Yemen Teeters on the Brink of War (Updated)

Yemen has spent the last week on the edge of civil war as forces opposing troubled President Ali Abdullah Saleh have taken a more forceful path. The Gulf Cooperation Council’s attempts to negotiate Saleh’s withdrawal have stalled after Saleh used a technicality to back out of the deal. The powerful Hashid tribal confederation began fighting Saleh’s Republican Guards in Sanaa after Saleh ordered the arrest of the Hashid leader, Sheikh al-Ahmar. Fighting raged for several days as the tribe’s men struggled to keep their leader out of Saleh’s hands. The tribes and government have since reached a truce, though reports suggest it is not being kept very well. The tribal confederations are a major source of power in Yemeni society, and any national leader must find a way to incorporate them into the power structure. No Yemeni leader has ever done this perfectly. Saleh’s loss of his own tribe to the opposition, regardless of that tribe’s importance, is a very bad sign for his government; that the Hashid are also one of Yemen’s largest confederations put Saleh in a critical situation.

In even darker news, a town in Yemen’s south, Zinjibar, has allegedly been taken over by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), prompting government counterattacks. This information is difficult to confirm due to the government’s restrictions on the media. Saleh certainly has incentives to play up the danger of al Qaeda, for the West long saw him as a (semi-loyal) bulwark against AQAP and other radical forces. However, the story is very plausible, especially if the al Qaeda men were acting in conjunction with the local tribes that shelter them. The United States and the GCC will not be moved to back Saleh by these events. They know that the current instability in Yemen is entirely due to Saleh’s stubbornness, and they will blame him for any AQAP successes that result. The West, since the Cold War, has sheltered any Arab leader through political firestorms in the name of stability. Like Mubarak, Ben Ali, and even Gaddafi, Saleh is learning that this apparently ironclad support vanishes with serious instability, to be replaced by a cautious neutralism.

The alleged al Qaeda activities in Zinjibar are very unsettling. South Yemen was independent for decades under a Marxist regime, and many of its people resent being subjected to the rule of their more conservative Northern countrymen. There are thus several active fault lines that could yield civil war–the South-North divide, which was behind several of the Yemeni conflicts of the past, could be partially activated by AQAP and its allies. The tribal divisions, and the gap between the tribes and the state, were the source of the 1962-1967 civil war in North Yemen. The men of the Hashid Confederation have grown tired of the continued instability, and they are now also thirsty for revenge for the dozens of fighters they lost in the last week. Should the truce break down, warfare will become more likely. Though the Middle East has changed since 1962, we must remember that the civil war then drew in both Egypt and Saudi Arabia–bleeding Nasser white and partially causing the disastrous Egyptian unpreparedness for the Six Day War–and got much attention from the major powers. A new civil war would surely suck in the Saudis–putting a strain on their own troubled system–and, if al Qaeda takes a large enough role, will also bring in the US (though it would be a Libya-like intervention, rather than an all-out war). Washington and Riyadh will be watching Yemen quite closely.

Left out of this picture are Yemen’s young liberals. Their refusal to use violence made their movement possible–for violence would have made the crackdown worse and driven away moderates. However, the uprising’s violent turn risks ending their revolution. If civil war breaks out, they will not be able to shape post-Saleh Yemen as anything other than a minor force. They have persevered through too many massacres to count, but a war would kill the thing that keeps them going–their hope.

Saleh’s attempt to arrest the head of the Hashid confederation is just the latest event in his increasingly reckless attempts to regain control of Yemen. Extraordinary violence against unarmed protesters occurs every day, and last week, an armed mob of Saleh’s supporters surrounded an embassy containing GCC and Western diplomats. The US State Department suggested that this had been a deliberate government action. The safety of diplomats is the most fundamental norm of international relations, one that even the most barbaric leaders across history have respected. Violations of this norm produce rapid enmity. The safety of vital domestic constituents is a fundamental norm of politics. Saleh’s attack on his own tribe’s leadership highlights what has been clear for several weeks–Saleh’s constituency is now his personal guard, with whom he can only hope to control a small portion of the country. Saleh is behaving less and less like a president and more and more like a cornered animal.

UPDATE (10:30pm Washington time): Al Jazeera is now reporting several explosions in Sanaa, with no casualties so far, and more fighting between the Hashid confederation and Saleh’s men. It may be another hiccup. It may be that Yemen is falling apart before our eyes. The balance of power in the Yemeni military will decide how far the initial confrontation goes. We know that many units of Yemen’s army defected months ago, while the Republican Guard stayed loyal to Saleh. If Saleh only has his guard on his side, he cannot fight for long–especially if the army does not remain neutral. However, reporting on the standing of the non-Guard units of the Yemeni military has been noticably absent.

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