In Yemen, Syria and Libya, the Arab revolts are resolving themselves into straight bids to get rid – one way or another – of three long-serving rulers who refuse to step down in defiance of expectations in the West.
The United States, the UK, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries appear to be united in their expectation of soon seeing the back of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, 69, now that he is out of Sanaa and in Riyadh for treatment of the injuries – shrapnel near the heart for which he underwent surgery in Riyadh and 40 percent burns – he sustained in an attempt on his life last Friday, June 3.
But that impression is deceptive. The hoped-for orderly transition of power is nowhere in sight. Far from being at the end of his rope, Saleh has said he will be home in a matter of days. By June 9, he was out of intensive car and beginning to recover.
Furthermore, the powers who want to see him gone have completely different conceptions of Yemen's future, the fault lines made more visible by the failed assassination.
President Barack Obama's adviser on terrorism, John Brennan, put paid to some of the wishful thinking on Yemen and Saudi Arabia upon his return from Riyadh and the Gulf emirates earlier this month.
He had set out with the hope that the Saudi-GCC compromise for the transition of power could be invoked and Ali Saleh would settle for a quiet life in comfortable exile in Saudi Arabia alongside Tunisia's Zein bin Ali. This arrangement was to have been part of renewed dialogue and understanding on regional matters between Washington and Riyadh.
But Brennan returned home sans mended fences with Riyadh or agreement on Yemen's future. The attack on the presidential palace in Sanaa complicated instead of simplifying the Yemen crisis and relations with Riyadh, occurring as it did while Obama's adviser was making the rounds of Saudi and Gulf capitals.
He thereupon packed his bags on June 4 and returned home.
The Saudi throne was unpleasantly bowled over by the attack, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report – first because it had received no heads-up from its own agencies and second, because of the suspicion that it was a put-up job by a foreign hand.
No one in Riyadh believes any indigenous Yemeni element is capable of the expertise and precision displayed in the Sanaa palace attack: The Saudis were impressed by the hit team's exact information about which three rows in the palace mosque were occupied by the heads of the Saleh regime and targeted them precisely with their rockets and mortars. They assumed the tip was flashed to the assailants by an agent on the inside. Seven regime heads were killed and many senior officials injured in what the Saudis were sure was a foreign plot.
Usually cagy about such matters, a Saudi intelligence source nonetheless commented, "What happened last Friday was unusual and organized meticulously by a party that had the capabilities, information and considerations enabling it to carry out the bombing with such accuracy."
According to one theory, the hit team fired rockets on the palace as a blind for a bomb which exploded near the spot where the president was praying.
The Brits were suspected first, then the Americans
Riyadh's suspicions fell first on the British, who are known to have a strong undercover presence in Yemen, rather than the Americans, because in the final reckoning, the palace attack was detrimental to both Saudi and US interests. Those suspicions were strengthened Tuesday, June 7, when 80 British Royal Marines aboard the RFA Fort Victoria and RFA Argus deployed off the Yemeni coast were placed on standby for the fast evacuation of British nationals from Yemen.
But then, Riyadh suddenly changed course.
Under the caption, "Who tried to kill Ali Abdullah Saleh?" datelined Wednesday, June 8, from Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat, the official Saudi mouthpiece published in London, quotes several Yemeni officials as accusing the Americans. The Yemeni writer Ahmed Saleh al Faqih wrote: "…the Americans are the only ones who have the capacity to carry out this kind of operation, especially as a large number of officers from the Republican Guard, the Special Forces, and Counter-terrorism forces completed their training the US. They [the Americans] are in continuous contact with the parties that 'undertake the fight against terrorism in Yemen, and this contact makes them influential over groups that can do what they want. "
Questions about the identity of Ali Saleh would-be assassins are also being asked in Washington in the light of the fact that their operation deepened the uncertainties around the Yemeni crisis.
Saleh's fast-moving son Ahmed holds the fort
Messages put out by Saleh's retinue in Riyadh all indicate he is determined to return home.
He left Sanaa in the trusted hands of his son Ahmed Saleh, commander of the 60 percent of the army still loyal to the president, including the Republican Guard and Yemen's Special Operations forces.
Without wasting a minute after his father's departure, Ahmed Saleh seized control of the presidential palace and surrounded himself with his loyalists, refusing admittance to Vice President Abduraboo Mansour Hadi, who was appointed to act for the president in his absence.
Ahmed made sure his clique in the high command remained in control of the defense ministry. Other family members control the Central Security Forces, Intelligence and Republican Guard bases.
The Saudis are convinced Ahmed had armed himself with a contingency plan for seizing the key positions of government in the event of the president being killed or incapacitated. He got in ahead of the foremost opposition, the Al-Ahmar tribe headed by Sheikh Sedeq al-Ahmar, and other opposition factions.
A prominent figure in the unrest is Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no relation to the Ahmar clan), a long time ally of the president and commander of the first armored division, who recently defected to the opposition.
The Saleh and opposition camps are therefore girding up for a long civil struggle for dominance, with national reconciliation nowhere in sight.
Opposition groups have meanwhile gained control of major Yemeni cities, including Taiz. Al Qaeda-linked forces still hold Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan, where 15 people were killed in fighting Tuesday night, June 8. In that town, the government only controls the military base of the 25th Mechanized Brigade.
A tenuous ceasefire holds in the capital although the five-month old violence increasingly fragmenting the state is gnawing at its fringes.
In the hope of putting a brake on the deterioration, the first talks opened in Sanaa Wednesday, June 8, between the ruling General People's Congress and a coalition of the main opposition groups – the Joint Meeting Party (JMP). Their aim is to find a political solution, but details about areas of negotiation are unclear.
Syria's weekly see-saw between protest and iron fist
Syria like Yemen and Libya is being sucked into a morass of uncertainty.
In seven days, its fortunes have swung from one extreme to another: President Bashar Assad's preparations early this week to celebrate his victory over the opposition uprising were scuttled by the resurgence in mid-week of fiercer than ever disturbances.
Getting the president to step down is hobbled by the lack of a political or military figure among the ruling Allawite elite who would be acceptable to the political, military and intelligence establishments and the influential Syrian middle class as his successor. Had his own elite been able to come up with a suitable candidate, Assad could have been persuaded – or forced – to step aside for him and bring the ruinous turmoil tearing Syria apart to an end.
The see-saw motion of the violence has generated a stalemate.
At every week's end, the opposition is reinvigorated by supplies of the arms and funds pumped in by external allies in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Saudi intelligence is the primary channel of aid (as DEBKA-Net-Weekly has reported before).
After a day or two, the government clamps down an iron fist: Tanks, artillery, attack helicopters and troops armed with heavy machine guns move in to the centers of unrest and flail the protesters.
And the hated Syrian president stays on top.
Cracks in the Syrian military
His three allies, the Allawite clan, Iran and Hizballah stick with him for lack of options.
The attempt to remove Abdullah Ali Saleh in Sanaa by assassination was not lost on the Syrian president. During the four-month revolt against his regime, Assad has come out of his barricaded palace in Damascus only twice. Even the Yemeni ruler showed himself more often than that.
The stress on the Assad regime is taking its toll in the loyalty of his top commanders and some of the troops. Sunday, June 5, Brig. Manaf Tlass, commander of the 105th Brigade of the Republic Guard and deputy of the president's brother, Gen. Maher Assad, suspended operations with this staff until his personal family demands were met.
The next day, the president was treated to the spectacle of hundred of troops and security officers fighting protesters in northwestern cities suddenly turning tail and fleeing. In the Hama-Latakia region, scores went over to the protesters and turned their guns on government forces.
There is no end in sight in Syria any more than in Yemen.
Libya sinks into military stalemate
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that Libya too is sinking under the weight of the military stalemate generated by increasingly aggressive NATO air strikes and their inability to make Col. Muammar Qaddafi budge.
Tuesday, June 9, he appeared on state television for the first time in weeks, embracing tribal chieftains still loyal and ready to pay their respects, while NATO warplanes inflicted their most intense air strikes on Tripoli since coalition operations began in March.
In the face of those attacks, the Libyan ruler pledged never to surrender or leave Tripoli, defying US President Barack Obama's comment that his time was running out.
In Brussels, NATO defense ministers gathered Wednesday, June 8, to assess the campaign in Libya and its progress. The impressive figures rolled out by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen did not ease the dilemma they faced.
He reported that the alliance had conducted more than 10,000 sorties in Libya in nearly four months, damaging or destroying almost 1,800 legitimate military targets, which include around 100 command and control sites, over 700 ammunition stores and almost 500 tanks, armored personnel carriers and rocket launchers.
But Rasmussen could not confirm that even this blitz had crippled Qaddafi's forces or cowed him and his family into the faintest willingness to relinquish power.
Even William Hague, foreign secretary of the UK, the most hawkish member of the alliance, who arrived in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi on June 4, the day the first British Apaches went into action, ended up talking about accommodation rather than escalation.
Having finally grasped that the Libyan ruler could not be bombed out of office, Hague pressed the rebel leaders for early progress on a more detailed plan for "a post-Qaddafi government that would include sharing power with some of Col. Qaddafi's loyalists."
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 493 exclusive of May 20: Rebel chiefs near deal with Qaddafi behind NATO's back.)
Both sides lose ground; neither ready to give up
For NATO, the simplest solution would a reliable piece of intelligence betraying his whereabouts at a given moment – like the precise input which marked the home of his son Saif al-Arab on May 1 for alliance warplanes to rocket during a visit by Muammar Qaddafi and his wife.
Washington, London and Paris entertain scant hope of obtaining such quality intelligence a second time because now, Russian and Chinese intelligence are providing him with an early warning shield against attempts on his life.
At the same time, NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels failed to endorse any further expansion of their military intervention in Libya. The eight members conducting three months of air strikes failed to prod any of the other 20 alliance members into active participation, although they admitted signs of battle fatigue.
(See debkafile of June 9)
Both Russia and China are trying to mediate an end to the conflict.
Libyan Foreign Minister Abdul Ati al-Obeidi has been visiting Beijing, and Russian presidential envoy for Africa Mikhail Margelov held talks with opposition leaders in the eastern Libya rebel stronghold of Benghazi, after which he joined the Western chorus declaring Qaddafi no longer enjoyed legitimacy as Libya's ruler.
Until recently Moscow backed Qaddafi against NATO. Now, on another level of inter-power diplomacy, the Russians have brought Syria into the Libyan equation – or maybe the other way round – by putting their foot down against any UN Security Council action against Syria because of NATO's "inclusive bombing of Tripoli." Moscow is deliberately cutting the ground from under the British-French-Portuguese motion condemning Syria for its brutal suppression of protest, in order to show the West – and America most of all – that it cannot be allowed to bomb an Arab capital at will without international sanction.
This step will not help Qaddafi survive the NATO campaign against him. For now, the best he can do is cheat NATO strategists of victory. But as the savage confrontation goes on, both sides lose ground, though neither appears ready to throw in the sponge any time soon.