Marc Lynch

The costs of ignoring Yemen

The costs of ignoring Yemen

The long stalemate in Yemen took a bloody turn yesterday which was as horrifying as it was utterly predictable. Regime forces opened fire on the tenacious, peaceful protestors in Change Square in Sana’a, killing dozens and flooding the hospitals with the wounded. The internet has been flooded with horrific videos which could easily have come from Libya or Syria. The violent crisis which many of us have been warning would result from neglecting Yemen and allowing its political stalemate to grind on has now arrived. The Sana’a massacre should be a crystal clear signal that the Yemeni status quo is neither stable nor sustainable, and that the failure to find a political resolution ensures escalating bloodshed and humanitarian crisis. It is time to push for an immediate political transition — and one which does not include immunity for Saleh’s men. 

It has been difficult to get anyone to pay attention to Yemen.  For months, ever since President Ali Abdullah Saleh had been rushed to Saudi Arabia for treatment of wounds from an apparent assassination attempt. Distracted by hot wars in Libya and Syria, the struggling transition in Egypt, and the diplomatic train wreck between Israel and the Palestinians, the U.S. and most of the region put Yemen on the back burner. Even though thousands of incredibly determined and resilient Yemenis continued to protest regularly, and analysts warned with increasing desperation that missing the opportunity to bring about a transition would be a disastrous mistake, the urgency faded away. Indeed, Saleh’s regime counted on that fading external urgency as part of its strategy of delay and distraction, hoping to outlast, confuse, divide, and where possible crush the protest movement. Now, Yemenis are paying for that neglect in blood.    

The U.S., the GCC, the U.N., and Yemen’s opposition need to push for Saleh to leave power now and for Yemen to immediately begin a meaningful political transition. Not in a few months, not in a few years, and not empty promises of future change which no Yemeni any longer believes. This does not mean calling for military intervention. After Libya and the debate over Syria, military action has regrettably become many peoples’ first rather than last instinct even when it is very clearly neither appropriate nor likely. It means throwing full political support to Yemen’s opposition, making clear that Yemeni officials will be held accountable before international tribunals for their role in violence against civilians, and pushing hard to end a stalemate which too many saw as an acceptable state of affairs.

Months of inattention have made this task harder, not easier. Yemen’s protest movement had been one of the most impressive and even astonishing of its Arab counterparts, and by March it seemed inevitable that Saleh’s regime would soon fall in the face of a peaceful, mass uprising. But it did not fall, even after Saleh’s departure, and a grinding stalemate ensued. The U.S. and the international community essentially delegated the Yemen file to Saudi Arabia and the GCC, which quickly proved that it was either not up to the task or not interested in finding a real solution. The Yemeni regime played on that inattention, looking to buy time and muddle through. The protestors instead proved amazingly resilient, turning out tens of thousands of people even as they struggled to find any way to achieve a political breakthrough. Qaddafi’s fall from Tripoli had inspired the Yemeni protestors, renewing hope and galvanizing their efforts — making this week’s escalation and brutality all the more significant not only in Yemen but across the region. 

The atrocities should generate renewed urgency, but there should be no illusion that a solution will now be any easier to find. After long, difficult months the opposition is more fragmented. People are really suffering from the economic collapse. The regime’s survival after it seemed on the brink of collapse has baffled its adversaries. Battle lines have hardened, and offers which once might have seemed reasonable now seem unacceptable. With the list of dead and wounded Yemeni civilians growing and rage swelling across the country, few are likely to be interested in the GCC’s deal granting amnesty to those responsible for a fresh massacre. I agree with them. One of the most important accomplishments of Libya and of the rapidly evolving international norms around the Arab uprisings has been the rejection of impunity for such atrocities, and Saleh’s regime should be no exception.  

This week’s violence should be a spur to break this stalemate. But I fear that it is more likely that the world will simply continue to ignore what’s happening in Yemen. Most of the attention of the Middle East policy community this week will be directed instead towards the drama of the Palestinian bid for recognition at the United Nations. Few in the West see many major interests in Yemen beyond the narrow, exclusive — and in today’s context nearly indefensible — focus on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The endless reports of horrors from Syria, and before that Libya, have numbed people to what must seem just one more episode in an endless litany of atrocities. 

But all of this would be a mistake. For half a year now there has been a chance for Yemenis themselves to bring about genuine, positive change and break the dominance of a repressive and corrupt regime. The new round of violence makes achieving that change more urgent — and, if the U.S., the UN, the GCC and others could only be brought to notice, finally possible. Yemen matters. Yemenis matter. Ignoring them has allowed a hurting political stalemate and a worsening humanitarian crisis. A non-policy of inattention to Yemen has only increased the risk of collapse into a real civil war, which would pose infinitely worse policy choices. Don’t wait for that.