The day before US missiles began raining down on Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya, hundreds of miles away—across the Red Sea—security forces under the control of Yemen’s US-backed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, massacred more than fifty people who were participating in an overwhelmingly peaceful protest in the capital, Sana. Some of the victims were shot in the head by snipers.
For months, thousands of Yemenis had taken to the streets demanding that Saleh step down, and the regime had responded consistently with defiance and brute force. But on March 21, a severe blow was dealt to Saleh that may prove to be the strike that sparked the hemorrhaging that ultimately brought down his regime. That day, the most powerful figure in Yemen’s military, Gen. Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, commander of the First Armored Division, threw his support behind the protests and vowed to defend Yemen’s “peaceful youth revolution.” Other senior military figures soon followed suit. Senior civilian officials, including scores of ambassadors and diplomats, announced their resignations. Important tribal leaders, long the most crucial element of Saleh’s grip on power, swung to the opposition.
Saleh, known in Yemen as The Boss, became the country’s leader in 1990 following the unification of the north, which he had ruled since the 1970s, and the south, which had been run by a Marxist government based in Aden. Saleh is a survivor who has deftly navigated his way through the cold war, deep tribal divisions and the “global war on terror.” Under the Obama administration, the United States committed increased military funding for his regime. Though he was known as a double-dealer, Saleh was tacitly viewed as Washington’s man on the Arabian Peninsula.
Throughout his reign, Saleh regarded the Houthi rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south as the greatest threats. For the United States, the concern was Al Qaeda. In the end, it was an autonomous mass of largely young protesters who proved the most potent challenge to Saleh’s power.
The prospect of Saleh’s departure is a source of great anxiety for the White House, but the United States has unintentionally played a significant role in weakening his regime. For more than a decade, US policy neglected Yemen’s civil society and development, focusing instead on a military strategy aimed at hunting down terrorists. These operations not only caused the deaths of dozens of civilians, fueling popular anger against Saleh for allowing the US military to conduct them; they also fed Saleh’s corruption while doing nothing to address Yemen’s place as the poorest country in the Arab world, which proved to be major driving forces behind the rebellion.
A serious case could be made that the stakes are much higher for the United States in Yemen than in Libya, yet its response to the repression of protests in the two countries has been starkly different. While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other US officials condemned the violence in Yemen, they stopped far short of calling for an end to the regime or for international military action. Instead, the US position was to call for a “political solution.”
A few days after the massacre in Sana, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a visit to Moscow, was asked if the United States still backed Saleh. “I don’t think it’s my place to talk about internal affairs in Yemen,” Gates replied. What he said next spoke volumes about US priorities: “We are obviously concerned about the instability in Yemen. We consider Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is largely located in Yemen, to be perhaps the most dangerous of all the franchises of Al Qaeda right now. And so instability and diversion of attention from dealing with AQAP is certainly my primary concern about the situation.”