With the world rightly focused on the international airstrikes over Libya (that campaign, at least tactically, is promising in the early stages), Yemen is inching ever closer to a full-blown civil war.
The civil war scenario sounds dramatic but in a country as poor, illiterate, and tribal as Yemen is — and with most Yemeni civilians carrying firearms themselves — the prospect of such a conflict is not altogether implausible.
Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, a staunch American ally against the Al Qaeda offshoot in his country, has been pressured on all fronts over the past month to relinquish power after 32 years. Up until this past Friday, the protests were more of a sideshow for Saleh than an actual threat — the president and his family, mastered in the tactics of consolidating authority, have dealt with demonstrations before, to no avail. But the show has now collapsed and quickly transformed into the very threat that Saleh hoped would never materialize. And the instigators of that transformation were none other than his own security forces and loyalists, who shot and killed 52 demonstrators in cold blood on a single day.
Since that incident, Saleh’s government has virtually collapsed amid a significant amount of defections and resignations.
On Sunday, Saleh fired his presidential cabinet in a bid to shake up the power structure and get new blood into his palace. The top general of Yemen’s armed forces, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, relinquished his post and threw his support behind the protest movement a day later. Over half of Yemen’s foreign diplomatic core, including the Yemeni ambassadors to the Arab League and the United Nations, have followed suit, demanding that Saleh step down before further blood is shed.
Perhaps the most significant, at least symbolically, of the resignations came when the leader of the Hashid tribe, Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar, decided to cast his lot with the opposition. Saleh is a member of the Hashid tribe, so losing support from within his traditional base is not necessarily positive for his future.
Where does this leave Yemen now? The easy answer is that it is too soon to tell. Saleh still retains the allegiance of his son Ahmed, who commands the most professional and capable of Yemen’s security forces, and all of his nephews, who hold positions of authority.
The Republican Guard, under the command of Ahmed Saleh, stands outside the presidential palace in a clear and overt exhibit of support for his father. On the other side of the street, General Ahmar and his battalions are standing with the opposition, ready to protect Yemeni civilians if necessary. Indeed, there have already been reports of violence between the two, with one dead and three more injured.
Once again, America finds itself enclosed in a tight box. Saleh, despite all of his excesses and abuses, has been Washington’s central ally against terrorism. Yemen is home to the most active Al Qaeda franchise in the world, with an English-speaking cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki taking over Osama bin Laden’s place as the organizations most public and charismatic figure. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into Saleh’s security services in the hopes of taking the fight to the enemy. American drones have been partnering with the Yemeni government over the last year, flying reconnaissance missions and bombing terrorist hideouts when necessary.
In short, the United States are heavily invested in the continuation of Saleh’s rule. But with protests strengthening in the capital and across the country, that investment is now looking like an exceedingly poor one.
So while the United States should continue to stay on the sidelines as the Yemeni people demand their legitimate political rights, they should also make sure that the violence is kept to a minimum. Another fifty people killed by Yemen’s security forces or by the opposition is a sure receipt for long-term disaster — a disaster that the region certainly doesn’t need right now.
Luckily, Washington has contacts on both sides of the divide, with Saleh representing the government and General Ahmar representing the opposition. Both men have been heavily involved in Yemen’s counterterrorism effort against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and both have profited from America’s (and the international community’s) bank account.
Using these relationships, however difficult, could be a promising way to avoid the possibility of further conflict. Stalling a civil war must be the world’s primary objective in Yemen, above that of killing Awlaki and any other short-term objectives. A Yemen in chaos does nothing to help the fight against terrorism, nor does it create an environment conductive to the one thing that millions of Yemenis have been working toward — democracy.