Yemen

by zunguzungu

Trying to keep up. Friday, in Yemen:

“A massive demonstration against Yemen’s government turned into a killing field Friday as snipers methodically fired down on protesters from rooftops and police made a wall of fire with tires and gasoline, blocking a key escape route.”

Video from Al Jazeera. The situation in Yemen has been steadily intensifying for some time, but this was a big escalation. 46 people were killed — in videos like this one, you can see bodies being carried away every ten seconds or so — while many hundreds, easily, were wounded. And that’s what our ally’s security forces were willing to do in the open. Yemen’s government then declared a state of emergency, which raised all sorts of concerns; as Amnesty International notes, for example:

Torture and other ill-treatment are widespread practices in Yemen and are committed, generally with impunity, against both detainees held in connection with politically motivated acts or protests and ordinary criminal suspects.

In response, Secretary Clinton produced the usual boilerplate:

We call on Yemeni security forces to exercise maximum restraint, refrain from violence, and permit citizens to freely and peacefully express their views.

“Maximum restraint” is an interesting development in the rhetoric, by the way, if you’re as morbidly fascinated as I am by the way words go into Clinton or Obama’s mouth to die. When live fire was used against protesters in Bahrain, for example, we got the same escalation in rhetoric from (state department spokesperson) Mark Toner:

The Bahraini government must exercise maximum restraint as it deals with this situation and must ensure that GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) forces do so as well.

In Yemen, the response has been defections from both the military and the government; ministers have resigned in protest (and ambassadors), and army commanders have thrown in with the youth movement and vowed to protect them (which may or may not be a good thing; update: really may not be a good thing). As Gabool al Mutawakil, a youth activist, said to Al Jazeera:

“We are now in the middle of two militaries – one that has joined the protesters and one that is under the authority of president Saleh. There is fear of civil war, but we are insisting on having a peaceful revolution.”

Anyway, whether or not Clinton explicitly traded a free pass on violent repression in Bahrain (and Yemen?) to the Arab League in exchange for their support of the UN’s Libya action, it’s pretty clear that when a valued counter-terrorism ally slaughters its people, we have a very different kind of discussion than we do when Gaddafi does it.

And Yemen is a valued ally; last September, it was reported that “the U.S. military’s Central Command has proposed pumping as much as $1.2 billion over five years into building up Yemen’s security forces,” a sign of just how important they think the fight against al-Quaeda in the Arabian peninsula is, and how willing they are to get in bed with Saleh and the Yemeni government in doing so. Part of our counter-insurgency strategy there is to do it ourself: Yemen is one of the places where American drones are killing civilians and also some terrorists, maybe. But a bigger part of it is to hand money and helicopters (or get the Saudis to do so) over to them and then get them to promise to use them only against the bad guys.

From Wikileaks, for example, we get details and particulars about the negotiations that went on in January 2010 (between General Petraeus and President Saleh) over just how much money and military equipment we were going to give the government of Yemen (ROYG), to fight al-Quaeda in the Arabian Peninsula:

The General told Saleh that he had requested USD150 million in security assistance for 2010, a substantial increase over the 2009 amount of USD 67 million…Raising a topic that he would manage to insert into almost every item of discussion during the hour and half-long meeting, Saleh requested that the U.S. provide the ROYG with 12 armed helicopters.  Possessing such helicopters would allow the ROYG to take the lead in future CT operations, “ease” the use of fighter jets and cruise missiles against terrorist targets, and allow Yemeni Special Operations Forces to capture terrorist suspects and identify victims following strikes, according to Saleh.  The U.S.could convince Saudi Arabia and the UAE to supply six helicopters each if the American “bureaucracy” prevented quick approval, Saleh suggested.  The General responded that he had already considered the ROYG’s request for helicopters and was in discussions with Saudi Arabia on the matter.  “We won’t use the helicopters in Sa’ada, I promise.  Only against al-Qaeda,” Saleh told General Petraeus.

That promise not to use the helicopters in Sa’ada? He’s referring to the civil war that the government of Yemen is fighting in its northern region, against the “Houthi” insurgency which began in 2004 out of complaints that Shi’ites in the region were being politically sidelined turned into a full military uprising. It’s been a really, really bloody and destructive war — around 200,000 people have been displaced by it — and our friends the Saudi’s have been directly involved. We’ve even seen the “African mercenaries” meme show up, this time by the Yemen Observer‘s claim that

“al-Houthis have resorted to recruiting Somali refugees in the Ra’as al-Arah region of Lahj to fight with them.  After they are recruited, the refugees are taken to various places in Sa’adah to replace Houthi followers who have refused to continue fighting against the government troops.”

In fact, over and over again, on all sides, the complaint is against foreign intervention: the rebels complain about Saudi intervention (which the Saudis justify by complaining about Houthi border crossing), and the government of Yemen sees the hand of Iran in everything the Houthi’s do.

And of course, the United States is also intervening in this conflict, in a big way. We give a lot of military aid to a very poor country, and while the idea is that this money will only be used against al-Quaeda — and Saleh faithfully promises to only use it against the bad guys — we know thanks to Wikileak-ed documents that we are actually just funding Yemen’s counterinsurgency wars. As Ellen Knickmeyer reported in December, for example, “Yemen’s government repeatedly diverted U.S.- and British-supported counterterrorism fighters from their intended use against al Qaeda to fight a purely domestic opposition group”:

In a September 2009 session with White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, Saleh, frustrated, presses the United States to give armored vehicles, airplanes, and ambulances specifically to his campaign against the Houthi rebels. “The Houthis are your enemies too,” Saleh tells Brennan. Brennan deflects that request. “The USG [U.S. government] is prohibited by law from providing military support to the [Yemeni government] to be used against the Houthis since the USG considers the group a domestic insurgency,” he is quoted telling Saleh.

At that time, however, Saleh and his military chiefs were already diverting the U.S.-supported counterterrorism unit — a commando group funded, trained, and equipped by the United States and Britain from 2002 on to take a lead role fighting al Qaeda in Yemen — as well as possibly U.S. armored vehicles and Humvees, against the Houthis, then-U.S. Ambassador Stephen Seche notes in another cable…”The ROYG, desperate to defeat the Houthis at any cost, has largely ignored USG concerns regarding deployment of the CTU to Sa’ada,” Seche wrote in December 2009. “The CTU has been unable to go after genuine terrorist targets like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) while it has been tied down in Sa’ada.”

“The war against the Houthis is not a distraction from the CT fight. It is the CT fight,” a Yemeni colonel insisted to U.S. Embassy political officers in December 2009.

This state department cable, describing the situation, is worth quoting (from November 2009):

Yemeni analysts fear that military action by Saudi Arabia is creating a regional, sectarian war that will lead to direct Iranian involvement. It is also possible that the Houthis have sought to internationalize the conflict, either to attract international support or to ensure that any negotiated political solution would include international, not ROYG, mediators. President Saleh appears to have gained the most from recent developments, as he has finally obtained direct political, financial, and military support for the war from powerful neighbors — who also happen to be close U.S. allies.

As the sixth war against the Houthis continues to squeeze Yemen’s conventional military, the ROYG has looked to its U.S. and U.K.-funded and trained counterterrorism forces to provide some relief to battered army forces. The Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) – trained to detect small terrorist cells and investigate and prevent terror attacks on civilian targets – is a poor tactical choice for use against a long-term domestic insurgency. The ROYG, desperate to defeat the Houthis at any cost, has largely ignored USG concerns regarding deployment of the CTU to Sa’ada. The CTU has been unable to go after genuine terrorist targets like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) while it has been tied down in Sa’ada.

And this one from February of 2010, on Saleh‘s disinclination to settle with the Houthi‘s:

Citing Saudi Arabia’s decision to suspend its military operations in Sa’ada and Abdul Malik al-Houthi’s public acceptance of the ROYG’s conditions for a ceasefire, Ambassador Benjamin asked Saleh if he saw an end to the fighting. Saleh dismissed these points, arguing that the Saudis gave a ceasefire ultimatum to the Houthis, and will resume fighting in two weeks if the ceasefire is unfulfilled. He called the Houthis “liars” and declared that they would violate the six conditions of the ceasefire. He indicated that the ROYG had no intention of agreeing to a ceasefire at this time.

As always, as Human Rights Watch points out

…military tactics such as airstrikes that cause high civilian casualties, and arbitrary arrests and abusive treatment of suspected militants undermine efforts to reduce local support for al Qaeda. The Yemeni government has engaged in all of these actions against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)…Yemen’s military and policing approaches have resulted in numerous violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, which have alienated large segments of Yemeni society.

Yemeni protester seen through the hole in Yemen's flag.

By the way, the conflict in the north of the country is not to be confused with secessionist movement in Yemen’s southern region. While the northern conflict is a military campaign against Shi’ites who are accused of being proxies for Iran (while they accuse Yemen of fighting a proxy war against Shi’ites on behalf of Saudi Arabia), the issue in the south is much more directly about oil and development and regional exploitation. The historically socialist southern part of Yemen complains that the oil wealth is being extracted without any local development being seen in return:

“Eighty percent of Yemen’s oil comes from the south but where does the money go? It goes to Sanaa,” the capital, said a member of the Yemeni Socialist Party in Aden who did not want to be named for fear of government reprisal. “The people of the south have not benefited from any of this wealth and now it is running out.”

While the Saleh government gets 70% of its revenue from oil, and opposes secession for exactly that reason:

“The south has all the resources and only one third of the population. We cannot allow them to secede,” said a member of the opposition party Islah in the capital, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the party. “Northerners will fight to keep Yemen together. They know it is a matter of survival.”

As Michael Horton for the CSM reported back in Dec 2009:

Upon arriving in the southern port town of Aden from Sanaa, one immediately notices the differences: there are few new buildings and the taxis and cars are often little more than rusted wrecks – a stark contrast with the luxury cars and plethora of new shops and hotels one finds in Sanaa. But despite the run-down appearances, everything from fish to building supplies costs far more here than in the more prosperous north. “Why is it that fish caught 10 kilometers [six miles] from here cost more than the fish trucked to Sanaa?” asks resident Mohammad Nahass, pointing to fish stacked on a piece of cardboard in Aden’s fish market.

Many throughout southern Yemen are asking the same question. They see little value in their 1990 unification with the north – a move that was precipitated by the fall of the Soviet Union. As a result of the USSR’s collapse, the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) – the only Marxist state in the Arabian Peninsula – lost its primary source of economic support and was forced to join North Yemen in a newly united Republic of Yemen, under the leadership of President Saleh, who has remained in power for 15 years.

Also on Yemen, Nir Rosen and Juan Cole. The usual live-blogging from AJE, and also intermittent live-blogging from Yemen. Also, it’s Saleh’s birthday today.