This could create a whole new set of problems. The Saudi leadership, after supporting the Yemeni government's six-year effort to suppress the Houthis, would react poorly -- possibly violently -- if Yemen's Houthis managed to create a functionally autonomous province along its southern border. Ansar al Sharia's campaign in the south has coincided with an increase in the frequency of drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets there. Analysts such as Johnsen and Foust criticize what they consider a U.S. overemphasis on counterterrorism. Ansar al Sharia and al-Qaeda are symptoms of Yemen's larger problems, a central cause of which is the country's ineffective state. Addressing this problem starts with a transition to a new government, and soon, before Yemen falls apart completely.