The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen raises questions about its likely impact on the country's politics – in particular, whether it will hasten or delay President Saleh's departure.
Internationally, Saleh has tried to present himself as a lone bulwark resisting al-Qaeda and uses it as an argument for his remaining in power.
He was at it again on Thursday, in an interview with Time Magazine and the Washington Post. Reminded that the US has urged him to step down, he responded by questioning America's commitment to "fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda".
"We are pressurised by America and the international community to speed up the process of handing over power," he said. "And we know to where the power is going to go. It is going to al-Qaeda, which is directly and completely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood."
Remove Saleh and the militants will take over Yemen – that, at least, is what he would like people to believe. The reality, as I have pointed out several times before, is somewhat different. Saleh needs al-Qaeda in order to stay in power. Al-Qaeda must remain sufficiently active in Yemen for the world to be scared by it, so that Saleh can continue to be seen fighting it – and reaping the political benefits of doing so.
One view of Awlaki's killing is that it will strengthen Saleh's hand by making him appear relevant again to the world outside.
"The revolutionaries in Yemen are worried that al-Awlaki's death will ... provide a respite to Saleh in the face of mass protests against his rule," Anis Mansour, a Yemeni journalist, told the German press agency on Friday.
Jeb Boone, an American journalist who was based in Yemen until recently, also wrote:
"Having duped the west three times into believing he was about to step down, he has now handed America's most sought-after head (in the shape of Awlaki) to Washington. With a counter-terrorism trophy like that on display for American audiences, US diplomats may find it difficult to maintain the pressure on Saleh to resign."
The alternative view (which I lean more towards) is that without Awlaki lurking in the background Saleh's position is significantly weaker. The American media had become obsessed with Awlaki, inflating his importance out of all proportion – and that also had its effect on US policy. Unless some new threat emerges in Yemen which directly affects Americans, the general perception will be that there is far less to worry about now than before and the US will be better placed to push ahead towards a transition of power.
A further point is that in Awlaki's killing Saleh appears to have been more of a bystander than an active partner with the United States in the "war on terror". Details are scarce, but as yet there are no indications that Saleh (or the Yemeni military) played a major role. So far, the Americans are taking all the credit and/or blame. That also suggests Saleh is less indispensible than he would like to imagine.
From a US policy perspective, the main need now is to de-link American security concerns from questions about Saleh's fate. Saleh has always been a tricky person to deal with, as the
WikiLeaks documents showed. The attitude of a future Yemeni government on that score is unlikely to be worse, and might even be slightly better.
Behind the scenes, there are signs that the US does not really buy Saleh's arguments for staying in power. On Friday evening,
according to the German press agency, the Yemeni government and the opposition coalition were close to signing an agreement on the basic principles for dialogue – under US supervision.
The agency added:
"This comes as a result of three-day roundtable talks led by the United States, with a European participation, in a bid to come up with a peaceful end to the Yemeni crisis ..."
The goal of these and other diplomatic efforts is to implement the "transition plan" cooked up by the Gulf Cooperation Council. As I have said before, I don't much like the plan. If, by some miracle, it can be made to work it is more likely to preserve the status quo (minus Saleh) than to deliver the sort of changes that Yemeni protesters have been demanding. But, at this stage, getting rid of Saleh may be better than nothing.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 October 2011