US Must Build on Success In Dealing With Yemen
Supporting unity was right; now America should give postwar aid
AFTER two months of ferocious fighting, the civil war in Yemen is over. Three days after government forces captured Aden, the largest southern city, forcing the southern leaders to flee Yemen to the neighboring states of Oman and Djibouti, President Ali Abdullah Saleh declared his forces to be in control and invited Yemenis to participate in the formation of the new government of national unity.
The end of the civil war was not only a success for pro-unity forces in Yemen and the Arab world but also a success for United States policy toward Yemen. For the first time since the Suez crisis, the Arab public has applauded the US stance on a regional crisis. Against the advice of its regional allies, mainly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the US refused to recognize the state declared by southern separatists. Instead, the US worked for a peaceful settlement that would preserve Yemen's unity. It was a brilliant move not to go against pro-unity sentiments of the Yemeni people. Contrary to popular Arab perception that the US conspired against the will of the Arab people by encouraging separatism in order to ``divide and rule,'' the US now seems a power that encourages unity. This change in Arabs' perception of the US role in the region is important for fostering US interests. US policymakers should be proud of the success of their Yemen policy and their ability to gain support among the people of the region.
However, this success has the potential to dissipate if it is not followed by measures designed to help in the postwar reconstruction and maintain Yemen's democratic experiment.
As the US attempts to fashion a postwar position toward Yemen, it should carefully consider the results of the war. First, the US should recognize President Saleh's strength. Rarely has an Arab leader managed to deal with a crisis successfully without outside help, as Saleh was able to do. Moreover, Saleh's military victory boosts the morale of the Yemeni Army and reduces the socialist party of the south to just that - a political party - instead of a political party with an army. This confidence could lead the Yemeni Army to take a step toward disarming the tribal militias that are currently under the control of Abdullah al-Ahmar, the leader of the Islamic-oriented Islah Party. Depriving both the socialists and the Islamists of their weapons and their militias is the key to building a viable democracy in Yemen.
However, if the US fails to work with Saleh, US interests in the region could be harmed. During the war, Yemen's neighbor, Saudi Arabia, supported the vanquished southerners. Opposition Saudi groups, both Islamic and liberal, supported the north and Yemen's unity.
Support by Saudi Islamists for Saleh is of particular interest. The Saudi Islamists gained popular support by appealing to religious sentiments of the Saudi public. They accused the Saudi government of supporting Marxist atheists in the south against their Islamic brethren in the north. Since the Saudi royal family has little legitimacy beyond the appearance of piety, this erosion in royal legitimacy could lead to an eventual change of government. It is in the interest of the US that this change be peaceful.
FURTHERMORE, not only Islamists are dissatisfied with the way the Saudi royal family is conducting the affairs of the country; liberal and educated Saudis are also withdrawing their support for the regime. Within the last month, two Saudi diplomats, Mohammed al-Khilawi of the Saudi mission to the UN and Ahmed al-Zahrani, a deputy at the Saudi consulate in Austin, Texas, have asked for political asylum in protest of the royal family's ``corruption, dictatorship, and human rights abuses.'' Both diplomats claim that they have documents potentially embarrassing to the Saudi royal family. A new group of educated Saudis is leading its country's opposition from London. Other opponents include Saudi billionaire Usamma Billaden, who financed many of the Islamic opposition groups in the region and is now living in the Sudan. Saleh, if rebuffed by the US, is a potential host for a Saudi opposition already disgruntled by US support of the Saudi monarchy.
Some pro-Saudi southerners have fled with weapons and airplanes to Saudi Arabia, suggesting that the Saudis are preparing to host the Yemeni opposition. Saudi militants financed and led by Mr. Billaden, combined with Yemeni troops going after southern opposition in Saudi Arabia, could lead to a war on the already tense Saudi-Yemeni border.
If not helped, Saleh could be pushed toward an alliance with regional hard-liners: Iran, Sudan, and Iraq. A leader who has just won a military victory could be a symbol and a source of support for violent opposition groups in all Arab states, especially against the embattled regimes in Egypt and Algeria. Furthermore, having a hostile Yemen on one side of the Red Sea and Sudan and Eritrea on the other could endanger international shipping, particularly if these countries perceive the US as anti-Arab and antidemocratic in its continued support for compliant dictatorships in the region.
For all these reasons, a fine-tuning of postwar Yemen policy is imperative. With its current policy that focuses on peace between Arabs and Israelis and its pro-unity stance in Yemen, the US can rehabilitate its image in the region. It is important that America show its commitment to democratization and nonmilitant opposition rather than appearing to prop up dictatorial dynastic and military rulers.
Instead of following Saudi advice, the US should encourage its allies to cope with the new realities in Yemen. Yemen's victorious leaders seem committed to democracy. In the words of Abdul Kareem al-Iryani, Yemen's minister of planning and special envoy to the UN, ``Democracy is the solution.'' Another slogan could replace this one if the US fails to help Yemen, namely, ``Islam is the solution.'' The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.