Analysis / James M. Dorsey: Yemen’s Saleh takes his fight for survival to the brink
Washington and Riyadh’s worst-case scenario is playing itself out on the streets of the Yemeni capital Sana’a.
Supporters of embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh and tribesmen have clashed for days after Mr. Saleh refused to accept a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) negotiated resolution of Yemen’s four-month old crisis that would have eased him out of power with immunity.
Gunfire and exploding mortar shells echoed through Sana’a for a fourth day in a row as Saleh loyalists and tribesmen fought for control of government buildings as well as the airport.
Scores of people have been killed; the State Department has ordered family members of US government personnel and non-essential personnel to leave the country.
What started in January as a peaceful youth mass protest against corruption and for democracy is rapidly deteriorating into violence and a settling of old scores that could divide Yemen much like Libya and plunge it into chaos.
With one difference from a Saudi and US perspective: with a number of provinces already beyond government control, Yemen is home to an important Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP).
That heightens US concern and interest, but American officials are finding that $300 million in aid a year is not buying them much influence in Sana’a. The collapse of the GCC-mediated agreement raises the question whether $2 billion in Saudi aid has won the kingdom any ability to help stop Yemen’s decent into anarchy.
Mr. Saleh, a master of cat-and-mouse games who is always in the search of a better deal, has in recent months repeatedly promised to step down only to go back on his word afterwards. He may have snubbed the Saudi-led GCC with his agreement and subsequent refusal to sign an agreement with the opposition, but it is Riyadh rather than Washington that has the financial and regional political clout to either bail the president out or significantly tighten the screws on him at a moment that Yemen is teetering on the verge of economic collapse.
Saudi Arabia is also the one regional power capable of intervening militarily in Yemen to prevent it further from descending into chaos and anarchy. The kingdom demonstrated in Bahrain its refusal to tolerate unrest that could spill across its borders. Saudi-Yemeni tribal links in fact strengthen the kingdom’s ability to intervene given that it has poured significant amounts into buying tribal loyalty in Yemen in recent years.
Saudi military intervention would most probably not seek to remove Mr. Saleh from office by force. Instead, it would be designed to impose a ceasefire that would pave the way for the creation of a council of tribal leader, political party representatives, southern secessionists and dissident element of the military that would pressure a militarily weakened Mr. Saleh to resign, possibly as part of a revived GCC mediation.
A more immediate first step to increase pressure on Mr. Saleh would be a decision by the United States, Europe and the Gulf states to cut off all military and economic support for his regime. Another measure beings discussed is the imposition of sanctions by the United Nations Security Council.
US counter-terrorism chief John O. Brennan warned Mr. Saleh in a carrot-and stick phone conversation hours before he refused a second time to sign the GCC-mediated agreement with the opposition that failure to sign would have consequences. Mr. Brennan said Mr. Obama would single out Mr. Saleh as an example of an Arab leader who embraced reform if the president signed, but that the United States would have to “consider possible other steps” if he continued to cling to power. Mr. Saleh promised Mr. Brennan that he would sign but then backtracked at the last minute.
Mr. Saleh’s fight with the highly organized, powerful Hashid tribal confederation may well reflect hardening Western and Gulf attitudes towards him. The president’s relations with the tribe, whose late leader, Sheikh Abdullah al Ahmar maintained close ties to Saudi Arabia, have been deteriorating for at least the past two years. The deterioration was a reflection of increasing tensions in relations between Mr. Saleh and the kingdom.
Hamid al Ahmar, one of the sheikh’s sons and a prominent opposition leader, called for Mr. Saleh’s resignation as far back as August 2009. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Mr. Ahmar, a businessman with interests in banking, telecommunications and media who was positioning himself as a potential successor to Mr. Saleh, accused the president of violating the constitution by turning Yemen into his family enterprise.
By picking a fight this week with the Al Ahmars, Mr. Saleh appears to have thrown down a gauntlet for Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Saleh on Thursday ordered the arrest of Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, Hamid al-Ahmar’s brother and the Hashid confederation leader, after Sheikh Sadiq accused the president of dragging Yemen into civil war. Sheikh Sadiq urged Arab leaders to force Mr. Saleh out of office.
Mr. Saleh has made clear in recent days that he has no intention of relinquishing power. He is taking his fight for survival to the brink. Against the backdrop of US and Saudi fears that the months of protest and the fighting engulfing Sana’a in recent days may have provided AQAP, the Al Qaeda affiliate, an opportunity to position its fighters and stock up on weapons in the capital, Mr. Saleh hopes to prove that he is the only one that can stop Yemen from descending into further chaos.
It’s a game for high stakes. Hamid al-Ahmar’s ambitions notwithstanding, no one in the opposition stands out as an obvious successor to Mr. Saleh, who is leaving the United States and Saudi Arabia with few good choices.
(James M. Dorsey is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: email@example.com)