The fragile country risks repeating a conflict from 50 years ago -- and could be running out of time
When tanks under the command of the Yemeni Free Officers arrived at his palace in September 1962, Imam al-Badr, the last monarch of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, grabbed an assault rifle and fired at them in defiance. The tanks, under orders from a revolutionary military council inspired by Gamal abd' al-Nasser's Free Officers coup of a decade prior, were there to remove him from power. While his guards skirmished with the Free Officers, al-Badr slipped through a back gate in the palace garden and escaped, gathering friends and associates who made their way north to find haven under the protection of friendly tribes and Saudi money and influence. For the next eight years, al-Badr and his allies fought a civil war against the military regime of the nascent Yemen Arab Republic.
President Saleh is not Imam al-Badr, and 2011 is not 1962. The tanks outside Saleh's mansion are commanded by the Yemeni Republican Guard, loyalists led by Saleh's own son. The story of the dictator clinging to power and threatening to pull the country into a prolonged and bloody civil war, though, rings familiar in Yemen. As the country's military and tribal system fractures under the weight of popular protests, Yemen risks once again devolving into civil war.
Saleh has watched the Yemeni government crumble from underneath him. The turning point came last Friday, when snipers fired into crowds of protesters assembled at Sana'a University. The attack left 52 dead, many by wounds to the head and neck; in shaky videos taken by protesters on cell phone cameras, the reports can be heard one at a time, slow, methodical and aimed. Scores were wounded. Then the defections began. After the third cabinet minister resigned, Saleh dismissed his government on Sunday. Yemen's foreign ambassadors have resigned in droves, as have advisors, members of parliament, and officials in Saleh's personality-cult of a political party. On Monday, the foremost military figure in the country, Brigadier General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and the leader of the largest tribal organization in Yemen, Sadiq al-Ahmar, separately announced that they were joining the opposition. At present, much of the military and wide swaths of the government have joined the protests calling for Saleh's abdication. Leaders of the protest movement are calling for a new "day of departure" and plan to march on the presidential mansion on Friday.
Saleh, meanwhile, has surrounded himself with the remnants of his regime, many of them relatives commanding elite military units, and issued statements saying he will resist any attempt at a coup. There are soldiers and tanks in Sana'a, some belonging to the Republican Guard, others belonging to al-Ahmar's First Armored Division. There have been at least two reports of exchanges of gunfire between Republican Guard and defected military forces.
In 1966, then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk sent a diplomatic cable to Taiz advising against a U.S. intervention in the Yemeni civil war. It would be a "desperate and extremely risky gamble," he wrote, and would require a "major U.S. political and financial commitment to group we have little fundamental reason to trust and whose chances of success...seem extremely slim." The U.S. ambassador to England wrote frankly, "Since Roman days, every foreign power which intervened in Yemen got bogged down in morass of inter-tribal rivalries...If Sovs wanted 'bases' or other facilities in Yemen...they could pay the high financial price and take political risks required." As with today's counterterrorism concerns, the U.S. had national security interests in Yemen; containment policy dictated that the United States should have tried to staunch the potential spread of socialism from Egypt. Yemen and its internal conflict just weren't worth the risks of directly involvement.