The editor-in-chief of the Yemen Post, Hakim Almasmari, says that he believes Yemeni President Saleh’s 32-year reign will end within the next 24 hours. A top military leader has turned on him and ordered his forces to protect the protesters. Unless Saleh is able to fight a civil war, the leader will soon be gone, and an opening for Iranian proxies, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda, will be created.
Almasmari says that at least 18 of the strongest military commanders have joined the opposition and up to 90 percent of all the military is no longer loyal to Saleh. “The military have made it clear that a national emergency government will be announced,” he said.
The tipping point came on March 18 when 52 protesters were killed in Sanaa and 200 wounded when up to 1.5 million people rallied and Saleh ordered his security forces to forcibly disperse them, including through the use of rooftop-stationed snipers that shot to kill. Some reporters were kicked out of the country and a 30-day state of emergency was declared. Al-Jazeera says its office in the capital has been seized. Outrage had already been caused by the use of violence on a smaller scale with protesters comparing Saleh to Saddam Hussein’s “Chemical Ali” after tear gas hospitalized many demonstrators. The steady pace of resignations and defections went into overdrive after the latest brutality.
In the aftermath of the attack, the Tourism and Human Rights Ministers resigned as did more members of Saleh’s ruling party. A large amount of parliamentarians planned to jointly resign and were pre-empted when Saleh fired his government. Over 40 members of parliament, nearly 10 ambassadors, three of the five military zone commanders and senior officials and tribal chiefs, have joined the opposition in calling for Saleh’s removal as of the writing of this piece. Among those that defected were top military leaders that belong to Saleh’s Hashid tribe, the leader of which has also become his enemy.
STRATFOR identifies Brigadier-General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the commander of the 1st Armored Division who is also in charge of the northwest military zone, as the biggest threat to Saleh and his possible replacement. He is backed by the Hashid tribe and on March 21, ordered his forces to protect protesters from further attacks. His troops are now near the presidential palace and could topple Saleh, but would have to fight the Republican Guard units under the command of Saleh’s son, Ahmed. This would lead to a military takeover that then would lead the country into a transitional period.
This turn of events comes after a long list of concessions that failed to appease the population. Saleh announced that he would not run for re-election in 2013 and would not hand power over to his son. He offered a unity government that included the opposition, released some journalists and activists, raised government salaries, slashed income taxes by 60 percent and made many other promises. His only choice now is to depart or fight, as the opposition will clearly not give up its goal of removing him from power. It is very possible Saleh will ask the Saudis for military intervention as they have done in Bahrain, as the Royal family also fears the Iranian-backed Houthis, Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood elements that stand to benefit from his fall.
It is unlikely that Saleh can recover, which raises the question of what a post-Saleh Yemen would look like. The most likely scenario is a military takeover as mentioned, but even this event would lead to instability that will be exploited by enemies of the West. It is inconceivable that the Joint Meetings Parties, a coalition of opposition groups, will not play a major role in the next government. Of these parties, the Muslim Brotherhood-founded and Salafist-supported Islah is the most powerful. One of its most senior figures, Sheikh Abdul Majidal-Zindani, has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for his involvement with Al-Qaeda and he is also connected to Hamas and the Brotherhood’s Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi. The group also supports creating a religious police to “promote virtue and combat vice.”
The heavily-armed Shiite Houthi rebels in the north that spearheaded an Iranian proxy war against the Yemeni and Saudi governments will have an opportunity to establish a stronghold and perhaps even an autonomous region. Al-Qaeda has 300 to 500 operatives in Abyan, Shabwan and Marib Provinces and the population is largely unconcerned with the terrorist group. Anwar al-Awlaki comes from one of the largest tribes in Yemen who have thus far declined to arrest him.
The U.S. is now in a tricky spot. The French Foreign Minister has now said that Saleh’s resignation is unavoidable. The Obama Administration is condemning the violence but is not calling on Saleh to resign, perhaps clinging to the dwindling hope he can be saved. Saleh has given incomplete but crucial support to the U.S. in the fight against Al-Qaeda and is a fierce enemy of Iran. However, he has taken an anti-American tone in his rhetoric lately, accusing the opposition of being part of a Zionist-American conspiracy.
“I am going to reveal a secret. There is an operations room in Tel Aviv with the aim of destabilizing the Arab world. The operations room is in Tel Aviv and run by the White House,” Saleh said.
Whether Saleh stays or goes, power is being decentralized and local groups will be able to assert themselves. The regime will be too preoccupied to take on Iranian proxies or terrorist groups regardless of who leads it. For the West’s enemies, a window has opened in Yemen.