The US and Arabian Gulf nations are locked in crisis negotiations as they try to avert a civil war in Yemen.

Over the past week-plus, clashes between regime security forces loyal to embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Hashed tribe have killed close to 150. The regime has used tanks, automatic weapons and even airstrikes to attack tribesmen and anyone loyal to them, including military defectors who could join the tribes and assemble an opposition army. Explosions have rocked the capital of Sanaa, and special forces troops have now been deployed. On the other side, at least 1,000-2,000 armed tribesmen have headed to the capital in support of Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, leader of the Hashed, and he apparently has many more at his disposal. But the regime put heavy weapons at the city gates and scrambled warplanes to attack the fighters, so things could get ugly quickly. Residents have evacuated densely packed Sanaa rapidly. And it’s not just Sanaa; security forces are firing live rounds at protesters in Taizz, militants have captured the coastal southern city of Zinjibar, and fighting has spread across the country.

Top counter-terrorism official John Brennan went to Saudi Arabia to work on the Yemen situation yesterday. Though he’s not a diplomat, it wasn’t really a surprising choice – the US primarily views Yemen as a counter-terrorism problem. This is hardly about supporting a democratic uprising.

Diplomats said that Washington was now pressing hard to convince Ali Abdullah Saleh to reconsider his rejection of a peace plan brokered by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states alarmed by the prospect of growing instability in the region.

John Brennan, Barack Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser, held talks in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, where the government has strong ties with Yemeni tribes but has been slow to act. It has been accused of sending mixed signals to Saleh, who is seen as desperate to cling on to power after 32 years.

This is the same deal that Saleh has rejected three times, and the open revolt from the Hashed tribe just shows him that his fears of a coup if he stepped down were well-founded.

Western powers and the Gulf states have been alarmed by the civil war, but it’s not clear what kind of leverage they hold over Saleh anymore. The US has called on Saleh to step down repeatedly with no effect, despite the purse strings they hold over him. It’s also not difficult to see through their transparent aims, less about democracy than stability. After all, the leading diplomat sent by the US to end the civil war is a counter-terrorism official.

One other thing. Since the Arab dictators hit on a formula – engage in brutal repression and refuse to step down no matter what – there has been no change in leadership anywhere in the Arab world. Not Libya, where the West intervened with airstrikes. Not Syria or Bahrain, where there has been no intervention. Not Yemen, which has broken out into civil war. Not anywhere. That’s a problem to be reckoned with.

David Dayen

David Dayen

1 Comment