Yemen – Observations as the uprising unfolds

24th June: Saleh in his refusal to do the bidding of the GCC and the United States and instead gamble on challenging the uprising, very nearly paid with his life.
The assassination attempt illustrates the impasse that the uprising has reached. It has proved unable to unite all the opposing forces in Yemen society under one banner and programme. Now the initiative has passed to ex-Saleh allies and coup plotters within the Saleh camp.

In this respect, Saleh’s judgement of the opposition’s weakness was correct. The inability of the uprising the carry through the overthrow of Saleh has lead to tribal divisions coming to the fore. Stirring up sectarian divisions was a deliberate policy on the part of the Saleh camp, they are quite willing fight a civil war if that is what it takes to hold onto their power and privilege.

What makes this such a volatile and unpredictable situation is that the forces facing each other are unstable. The opposition is made up of an uneasy and fractured alliance of the youth, tribal leaders and defectors on the one side. On the other side are the Saleh forces who, having suffered splits and defections, still control the state apparatus.

In light of the doubtful return of Saleh, the most likely outcome is a deal stitched up between opposition tribal leaders and Saleh’s allies.

Such a deal though, would leave the mass of the protesters out in the cold with none of their demands satisfied. With the shortcomings of the protesters leadership there is a real danger that tribal division and sectarianism could fill the vacuum and take a hold in the protest movement.

With the pause in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, the failure of the Libyan uprising and likely victory of Assad in Syria, it’s looking more probable that events in Yemen could take the course of civil war.

26th April: President Saleh of Yemen has found his position much more precarious than Assad’s in Syria. Suffering defections, the Yemen regime hasn’t remained as solid as that in Syria. With splits within his own ranks and the protests continuing unabated, Saleh has little room for manoeuvre. He has had to accept, in words at least, a proposal from the GCC to step down in thirty days, provided he’s given immunity for his crimes of course! The GCC has not acted out of concern at the loss of innocent lives, this is the same organisation that was invited into Bahrain to suppress protests there.

The motivation of the GCC, especially its principle member Saudi Arabia, is the twin fears of the contagion of protest and the breakup of Yemen into two unstable states. The opposition coalition groups have agreed to the GCC plan, including participation in a transitional government. This is in contradiction to the demand of the protesters that Saleh steps down immediately. The possibility of splits within the opposition would of course give Saleh a glimmer of hope, but only a glimmer.

With fewer cards to play than Assad, it does look probable that Saleh will be forced to step down eventually. Relief for his regime will be temporary though. Its structure will remain intact for a period, but it will be subject to the enormous pressures of the people on the one side and the regime’s beneficiaries on the other. In-spite of, or perhaps because of, the machinations of the west and the GCC, the result would still be instability. While events remain fluid, it’s not certain whether this instability would take the path of the fracturing of Yemen or a state structure so weakened that it would be virtually ineffectual. The Arab uprisings that have brought Yemen to this point still exercise a dominant influence on the Yemen protests. An upsurge in revolutionary action in Egypt for example, could still be powerful enough to completely alter the course of events in Yemen.

25th March: In Yemen, after weeks of protests the military has begun to split under the pressure. Tens of thousands have gathered in Change Square for the ‘Friday of Departure’ rally.

Syria – Observations as the uprising unfolds

13th June: What seemed to have been the most probable outcome of Assad restoring the regime’s control has been thrown into doubt by the astonishing bravery of the Syrian people.

The events of the past month shows just how easy it is for dictators to miscalculate. Driven by the belief of their own infallibility, they can become too confident in the tools and methods of repression and their own judgement. The regime is now reduced to vacillating between concessions and brutal attacks on the population.

Assad offered concessions including the lifting the state of emergency and an amnesty to those arrested up to 30th May.

When the masses rejected all offers with contempt, correctly seeing them as meaningless and as a play for time, Assad switched to extreme violence.

Assad’s regime used the horrific torture of a 13 year old boy  to send a warning to mothers to discourage their children from protesting. Arbitrary and random arrests and torture are employed against the population to create an atmosphere of terror.

Villages and towns that resist are subject to the wrath of army who attack with tanks and helicopters.

Assad’s regime has turned a blind eye to protests in the Golan Heights hoping they would distract attention away from the regime. After having complained that Syria was trying to direct the ire of protesters towards it by provoking a confrontation with Syrians on the Golan Heights, Israel responded by… killing protesters! Their reaction shows the stupidity that characterises the modern Israeli elite.

Their blunder with the Golan Heights protest is just a continuation of other blunders, such as the 2006 Lebanon War. This shows that Israel’s political elite have degenerated into the one trick pony of violent re-action. Worse still, some elements such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, wear their stupidity and brashness as a badge of honour.

The west has responded with its usual cynicism. They have limited themselves to calls to end the violence and racketing up sanctions against individuals of the regime. There is virtually no prospect of western military intervention on several grounds:

  • There is no desire from ordinary Syrians for intervention. In fact quite the opposite, they are openly hostile to the idea
  • Syria is far larger militarily than Libya, so far NATO have spent over three months trying to defeat the much more inferior and fragmented forces of Gaddafi
  • Syria, is strategically more important than Libya, it’s disintegration would risk infecting the whole region including the west’s allies
  • The west, unlike with Libya, would not get a free pass from Russia and China to intervene in Syria

The west, along with Israel, would undoubtedly welcome the fall of Assad but not at the price of instability in the region.

This explains the apparent contradiction in the west’s approach between Libya and Bahrain, Libya and Syria etc. For the west, the issue is not a moral one, but what is in their best material interest. When looked at from this view point, the policy of the west towards the Arab uprisings has been entirely consistent.

The tactics of the Syrian regime have descended to new brutal depths. The pro-democracy movement still suffers the flaws of fragmented leadership which gives an advantage to Assad’s campaign to remain in power. However, victory for the Syrian regime is still some way from being assured.

25th April: Bashir Assad in ordering the mass slaughter of protesters over the weekend has decided on a final showdown. Over a hundred have been killed in the last few days alone. All the major cities from Latakia, Baniyas, Aleppo, Homs to Damascus have been rocked by calls for the regime to fall. The epicentre of the protests Daraa, has received merciless treatment, snipers shooting at unarmed people to prevent them collecting and burying their dead. Today, 25th April, the Syrian Army has invaded cities and towns across Syria in a government crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators.

The Syrian political and military elites, unlike their Libyan and Yemen counterparts, have suffered very little in terms of splits and defections and are still in a strong position. The protesters suffer the disadvantage of an organisation to co-ordinate nationally to counter the Assad strategy. It does seem likely that these two factors will help the Syrian authorities succeed in putting down the protests.

Though Bashir Assad may succeed in defeating the protest movement, the cost will be high. Assad’s regime will be weaker for its victory, its legitimacy will be undermined and its aura of invincibility shattered. Time may show that this is not the end of the uprising but just the first episode.

*Since the time of writing, activists have expressed doubts that Assad will be toppled, citing factors that appear to back up the analysis above.