White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan is on a mission to do what civil war, secession, rebellion, attempted assassination, an economy in meltdown and week after week of mass protests have so far failed to achieve: Persuade Yemen’s canny, tribesman president of 33 years to step down.
Brennan flew into Saudi Arabia this week to meet long time US ally President Ali Abdullah Saleh who has been receiving medical treatment in the kingdom since a bomb explosion in his palace left him with severe burns.
Brennan asked President Saleh to “expeditiously” agree to a transition deal where he would transfer power to the vice president and step down, in exchange for immunity from prosecution for corruption.
Saleh said he viewed the proposal as a “basis” for a national dialogue, comments sure to be taken by his opponents as proof he will never willingly step down.
In Yemen, Brennan met with Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who has filled in for Saleh.
It’s no coincidence that America’s counter terrorism chief is the official tasked with sorting out the messy Yemeni quagmire.
The US has long viewed Yemen through the prism of counter terrorism, judging Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as one of the greatest threats to American security.
US counter terrorism officials worry AQAP are exploiting the Yemen’s instability to gain more traction in a country bordering Saudi Arabia’s vast oil fields and strategic shipping lanes in the Arabian and Red seas.
“The US does not want the pro Islamic Islah party coming to power in Yemen,” Hasan Zaid, secretary general of opposition party Haq told Global Post. “It feels that if Islamists reach power in Yemen, chaos will follow. This is why the US is playing a vital role in Yemen power transfer and we feel it is needed."
However, direct US mediation has not been so welcomed by Yemen’s youth protestors, who accuse Washington of too long backing Saleh – believed by many in the US to be the best bet for cracking down on AQAP – despite the popular uprising against his rule.
“The youth reject the US stance which insists on ignoring the interests of the people,” said Waseem Qurshi, spokesperson for the Revolution Youth Organizing Committee. “The oppressive regime is supported by the US and the youth will not allow the US to be involved in Yemeni politics. The US has lost the respect of the Yemeni people after it went against the will of the people.”