Time to Get Serious about Yemen

The United States is not living up to the commitments it made to the new government in Sana.

Within mere seconds, security guards outside of Yemen’s Defense Ministry building found themselves in the middle of an ambush. Hundreds of men carrying rocket-propelled grenades, automatic assault rifles and military-issued weapons surrounded the defense headquarters in the middle of Sana, Yemen’s capital, unleashing a barrage of gunfire and destruction that resulted in the deaths of three people.

The attack bore all the usual signs of Al Qaeda’s affiliate in that country, an organization that has killed hundreds of Yemeni security personnel and civilians since it merged with its weakened allies in Saudi Arabia years ago. But in Yemen, a country that is still struggling to leap out of the shadows of its revolutionary period, nothing is as it seems. The assailants were not fighters linked to Al Qaeda, but allies of the former government under Ali Abdullah Saleh, the same man who was forced out of power by Yemeni demonstrators after months of marching and bloodshed.

The spark that fueled the confrontation, according to Yemeni and Western media reports, was none other than a bold move by the current president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, against the old regime. With a mandate to restructure the military and a generous amount of support from the United Nations Security Council to fulfill that mandate, President Hadi decided to transfer some of Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh’s units (the former president’s son) to his own command.

As the man in charge of Yemen’s most elite branch of the military, Ahmed Ali was powerful enough to respond to the change in command with a hail of gunfire—a tactic that has become a common negotiating ploy in Yemen’s heavily armed, tribal society since Hadi was formally put in power after a popular referendum. The attack—presumably by Republican Guard soldiers under the orders of Ahmed Ali Saleh—was eventually beaten back after Yemeni soldiers were rushed to the scene. But while the mutiny was defeated, the damage was already done. Besides the physical destruction, the shooting in and around the Defense Ministry was a direct swipe at Hadi’s authority as commander-in-chief and the most audacious illustration yet of the Saleh family’s continued strength in the country, even after the removal of its patriarch.

Hadi, who has been trying to restructure the Yemeni military since his inauguration in February, made his own strength known right after the attack. Sixty-two soldiers have been formally indicted for participating in the Defense Ministry operation, with the vast majority of them likely to be charged and imprisoned for fighting against the very state that they are paid to protect. Unfortunately, the indictments are not likely to change significantly the power struggle going on between Hadi and his predecessor. Allies of former president Saleh have permanently put a wrench into the process of reforming Yemen and transforming its institutions.

As a president with shaky powers in the face of a former regime that is still very much alive (Ahmed Ali Saleh and Yahya Saleh control Yemen’s Republican Guards and Central Security Forces, respectively), there is only so much that Hadi can do to fulfill his mandate. Yet his weakness is precisely why the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), both of which signed the deal that in theory was supposed to end Yemen’s political crisis, have an obligation to help him exert control. On more than one occasion, the GCC has pledged its complete support to Hadi in implementing the transitional agreement. The latest challenge by the Saleh family, however, has driven home the point that words alone will not do much good, especially in the absence of tangible sanctions against those who are deliberately making the transition more difficult.

Last May, President Barack Obama issued an executive order for this very purpose—freezing assets of anyone found torpedoing the GCC agreement. The executive order is broad in scope, allowing the U.S. government to confiscate the finances (under U.S. jurisdiction) of anyone either directly or indirectly associated with “obstructing the agreement of November 23, 2011.” As a country that has a primary national-security interest in ensuring that Yemen’s journey to democratic governance succeeds with as few bugs as possible along the way, the time may have come for the United States to put that order into immediate effect. As the commander of a military unit that actively resisted Yemen’s interim government, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh and Yahya Mohammed Abdullah Saleh must both be held liable for violating the transfer-of-power deal, just as the presidential order states.

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