Can 'Yemen solution' work for Syria?

A policeman gestures in Sanaa shortly after a suicide bomb attack Militants have carried out daring attacks on the army in the capital Sanaa

The US has suggested that what it calls the "Yemen scenario" could be the solution to stopping bloodshed in Syria.

In Yemen, there had been almost a year of protests and growing violence. Eventually the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was forced to hand power to his deputy, who has since become elected president.

Eight months on, the BBC's Natalia Antelava in Sanaa looks at how it has been working out and whether the same sort of approach could work in Syria.

The boy's face was ashen, his lips blue, his slightly oversized uniform was stained with blood.

He stood motionless, oblivious to blaring noise of police sirens, as he watched men in uniform comb through puddles of blood and piles of debris.

Ten cadets - all young boys aged between 16 and 17 - were killed when a suicide bomber exploded his belt outside police academy in Sanaa on 11 July.

In May, more than 90 soldiers died in a similar attack at a military parade in the capital. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP), the local branch of the group, said it was responsible for that explosion.

Security officials in Sanaa are expecting more attacks. Its clear, they say, that AQAP - which has long targeted military and regional police outposts - has now extended its reach.

Start Quote

There was real commitment from people to non-violence. I don't think that's the case in Syria”

End Quote Sarah Ahmed Yemeni activist

"For the first time, I am worried," says Osama, a young student activist in Sanaa. "I think al-Qaeda is the biggest threat to us, and to the region, and to the international community."

Profound differences

The West, in particularly the US, whose regular drone strikes against al-Qaeda are widely criticised in Yemen for killing more civilians than militants, is also worried about visible advances made by AQAP in recent months of political turmoil.

Yemeni army soldiers and tribesmen loyal to the army are seen on a tank in the city of Zinjibar. Photo: June 2012 The army has recently claimed a string of military victories over insurgents

And yet despite these concerns, politicians in Washington want to use Yemen as a model for a solution in Syria.

On the surface similarities between the two are obvious.

Like in Syria, protests in Yemen started peacefully but violence escalated as veteran President Ali Abdullah Saleh refused to step down. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed in dozens of crackdowns.

As in Syria, moderate voices drowned in an increasingly fierce fight between armed political rivals.

But behind these superficial similarities lie profound differences.

In Yemen, while political groups engaged in armed conflict, the actual protest movement stayed largely peaceful.

Young activist Sarah Ahmed says like most Yemenis, she has a Kalashnikov at home and knows how to use it, but she is determined to keep her struggle non-violent.

What surprises her, she says, is that many tribal leaders feel the same.

"I remember watching tribal leaders, who all have RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) at home, taking bodies of their sons from hospitals and vowing that they will not avenge these killings.

"It made me so proud, there was real commitment from people to non-violence. I don't think that's the case in Syria," she says.

'Homegrown' solution

It took a year of negotiations and a life-threatening attack, which left him badly injured, to convince Mr Saleh to agree to a power transfer to his Vice-President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

"Of course, this wasn't the outcome we wanted, it wasn't what we fought for, but it was the only way of stopping bloodshed," says activist Osama. His friends nod in agreement.

A girl walks past a pile of rubbish in Sanaa. Photo: 10 July 2012 Life is tougher than it has ever been before, many Yemenis say

They all laugh at a question whether similar deal could be struck in Syria. Violence they say, has gone too far.

It is not just violence, it is the nature of politics, too.

Yemen's political scene has always been more vibrant, more competitive than that of Syria under the Assads. There have always been elections and opposition.

And Yemen's delicate tribal power balance has long produced leaders who are well versed in complex negotiations.

"Yemen had already experimented with democracy, it already had a vibrant civil society and established political opposition," says Jemal Benomar, UN special envoy to Yemen and a senior negotiator who was instrumental to the power-transfer deal.

According to Mr Benomar, the biggest difference is that in Yemen both sides came to a very pragmatic realisation that neither could win an all-out military confrontation.

"That is not the case in Syria, where the government clearly believes that it can win and is determined to put down the uprising," Mr Benomar says.

The secret of Yemen's solution, many believe, is that it was also largely homegrown. The international community was heavily involved but it was, for most part, more impartial, less invested than with Syria.

But even Yemen's political transition is looking increasingly like a ceasefire than a solution.

Food shortages

Eight months on since the deal was signed, rival politicians still haven't started a national dialogue, which is key for stability.

People's grievances, in the meantime, are growing.

Life is tougher than it has ever been before. Food shortages are reaching dangerous levels, electricity and water supplies are scarce, security has deteriorated.

The government has recently managed to win back some of the territory that AQAP gained during the revolution. But this, many worry, has made the security situation even worse.

"The suicide attacks are very worrying and it looks like al-Qaeda is no longer concentrated in certain areas but has now dispersed throughout the whole country," says Mr Benomar.

Unlike politicians in Washington or London, most people here do not just dismiss the idea that the Yemen scenario could work in Syria, they are still waiting to see whether it will work for Yemen itself.

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