Shifty Saleh Brings Yemen to the Brink
By Joshua Jacobs
May 24, 2011
Time has run out for Yemen’s embattled strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh. On Monday in the firmest statement yet from the Obama administration Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded that President Saleh stand down as he had agreed to while slamming him for repeatedly backing out of the deal. Over the weekend, weeks of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) led negotiations came to a head when the GCC withdrew from the negotiations after President Saleh refused to sign the deal that would have led to his resignation. This is not the first time Saleh’s shifty behavior has angered his allies.
Prior to this weekend, Saleh chose to accept the resignation plan in what would turn out to be a stunning miscalculation. By initially agreeing he allowed the opposition to be hopeful that an end to his 31 year rule was in sight. When he began to renege on the deal it sparked an especially bitter reaction, with hundreds of thousands pouring into the streets to confront security forces in bloody clashes. But by outright rejecting the deal Saleh may have at last severed the last opportunity for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. In the immediate aftermath of the deal’s collapse on Sunday armed militias battled Saleh’s security forces in the bloodiest fighting yet in Yemen. This has left Yemen in a perilous situation, with everything depending on Saleh’s decision. He has only two real options remaining: he can choose to resign or he can try and make a bid for power and bring the country down into civil strife and war.
Saleh cannot simply send troops into the streets and crush the opposition Syria style. The time has long since passed for that—the protests have continued for too long, allowing the opposition to become much more organized and frustrated. Saleh’s own support base has crumbled and the opposition has become incredibly diverse. The two largest and strongest tribal confederations in Yemen, the Hashid and the Bakil, have withdrawn their support for the regime. This was an especially severe blow as Saleh’s own tribe is in the Hashid and had demonstrated strong support for him in the past. In addition, members of his own family and prominent military leaders have defected or voiced support for the protesters. Even in the Saleh heartland of Saana protests have been severe. The opposition has managed to co-opt not just the urban population and tribal confederations, but also the regionalist opposition in South Yemen and the Houthi opposition in the North. In addition to this tremendous domestic opposition Saleh has also lost nearly all his regional allies.
This has created an incredibly dangerous situation, one which has brought Yemen to the edge of a precipice looking down on civil war. The opposition groups in the streets are not only large but their capacity to arm themselves is increasing. The tribal confederations and street factions have already begun to arm themselves, while other groups like the Houthis and the South Yemen separatists already have significant stockpiles in reserve. This fact was evidenced by the bloody clashes that have gripped the capital since Sunday. If violence escalates, political and military defectors have the potential to act as a force multiplier for the opposition. However, Saleh himself is not to be underestimated; his nepotistic handling of the military means that significant military and security forces remain under his loyal control. He has also benefited from several years of US military assistance which has strengthened the security apparatus. But if he makes a bid for power it will come over the violent resistance of the various opposition factions, and it is not clear that Saleh would win. Much depends on the reliability of his security forces in such a scenario, and so far that has been in question. The power and unity of the opposition is also unclear, but there is reason to suspect it may be strong enough to seriously contest a power struggle with Saleh forces. The situation is thus that Saleh has brought his country to the brink of civil war. He cannot negotiate with the opposition, nor can he easily crush them. If he continues to cling to power, the only road left for Ali Abdullah Saleh is a road paved with blood.
A collapse into civil war and strife would have dire ramifications for the region and therefore should be desperately avoided at all costs. Instability and bloodshed would send hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of refugees into neighboring Oman and Saudi Arabia; straining the resources and stability of these countries. There is also the potential for explosion into a regional conflict, as Saudi Arabia maintains close ties to the tribal confederations and has been involved in cross-border fighting as recently as 2009. Al-Qaeda can only benefit from the collapse of government authority, and could thrive in the anarchy of civil war. Indeed as this article is penned, opposition forces have begun an artillery duel in Saa’na and troops have begun to clash all over the capital. The country is edging perilously close to the chasm of civil war, with Saleh himself holding the reigns. It is imperative that the US continue to take a more active role showing President Saleh that he has no future as a US partner, and encouraging the GCC to make it clear he has no future as a leader in the region. The Obama administration has a chance to live up to the commitments it outlined last week at the State Department and there is limited time left to avoid a catastrophe.
Joshua Jacobs is a policy analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs.