Mar 30, 2012 | 13:09 GMT

5 mins read

Instability Persists in Yemen


Three opposition soldiers loyal to defected Yemeni Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar were killed in clashes March 28 with Republican Guard troops, a force led by one of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's sons. A deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and signed by Saleh in November 2011 removed Saleh from the presidency, but it did not remove him or his family from Yemen's political, military or economic domains. The country's new president, Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi, has tried to fill his Cabinet with more of his allies, but Saleh continues to try to undermine the GCC deal.

The Yemeni government has been preoccupied with internal power struggles, Cabinet reshuffles and fighting in Sanaa between Mohsen's and Saleh's factions. In the meantime, groups on the periphery of Yemen, namely the al-Houthi Zaidi rebels in the north and the secessionist movement and al Qaeda in the south, will take advantage of Sanaa's distraction to intensify their own operations.

Four months after the GCC power-transfer agreement was signed, and despite regular protests demanding that Saleh be stripped of his immunity and that he and his family face trial, Saleh's family continues to hold many high-level positions throughout the government, business community and security forces. In fact, Saleh himself is still the head of the ruling General People's Congress (GPC) party. His seat at the top of the GPC is more than ceremonial, as was shown when all but two GPC lawmakers walked out of a Cabinet meeting March 22 in a move that Saleh's opponents said was intended to disrespect Prime Minister Mohammad Basindawa.

Not only have there been numerous protests against Saleh's faction, but Hadi himself has tried to weaken the former president and his loyalists. After Saleh relinquished power in late 2011, then-Vice President Hadi attempted to unite the military and started trying to build his leadership credentials by setting up a 14-member military council to reform the armed forces. The council included officials who had served under Saleh as well as individuals aligned with al-Ahmar. The reason for including allies of both men was to balance the factions and limit Saleh's control, with Hadi serving as the chief mediator.

After he was elected president in late February, Hadi began efforts to weaken Saleh's and his family's grip on power. Hadi removed various military leaders loyal to Saleh, but the former president's oldest son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, continues to serve as commander of the elite Republican Guard. (Ahmed has deliberately tried to appear accommodating to Hadi in order to preserve his position and protect his family's position.)

Hadi is not alone in trying to separate Saleh's faction from power. Al-Ahmar and his soldiers in the 1st Armored Brigade have been engaged in a war with Saleh loyalists since March 2011. This battle has continued since Hadi became president.

Al-Ahmar plays an important role in the military council set up by Hadi, serving as the counterweight to Saleh and his loyalists. Al-Ahmar has not explicitly aligned himself with Hadi, though he did emphasize his support for the president in a March 22 interview. But there are indications that al-Ahmar's strength is waning.

As has been seen with many political and military officials associated with the former Saleh regime, al-Ahmar's own supporters — his soldiers — have recently begun to protest his years of criminal activity and abuses and to demand that he be demoted from his position as commander. In the aforementioned interview, al-Ahmar announced that he planned to retire from his command post, though he did not indicate when. Saleh's faction is certainly preparing to capitalize on al-Ahmar's struggles while Hadi is still too weak for decisive action.

It is unclear whether al-Ahmar will be willing or able to continue fighting the Saleh faction's attempts to remain embedded in the current government's political and military establishment. Either way, Hadi will continue trying to replace Saleh's allies in the Cabinet, military and top business posts with allies of his own.

Despite the reshuffle, Saleh and his family will retain a strong presence in the military and economic sectors, which could lead Hadi to facilitate the development of a new political party or to overtake Saleh as GPC leader. Additionally, Hadi will continue to reach out to key allies, such as Saudi Arabia, for help in containing Saleh. Such foreign assistance will likely take the form of financial aid to help Hadi negotiate the removal of Saleh loyalists in the government and to encourage al-Ahmar's faction not to prolong the fight.

Growing Threats in the North and South

While the Yemeni government attends to its internal power struggle, groups that are normally quieted by military campaigns, bribes or battles with tribes paid by the government have had more room to operate.

The al-Houthi rebels in the north have reportedly moved toward the key Red Sea port of Midi, the capture of which would provide the rebels with a secure supply link. This comes after Yemeni officials and Indian coastal authorities reportedly seized weapons shipments from Iran intended for the rebels earlier in March. (The actual extent of Iranian support for the rebels is unknown.) In addition, the al-Houthis have intensified their battle against the Salafists in the northern province of Saada.

Previously, the Yemeni government contained the northern rebels by encouraging the Salafists and other local tribes to fight against them. However, due to the government's preoccupation with the fight for political control in the capital, this issue likely will be put on hold as the al-Houthis continue to strengthen their operations.

Yemen's southern provinces pose the biggest potential threat to the new government. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its offshoot, Ansar al-Shariah, are major players in Yemen's south, especially Aden, Abyan, Bayda and Shabwa. Since Hadi's election, AQAP has increased its militant activity, including firefights, suicide bombings against military personnel and the killing of more than 100 Yemeni soldiers in one weekend from March 2 to March 5. Although the United States has conducted air strikes to help the Yemeni military regain control of some of the southern cities where AQAP has claimed control, AQAP and its affiliates will continue to target military figures and infrastructure with vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, armed assaults and kidnappings.

The southern secessionist movement has also been more active since Hadi's election, and secessionists have carried out attacks on Yemeni soldiers, army posts and police forces. The erosion of security due to these attacks damages the government's credibility in the eyes of the southern public, often leading to more support for the secessionist movement. The movement may also see a boost from the March 26 return of Mohammed Ali Ahmed, the leader of the secession movement who has been living in exile for 18 years.

Though Yemen is not currently facing widespread public protests of the size seen during much of 2011, the government's distraction with its internal power struggle will prevent it from effectively containing the rebel and militant factions in the north and south.

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