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Monday, April 25, 2011

Yemen and Syria put credibility of the international community on the line


Violence in Syria and a potential resolution of thecrisis in Yemen puts on the line the credibility of allied forces imposing a no-fly zone on Libya as well as the GCC. (Illustration by Ahmed Estaitia)

Violence in Syria and a potential resolution of thecrisis in Yemen puts on the line the credibility of allied forces imposing a no-fly zone on Libya as well as the GCC. (Illustration by Ahmed Estaitia)
Escalating violence in Syria and a potential resolution of the three-month old crisis in Yemen puts on the line the credibility of allied forces imposing a no-fly zone on Muammar Qadaffi’s Libya as well as the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh put the GCC on the spot late Saturday by agreeing to its proposal for an end to the crisis in his country under which he would resign within 30 days. In doing so, Mr. Saleh effectively challenged the GCC to twist the arm of his opponents to accept terms for his departure that they so far have rejected.

GCC confirmation of an agreement would position the six-nation body that groups the Gulf’s major oil producers as a regional powerbroker. Confidence in the GCC’s ability to solve regional problems could dissipate if the GCC fails to persuade Mr. Saleh’s opponents to endorse the plan and re-focus attention on unrest in a number of the group’s member states.

Persuading the opposition is proving to be a hard nut to crack. Mr. Saleh’s opponents vowed on Sunday to continue their mass protests until the president resigns and is brought to justice. The GCC plans falls short of those demands.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies will have to prove their diplomatic mettle by persuading significant elements of the Yemeni opposition to accept terms for Mr. Saleh’s resignation that include the granting of immunity to the president, who has been in power for 32 years, as well as his family which controls the security services and national security. It also gives the parliament dominated by members of the president’s ruling General People's Congress a veto right over the agreement. The Congress controls 238 of parliament’s 301 seats.

GCC efforts to win opposition acceptance of its plan also focus on opposition concerns that Mr. Saleh would sway considerable influence over Yemen’s transition to a post-Saleh era by being still in office at the time of the formation of a national unity government. Opposition sources also object to the fact that the plan calls for elections within 30 days without stipulating the dissolution of the current parliament and before a new constitution has been drafted.

The GCC’s efforts to resolve the crisis has diverted attention from the renewed eruption of mass protests in Oman, continued tension in Bahrain and fears of a spreading of the unrest sweeping the Middle East and North Africa to other Gulf states. Failure to persuade all parties to agree to the group’s proposal for a resolution of the Yemeni crisis would not only raise questions about the GCC’s ability to put its own house in order but also whether it would be able to prevent Yemen from disintegrating into chaos and violence that would likely spill across its borders into Saudi Arabia and Oman. Those fears are reinforced by the presence in Yemen of a major Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Gulf (AQAM), which targets the Gulf States, and Saudi Arabia in particular.

If Yemen puts the credibility of the GCC on the line, Syria’s continued brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters is likely to increasingly raise questions why the UN Security Council, which authorized allied military action to protect civilian lives in Libya, remains silent about mounting deaths at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces. At least 120 protesters were killed this weekend in a host of Syrian cities.

The crackdown has put to bed hopes that reforms announced by Mr. Assad would be worth more than the paper they were written on. Mr. Assad on Thursday signed a decree that lifted the state of emergency, which has been in place since his father came to power in a coup 48 years ago.

The president also issued a decree in which Syrians were given the right to apply for a license to demonstrate in a procedure heavily weighted in favor of the security service. The first applicant, Fadel al-Faisal was held for several hours after filing a request to hold a demonstration, according to The Guardian. Mr. Al-Faisal’s arrest and this weekend’s deaths signal that Mr. Assad’s decrees have done little to change the facts on the ground and that he, like Colonel Qaddafi, may be determined to hold on to power at whatever price.

That price may be one that the international community could find difficult to accept. The United States and the European Union have denounced the violence in Syria. Yet, the US and the EU, already faced with criticism that they side with anti-government protesters in some Arab states but call for restraint by all parties in others (such as Bahrain), would find it difficult to justify a failure to intervene in Syria if the death toll continues to rise there.

Yet, the Libyan experience has demonstrated once again that air power alone is insufficient to tip the military balance between an embattled regime and its detractors. As a result, escalation of the violence in Syria could put the United States and the European Union between a rock and a hard place in which political constraints that produce contradictory policies become hard, if not impossible, to explain publicly.

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