A UN resolution on Yemen’s transitional crisis could pave the way for sanctions on the regime of president Ali Abdullah Saleh, according to sources with knowledge of current diplomatic thinking.

The UN Security Council voted unanimously on 21 October in approving a resolution which calls for Saleh to step down under the terms of a GCC-brokered transitional deal. Sanaa was ready to “deal positively” with the resolution, Yemeni state media reported on 22 October. “The resolution conforms with the government’s efforts to end the political crisis according to the GCC initiative,” Saba quoted an anonymous government official as saying.

Yemen has faced growing turmoil since protestors first took to the streets in February 2011. Much like their counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria they initially called for greater social and political freedoms along with economic reforms, before demanding that Saleh quit after a brutal crackdown which saw a number of protestors killed.

The country’s internecine political system has since fractured, with a senior member of the Yemeni armed forces, General Ali Mohsen, defecting to protect the protestors and members of the Al-Ahmar family, which heads the powerful Hashid tribal confederation of which Saleh is a part, also calling for Saleh to step down.

This in turn has led to waves of violence between military units and militias loyal to the various parties involved, while in the south of the country swathes of territory have been take over by alleged Islamist groups and the northern Sadaa province has become effectively autonomous under the rule of the Houthi tribal group which has been waging a stop-start civil war against Saleh since 2004.

Unfulfilled commitments

The security council largely focused on the government crackdown on protestors, accusing the Saleh regime of “human rights volations”, and expressing “profound regret” at the deaths of hundreds of people, “mainly of civilians, including women and children”. The resolution calls for Saleh to step down under the terms of a GCC-led transitional deal.

Under the terms of the resolution, UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon will review Yemen’s progress a month after the statement was issued and every two months after that.

Many Yemenis remain skeptical that the resolution will have much of an effect on Saleh, who has promised on a number of occasion to sign the GCC deal before finding excuses to stay in power. Even after an explosion in the presidential compound led to his hospitalisation in Saudi Arabia for two months, Saleh returned, says one Yemeni anti-government activist. A UN resolution is unlikely to have as profound an effect as an explosion.

“It is not enough, and it is is not strong enough, although I would say it is a good resolution overall,” said pro-democracy activist and 2011 Nobel laureate Tawakkul Karman at a press conference held in Washington after the resolution was published.

However, sources with ties to diplomats working on Yemen say that the resolution, although cautious in its use of language, will make it easier to take action against the Saleh regime, with potential sanctions including travel bans on senior government members and Saleh family members, arms embargoes, and asset freezes.

Violence

“The resolution is not significant in itself, because the reporting cycle – a month and then two months – is too long, but it has symbolic importance,” says Abdulghani al-Iryani, a Sanaa-based political and economic analyst. “It paves the way for multilateral action by major western players.”

However, given that violence flared up in Sanaa overnight following the resolution, and that no report will be made by the UN for another month, Al-Iryani fears that the cycle of fighting could intensify over the coming days and weeks as political factions try to entrench their positions.

The country’s economy has ground to a halt, Al-Iryani says, and many poorer and middle-income Yemenis are increasingly struggling to subsist.

“The situation in Sanaa has grown more dangerous,” says a former high-ranking member of government speaking from the capital. “A number of areas of Sanaa were under fire all day and there have been many civilian casualties. About 80 per cent of private sector activity is at a standstill. The conflict is between the Al-Ahmars, the government, the political elite in power and opposition. But the public in general is being held hostage.”