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On the Brink

Will President Saleh’s latest gamble in Yemen prove his downfall?

On Friday, hundreds of tribesmen armed with anti-aircraft mortars, rockets, machine guns, and grenades launched a prolonged attack on the presidential palace in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, wounding Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president of thirty-three years. It’s a fitting cap on what has amounted to nearly two weeks of horrendous violence across Yemen, distilled in recent news into a confusing smear of images featuring billowing black smoke, tanks rumbling through urban centers, and men in fluttering keffiyehs firing machine guns from broken windows. So with all that drama at your fingertips, here’s something to keep in mind: Despite what it looks like, Yemen has not yet slipped into full-blown civil war. But the yet part is important. With his deliberate escalation of violence on all fronts, what does President Saleh think he’s doing?  

What we’re seeing now are two almost completely separate battles raging on Yemen’s streets. The first is a revenge battle between forces loyal to Saleh and those loyal to the wealthy Al-Ahmar family, which heads Yemen’s most powerful tribal confederation, the Hashid. This conflict is not new. It has been simmering behind the scenes for years, and only turned violent last Monday, when Saleh’s men fired on the mansion of Sadiq al-Ahmar, the family’s patriarch, in the posh Hasaba neighborhood of Sana’a. When Hashid tribesmen returned fire, so began this horrific street battle that has stretched from the southern part of Yemen’s capital to the main international airport six miles away. The latest death toll hovers around 140, but the violence has also had crushing humanitarian side effects. In many parts of the city, there’s no electricity, phone service, gasoline, or water, and many residents have been without cooking oil and basic food supplies since the fighting began. “It is too dangerous to leave, so we have no meat or vegetables,” my friend Faisa told me over a crackling phone line. “We are eating rice in the dark.”

The second battle raging on Yemen’s streets, meanwhile, is much more one-sided. It involves Yemeni security forces firing on the hundreds of thousands of unarmed protesters who have been camped out in cities across Yemen since February, calling for Saleh’s immediate ouster. While many of these protesters are also tribesman, and some have received financial support from the al-Ahmar family, Yemen’s youth revolution is not motivated by tribal retaliation, but by ideals of democracy and anti-corruption.

So on Tuesday, when Yemeni security forces in armored military trucks outfitted with gun mounts rolled into a protest camp in a central square in the southern city of Taiz, it had nothing to do with the tribal warfare unfolding on the streets of Sana’a, several hundred miles away. According to eyewitnesses, the soldiers in Taiz approached the square, began firing water cannons, sound bombs, and tear gas into the crowd, and then drove their armored military trucks through the tents, ripping down banners and destroying the camp. Some security forces also fired live ammunition, killing at least twenty. “They were shooting directly at us with machine guns,” says Noah al-Wafi, a member of the Youth Revolutionary Council in Taiz. “They weren’t firing in the air. They were firing at us.” Since then, several skirmishes between protesters and security forces have erupted daily in Taiz, as well as Yemen’s other major cities. Makeshift triage centers in mosques and schools are filled with skinny teenagers and old men moaning on the ground. Protesters mop up pools of blood on the asphalt with their t-shirts.

Despite these horrors, neither of these two ongoing clashes constitutes a full-blown, Libya-style civil war. The battle between the Ahmar and Saleh families is just that: a family feud. While it clearly has political underpinnings—the wealthy Ahmars, outspoken critics of Saleh’s, command the loyalties of hundreds of thousands of tribesmen—it is, at this point, still a relatively small battle relegated to only a part of the nation’s capital. And the protesters, for their part, despite beginning to reach the end of their rope, have not yet chosen to fight back violently. In a nation where every man has a weapon by point of cultural pride, their choice to remain unarmed, despite almost daily attacks by Saleh’s security forces, is no small feat. “It’s not a war when only one side is fighting, and we are unarmed,” says al-Wafi, who describes the tribal fighting as “completely different” from the protest. “The al-Ahmars are fighting in self-defense. We are not fighting at all.”

But if the country hasn’t yet descended into civil war, the consensus among protest leaders and political analysts is that the government’s violent escalation on both fronts is part of President Saleh’s attempts to start one. By picking a fight with both the most powerful tribal family andthe protesters at the same time, Saleh is trying to draw all his enemies into war at once. “He thinks that if he can do that, he will be able to deplete their resources and then force them to compromise so he can stay in power,” says Abdul Ghani al-Eryani, a prominent political analyst in Sana’a.

Saleh’s strategy is motivated by the fact that, militarily speaking, he knows he still has the lion’s share of Yemeni might. The Republican Guard, Special Forces, and Central Security Forces, which together represent the best-equipped and most professional branches of Yemen’s military, are commanded by Saleh’s son and nephew—and still under his control. Indeed, recent reports indicate that elite Yemeni forces trained by the United States to combat Islamic militants in the country have been diverted by Saleh to help maintain his grip on power. “Saleh thinks he can create a position where he can negotiate [the terms of] his exit, and that means weakening his opponents to the point where they are willing to grant him what he wants,” Eryani says.

Saleh’s calculations, however, may be wrong. Already, two branches of Yemen’s armed forces, including the First Armored Division commanded by the president’s half-brother, Major General Ali Mohsin, have defected from Saleh’s command. And earlier this week, former defense minister Abdullah Ali Eliwa read aloud a petition signed by nine former army officers, calling for all of Yemen’s soldiers to stand behind the youth protesters. “We have to recognize that we are responsible for maintaining the unity, security and stability of Yemen,” the petition stated. And youth leader Adel al-Surabi says he’s heard rumblings that more defections are imminent. “If that happens, we could force Saleh out of power and form a new government,” Surabi says. “We could avoid a civil war.”

As Friday’s assault on the presidential palace makes clear, it’s impossible to tell whether Saleh will end up regretting his latest gamble. But it’s worth remembering that Yemen’s president has a final card up his sleeve when it comes to maintaining both internal and external support for his grip on power: fear of creating a power vacuum for Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, one of the global terrorist network’s most active factions. Indeed, just this week, the Yemeni Air Force reportedly pounded the coastal city of Zinjibar to rout Islamic militants who had “taken over” the city. Protesters and opposition leaders publicly questioned the government’s claims, accusing Saleh of “crying al-Qaeda” in order to stoke international fears and rally support for his government. “Talking about the threat of al-Qaeda has been very lucrative for Saleh. It is an easy way to make people afraid and make them support him,” said Walid al-Hammadi, a human rights activist in Sana’a. “It’s a game he plays.”

At this point, the future of Yemen is teetering on a pinhead. The possibility of Yemen’s opposition successfully brokering a peaceful transition of power is unlikely. And the chances that a large enough slice of Yemen’s military defects and joins the revolution are slim, too. On Wednesday, the White House dispatched counterterrorism advisor John O. Brennan to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to see what could be done in Yemen. And for its part, the Gulf Cooperation Council, which left Yemen two weeks ago after Saleh refused to sign the GCC-brokered peace deal, has been relegated to hand wringing and “pressuring” Saleh to step down. But the longer things go on as they are—the longer those images on the news feature billowing black smoke and Kalashnikovs—the more likely full-blown civil war will be. Whether or not the resulting chaos will bolster Saleh—or prove his downfall—remains to be seen.

Haley Sweetland Edwards is a journalist living in Tbilisi, Georgia. She recently lived in Yemen on a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. 

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