In the wake of the winds of change that swept from Tunis to Cairo and beyond, frustrated Yemenis took to the streets to demand an end to corruption, responsive government, and respect for their basic political and social rights. For more than nine months, mass protests have spread through the country and millions have repeatedly flooded the streets demanding the fall of President Ali Abdallah Salah and transition to a new government.   

Over time, however, Yemen has morphed into an armed conflict between pre-revolutionary rivals and the peaceful forces of the uprising have been shunted aside. Voices of youth activists calling for democratic reform have been drowned out by violent outbursts between rival tribal factions. 


In response, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has put forward a plan for Salah to step down and transfer authority to his deputy in exchange for immunity for himself and his family. Three times he has accepted the deal and then reneged in the eleventh hour.  In late October, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on Salah to abide by the GCC deal, but the cycle of violence continues. Last week, European officials agreed to discuss freezing Salah’s personal assets in order to pressure him to accept the GCC deal. UN Envoy to Yemen Gamal Ben Omar arrived in Yemen on Thursday to continue negotiations and will meet with Vice President Hadi Mansour as well as opposition leaders.

These efforts are essential and urgent.  While the United States at times seems actively engaged in brokering a solution in Yemen, there is a reticence to push too hard and change the balance. While all the right words are being uttered, and the Obama administration states that a peaceful and democratic Yemen is a priority for regional stability, we have yet to see assertive action match the rhetoric.    

Understandably, the administration is focused on developments in Tripoli, Tunis, and Cairo, but this should not come at the expense of Sana’a. In some corners of the US government, there has been significant focus on Yemen, but primarily with the objective of combating and eliminating al-Qaeda operatives and leaders. What is lacking is a long-term vision that looks beyond the immediate threats to a more comprehensive perspective of the challenges plaguing Yemen and the US role in addressing them. Yemen suffers from more than 30 percent youth unemployment, a massive water shortage that will make Sana’a the first capital in the world to run out of water, and one of the highest ratios of weapons per adult male in the world. International organizations have warned of dire consequences due to widespread food shortages in a country where more than 40 percent are already below the poverty line. Most families have electricity only for a couple hours a day and transportation is nearly impossible because of the skyrocketing cost of fuel.  

As is the case with Yemen itself, it appears that the United States is stuck in perpetual crisis management and never gets around to addressing how the country can break free of a devastating cycle of poor governance, poverty, and resource mismanagement. These shortfalls impact not only on the livelihoods of Yemenis throughout the country, but also intensify the struggle for limited resources. This exacerbates internal rivalries and leads to a deteriorating security environment that poses dangers far beyond its national borders. The importance of a stable Yemen to regional and international security cannot be understated – intelligence analysts have indicated that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is now concentrated in Yemen and their targets extend to our shores.

The impending crisis in Yemen should prompt immediate action – not only for humanitarian reasons, but because it is in US national interests to pay careful attention to these issues now and to take decisive and immediate action to ameliorate a volatile situation. Ignoring such blatant warning signals, even if the reason is preoccupation with other transitions in the MENA region, would be short-sighted and ultimately will prove to be a mistake. In the first months of the conflict, US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein took a lead role in negotiations between the president and the opposition. But lately, there has been little news of active US engagement in resolving the standoff.   

In a press conference October 28 honoring Nobel Peace Prize recipient Tawakkol Karman for pro-democracy activism, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton stated that “The United States supports a democratic transition in Yemen and the rights of the people of Yemen – men and women – to choose their own leaders and futures. And the United States wants to be a good partner for the Yemeni people as they fulfill the aspirations of the revolution of the youth of Yemen, and then to continue to support the creation of a new Yemen with political and economic opportunities for all its citizens.”

In fact, Ms. Karman used the opportunity of meeting with Secretary Clinton to critique the Administration’s reluctance to hold Salah accountable for his actions against innocent civilians. Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009 raised expectations about establishing a new relationship with the Arab world to support democratic aspirations of its people, and where the United States has fallen short on that promise, the disappointment has been that much greater.

The United States simply can’t afford to take a pass on resolving the conflict in Yemen. There is still an opportunity to correct this course and to play a far more assertive role by amplifying pressure on Salah to peacefully resolve the current stalemate. While regional powers in the Gulf are essential for resolving this crisis, the United States needs to ensure that it is not relinquishing this role to Saudi Arabia, whose interests in the Arabian Peninsula differ from our own. All levers of US influence – including threats of revoking military assistance and other forms of aid—must be utilized to press Salah and his family members to cease violent action immediately and hand over control to a unity government. That much at least is owed to Tawakkol and other Yemeni democrats that have placed their trust in the United States to bring this painful chapter to a close.

Danya Greenfield is the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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