In Yemen, Both Leadership and Opposition Face Possible Collapse

In addition to his battles with the Hashid tribesmen, Saleh's forces are reportedly attacking the troubled town of Zinjibar in Yemen's south, which the Saleh government claims has been overrun by al Qaeda. Government forces are conducting air and artillery strikes in attempts to clear the town. In doing so, Saleh is promoting the image that gained him so much international support, that of the counterterrorism ally. And as with so much of Saleh's image management, there's a strong chance it is a ploy. According to residents in the town, Saleh's forces allowed militants to enter the town and take defensive positions, presumably to give the military an excuse to fight. It isn't even certain that the militants occupying the town are al Qaeda; there is no shortage of Islamist militant groups in the region, and some observers speculate the militants could be Southern secessionists. The shelling of Zinjibar is a last effort of Saleh to regain his counterterrorism reputation, and he likely hopes, support from foreign governments.

Zinjibar also provided Saleh with a useful distraction; while Yemen Air Force jets bombed Zinjibar on Monday, government forces opened fire on protesters and bulldozed the protest camp in Ta'iz. The attack occurred under cover of night and killed at least 20 protesters, though as many as 50 dead have been reported to the United Nations. It is the first time that the regime has razed a protest camp. If the government attacks the larger camp in Sanaa, it will almost certainly provoke a clash with the defected military forces there.

Saleh's departure has not solved the problem of leadership in Yemen. Rather it has complicated the issue. Vice President Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi is acting president; notably, his office is in Yemen's Ministry of Defense, but his actual influence may be limited. According to Gregory Johnsen, a prominent blogger on Yemeni politics, Hadi earned his office largely because he is from the South (a token concession after the 1994 civil war), loyal, and weak. It is unclear at this point where the power lies in the Yemeni government, but it may rest with the commanders of the loyal military units, which are commanded by close relatives of Saleh. The government continues to be pressured by Hashid tribesmen. Despite reports on Sunday that a ceasefire had been reached, journalists in Sanaa reported on Twitter that shelling continued into the early hours of Monday morning.

There is no international deus ex machina coming to solve Yemen's political crisis. Since the outbreak of violence two weeks ago, there has been a deafening silence from Yemen's northern border. The Kingdom has a long and fraught relationship with Yemen. They have intervened in its wars, maintained patronage networks with tribes, and tried to contain al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has targeted Saudi prince Muhammad bin Nayyif. They may decide to keep Saleh in Saudi Arabia, but it is unclear what role they may play in resolving Yemen's continuing crisis. The Saudis have been waging counterrevolution efforts across the region to try to staunch the Arab Spring. Saleh's departure is another dangerous precedent for Saudi Arabia's efforts to stem the populist movements they fear, and while chaos might be instructive to aspiring revolutionaries, it is dangerous in its own right so close to the Saudi border. They have no good options.

Neither does the United States, which staked its interests in Yemen to the failed GCC deal. On Wednesday, the White House announced that the President's counterterrorism advisor John Brennan was flying to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to meet with GCC leaders. It also exhorted Saleh again to sign the agreement, despite the manifold faults of the proposal and the collapse of the international reconciliation effort. If the United States has a strategy for the situation now, it has yet to say so.

This -- except, of course, for the injury and emergency evacuation -- was Saleh's endgame. He fragmented the opposition. He sidelined the peaceful protesters and the defected military forces. He raised the specter al Qaeda and began stamping out protest camps. Challenging the tribes was a dangerous gamble; it split the opposition, but brought a war on Saleh that may have cost him his office -- if he attempts to return to Sanaa, it may cost him more. Even before Saleh was injured by shelling on Friday, Hamid al Ahmar suggested that the violence may claim Saleh's life. "If Saleh refuses to leave, well, we don't have a Sharm el Sheik in Yemen," he told the Los Angeles Times, referring to the location of Hosni Mubarak's post-dictatorship house arrest.

There is no guarantee that the violence will end with him. Saleh has played chicken with a civil war, one that may be fought without him. Things are falling apart. The death toll in Yemen has nearly doubled in the past two weeks, from approximately 170 when the GCC agreement collapsed to more than 350 on Friday, June 3. The shelling in Sanaa continues, and You Tube footage shows gunmen firing on protesters who had been celebrating Saleh's departure in Ta'iz. Even without Saleh, the blood-dimmed tide is still rising.

Presented by

J. Dana Stuster, a Joseph S. Nye National Security Research Intern at Center for a New American Security, is a writer living in Washington, DC.

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