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.
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.
Yemen's mountainous hinterland is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the affiliate of the terrorist network responsible for attempted bombing of an airplane in December 2009 and the parcel bombs in October 2010. Despite its security concerns, Washington will probably not be coming to the rescue - neither for its ally Saleh, nor for the opposition forces, whatever they ultimately represent. As the Obama administration has made clear, the international no fly zone in Libya was instituted to stop an imminent threat to civilian life. It was not to decide a war, nor was it a threat to other dictators considering violent crackdowns against protesters. It's possible that the U.S. may freeze Saleh's assets and foreign assistance, but it is unlikely to do more.
Saudi Arabia may be the ultimate arbiter of Yemen's future. In Bahrain, the Saudi monarchy has not hesitated to intervene and buttress the monarchy, even firing on protesters. They could reasonably support Saleh in an effort to demonstrate to would-be activists in the Gulf that protests will not succeed. Saleh could also redevelop his tribal support. The tribes are fragmentary and fickle, and some could be willed or bought away from the protest movement. However, the Saudis have no interest in further unrest in Yemen. Not only does the conflict prolong the "Arab Spring," which could eventually threaten the Saudi monarchy as well, but expands the safe haven available to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has frequently targeted Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have a history with al-Ahmar, who commanded Yemeni national forces in the Northwest region, which includes the Saudi-Yemeni border. They may be amenable to a revolution if al-Ahmar is willing to work with them and ensure a quick, stable transition of power. Such would be a revolution within limits, on their terms. Saudi government officials have even suggested that they may help negotiate a hasty exit for Saleh.
Even if Saleh departs, it may not save Yemen from itself -- the protest movement is a dangerous amalgam of opposition groups, including southern secessionists, tribal leaders, democratic students, Islamists, socialists, former parliamentarians, and now a large military component. If Saleh does not start a civil war, the opposition groups may as they try to fill the vacuum of power he leaves behind. Indeed, some Yemen analysts have argued that Yemen has been discretely in civil war for the past seven years, as it has violently suppressed the Houthi rebellion in the north, which has now joined the protest movement. But, so far, Yemen's domestic conflicts have been confined by region and identity. The possibility for Yemen's conflicts to become something more, and engulf the entire country, is growing. Though the hazard will not end if Saleh absconds, this moment has the potential to be where that hazard becomes something more.