The Middle East Channel

Yemen's election might matter

With daily massacres in Homs and prosecution of U.S. non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Cairo, the simmering conflict in Sanaa has faded into the background. Yet on February 21 attention will turn again to Yemen on the occasion of its presidential election. The election might seem hollow, as there is only one candidate in the race, however, it is still a pivotal step in Yemen's political transition -- and the United States should use this moment to press for a real shift away from the former regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The national vote could be more aptly named a referendum, as the current Vice President Abed Rabbo Hadi Mansour, who assumed temporary authority via a deal advanced by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), will be anointed Yemen's next leader barring any catastrophic outbreaks of violence.

While on the surface the election might seem like window-dressing at best, the psychological impact for Yemen of moving into the next phase is powerful. At a minimum, the election turns the page on decades of disappointment, despair, and disillusionment. And definitively removing Saleh from power could pave the way for opening new space for real political competition and accountable governance. He is a man who has ruled Yemen for 33 years, in his own words, "by dancing on the heads of snakes," through masterful skill in manipulating tribal alliances, political allegiances, and patronage networks. After prior pledges to leave power were reversed -- and months of hand-wringing when Saleh agreed to sign the deal and then three times reneged -- just having this official exit stamp is a relief.

Removal of the head does not, however, change the body of the snake. Much deeper changes are necessary, but it is essential to remember that Yemen is not starting from scratch and actually enjoys some advantages over other Arab countries. Unlike Egypt, Yemen has a culture of multi-party competition and coalition politics; unlike Libya, Yemen has a developed parliamentary process with strong committee structures; and unlike Tunisia, Yemen has a history of a dynamic civil society that defends human rights and the freedoms of press and expression. There is a foundation upon which to build in Yemen, but democracy advocates need international assistance and support, not only financial, but moral and ideological as well. If the United States and its allies support a status quo that prioritizes security cooperation at the expense of democratic gains, then the United States will jeopardize the long-term stability and prosperity of the Yemeni people. A weakened Yemen fosters a growing al Qaeda presence, which ultimately compromises U.S. security as well.

The country faces endemic challenges, many of which preceded the conflict, including dire economic conditions, pervasive unemployment, and poor access to clean water, fuel, and electricity for millions of citizens. Then there are the new problems that the GCC deal created, such as a blanket immunity clause for President Saleh and all his cohorts that is proving to be divisive and potentially catastrophic. At the same time, the military and security apparatus is still controlled by Saleh's son, nephews, and other family members. Furthermore, the deal was agreed upon by the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of Yemeni opposition parties, but did not include other important groups with legitimate grievances, such as the southern secessionists, the Houthi rebels in the north, and the non-aligned youth activists.

Despite these shortcomings, the GCC agreement is the current best hope for political transition in Yemen. Assuming that Saleh does indeed depart the stage, the United States and its allies should weigh in forcefully on unresolved issues that will determine whether Yemen emerges as a nation with optimism and hope, or one that is hampered by a legacy of corruption, abuse, and neglect from the past three decades. Specifically, the United States should actively engage its military and intelligence counterparts to ensure that security sector restructuring occurs beyond a superficial level and does not leave the same old power brokers in place that compete for fiefdoms within the country. Since the immunity clause is unlikely to be reversed, the United States should support alternative transitional justice mechanisms to address the wounds of war, and should foster a National Dialogue process that is truly inclusive and incorporates youth voices, which have been largely marginalized up to this point.

To date, U.S. policy has centered on counterterrorism cooperation with Yemeni security forces and assistance to combat al Qaeda operatives. However, it is clear that a policy focused solely on military assistance, weapons, and drone attacks will not eliminate the threat of terrorism toward American targets. The United States should more forcefully advance an approach in Yemen that focuses on economic growth, sustainable development, transparent institutions, and the rule of law in order to create long-term stability that will benefit both the United States and Yemen. Moving forward, the United States and its allies should actively hold the new government accountable for the implementation of the deal, and at the same time, exert every effort to support the democratic forces that are still advocating real, legitimate political change, rather than simply being satisfied with Saleh's removal.

Danya Greenfield is the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.


Marc Lynch

Helping Syria Without War

How should the United States, and the international community, respond to the escalating bloodbath in Syria?  Over the last two months, the overwhelming weight of  editorial and op-ed commentary has been in the direction of calling for military action of some sort --- especially to arm a Free Syrian Army.  The calls for military action span the spectrum:  from John McCain and Lindsey Graham and the FPI-FDD group of conservative hawks to liberal interventionists and even... FP bloggers.  For people desperate to do something to help the Syrian people, and at the same time for people keen to deal a blow to Iran or bring down a long-hated regime in Damascus, the time seems right for some form of military intervention.  

I was a strong supporter of the intervention in Libya. But the diversion of the debate about Syria towards military options has been counterproductive.  None of the military options on offer, including arming the Free Syrian Army, are likely to significantly help the Syrian people and most risk making things far worse.  But the recent display of a broad-based international consensus, including the 137-12 vote in the United Nations General Assembly condemning the regime's violence, and the first meeting of the "Friends of Syria" group on Friday in Tunisia make this a crucial time to seriously explore non-military options which have a more realistic chance to be adopted.. and to succeed.  

In a new report released today by the Center for a New American Security, I argue that if the goal is to help the Syrian people and not just to hurt an Iranian ally then the international response to the Syrian crisis must focus less on whether to use military options than on ways to improve the prospects for a "soft landing" after the fall of the Assad regime.    The report lays out a number of concrete suggestions for mobilizing diplomatic pressure and breaking the intensifying polarization between two Syrian communities in order to push for a political transition. I can't offer any guarantees that this strategy will work quickly or cleanly... but neither can those now recklessly calling for poorly conceived military action.

I am not going to summarize every detail of the report in this post -- please download it here.  The first half of the report assesses in some depth each of the major military options which have been put on the table:  No Fly Zones, Tactical Air Strikes, Safe Areas, Armed Observers, and Arming the Opposition.  For each of the first four, I argue that the military means would not respond effectively to the violence, would be far more complicated than advocates acknowledge, and would likely soon pave the way to further escalation upon failure. 

I spend the most time arguing against the currently fashionable idea of arming the Syrian opposition (about whom, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey noted this weekend, little is really known). It is unlikely that arms from the outside would come close to evening the balance of power, and would only invite escalations from Syrian regime forces.  While advocates assume that a better-armed opposition would encourage a wave of defections from the Syrian army, it is just as plausible that growing militarization will harden the polarization in Syrian society and the resolve of Syrian troops.   Those currently on the fence, disgusted with Assad but afraid of the future, could well be frightened back onto the side of the regime and move even further away from any kind of realistic political solution.    

Finally, there is the reality of the deeply divided, fragmented nature of the Syrian opposition, which is more than just an inconvenient point to be noted and then waved away.  Most enthusiasts for arming the FSA preface their call by insisting that it is necessary that the Syrian opposition first unify.  But it hasn't, and shows no signs of unifying politically any time soon. There is quite simply no prospect that the Syrian opposition will unify politically in the time frame envisioned by those who hope to rush weapons to the front lines to protect civilians in besieged areas like Homs.  But this reality doesn't seem to actually blunt their enthusiasm for arming the Syrian opposition anyway. This waving away of supposedly "necessary" conditions reminds me all too clearly of those who insisted that COIN must have a legitimate national partner to work with but then insisted on carrying it out in Afghanistan anyway despite the manifest absence of such a leadership in Kabul.

But the report is not only a brief against military options. It tries to lay out a political and diplomatic strategy to increase the pressure on the Assad regime while building the conditions for a political transition.   Those grappling with the Syria crisis too often do not take seriously enough that Syrians remain sharply divided over the crisis.  Many Syrians continue to support the regime, some out of genuine fear of the future, some out of true commitment, some out of sectarian solidarity, some because they believe the narrative which the regime has crafted about foreign conspiracies. Ignoring or scoffing at their beliefs, or lobbing propaganda across a hostile divide, isn't going to help. No post-Assad Syria is going to be stable if it can't include and command the loyalty of that sizable portion of its population -- and so a political strategy must be designed to engage them in a plan for transition. 

That does not mean engaging Assad or accepting his farcical reform proposals. The report argues that the time for negotiations with the top levels of the Assad regime has passed, and if they refuse to engage immediately then they should be moved towards indictment at the International Criminal Court.  A real choice should be given to lower level state officials, who should understand that their window is rapidly closing to defect or be indicted.  Targeted sanctions should increase the pressure on the top of the regime.  The Friends of Syria group should coordinate international activity, and every possible international forum should be mobilized to isolate and shame the Syrian regime. 

But pressure is not enough.  Efforts should be stepped up to reach out to the broad base of the regime's remaining political support and to persuade them to take a frightening, risky leap into the unknown of a transition.  Particular attention should be paid to breaking through the polarized narratives which have Syrians increasingly living within mutually isolated narrative bubbles. The international community should work to bring credible information about regime atrocities to those Syrians who doubt their reality, and to reassure them about their place in a post-Assad Syria.  To the latter end, I lay out some proposals for drafting a political pact with international guarantees to which the Syrian opposition would commit itself as a way of reassuring those key parts of the Syrian fabric.   This may still be possible, despite the increasing polarization and hardening divide... but not if military options are chosen or major arms flow in to the various groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. 

The choice is not between political options which won't work and military options which will work.  The hard truth is that the available military options have little chance of quickly or decisively turning the tide against Assad's regime. They are more likely to simply ratchet the violence up to a higher level, while badly harming the chances of any kind of political transition which could create a stable, inclusive Syria.  I hope that this political proposal will be given a chance, even if its success if far from assured.   Please download the whole report here for more details, and I look forward to discussing the ideas.