assessments

Yemen's Rebel General Raises the Stakes

5 MINS READApr 13, 2011 | 18:14 GMT
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
A firefight reportedly broke out between rival security forces in Sanaa as forces loyal to the embattled president confronted pro-rebel forces loyal to major army defector Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. Though al-Ahmar is attempting to raise the stakes against Saleh in positioning his forces to seize strategic targets on the outskirts of Sanaa, he remains outgunned and outnumbered by pro-Saleh forces. Unless mass defections occur on Saleh's side, the security situation in Sanaa is likely to remain a standoff while the writ of the state in the rest of the country continues to weaken.
Clashes between rival security forces reportedly broke out around 1 a.m. local time April 13 in the northern part of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. Forces loyal to Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar — commander of the 1st Armored Division and of the northwestern military zone, who defected from the regime March 21 — have been attempting to set up checkpoints and encampments along a main highway running through the capital. The firefight reportedly broke out at one of these checkpoints. Some 100 security forces loyal to embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh confronted al-Ahmar's forces, exchanging small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire for about an hour and leaving at least four policemen and one soldier dead. The clash comes as al-Ahmar has been positioning his forces to seize strategic targets on the outskirts of the capital, presenting a challenge to Saleh. However, he remains outgunned and outnumbered by pro-Saleh forces, and without mass defections away from Saleh, a standoff between the two sides is likely to persist while the government's authority across the country continues to erode. There are conflicting reports as to which pro-Saleh forces were involved in the firefight. Most media reports claim the pro-Saleh forces belonged to the elite Republican Guard (commanded by Gen. Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president's son and head of Yemen's special operations forces) and the Central Security Forces (commanded by Gen. Yahya Mohamed Abdullah Saleh, the president's nephew); however, a STRATFOR Yemeni government source claims that the firefight ensued when local police in the area were attempting to reassert their authority against al-Ahmar's forces. The absence of armored vehicles in the fight lends credence to the claim. Following the gunfight, an unconfirmed report emerged from Xinhua news agency citing an unnamed army official who claimed some 10,000 Yemeni officers and soldiers belonging to the Republican Guard, Central Security Forces and air force arrived at the headquarters of al-Ahmar's 1st Armored Division announcing their defection. The veracity of this report has not been confirmed. Not only would the sight of 10,000 forces arriving at al-Ahmar's base be reported by more than one news agency, but it should also be noted that al-Ahmar's forces have been extremely active providing interviews to foreign media agencies in an effort to shape a perception that Saleh's base of support is collapsing. The reality is likely much more complex. Saleh's forces, commanded by loyalists belonging to the second generation "new guard" of his family, are concentrated in Sanaa. They have been steadily building up forces over the past several days in and around Sanaa in an effort to establish a cordon around the city to prevent any reinforcement of al-Ahmar's forces downtown from outside the capital. As the situation stands now, Saleh's forces appear to far outnumber and outgun those of al-Ahmar in Sanaa. Saleh's forces also reportedly occupy dominant positions around the capital, which is why the security situation has been largely a stalemate since al-Ahmar's March 21 defection. While al-Ahmar's forces downtown may not be able to be ejected from the capital without intense urban fighting and significant casualties on both sides as well as civilian casualties, he also does not appear to be in a position to take by force much new ground in the capital. Nonetheless, al-Ahmar is relying on his political and tribal allies, such as Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar, who leads Yemen's largest and most influential tribal confederation, to sustain pressure on the president and his allies in various rounds of negotiation taking place among the opposition, the regime and the Gulf Cooperation Council states led by Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, al-Ahmar's forces are gradually massing on the outskirts of the capital, beyond the positions of Saleh's forces. They are setting up encampments on one of Sanaa's main roads near Sanaa University, the base of operations for al-Ahmar's forces ensconced within the capital itself and the main site of protests where al-Ahmar's forces are protecting demonstrators camping outside the university entrance. It is not clear how far al-Ahmar can expand his footprint in the city with the forces he has downtown. Actual defections would certainly help by adding to his forces, but given the apparent strength of Saleh's forces in and around the capital and the potential difficulties bringing in more reinforcements from outside the capital, there are tactical constraints on how many key sites he can actually seize and control. Spreading out along long, fixed targets like highways creates the risk of exposing his forces to being split or isolating outposts. Attempting to hold large sites like airports when Saleh's forces have considerable firepower positioned around the city risks overextending his forces and opening them up to attack. As the security situation stands, it appears Saleh has the advantage of time over al-Ahmar, as the latter faces the risk of overreach. The tactical picture remains opaque, but Saleh's forces also have every incentive to prevent al-Ahmar from encroaching on the capital any further. But if defections from Saleh's side are occurring and spreading, particularly within the president's most elite and presumably loyal units, then al-Ahmar's position will strengthen while Saleh's will weaken. The loyalty of the forces that remain under Saleh thus remains a critical question.

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