Our new partner in Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh is one great guy. While it is fortunate that the US will not be sending troops to Yemen, President Obama (who apparently does not control the US foreign policy) needs to rely on President Saleh to fight Al Qaeda in his country. Just three weeks ago people paid little attention to Yemen, now President Saleh seems to be a household name (Waq al-Waq has noticed a difference). In fact, just this last week, Saleh was parodied on Saturday Night Live. I have already written about the perils that face Yemen as well as the limited role the US must play in the country and, now those downfalls of Yemen and especially of President Saleh are being clearly seen.
I as noted in a previous post, Yemen has several internal security problems: the Houthi rebellion in the north, the separatist movement in the south and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Saleh has tried reasoning with AQAP before and is ready to try again in a strategy similar to that of the US in Afghanistan and Iraq (stop fighting and get paid). Seems like a good strategy until you figure in the special treatment Saleh gives AQAP.
The Houthi rebels get the death sentence; the southern separatists (who are more often than not nonviolent) get arrested and shot; AQAP gets paid. Additionally, it has come out that Saleh released AQAP fighters in exchange fo their support against the southern movement.
Recently, the Yemeni daily Al Ayyam – based in the south – has been shut down and its editor arrested. In another stir, protesters outside of Al Ayyam were shot at by the Yemeni military. Though it is doubtful, the government claims that over 40 Al Qaeda operatives were active in the paper. Clashes between the protesters and the police left one police officer and one protester dead while several people were arrested. Suppression of a paper that just happened to be more neutral in the north-south conflict than Saleh liked forces one to wonder if Saleh is using the AQAP problem and America’s support to clamp down on all opposition in the country. Jane Novak, who has covered Yemen extensively, seems to think so.
If Saleh really is using AQAP as an excuse to suppress the other opposition movements in the country, the US must be careful of Saleh’s balancing act. If the president is playing the left hand against right, President Obama better be aware of his role as a pawn in internal Yemeni politics. A misstep by Saleh couls easily result in a stronger than desired opposition (the Houthis, the southern separatists or AQAP) or mud in the face of the US and an increased sense of anti-Americanism in the country.