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US Exploitation of Yemen's Failed Revolution

By Micah Shapiro
Freelance Journalist
ali saleh hadi reuters
US officials have described their relations with the new leadership as even greater than under the ex-president Saleh, and more reliable. (Reuters)
US Exploitation of Yemen's Failed Revolution

Significant numbers of Americans, Muslims, and general observers have their various reasons for which Barack Obama's first term felt unfulfilled. Yet few can match the level of vehemence felt by many of the Yemeni people, following the exploitation of their revolution, which garnered diluted results. Obama has stated the best is to come in his second term, but for many Yemenis there is little interest in such talk, as US proceeded with a drone strike in Yemen within the first 24 hours of his reelection.

Throughout 2011, when Yemen's “Arab Spring” was reaching its pinnacle to ouster then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Obama Administration remained largely silent over the turmoil in comparison to their regular tirades against similar atrocities in Syria. That comes as no surprise in analyzing the US administration's obvious prioritization: Syria is ruled by Bashar al-Assad, a dictator allied with Iran, while Yemen was ruled by Saleh, a strongman long allied with the US. However, it would be a mistake to assume US did not have its eyes peeled on Yemen. 

Deep into the spring and summer months of the revolution, blood flowed in the streets of the capital, Sana'a, and other city-centers in clashes and mass murder by government snipers and counter-terror units. These particular units were trained and funded by the US to confront Muslim activists in the south, but were rerouted into the city-centers to conduct brutal crackdowns against the revolution. Such exploitation on both sides contextualizes longstanding criticism of US' foreign policy. This includes the unconditional support of corrupt regimes, the byproducts often propelling grave transgressions against the innocent.

US’ Drone Campaign

Merely one percent of Yemenis believe that the US is best situated to help Yemen as opposed to help from Arab states or elsewhere.

During the chaos that ensued, US took it as a golden opportunity to launch its first serious campaign of drone strikes in Yemen's southern countryside and remote suburbs. To put matters into perspective, there were potentially 27 drone strikes during the time of the 2011 revolution, with 13 of them confirmed, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism's databases. In retrospect, there were only four drone strikes in the year before the revolution, and a total sum of 4 in all the years previously. One has to wonder how much the US weighed the prioritization of conflict resolution versus direct military intervention during the revolution's turmoil. Yemeni people were focused on, or in this case distracted by, the bloody chaos in the city-centers while the US pursued its own objectives in the remote suburbs with drones. This resulted in miniscule public outcry over US intervention in Yemen during that time.

Some observers speculate that perhaps President Saleh provided free reign for the US to pursue its killing frenzy unchecked, in hopes that the Obama Administration would relieve him of public scrutiny and political pressure from relinquishing power. Such cover, provided by Saleh, would not be out of the ordinary in relevance to past actions.

In leaked diplomatic cables, provided by WikiLeaks, the former commander of US forces in the Middle East, General Patraeus, was assured by Saleh that he would continue lying to the public by claiming that the Yemeni air-force was carrying out the strikes, and not the US. The gesture prompted Deputy Prime Minister Aliimi to boast that he had just lied to the Yemeni parliament by telling them air strikes were the works of the Yemeni air force.

In months prior to and after this leak, both the Yemeni foreign minister and the current president, Abd-rabbuh Mansour Hadi, regurgitated these lies in assuring the public that the US had no role in the recent air strikes, despite evidence.

Who Accuses US is a Terrorist

The subservience of the Yemeni government to US directives is not limited to military intervention, as other cases exemplify. The detention of Abdulelah Haider Shaye, a Yemeni journalist, is especially alarming among observers. In a February 2, 2011 phone call from Obama to Saleh, concern was expressed by Obama over dubious claims that Shaye was affiliated with al-Qaeda. Currently, Shaye remains locked up in a Yemeni prison in what appears to be the result of Obama's request, to which Saleh complied.

Contradictory to Obama's ludicrous accusations, many of Shaye's publications are quite critical of al-Qaeda. Such Jihadist groups are unlikely to tolerate such criticism, especially from affiliates. Of possibly much greater concern for Obama, Shaye had a track record of investigating human rights violations in Yemen. 

His most notable disclosure was the evidence he extracted from the infamous air strike in December 2009, which proved US as the culprit. The strike killed dozens of women and children in Shabwah province. The event was immediately followed with turmoil and protests in southern Yemen, and the brisk formation of Ansar al-Shariah, the most active militant group in Yemen today.

A 2011 security survey by Glevum Associates made for some chilling revelations of the unpopular collusion between Yemen's leadership and US. Of the Yemeni who were surveyed, merely one percent believed that the US is best situated to help Yemen as opposed to help from Arab states or elsewhere.  Only four percent of Yemenis somewhat or strongly approve of the government's cooperation with the US. While only 16 percent believe that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are the true defenders of Islam and Muslims, twice as many believe they use violence in reaction to the West using violence against them. Interestingly, President Saleh was least popular in Shabwah province, one of the key areas most afflicted by drones and a stronghold of Ansar al-Shariah.  

Leadership Failure

While it is debatable whether al-Qaeda's affiliates in Yemen are making significant success in the war of ideas, it is certain that the Obama Administration clearly is not.

In post-revolution Yemen, little has changed in terms of the relationships between the old and the new leadership. Drone activity has spiked to even new highs, potentially comprising 83 strikes this year, 25 of which are confirmed. The new president, Abd-rabbuh Mansour Hadi, now openly endorses US drones against the will of the people that elected him in a rubber stamp election, of which he was the only candidate running.

US officials have described their relations with the new leadership as even greater than under the former president Saleh, and more reliable too. But to much of the Yemeni people, this is interpreted as their  government being a more subservient one to US’ interests, less sovereign, and weaker in strength. US policies in Yemen will continue to stain the legitimacy of domestic leadership, resulting in the continuation of failure to win over the people.

In the Glevum Associates survey, nearly 100 percent of the respondents held unfavorable views of the US government, their relations with the Islamic world, and the US-led war on terrorism. Perhaps most shocking, well over half of respondents believed the West wants to dominate and enslave Muslims and almost everyone affirmed their belief that the West is at war with Islam. The important concern is not whether their beliefs are correct, but whether the US is pursuing policies that are cultivating views which present long term sustainability in security, or vulnerabilities.

Future terrorism is frighteningly likely to find safe haven amongst the refuge of societies that become furiously anti-American, where such individuals operate unnoticed. Obama should take into consideration the serious need for an overhaul in foreign policy in preference to equal-partnerships that do not jeopardize the appearance of a state's sovereignty and self-aspirations. In the case of Yemen, drones cannot stamp out anti-American ideas from growing, while unpopularly corrupt political discourse only compels such thinking, allowing terrorism to operate under the radar of such societies.

Both American politicians and al-Qaeda spokesmen have repeatedly pointed out the fact that this war is also a war of ideas, and “winning hearts and minds” is the key component in achieving victory. While it is debatable whether al-Qaeda's affiliates in Yemen are making significant success in the war of ideas, it is certain that the Obama Administration clearly is not.

Related Links:
Yemen Children Pay Price for Unrest
Shiite-Sunni Ties in Post-revolution Yemen

Micah Shapiro is a freelance journalist specialized in conflict zones in the Muslim world, with special expertise in the Chechen conflict. Along with his vast travel experience in conflict zones, Shapiro graduated from Evergreen State College with a Middle East Studies major. Mr. Shapiro can be contacted through mshapiro83 [at] gmail.com.

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