U.S.: To Resolve Conflict, Yemen's President Must Go

Originally published on June 6, 2011 10:17 am

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was blunt this week, saying the ongoing conflict in Yemen won't be over until President Ali Abdullah Saleh accepts the transition plans drawn up by Gulf states.

"President Saleh was given a very good offer that we strongly backed. And, you know, we cannot expect this conflict to end unless President Saleh and his government move out of the way to permit the opposition and civil society to begin a transition to political and economic reform," Clinton said.

Her spokesman, Mark Toner, repeated that call on Friday after Saleh's compound was hit in a new escalation of street violence in Sanaa, Yemen's capital.

"All parties must end these attacks and avoid any further escalation or any further casualties in the days ahead. Clearly, the deteriorating situation in Yemen can only be addressed through a peaceful and orderly transfer of power, and so we again call on President Saleh to move immediately to heed the calls of the Yemeni people," Toner said.

U.S. officials are appealing for calm and expressing frustration that the international community has failed so far to resolve the increasingly bloody political conflict. There is growing concern in Washington that Yemen could be headed toward an all-out civil war and financial ruin.

U.S. Maneuvers

Behind the scenes, a White House adviser on counterterrorism, John Brennan, consulted with officials in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to figure out how to persuade Saleh to leave.

Christopher Boucek, an expert on Yemen at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the U.S. and Saudi Arabia need to show a united front.

"I think there's a perception in the region, in Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf states, but probably also in Yemen as well, that the United States and Saudi Arabia haven't fully committed yet to President Saleh's departure," Boucek says. "They haven't yet fully accepted and aren't working towards a post-Saleh Yemen."

Boucek says there are still concerns in Washington about what comes next, particularly in the fight against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP — a terrorist group based in Yemen.

Threat Of Economic Collapse

But the longer this conflict drags on, he says, the larger the ungoverned spaces in the country. And that's not good for U.S. counterterrorism efforts — or for the people of Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country.

"The real, I think, undertold story in all of this is what is happening to the Yemeni economy. And if the Yemeni economy collapses, this is going to be a nightmare for whatever government it is that comes next," Boucek says.

The prices of water, food and cooking gas are skyrocketing, he says, and there are fears of a potential refugee crisis if the violence spreads. That is also a big concern for Barbara Bodine, a former ambassador to Yemen who now lectures at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

"It's a country of 24 million people that was barely hanging on as it was," Bodine says. "It doesn't have any cushion to be able to withstand something like this for very long."

President Saleh's Limited Options

Bodine says there is no other option than a negotiated settlement. The trouble is that Saleh isn't the type of person who likes to be seen as caving to international pressure, and now, Bodine says, he's got his back up.

"One of the talking points to Saleh at this point would be, 'You talk about if you go and there is not a good transition, there will be chaos in the country. Sir, we have chaos. What you need to do is agree to a transition, and wherever you are going to go, go. Because otherwise, your legacy is going to be the collapse of your country.' "

For now, she says, Saleh is playing for time, hoping perhaps that the U.S. and Gulf states will be distracted by other conflicts in the region — including Syria, Libya and Bahrain.

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