Yemen: Coming Apart

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April 1, 2011: President Saleh has been discussing leaving power, but one of his concerns is to not leave anarchy in his wake. Saleh came to power 32 years ago after years of civil war, and apparently does not want to see the country go back to that. But halting another civil war may already be out of Saleh's control. There will be a large demonstration in the capital today, seeking to drive Saleh out. But Saleh supporters have called for large rallies in the capital supporting the president. In the south, there are demonstrations calling for the country to be partitioned into northern and southern parts. For decades, before 1990, the country was divided into two states: North and South Yemen. An opinion poll in the south a year ago showed that over 70 percent of southerners wanted the country partitioned again. But most of the demonstrators in the capital are calling for a democratic, not a divided, Yemen.

For the United States and Saudi Arabia, the growing chaos in Yemen is a big problem. Yemen is where the local (Arabian Peninsula) al Qaeda went and established its headquarters five years ago. Driven out of Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda found sanctuary among some Yemeni tribes. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia persuaded the Yemeni government to go after the Yemeni-based al Qaeda, and this had some success. But it caused discontent among some of the southern tribes, and contributed to the current situation (which is mainly about corruption and poor government). If Saleh is forced out, as seems increasingly likely, a deal will have to be made with the new president (assuming there isn't a civil war that divides the country) to handle al Qaeda. But if there is an extended period of chaos, al Qaeda will have freedom to recruit and train new terrorists and plan new attacks. This is similar to the situation in the Pakistani tribal territories, and Somalia.

For over three decades, Saleh took advantage of the tribal divisions in Yemen, to prevent the formation of tribal coalitions that could again tear the country apart, or toss him out of power. But that effort was always a work in progress. There was no end to the constant balancing act. Saleh finally dropped too many balls and now the country is taking sides and splitting up again. This is encouraged by growing economic problems and water shortages. There are too many people and too few jobs. There are also Islamic radical factions (al Qaeda, mostly) and several political parties, willing to fight for their version of Yemen's future. The tribes are not really organized for war, as they serve largely to assist in local security and settling disputes within the tribe.

General Ali Muhsin al Ahmar, and other rebellious officers who have deserted the government in the last ten days, have been able to get some of their troops to join rebel factions. But most troops and police appear to be standing aside, to await a change of government. With the government forces largely inactive, various tribal militias, not all of them in agreement with each other, are seizing control of provinces, or parts of provinces. Muhsin has made a lot of money in the last few years from smuggling, an operation that his high military rank protected from prosecution. No new leaders are going to appear who are completely clean (free of corruption).

Half the oil production has halted, because a pipeline damaged (by tribal rebels) two weeks ago, has not been repaired. In the north, Saada province has been taken over by a wealthy local arms dealer. The former governor left a few days ago on a charter aircraft, along with large quantities of cash taken from a local bank.  But the north is not at peace, as the new, self-proclaimed, governor has to deal with feuding tribes (some of them used to be pro-government.)

March 31, 2011: The government has lost control in six of 18 provinces. This includes the Shia north and the most rebellious provinces in the south. There, some tribal militias have declared themselves loyal to al Qaeda and have proclaimed several provinces to be under the control of a new Islamic government.

Tribesmen attacked the electrical power transmission lines outside the capital and the port of Aden, causing blackouts for several hours.  

The British embassy advised all British citizens in Yemen to leave immediately, as it might not be possible to conduct emergency evacuations later if the country lurched into civil war and commercial flights were halted.

March 29, 2011:  President Saleh offered to step back, and transfer power to a caretaker government until new elections were held later this year. Saleh is trying to keep his party, and his key supporters, in power. Since many of these supporters come from powerful tribes, this has a chance of succeeding. But most Yemenis just want Saleh, and his corrupt cronies, gone. The corrupt cronies still have lots of guns, and a desire to hang on to their loot. That's why this process is dragging on for so long.

March 27, 2011: In Abyan province, rebels attacked an ammunition factory, driving away the guards and stealing weapons and ammunition. After the rebels left, hundreds of local villagers descended on the factory, to steal what was left. But someone flipped a lit cigarette onto the floor, igniting some spilled explosive material. The fire and explosions quickly spread. Over 150 people died, half of them women and children.

East of the capital, an army patrol was attacked, leaving six soldiers dead and four wounded. Al Qaeda was suspected, as they are the primary group involved in such attacks.

March 26, 2011: Battalions of the Republican Guard were withdrawn to the capital. Without these  units to maintain the loyalty and resolve of police and army units, rebel groups (usually tribal militias) have taken control of the Shia north and most rebellious provinces (like Abyan) in the south.

 

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