Where Is Yemen Headed as Saleh Tries to Reassert Power?

Article excerpt

President Ali Abdullah Saleh's recent return to Yemen has emboldened Saleh loyalists and angered protesters further. A civil war in Yemen could have repercussions for global trade.

As Yemen enters its ninth month of widespread antigovernment protests, President Ali Abdullah Saleh's attempt to reassert control rather than negotiate with the opposition is pushing the country toward civil war.

While most Yemenis have shown great restraint and persist in their calls for a peaceful transition of power, the recent return of Mr. Saleh after convalescing abroad from a June assassination attempt has emboldened both Saleh loyalists and protesters opposed to his regime.

"Saleh won't quit until the whole country is on fire," declares Aklan Faris, who has defected from the elite Republican Guard run by the president's son. "But by God he has gone too far. It is ayb [shame] to kill women and children. God willing, Saleh and his family will be forced out."

But neither Saleh's government nor the opposition - a diverse movement of tribal leaders, military defectors including Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and disillusioned youths - appears to have the support or military assets to triumph decisively over the other.

"None of the key protagonists - Presi-dent Saleh and his family, Ali Mohsen, and the al-Ahmar family - are showing signs that they are either willing to back down or able to achieve an unambiguous political or military victory," says Sarah Phillips, a Yemen specialist at the University of Sydney in Australia.

A civil war in Yemen would not be one in which a single group challenges another. It would be multidimensional, and it could have repercussions for the region - most notably Saudi Arabia, which shares an 1,100-mile border with Yemen.

Saudi Arabia is ill-equipped to deal with the kind of humanitarian crisis that would result from a civil war in Yemen, and the conflict could spread to the Saudi provinces of Jizan, Asir, and Najran, which are home to both ethnic Yemenis and religious minorities - some of whom clashed with the Saudi authorities in 2000.

Such a conflict could also heighten the threat of piracy along the Bab al-Mandeb, a strategic strait that is critical to international oil and cargo shipments.

Divided military, divided country

The Republican Guard, the Central Security Service, and the Air Force, all commanded by relatives of the president, have played key roles in maintaining Saleh's tenuous grip on power.

Despite the thousands of antigovernment demonstrators who continue to fill Yemen's streets, Saleh still has a substantial number of supporters both within the military and among the general populace - likely influenced by his extensive patronage networks through which he has long bought support in exchange for cash, jobs, and influence.

However, the increasing level of violence against civilians threatens to erode the cohesiveness of even those military units that remain loyal to the government. Saleh's return to Yemen and the continued resolve of the protesters are driving many of these units to take ever more desperate measures.

"Saleh and those around him know they have nothing to lose," says Mohammad al-Jawfi, an officer attached to the 3rd Armored Division led by Ahmar, Saleh's "iron fist" for decades until his defection this spring. "It is all or nothing for them. They think they can win now that Saleh is back, but he has lost the people. The men who fight for him are fighting for money. What happens when the money runs out?"

But while much of Saleh's support is undoubtedly purchased, some Yemenis genuinely support Saleh out of the fear that chaos will follow his ouster at the hands of taiyanni, as the young protesters are pejoratively called. …