Ambassador Feierstein’s press roundtable
April 22, 2012
Ambassador: Nothing in particular to talk about today, just to say what you all know, and that is the strong support on the part of the U.S. government, like the rest of the international community, for President Hadi and the efforts of the government to move forward on the GCC Initiative and the political transition. And also to note that over the last few days we’ve seen a strong effort on the part of the Yemeni military to affront and to defeat al Qaeda in Abyan, in Lawdar, and in Zinjibar. These efforts are commendable, and we are impressed with the courage of the Yemeni military as well as the Popular Committees. And we of course regret the loss of life in the Yemeni military and the Popular Committees. So we do hope that they continue this effort and are successful in their efforts to clear the southern areas of extremists and other negative forces in Yemen. So let me stop there and respond to your questions.
Question: The first question pertains to the military position here in Sana’a. The advisor to President Obama announced here in this very place, the evening of presidential elections, that the U.S. was completely ready to participate in the restructuring of the army. The recent events and the presidential decrees, which today you announced your position to support, place a lot of difficulties on the family of the former president. The president’s brother and his nephew refuse to carry out the presidential decrees to this very moment. And you actually undertook the responsibility of helping Yemen on this military portfolio. What kind of support can you actually extend to the President of the Republic so that he can actually have full control of the army as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces? Second question out of the South—has information of the political conflicts in Sana’a actually reflected itself upon the conflicts in the South and in Abyan? There is information that indicates the kidnapping of the Saudi diplomat is part of that exchange of political pressure [inaudible]. Have you actually been able to verify that al Qaeda—whether the old or new al Qaeda—is one of the political games [inaudible] used here in Yemen? And has it been clear to you recently that Iran is actually playing a role in Saada and in the South?
Ambassador: That’s three questions [laughter]. In honor of the fact that today is the French presidential election, we’ll answer all three [laughter]. In terms of the military and security reorganization, there are actually two components, and I think it’s important that we not confuse them. The commitment that the U.S. made on the military and security reorganization was to work with the government of Yemen on building strong institutions. And we have actually had an opportunity—as you know we had a team here in Sana’a last week. They had the opportunity to meet with the Minister of Defense, the senior military leadership; to go to the higher military academy to meet with the staff there; to meet with the Minister of Interior; and also to work very closely with General al Harbi, who is the Director of Planning for the Ministry of Defense. And so we have actually begun the process of working with the Yemeni military and the Yemeni leadership on developing a plan for restructuring the military. Of course as we’ve said in the past, our role is to support the efforts of the government of Yemen and the military of Yemen. The plan will be their plan at the end, though we can bring technical expertise and experience to the table to help development of the plan. And so while they were here, the team from the U.S. received some guidance from the Yemeni military leadership, and they’ll be following up on the guidance over the next few weeks and then will hopefully come back with the answers to the questions that were put to them. Now this shouldn’t be confused with the decrees that President Hadi issued a few weeks ago related to certain personnel decisions that he had made as far as the Yemeni military is concerned. And, of course as we said in the statement that we put out—the decrees were issued on the 6th of April, we put out a statement on the 7th of April—that reflected the views of all ten of the Ambassadors who are supporting the implementation of the GCC Initiative. In that statement, we were very clear in saying that President Hadi’s decrees have the complete and absolute support of the entire international community. As the governments responsible for working with Yemen on the implementation of the GCC Initiative, we said with absolute certainty that the decrees were consistent with the terms of the GCC Initiative. The decrees reflected the will of the Yemeni people when they went to the polls on the 21st of February and voted for new leadership and a change in the political framework of Yemen. The decrees were completely within the scope of the responsibilities given to the President under the Yemeni Constitution. We’re pleased that almost all of the personnel transfers that were ordered under the decrees have now been implemented, and we believe that some of the progress we’re seeing right now in the South is a reflection of the changes that President Hadi has made. We’re very concerned, of course, that there has been some resistance to implementing the last remaining elements of the transition. This is completely unacceptable to the international community in general and to the United States in particular. We’re concerned that people who just a few months ago were insisting on the needs and the requirements for respect of constitutional legitimacy are now refusing to accept constitutional legitimacy. And we expect that this issue will be resolved in the next few days. We will continue to support President Hadi in his efforts, and we wouldn’t rule out some further response from the international community if some elements refuse to follow his direction. That was only the first question. [Laughter] On the second question, in terms of what’s been going on in the South, certainly there are elements of the situation involving al Qaeda that are a reflection of the problems here in Sana’a. There’s no doubt that al Qaeda has taken advantage of the situation over this past year to strengthen its position and to try to expand its presence, particularly in Abyan and now in Lahj and al Baida and elsewhere in the South. And of course, the divisions within the Yemeni military have also interfered with the ability of the Yemeni military to respond in a strong way. But the allegations that go beyond that and say that one side or another side is responsible and has in some way supported or promoted al Qaeda activity in the South—each side accuses the other side of being responsible for this. But I don’t think that we have any strong, independent confirmation of any of these allegations, and we hope that with the changes that are underway under the National Consensus Government that we can get a strong, unified Yemeni response to the expansion of extremism in the South. And then on the third question: We are concerned about what we see as negative Iranian actions, both in the North and in the South. We believe that there is strong evidence to suggest that Iran’s policy is to destabilize the situation in Yemen. They are supporting elements within Yemen—both in the North and the South—that are using violence to undermine the stability of the country, and this is deeply concerning to us.
Question: In case the relatives of the former president actually fail or just keep on opposing to implement President Hadi’s decrees, will you actually be supportive of international sanctions against President Saleh and his relatives? And second question—The GPC keeps on persisting that basically this particular phase of this consensus government demands consensus, even in the presidential decrees. So are you with this particular claim that even the presidential decrees have to be issued on a consensual basis?
Ambassador: On the first question, we would consider any idea, any step that might help address this issue. And so, in the famous formulation, everything is on the table. On the second point, I can say that, as we said in the statement we put out on April 7th, it is the view of all of the parties—all of the partners in the implementation of the GCC Initiative—that President Hadi’s decrees were consistent with both the letter and the spirit of the GCC Initiative. The GCC Initiative is very clear in saying that the requirement for consensus has to do with the Council of Ministers and the National Consensus Government. It was never intended to apply to the President or to presidential decrees.
Question: I’m actually addressing you from another angle, and that is in light of the United Nation Security Council’s meeting. We heard that there was an upcoming meeting, and that the presidential decrees that President Hadi issued may be transformed into a UN resolution. Can we actually find out what this particular direction is in terms of this transition of those presidential decrees into UN decrees? Second question: Regarding the mechanism of the Initiative, would the guarantors of the Initiative actually impose sanctions on any person who is paralyzing the implementation of the Initiative? That insurgency, or opposition, to those decrees has been in place for a whole month and nobody has really taken any measures, in light of looting of the military institutions that could actually impact decisions in the future.
Ambassador: Okay. Well, in terms of the United Nations—of course as you all know, Benomar is here. And as is the practice, when he goes back to New York in ten days or so, he will report to the Security Council. At that point, the Council will make appropriate decisions about what, if any, subsequent steps should be taken. So it’s premature to be talking about whether or not there may be additional sanctions or other steps. It’s been—today is the 22nd—so it’s been about 16 days since the decrees were issued, and I think that there is still some reason to believe that this will be resolved peacefully. We hope that that’s the case. We think it’s absolutely essential that there be a clear understanding on the part of all Yemenis at the end of this period that Abdo Rabo Mansour Hadi is the President of Yemen, he’s the only President of Yemen, and that his decrees have all the force of constitutional legitimacy and of the law, and that they must be obeyed. Again, if people fail to arrive at that conclusion and to take the appropriate steps peacefully, then the international community might consider other steps.
Question: There’s been talk recently about a change in the American strategy in confronting al Qaeda in Yemen. Is there a need to change this political strategy in order to confront al Qaeda, especially considering the confrontation that took place in the last 48 hours in Abyan that proved that there is very strong resistance by al Qaeda? So in the first few hours, al Qaeda was hit very badly, but then later on they started resembling themselves, which proved very strong resistance against these campaigns. Does Washington see a need to change strategy midway?
Ambassador: Well, I think that the core element of U.S. strategy in terms of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula hasn’t changed and won’t change, and that is that our effort will be built around strengthening the capacity of the government of Yemen and of the Yemeni military to confront al Qaeda. We believe that the Yemeni military has the capacity to successfully defeat al Qaeda in Abyan and in Lahj and elsewhere in the South. So what we have been trying to do is to help them deploy their forces and bring their forces to the point where they can successfully defeat al Qaeda. Now, the threat of al Qaeda has changed over the past year because of the atmosphere and the political crisis. So the Yemeni military has had to change the way it approaches this threat and deal with it differently than they did in the past. But what we’ve seen over the past several days is that, in fact, the Yemeni military beginning to make that transition and to challenge al Qaeda in a way that they really haven’t done so much over these past months. So we’ll continue to look for ways where we can improve our support, but there won’t be any change in the basic strategy, which is that this will be a Yemeni fight.
Question: What is the American support on this particular new strategy of the Yemeni army?
Ambassador: Again, to the extent that we can help the Yemeni military succeed, we’ll do that.
Question: You said in your speech that there are indications or the issue of the mutiny of Mohammed Saleh al Ahmar might be solved peacefully. Are there any statements or indications—or what was going on that makes you believe that it can be resolved peacefully? Are there negotiations with them now to convince them to step down? The other issue is that, you know Mr. Brennan said that—there is a discussion that the CIA plans to expand their drone strikes in Yemen. Aren’t you concerned of the consequences of such kind of strikes that might contribute to [inaudible]? And particularly in the sense that we have seen that those members of the ruling party—all the GPC—who were supporting your strategy in Yemen previously, now they are opposing it. Yesterday they were criticizing the U.S. involvement in Yemen, and they said this is against Yemeni sovereignty.
Ambassador: On the first question, we are aware that there have been conversations. I wouldn’t characterize them as negotiations because I don’t think that there is any intention on the part of President Hadi to change the decrees. But I know that a number of wiser heads have been advising that these decrees need to be implemented and strongly encouraging those who are resisting to agree and implement those steps. We hope that people look after their interests and listen carefully to what the wiser heads are saying to them. On the second question, I don’t want to speculate on speculative articles in American newspapers.
Question: And also the Yemeni Parliament?
Ambassador: I have to deal with my Congress; I don’t have to deal with the Yemeni Parliament [laughter].
Question: Being the last one, [inaudible] all these people. Maybe I should have better luck [laughter].
Ambassador: There’s nothing left to ask [laughter]!
Question: We’ll come up with questions [laughter]. I’d like to ask a very specific question. Is the U.S. playing a role in these “conversations” in so far as the implementation of the presidential decrees? And I’d like to know the justification of both Mohammed Saleh and Tareq Saleh in opposing the implementation of those decrees. That’s the first question. The second question: The Yemeni people, beginning with the President of the Republic, along with the government, and ending with the people are all waiting for the international position against those who failed to implement those presidential decrees. Would Your Excellency be able to give me a picture of the available options against those who failed to implement those presidential decrees? Third question: Your Excellency said very important things, and I’d like particular further clarification on so that these things are not misunderstood. [You said] the developments that took place in the South are a result in the changes implemented by Hadi. Does Your Excellency actually mean it is actually the activity of al Qaeda or the activities of the Yemen Armed Forces? Last question: The American team that was visiting here last week, that will come back here in a month as you said—back to Yemen—Is this team the one that has been tasked by the American administration as so far as conducting the reconstruction of the armed forces in Yemen? Or is it a consultative team that will present an opinion only? Thank you, Your Excellency.
Ambassador: I forgot the beginning. What was the first question [laughter]?
Question: Mohammed Saleh—those who oppose the presidential decrees—negotiations.
Ambassador: We’re not involved in any direct contacts with any of the parties to this issue. But having said that, I think that we have been very clear and open about what our position is, and so I don’t think anyone is confused about where we stand on this issue. On the second question of whether I can give a picture of what might be under discussion—I really can’t at this point. I think it would be premature for us to say exactly what it is that we’re looking at. But there certainly are conversations going on within the international community on how we might respond. Third?
Question: The South, when you mentioned recent developments, when you mentioned al Qaeda.
Ambassador: No, the point I was trying to make is that we’ve seen the changes that President Hadi has made and the leadership of the military regions in the South and in the East, and we’ve seen that the Yemeni military has become more aggressive and of course, with the support of the Popular Committees, especially in Abyan. And so I was just drawing a linkage between those two things. I can’t say specifically that these decisions have been made or that these actions have been taken because of these changes, but I think that the new aggressiveness on the part of the Yemeni military is very good, very promising, and I would think that is has at least something to do with the new leadership. And then the last point was that—again, just to reiterate, the actual development of the plan, whether the military and security reorganization is in the hands of the Yemeni military and security organizations. The role that we can play is to provide assistance—technical expertise and the benefit of the experience we’ve had, not only in terms of the U.S. military but in advising other militaries around the world about some of these issues. And so the team that was here last week was playing that role.
Question: A clarification question—just so that I am precise concerning the information—when you mentioned the conversations that were taking place, you never mentioned Hadi. You mentioned conversations, period. But then you also mentioned in the process of your speech “unfortunately”. Why do you say “unfortunately”? Were you hoping that these conversations would succeed, i.e. the reversal of those decrees?
Ambassador: Did I say unfortunately? What did I say?
Translator: You said, “Unfortunately I don’t think that President Hadi is willing to change his decrees.”
Ambassador: I didn’t say that. I never said “unfortunately”. It’s not unfortunate. We absolutely do not think or recommend that President Hadi change the nature of his decrees.
Question: Just one little clarification—if there is any sanction, any action taken against these mutineers, will it be taken on a consensus as the UN Security Council or individually?
Ambassador: I think it’s premature to answer that.
Question: An observation—thanks for giving us this opportunity, Sir. We don’t really want to push you more. The former president was actually taking on the press—[He said] there was a particular selection that the President had to follow in making those presidential decrees. Unless those presidential decrees are subject to consensual methods, then that would create another crisis in the country. Second thing—The Republican Guard sent enforcements to Sana’a Airport yesterday or the day before yesterday, and so this is an indication that they are supports of Mohammed Saleh al Ahmar’s refusing to implement the presidential decree. Is the picture still foggy with you on that?
Ambassador: Well first of all, again, we reject any suggestion that President Hadi is under any requirement to achieve consensus or to negotiate or to discuss in advance any issue of his presidential decrees. Whether or not you agree that this might be a good thing—that he take people into his confidence in advance—maybe that would be true. Maybe it would be a good thing for him to do that. But there is no requirement for him to do that, and anyone who says that there is is speaking incorrectly. As for the other issue, again, our position is very clear, the position of the international community is very clear—the decrees have to be implemented. And if there is anybody who is taking steps to destruct the implementation of the decrees that are taking place within the framework of the GCC Initiative, then they would potentially be subject to some kind of response from the international community.
Question: Your Excellency, did President Hadi get your advice in making these presidential decrees?