In US call for Americans to leave Yemen, a forecast of harder times ahead

Illustrating its limited options, the US, again, urges the president of Yemen to step down. A call for Americans to leave the country is further evidence of official pessimism.

Hani Mohammed/AP
Yemeni army soldiers in charge of protecting antigovernment protesters, check pedestrians at the site of a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen, on Wednesday, May 25.

The United States continues to press for a political transition in Yemen, with President Obama joining other leaders of G-8 countries Thursday in urging Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to give up power and avert rising violence.

But with Mr. Saleh digging in his heels – despite an earlier agreement to step down – and the Arabian Peninsula country careening toward what some fear could be civil war, the US is ordering nonessential personnel and all employees’ family members to leave. It is also urging US citizens in Yemen to depart while commercial transportation is still available.

In other words, the US government now foresees worsening conflict and instability in a country where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has gained a foothold in recent years.

The US is no doubt pursuing other means of pressuring Saleh to leave office, regional experts say – in particular impressing upon Yemen’s neighbors the importance of avoiding a worsening conflict. But they add that the repeated calls for Saleh to leave are a measure of the limited options the international community has.

“Certainly the US is consulting with people who are close by, in particular the Saudis, who are in the best position of anybody to broker Saleh’s departure,” says Charles Dunbar, a former US ambassador to Yemen now at Boston University. “But the truth is the US and the international community don’t have a lot of good options here.”

The overriding interest in avoiding prolonged instability in Yemen means that economic sanctions aren’t an option. The West would win no friends in launching a military campaign against Yemen, a tribal society that most experts say would reject the kind of NATO-led mission that Libya’s opposition embraced.

That does not mean there is nothing the US and others can do, Mr. Dunbar says.

One option would be a naval blockade of Yemen, he says, if for no other reason than to stop the arms shipments flowing into the country and determine where they are headed. “There’s already a lot of gray steel floating around in the water [in the Gulf of Aden] because of all the piracy out there, so that’s one step you could take,” Dunbar says.

In addressing the Yemeni crisis Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton continued to place the onus for resolving the conflict on Saleh, even as she underscored the US interest in seeing stability return to what has been a key partner in the fight against Al Qaeda.

“We continue to support a united and stable Yemen and we continue to support the departure of President Saleh, who has consistently agreed that he would be stepping down from power and then consistently reneged on those agreements,” Secretary Clinton said in Paris.

The Saudis have brokered agreements to conflicts in Yemen in the past, Dunbar notes. But he says enough Yemenis still remember how terrible was the last full-blown civil war in the 1960s that he continues to believe they will pull back from the brink and find a political solution. He does worry that Saleh “may have become unhinged” from reality in a way that would make a resolution more difficult.

And like in all the other countries across the region that have been turned upside in the Arab Spring, Dunbar adds, the real question comes after the conflict and violence end.

“Once you get this political brouhaha settled,” he says, “then what do you do to fix the country?”

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