Heavy fighting erupted in Yemen’s capital of Sanaa today as the country edged closer to a full-blown civil war. Anti-government protesters have been challenging the 33 year rule of President Saleh for months who, despite several negotiations and agreements regarding his departure, has yet to leave office. The latest outbreak of violence has been between government troops loyal to President Saleh and supporters of tribal leader Sadiq al-Ahmar. Locals reported heavy shelling of residential areas as well as widespread gunfire. Meanwhile, the Sanaa airport remains closed and traffic on roads leading out of the capital was reportedly at a standstill.
Saleh’s refusal to step down threatens the country with a civil war whose effects on regional security and international terrorist activity could be dramatic. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has a strong presence in Yemen and is the arm of al-Qaeda that many counter-terrorism analysts regard as the most dangerous, particularly in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death. A civil war in Yemen would take pressure off of AQAP. For this reason, the US and Yemen’s northern neighbor, Saudia Arabia, are likely to attempt to circumvent a civil war in the troubled nation. The US was initially slow to say that Saleh should step down, but President Obama today called for the Yemeni President to ‘immediately’ end his 33 year rule. This call for an immediate end to the crisis represented an important step in US policy and signaled Washington’s growing unease with the political stalemate that threatened to undermine counter-terrorism efforts.
American hesitance to specifically ask for Saleh to abandon power – instead merely condemning the violent government crackdown against protesters – was no doubt due to the Yemeni President’s past willingness to cooperate with the US and allow American counter-terrorism operations to take place in his country. Today, in apparent response to Obama’s call for his immediate resignation, Saleh said that ‘[he doesn’t] take orders from outside.’ He also promised to remain in power and to stop the violence from descending into a civil war. Whatever Saleh’s ultimate fate, the path Yemen follows over the days and weeks to come and how the US and Saudi Arabia react to the unfolding events will have important repercussions for the future of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninusla.
Syria continues its brutal suppression of anti-government protests as the EU and US consider imposing further sanctions against the Middle Eastern nation. Reports pour in of Syrian forces opening fire against protesters as videos emerge on youtube of the atrocities. It’s interesting to examine what a dramatic role social networking sites have had on the futures of a number of Middle Eastern countries. The amateur video of the violence in Syria particularly reminds me of the Iranian protests in 2009 following the rigged presidential election. The video below instantly brought up memories of the Neda incident.
Sending a message
Every year Palestinians protest the foundation of Israel, during which hundreds of thousands were forcibly relocated, dubbing the object of their anger a ‘catastrophe.’ (Note that these protests are unrelated to the anti-government protests discussed above). But while the Israeli borders with Lebanon and the West Bank remain volatile, Syria has traditionally maintained strict control of its border, even preventing its own citizens access to it. Sunday was this year’s date for the protest and thousands of protesters came from the Syrian side.
While the spirit of the protests and ire of its participants was genuinely directed at Israel, the protesters themselves were no doubt serving as pawns for Damascus. Allowing the anti-Israel protesters unprecedented access to the Israeli border, the Assad regime was sending a powerful message that only through its will has the border has remained peaceful for the last 40 years. The message is sure to present an all-too-familiar dilemma to Israel and the US in how to approach the Arab Spring: the choice between the status quo or the risky protesters. While the Middle East can hardly be called peaceful in the traditional sense of the word, there’s at least some degree of confidence in expectations for the future if current governments stay the same. And although Syria is allied with distinctly anti-Israel entities like Iran and Hezbollah, its own Golan Heights border with Israel has seen little action since 1974. So while Israel and its supporters might sympathize with the pro-democracy protests in Syria, the Assad regime sent an important message to its Jewish neighbor on Sunday by allowing the protesters to storm the Israeli border: you might not like us, but you had better hope that we stay in control.
In October 2003, the US intercepted a German-flagged freighter bound for Libya. Onboard the ship were thousands of parts for uranium enrichment centrifuges. Two months later Libya announced that it was discontinuing all of its WMD programs and would comply with the NPT. The announcement was seen as a diplomatic victory for the UK and US, who had been working for months in secret negotiations with Libya.
Just two months ago a NATO-led force began air strikes against Libyan forces loyal to Gaddafi. Although UN resolution 1973 specifically authorizes member states to act in order to protect civilians, the air strikes have served as de-facto support of the rebels. Across the Middle East, protests continue. Indeed, there are daily reports of protesters being killed by government forces in Syria and Yemen. Yet forces have only intervened in a country that not 10 years ago dismantled its WMD program.
Countries such as North Korea and Iran are sure to take notice of this. North Korea in particular has taken paranoid indoctrination against the West to a national level. If the six party talks ever do resume, how can the North negotiate in good faith when the US is now bombing a country that less than eight years ago it was praising for abandoning its nuclear program? Meanwhile Iran is facing a popular movement against its government while seemingly remaining ambivalent about the future of its nuclear program. What lessons will it draw from the coalition action in Libya?