President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s recent return to Yemen has been met by continued massive, violent protests calling for his immediate ouster. With separatists and al-Qaeda insurgents continuing to gain ground, the total collapse of Yemen’s government looks to be nearly at hand.
Saleh had spent the past three months in Saudi Arabia recuperating from burns he received in a June rocket attack on his presidential compound, an attack which killed 16 people and wounded more than 100. While waiting for Saleh to return, his sons and relatives were charged with maintaining control over Yemen’s government, its armed forces and the capital city of Sanaa.
However, their heavy handed attempts to maintain order have only served to expedite Yemen’s descent into a state of near anarchy. In the past two weeks alone, savage street fighting has claimed over 150 lives as Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) forces have rained mortars and anti-aircraft fire onto crowds of anti-government protesters.
In the meantime, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other Yemeni Islamic militants, such as the Partisans of Sharia, have overtaken several towns in southern Yemen, including the Abyan province capital of Zinjibar. Moreover, senior AQAP leaders have now admitted that fighters from Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked al Shabab had crossed over into Yemen and were now joined in the insurgency.
Then, days before Saleh was to return home, anti-government tribesmen overran an army base north of Sanaa, home to the Republican Guard under the command of Saleh’s oldest son, Ahmed. That attack had been preceded a week earlier when another Republican Guard base in Sanaa had been taken over by a group of protesters and renegade ROYG soldiers.
Finally, serving as a backdrop to all this upheaval has been a Yemen economy, saddled with an unemployment rate of 40 percent, which has all but collapsed. So, it wasn’t too surprising that the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recently wrote that the ROYG has “appeared to have lost effective control of parts of the country and within the major cities.”
So, it was into this quagmire to which Saleh returned, hoping to stave off further unrest and perhaps spare him a stint in prison or a date in front of a firing squad. To that end, Saleh, who has repeatedly rejected calls by opposition groups to vacate his 30-year presidency, offered in a televised national address to abide by a deal brokered by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Under that deal, Sahel would allow for parliamentary and presidential elections. In return, Saleh would cede power within a month of signing the accord in exchange for immunity from prosecution by a newly elected Yemen government.
Unfortunately for Saleh, the deal he offered had already been rejected three times by Yemen’s main opposition group, the Joint Meetings Parties. So, if Saleh had entertained thoughts that his televised peace offering would have a pacifying effect, ensuing events quickly disabused him of the notion.
Specifically, tens of thousands of protesters, quickly poured onto the streets of Sanaa demanding his immediate arrest, convinced Saleh was only stalling for time in an attempt to further consolidate his power. Perhaps their suspicions of Saleh being less than candid about voluntarily stepping aside was fueled by RYOG forces only one day after Saleh’s arrival having attacked an opposition camp in Sanaa, killing 17 people in the process.
Then, days later, Yemen’s Defense Minister, General Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, survived an assassination attempt by a suicide bomber who attacked his convoy in the southern Yemen town of Tawahi. It was the second such assassination attempt on Ahmed, the last coming in August when another convoy he was riding in hit a roadside bomb.
Of course, Saleh’s quest to hold onto power is fairly understandable in that dictator and son combos, such as in Libya and Egypt, tend to face exile, imprisonment or death once they relinquish power. That view was best expressed by Tawakul Karaman, head of Yemen’s human rights group, Women Journalists Without Chains, who said anti-government protesters won’t be satisfied until “we arrest him (Saleh) and bring him to court.”
Yet, despite his troubles, Saleh still enjoys some strong reeds of support among the Persian Gulf nations of the GCC as well as from the United States, all of whom fear Saleh’s abrupt removal will hasten Yemen’s spiral into another Somalia.
Those fears include Yemen’s location astride the Gulf of Aden, a location in which three million barrels of oil sail past on tankers every day. Already shipping in the Gulf of Aden has been the target of 188 Somali pirate attacks in the past year. Now, disaffected and impoverished Yemenis may be looking to join the Somali pirate activity or go into business for themselves. According to one Gulf military analyst, there are already signs of collusion among “Yemeni coastal actors and the (Somali) pirates.”
For the United States, Yemen’s collapse will only serve to cement AQAP’s status as what CIA Director David Petraeus has called “the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad.” The danger posed by AQAP to America has already twice been on display when the terror group attempted to send bombs to hit targets in Detroit (2009) and Chicago (2010).
Of course, the United States isn’t waiting around to see if Saleh survives to go after AQAP. With four drone airstrips in the Horn of Africa, the United States has already been targeting AQAP and al Shabab insurgents with missile strikes and special operations forces.
As White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said earlier in September, “We reserve the right to take unilateral action [against al Qaeda] if or when other governments are unwilling or unable to take the necessary actions themselves.”
Moreover, some in Washington see Ali Abdullah Saleh as more of an impediment to fighting AQAP, given his propensity to use American counter-terrorism aid to crush internal dissent instead of terrorists.
However, while Saleh’s reliability as an ally may be in serious question, he’s at least a known quantity. As Saleh himself has said countless times, his immediate departure could lead to unparalleled chaos in Yemen. While Saleh’s assessment may rightfully be viewed as self-serving, as events continue to indicate, it’s a scenario that looks more likely by the day.