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However, the protests are continuing as many doubt Saleh’s sincerity about not running for re-election. He previously made the same commitment in 1999 and 2005. The anger against the government may not result in Saleh’s immediate removal, but it could stretch the regime’s resources and cause decentralization that benefits Iran and Al-Qaeda. It could also cause Saleh to try to win support from Islah and Salafists by reverting back to deal-making with Islamic extremists including Al-Qaeda.
“You wouldn’t see Yemen become Afghanistan [if Saleh fell]. You would see a reversion to tribal rule, with a lot of what are essentially mini-states, some of which would be open to hosting Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, this is what is happening in slow motion already,” Brian O’Neill told FrontPage.
One senior diplomat told the New York Times that “the government is practically caged in the capital” and does not exert its authority much beyond Sanaa. The Saleh regime is currently grappling with a secessionist movement in the south, a growing threat from Al-Qaeda, and the likelihood of renewed warfare with the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in the north on top of the protests in the capital and around the country.
Between 300 and 500 Al-Qaeda members are in Abyan, Shabwan and Marib Provinces where the government has waged military offensives. Al-Qaeda has carried out many attacks on Yemeni police officers and soldiers and just executed a senior security official in Sadaa Province. Protesters have clashed with the security forces in the town of Jaar in Abyan Province where Al-Qaeda has a major presence, so it should be assumed that the instability will undermine counter-terrorism efforts.
Many Yemenis believe that the threat from Al-Qaeda is exaggerated or made up altogether and so it is certain that the weakening of the government will permit the group to have safe harbor. Anwar al-Awlaki continues to survive, even though his e-mail communications to terrorism suspects are frequently intercepted. He is a member of one of the country’s largest tribes and its leading sheikh says “this is the government’s affair and it is able to arrest Anwar,” passing the buck in bringing him to justice. The Yemeni government has tried him in absentia and issued an arrest warrant against him, presumably in an attempt to undermine his support.
The instability also presents an opportunity for Iran to revive its proxy war against Yemen and Saudi Arabia through the radical Shiite Houthi rebels in the north. The two sides have had a shaky truce since February 2010, though the Houthis have fought with tribes allied to the government. The Yemeni government recently released over 400 Houthi militants, but Saleh has complained to the king of Qatar about their violations of the truce he helped broker. The government claims the Houthis are still attacking civilians in Saada and are refusing to release prisoners and military vehicles. It also has accused the Houthis of firing a mortar at a government-allied tribe in Sadaa province that killed three civilians.
If these accusations are valid and are not a distraction, it likely means that Iran is testing the waters for a possible renewal of the conflict. The Saleh regime’s preoccupation with the uprising could lead the Iranians and Houthis to believe that it is the best time to fight for an autonomous state in northern Yemen, giving Iran a base on the Arabian Peninsula near the Red Sea.
Whether President Saleh is forced into early retirement or steps down in 2013, the West needs to be concerned about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the potential for Al-Qaeda and Iran to set up bases. The Islamists have good reason to be optimistic about Yemen.
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