May 23, 2011 — It is a dangerous time in Yemen for the United States. On Sunday, armed thugs loyal to faltering president Ali Abdullah Saleh marched on the embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Sanaa, where diplomats were preparing for the signing ceremony of the Gulf Cooperation Council deal that they hoped would resolve the ongoing political crisis between Saleh's government and the protests sweeping the country. The diplomats, who included the U.S., British, and European Union ambassadors, were trapped inside for two hours before being evacuated by helicopter. Earlier this month, documentspurportedly from the Saleh government authorizing the arming of political supporters leaked and were published online.
After being evacuated, the delegation of national ambassadors and GCC Secretary General Abdul Latif al Zayyani met with Saleh at the presidential palace, where he had announced that he would be willing to sign the GCC-brokered agreement, after backing out on two previous occasions. Under the conditions of the agreement, all protests would cease, a new unity government would be put in place, and Saleh would tender his resignation to parliament within one month and new elections would be held. Instead, in a televised statement, Saleh warned of civil war if protests persisted. He then refused to sign the reconciliation deal, imposing new conditions for his signature.
The GCC has previously stated that if Saleh refused to sign the deal on Sunday, they would withdraw from the reconciliation process. One diplomat told Reuters that the efforts had "failed."
Sunday's events came three days after President Obama reiterated his administration's formal position that Saleh must go. So far, the United States has worked through regional allies; advocating for the Gulf Cooperation Council brokered agreement and pressuring an obstinate Saleh to uphold his stated commitment to sign the deal and leave office. With this latest collapse of the reconciliation effort, the GCC's role faltering, and violence escalating, U.S. officials may need to reevaluate their approach to Yemen.
The United States begins at a disadvantage. Its close alliance with Saleh has done much to discredit it with the opposition groups that have camped in streets of Sanaa since early February. Protesters have been photographed holding tear gas canisters and less-lethal rubber shotshells labeled "Made in USA." If the United States does not take a proactive stance that goes beyond rhetorical calls for a peaceable transition, these images of spent munitions may determine how the Yemeni people remember the United States' role.
The United States' options are limited, as they always are in Yemen. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's use of airstrikes to suppress protests and revolt in Libya became the justification for an international intervention. But, despite at least two occasions of the Yemeni government using air strikes against rebels since May 1, the institution of a no-fly zone would do little in Yemen, where the most damaging violence has been inflicted by rooftop snipers. However, the United States cannot simply walk away from Yemen - it has a vested national security interest in pursuing al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which operates from Yemen's rural interior. Days after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, on May 5, the U.S. launched a missile strike from an unmanned drone in Abdan, in Yemen's Shabwa province, targeting AQAP propagandist Anwar al Awlaki. It missed; al Awlaki remains at large, as does the leadership of the AQAP organization.
The best course of action for the U.S. may well be diplomatic. The U.S. will have to act quickly to force Saleh out of the executive office and help negotiate an inclusive, post-Saleh government; failure to secure Saleh's departure will only worsen and prolong the violence preceding his inevitable fall. Waiting only enables Saleh's strategy of outlasting the opposition's unity, and as Saleh escalates, the window for the U.S. to act productively dwindles.
As this process continues, there should be an understanding that the longer Saleh waits to leave, the worse his options will be in a final settlement. The worst-case for the Yemeni president is the opposition's stated intention, to overthrow Saleh and hold trials for him and senior members of his regime.
The time is right for the U.S. and its allies - whether Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the European Union, or the United Nations - to intervene diplomatically and negotiate Saleh's resignation. Leaders in the secessionist Southern Mobility Movement have courted U.S. patronage in the past. On Tuesday, a Yemeni youth council sent an impassioned plea for intervention to President Obama. This opportunity will be lost, though, if the opposition fragments, which it could as time continues.
The unity within Yemen's protest movement will be tested in the coming days. It is a strange, fractious group to begin with, composed of southern secessionists, the remains of the Yemeni Socialist Party, Islamists, tribal leaders, military officers, and a previously voiceless youth. The only thing these groups share is their desire to oust their president. Saleh is doing his utmost to wait them out and let their differences divide the movement from within. Fragmentation would increase the risk of violence, raising tensions along the north-south cultural and political faultline, and possibly splintering the various tribal rivalries latent within the opposition movement.
For now, though, the opposition remains united. Protests in Sanaa on Friday, May 6, were held "in solidarity with the South." Sunday was "Unification Day," a Yemeni national holiday celebrating the consolidation of North and South Yemen in 1990 to form the modern state. How long that solidarity and unity will last, if it can survive a civil war, and if Saleh can outlast it, remains to be seen. What does seem clear is that both Saleh and the opposition have independently chosen strategies of escalation to break the stalemate, presenting the horrifying question that always accompanies escalation: where does this end? The unification of the country commemorated on Sunday led to a civil war in 1994; unity is never certain in Yemen.
Civil wars have occurred in Yemen twice in the past fifty years. If violence consumes the country, it would likely begin with loyalist and defected military forces fighting against one another, as they have already begun to in scattered incidents. Worse, it could deteriorate into fighting involving less official actors -- the SMM, various tribes, or even the violent jihadist groups that Saleh enlisted to help fight the 1994 war. If the unity of the opposition fails in a civil war, it could quickly become a war of all against all, with a weak or non-functioning government overseeing a country with a dwindling food and water supply and with al Qaeda elements in its rural areas. This is the worst of all possible worlds for Yemen, and it is everything the United States and other regional stakeholders stand to lose if they do not seize this moment.