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After the defection of several top military commanders yesterday and a wave of weekend resignations from Yemen's diplomatic corps, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said through a spokesman Tuesday that he is willing to step down by year's end in a “constitutional” power transfer, according to Al Jazeera.
Mr. Saleh's increasing concessions – just weeks ago he firmly refused to even come up with an exit plan by year's end let alone leave office – raise questions about the future of America's counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen should he step down.
The tenuous partnership has been touted by US officials as imperative to reining in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the regional franchise that has claimed responsibility for several attempted terrorist attacks on Western targets. While Saleh has not always been seen as completely cooperative, his regime and President Barack Obama's government carried on a "relationship of convenience," the Associated Press reports.
For two years, the Obama administration has had a relationship of convenience with Yemen: The US kept the Yemeni government armed and flush with cash. In return, Yemen's leaders helped fight al-Qaida or, as often, looked the other way while the US did.
That relationship is about to get a lot less convenient.
Of all the uprisings and protests that have swept the Middle East this year, none is more likely than Yemen to have immediate damaging effects on U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Yemen is home to al-Qaida's most active franchise, and as President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government crumbles, so does Washington's influence there.
The challenge for the US with a new leader will be to convince him to “continue an unpopular campaign” against Al Qaeda even in a country that deals with more pressing domestic issues, among them the restive Houthi population in the north, secessionists in the south, pirates off its shore, a population that is half illiterate, and water scarcity that is likely to worsen, the AP adds. It is also unclear exactly how organized AQAP is, given that they have never successfully pulled off a major terrorist operation.
Yemen receives about $300 million annually in US aid, which was stepped up after the attempted airplane bombing of a Detroit-bound flight in December 2009 was credited to the Yemen-based Al Qaeda branch, Bloomberg reports.
The embattled president has become increasingly isolated. Since the March 18 killing of at least 46 protesters by government loyalists, protesters have gained support from defecting military commanders and resigning ambassadors. Saleh's own half brother and longtime ally Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar led the military defections yesterday, announcing he was deploying troops to protect the protesters, The Christian Science Monitor reported.
“Yemen today is suffering from a comprehensive and dangerous crisis, and it is widespread,” Gen. Ahmar said. “It is because of what I feel about the emotions of officers and leaders in the armed forces, who are an integral part of the people, and protectors of the people, I declare, on their behalf, our peaceful support of the youth revolution and their demands and that we will fulfill our duties."
Mr. Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both condemned the killings last week. In a written statement, President Obama hinted that the US would stand behind the protesters' calls for replacing Saleh:
The United States stands for a set of universal rights, including the freedom of expression and assembly, as well as political change that meets the aspirations of the Yemeni people. It is more important than ever for all sides to participate in an open and transparent process that addresses the legitimate concerns of the Yemeni people, and provides a peaceful, orderly and democratic path to a stronger and more prosperous nation.
Secretary Clinton's statement also urged an end to force against the protesters and urged Saleh to address the protesters' demands in a democratic process. She did not seem to rule out the election of a new leader.
A solution to Yemen's problems will not be found through security measures. We support dialogue as the path to a peaceful solution to Yemen’s current political situation. This must include genuine participation by all sides in an open and transparent process that addresses the legitimate concerns of all Yemeni people, including their political and economic aspirations.
Whether Saleh's announcement that he would be willing to step down the move will quell the protests against the leader of 32 years is still unclear. Opposition leader Yassin Noman said Tuesday that Saleh would be allowed to remain in the country if he stepped down, according to Reuters.