News / Middle East

US Faces Dilemma with Anti-Terror Ally Yemen

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, left, shakes hands with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton following her arrival for a visit to Yemen January 11, 2011.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, left, shakes hands with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton following her arrival for a visit to Yemen January 11, 2011.
Elizabeth Arrott

The killing of extremist cleric Anwar al Awlaki in a U.S. drone attack in Yemen last week highlights the close ties between Washington and Sana'a. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has cast his leadership as critical to U.S. counter-terrorist efforts, and warned of chaos should his numerous opponents force him from power. But the U.S. may still have potential allies in Yemen if Saleh were to leave the scene.

President Saleh has never been the perfect partner in counter-terrorism. Too many extremists were released or "escaped" from Yemeni prisons for America's taste.  But for years he has said he is the last line of defense against the threat of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. And the U.S. responded with military and economic help that, intentionally or not, gave Saleh far more strength than his opponents believe he deserved.

Disappointment with U.S.

Many of the anti-government protests rocking Yemen this year do not have anti-Americanism as their root. But according to Hakkim al Masmari, an editor and columnist in Sana'a, demonstrators watched the U.S. reaction to other popular uprisings across the region and frustration set in.   

"The pro-democracy students are very ashamed at what the U.S. is doing. They feel that the U.S. is not playing it fair. They feel that the U.S. is not acting democratic and the U.S. is now supporting a dictator at a time when its called for democracy."

Washington has said it supports reform, and backs a Gulf Cooperation Council proposal that would see a peaceful transition of power in Yemen. How forcefully U.S. officials press for that change, especially in the wake of the cooperation that led to al Awlaki's death, is unclear. But Stephen Steinbeiser, with the American Center for Yemen Studies in Sana'a, says the potential for a partnership remains.

"The pro-democracy students identify themselves as being kind of the closest allies in Yemen that the U.S. currently has. They dismiss the current regime as being undemocratic, and they point to others as simply not adhering to U.S. democratic ideals.  But they are untested. And so it would really take some time to organize some political strengths and identify some strong leaders and only then begin to really articulate a policy that the U.S. would be interested in working with."

Engaging others within the opposition

The U.S. has been working with other groups in Yemen. Editor Masmari says the outreach of American diplomats toward tribal leaders has led to very strong connections, in particular with the al-Ahmar family, which heads a powerful tribal federation and is among the most potent of the anti-Saleh forces. Despite a warrior-like image reinforced by fierce street battles in the capital, analyst Steinbeiser says the clan's true interests may be more pragmatic.  

"The al-Ahmar family is a family of commerce. They're a business family, so I think they're more outward looking than a lot of people in Yemen might otherwise be. They have a number of concerns here in Yemen, including major telephone and cellular telephone networks. And I think that they could get on quite well with U.S. policy if it's conducted on the level of kind of business, commercial exchange."

Steinbeiser says that in terms of more complicated issues, he would be surprised if the al-Ahmar clan has formulated many specific policies.

A lack of future policy planning is perhaps understandable among others in the widely divergent array of anti-Saleh forces, focused now almost exclusively on removing the president from power.

But Steinbeiser feels at least in the short run, such groups as the al-Ahmar family, military defectors and the traditional opposition - those engaged in the current negotiations over the transfer of power - are likely to continue the current government's largely pro-U.S. policy. He says that may extend even to many Islamist groups, not the extremists, but those who want a religion-based government.

"My impression overall is that all of the groups realize the imperative of trying to keep Yemen as peaceful and stable as possible right now. Even before this political impasse occurred, Yemen was facing surmounting problems that would pressure a more established, richer nation.  And to have this kind of political wedge thrown into the works right now is very, very dangerous, and potentially very disruptive to any course of progress in Yemen for any of the groups mentioned."

While U.S. support of Saleh has bred resentment, the same military and financial aid he has enjoyed could well become building blocks for any future alliances, at least in the short term.

Watch this explainer of the situation in Yemen by Davin Hutchins in Washington, D.C, and Tom Finn in Sana'a:

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