Apr 11, 2013 | 10:15 GMT

6 mins read

Yemen Confronts Militants and Separatists

Yemen Confronts Militants and Separatists

A serious instance of insubordination among Yemeni Republican Guard soldiers April 7 is only the latest indicator that President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi has yet to unify Yemen's armed forces. Hadi's ongoing struggle to consolidate power comes as the central government is simultaneously attempting to manage the threat from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen's increasingly violent southern secessionist movement. Although Sanaa has some ability to mitigate these threats, they will become increasingly difficult to manage without a unified military.

Several soldiers from Yemen's Fourth Brigade of the Republican Guard and the First Brigade of its mountain infantry reportedly closed down shops and blocked roads in defiance of orders in Radaa, al Bayda province, and seized control of checkpoints normally manned by the Central Security Forces on April 7. The uprising began after al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula captured four Republican Guard soldiers, triggering the outburst from their comrades angry over what they consider steps by their commanders to strip them of their rights. 

This was not the first time Yemeni soldiers have disobeyed in order to demonstrate discontentment with the military leadership. The last high-profile instance occurred in August 2012 when a unit of the Republican Guard exchanged fire with forces loyal to the government near the Defense Ministry in Sanaa. That incident was a response to Hadi's announcement of a reorganization of the military and resulted in 93 Republican Guard soldiers being sent to prison.

In an effort to prevent dissent among the ranks, especially among forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Hadi reshuffled the military in December 2012. This was a clear attempt by Hadi to consolidate power while weakening both Saleh's faction and the faction of Ali Mohsen, Saleh's rival during the 2011 uprising. As part of the reshuffle, Saleh's son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah, was removed as commander of the Republican Guard and the unit was disbanded and integrated into the general ground forces. Similarly, Mohsen was removed as commander of the First Armored Division and the unit was also ordered to integrate into the general ground forces. In coordination with a presidential decree issued April 10, both were given more political and administrative roles rather than direct command of military units: Mohsen was appointed as military adviser to the commander-in-chief for defense affairs and Ahmed Ali Abdullah was appointed as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.

Though these are significant steps to unify the military, four months after the declaration Hadi's restructuring has yet to take full effect — something the latest instance of disobedience reflects.

Southern Threats and Government Responses

Hadi's struggle to unify the armed forces comes as threats to government control in Yemen's southern provinces are on the rise. Elements of the southern secessionist movement Hirak have increasingly clashed with Yemeni security forces since they declared an armed struggle against the central government Feb. 24. Hirak is not a monolithic movement. Some more moderate members use peaceful protests to promote a negotiated solution to southern demands, such as calls for equal rights and an end to the economic and political marginalization of the south. More radical members have instead opted to attack security forces and energy and oil infrastructure in pursuit of southern independence.

Yemen's north-south divide has been a source of contention since unification in 1990, erupting into civil war in 1994. Although the north and south officially have been united for more than a decade, the regional chasm remains. Whether or not a Yemeni was born in north or south Yemen can be distinguished based on their surname alone, and many Yemenis have remained fiercely loyal to their hometowns and tribes. 

Al Qaeda in Yemen

Al Qaeda in Yemen

Meanwhile, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to pose an unrelenting threat to the Yemeni state. Although al Qaeda militants no longer administer towns in Abyan province as they did during the nationwide unrest in 2011 and 2012, its attacks against military targets have persisted.

Hadi has various options for countering al Qaeda. Sanaa receives intelligence on the group along with financial and logistical support from Saudi Arabia and direct support from the United States for Yemeni airstrikes and other military campaigns against militants. But airstrikes alone will not eliminate al Qaeda's network in Yemen. Worse, inaccurate strikes that harm Yemeni civilians can radicalize communities against the government.

In addition to airstrikes and military campaigns, the government has sought to prevent al Qaeda from expanding its operations by employing local tribes to fight the militants, a tactic also used during Saleh's regime. How long the government can rely on these tribes to do its bidding remains unclear, however, due to the fluid nature of their loyalties, which are guided  by financial incentives from Saudi benefactors or from rival factions within Yemen

Despite these tactics, al Qaeda has continued to mount attacks against Yemeni security forces. As with the recent mutiny of Republican Guard soldiers in Radaa, this could expose divisions within the armed forces.

To combat Hirak, the government has attempted to engage its peaceful elements in talks via the country's national dialogue. So far, no consensus has been reached. How much trying to marginalize the militants by talking to the moderates will help the government remains unclear. Even if such talks were to succeed, the government would not accept the demands of the more radical elements, such as their calls for two separate states. In addition to talks, the government has increased its security presence in the southern provinces to combat violent elements of Hirak. Thus far, however, more security forces in the south have only created more targets for the militant factions of Hirak. As with al Qaeda, increased clashes between security forces and Hirak could widen rifts within the Yemeni armed forces.

Unrest Ahead

If violent elements of the Hirak movement continue to grow and the military and central government remain disjointed, increased contact between security forces and the southern separatists could cause military units to split along geographic lines. If the soldiers from the south began to side with Hirak against northerners, another civil war could break out. Although this scenario does not appear imminent, since unrest in the south is still manageable, it remains possible — especially given Yemen's history of north-south conflict under weak central governments.

Although it is unlikely that Yemen will ever fully rid itself of its various militant and separatist threats, a stronger central government with a unified military could balance the groups off each other and confront the groups should they become too strong — something Saleh managed during most of his three decades in power. But without a united military and a strong government, Sanaa cannot mitigate these threats. Since this situation seems likely to persist in the immediate future, further destabilization in Yemen is likely.

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