Endgame in Yemen: As Saleh sinks, what should the U.S. do?

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Over dinner in Sana’a late last year, a European diplomat told me that President Ali Abdallah Saleh’s 32-year-old regime was unlikely to be toppled anytime soon. He offered four key reasons: “The army are with him and the tribes are with him—which means the people will never rise against him. And of course, the U.S. is with him.”

With the defection of key generals over the past 24 hours, three of those four factors have effectively been removed. And the fourth? If the Obama administration moves swiftly, it may yet be able to manage the change of guard in Sana’a.

A quick recap of how we got here. The people were the first to rise against their corrupt, inept dictator: anti-Saleh demonstrations began at two months ago. When police and regime thugs were unable to stop the protests with truncheons and stones, it gave more Yemenis confidence to join the demonstrations. Soon there were protests in every major urban center.

The tribes were the next to join: two weeks ago, a major confederation of tribal leaders, long Saleh backers, called for his ouster. Members of parliament from Saleh’s own party quit and formed a splinter group. A minister wrote an open letter calling on the president to step aside.

Panicked, Saleh upped the ante against the protesters. First he ejected several foreign journalists who had been covering the demonstrations, including my colleague Oliver Holmes. It made me wonder what the regime was planning that it didn’t want the Western world to see. Then last week, nearly 50 protesters were killed in Sana’a: many were shot by snipers from rooftop positions.

That was the final straw for some top military commanders and diplomats. Several ambassadors have quit their jobs in protest against the massacre. Two top generals Mohammed Ali Mohsen and Hameed al-Qusaibi have joined them. But perhaps most damaging of all, Saleh’s right-hand man, Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, has announced his “solidarity” with the protesters.

Gen. Ahmar didn’t resign, and it’s not clear how far he intends to go to show his solidarity. But the fact that he spoke in favor of the protesters at all is highly damaging for Saleh. The general has for decades been the president’s main enforcer. A US Embassy cable recently leaked by WikiLeaks describes the general as the “second most-powerful man in Yemen.”

The same cable says Gen. Ahmar has ties to terrorists and extremists, arms dealers and smugglers. It described him as a closet Islamist, whose accession to the presidency (were that to happen) “would be unwelcome to the U.S. and others in the international community.”

If Gen. Ahmar’s statement is a precursor to his defection, then the largest rat will have deserted Saleh’s sinking ship.

Saleh is now left with two options: a Mubarak-like departure or a Gaddafi-like war against his own people. The omens are not good. Saleh’s son and nephews head important military units, and may not be inclined to go quietly. Unverifiable reports from Sana’a today tell of rival tank units facing off in the streets of the Yemeni capital.

The Obama administration, distracted by other revolutions and civil wars in the Arab world, has been consistently behind the curve in Yemen. But it now has a chance to get ahead of events. A substantial portion of the Yemeni military budget is funded by the U.S., which gives Washington leverage with the generals. As it did in Egypt, the U.S. can press military commanders still loyal to Saleh to hold their fire and urge their leader to quit. Saleh should be getting the same message from Secretary of State Hilary Clinton or John Brennan, Obama’s go-to man on counterterrorism and the last top official to speak with the Yemeni president.

There’s no time to waste. Yemenis look increasingly likely to get rid of Saleh without U.S. help. The Obama administration’s opportunity to get on the right side of history will not last long.