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Yemen Tensions at the Tipping Point

Interviewee: Gregory Johnsen, Near East Studies Scholar, Princeton University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 2, 2011

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Renewed fighting in Yemen's capital between a powerful tribal group known as the al-Ahmar family and President Ali Abdullah Saleh's forces has reportedly killed over one hundred people in the past week (al-Jazeera) and raised questions about whether the country is on the brink of civil war. The possibility looms large if the military gets involved in the conflict between the government and tribal forces, says Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen. While the United States has been a generous benefactor to Yemen over the years, the aid has fluctuated with the perceived terrorist threat, says Johnsen. Right now, Johnsen believes, "the United States doesn't have a great deal of leverage or influence" in Yemen. There have been tensions for years between Yemen's elite, who don't want Saleh to appoint his son or anyone else to replace him, says Johnsen, but there is no clear successor to Saleh, who has been president since 1978. Johnsen says a transitional council should be set up, which would lead to elections if Saleh leaves. Johnsen says, "President Saleh will either be forced out, or will have to vacate the presidency. I don't see him lasting out his term, which is to 2013." But he adds that in 1978, the CIA predicted Saleh would not last six months.

Yemen looks like pure chaos right now. Is that an exaggeration?

It's certainly a chaotic situation, but there is a structure to what's taking place. The worrying development is that forces loyal to Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar [former general of the Yemen army, and half brother of Saleh], who had defected from the regime back in March, and forces loyal to the president were involved in clashes today. This is a significant escalation. Previously, what we'd seen in Sanaa was fighting between forces loyal to the president and forces loyal to a major tribal family--the family that leads the Hashid tribal confederation. That family is called the al-Ahmar family, although they bear no relation to Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. If the military gets involved on both sides of the conflict, then we could have something that really drags Yemen into a civil war.

Right now, it's not a civil war?

There's a lot of fighting, but it would still be a stretch to call it a civil war. President Saleh is [probably] quite worried, which is why forces loyal to him have cracked down on protestors over the past couple of nights in the city of Taiz and have attempted to force peaceful protestors out of some of the squares that they've occupied for the past three months. So there has been escalation, and I think there will continue to be escalation as Saleh is increasingly seeing himself as being in a corner. It's do or die time for Saleh, and he's digging in his heels.

If the military gets involved, then we could have something that really drags Yemen into a civil war.

Why did he come under attack in recent weeks?

In recent years, there's been growing tension among the elite circles within Yemen over the direction of the state, particularly who was going to succeed Saleh--whether it was going to be his eldest son Ahmad or one of his nephews. This led to fractures within the inner circle. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar has been someone who has protected Saleh for the past three decades. Essentially, the president was his back, and he was the president's back. He was really the iron fist of Saleh's rule, and in recent years, their relationship has led into some difficulties because of Saleh's rumored attempts to install Ahmad as a potential successor as president.

Ahmar didn't want Saleh's son to replace him?

It's unclear exactly what the general wanted. He's someone who, previous to his defection, was very much behind the scenes in Yemen, much more of a kingmaker than a king. There's also been a lot of tension between the other al-Ahmar family, [which] the president is now fighting. The tribal head of Hashid since 1960 had been Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar. He died in 2007 of cancer and after he died, his ten sons, especially Hamid, had been very active in challenging the president. There's been a lot of tension between these two families, whereas previously, Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar had been seen as a close ally of the president, even though Sheikh Abdullah led Yemen's largest opposition party. And once he died, his sons really started to pressure the president much more than they ever had previously. So this fighting that we've seen in the past week between the al-Ahmar family and forces loyal to the president has been building for quite some time. In fact in August 2009, Hamid al-Ahmar (YemenTimes) went on al-Jazeera, and said that he believed Saleh should be tried for crimes against the state.

The United States supplies enormous amounts of foreign aid and military equipment to Yemen, particularly since the 2009 al-Qaeda attempt to blow up a plane over Detroit. Is there anything else the United States can do right now?

The real question is not when or if Saleh leaves, but the manner in which he leaves the presidency. Is it something in which he drags the entire country into civil war in an attempt to hold onto power?

At the moment, the United States has been providing a lot of aid. But it is instructive to see how, over the past twenty years, the United States has doled out aid in Yemen. Yemen was on the UN Security Council in 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. And after going back and forth on exactly what Yemen should do, eventually Yemen abstained and voted "no" to a number of resolutions, which infuriated not only Washington, but also Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. That had a severe impact on Yemen's autonomy. So from 1990 until November 2001, much of the aid that the United States put into Yemen was only humanitarian food aid, and this was about $400,000 a year. After September 11, 2001, the United States started putting a great deal of aid into Yemen, particularly related to counterterrorism, which went up in '01, '02, '03. Then, as the threat from al-Qaeda started to dwindle in 2004 and 2005, the U.S. money went away; in fact, in 2006, it got as low as $4.6 million. There was a resurgence of al-Qaeda in Yemen, particularly after an attack on the U.S. Embassy in late 2008. Since [then], the U.S. aid really increased to Yemen. Most figures have it at $300 million, with about $170 million for counterterrorism and about $130 million for development aid.

Does the United States have much influence over Yemen's armed forces?

The United States doesn't have a great deal of leverage or influence. A few months ago, it was a different story. The United States had tremendous political influence; that is, what the United States says matters a great deal to Yemen. Financially, the money that the United States puts into the country is dwarfed by Yemen's neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia. And Saudi Arabia has a great deal of influence, not just from money that it puts into the country through the central government, but also through its tribal allies that it patronizes in Yemen.

We're at a situation where Saleh has continued to refuse to sign the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-brokered deal that would see him step down in exchange for immunity and early elections. At this point, there are not a lot of very good options for outside powers. Saleh's thinking seems to be that he will beat his domestic opponents, in effect clear the table, and then hold some sort of new elections for either himself, a family ally, or another close ally to assume the presidency. These are things he's done in the past, but at this point, things in Yemen have fundamentally changed, so it would be very difficult for him to pull that off.

What are the U.S. options?

The options are not that extensive. No one wants to see any sort of a military involvement with U.S. troops on the ground. Most people who have spent time looking at Yemen realize that that would be disastrous. Targeted sanctions, as Washington has done with Syria, would give Saleh an incentive to stay and really fight until the end.

Why did Saleh pull out at the last minute after promising to sign that deal worked out by the GCC and backed by the United States?

I don't think Saleh ever had any intention of signing the deal or stepping down. He thinks this is a crisis that he can weather, and something that he can withstand. The way he handled it is the way that he has often handled difficult situations in Yemen. He was up against the wall with the GCC under a lot of pressure from the regional and international communities. He had all the diplomatic representatives from the GCC sign the agreement, and then [he said], "I'm not going to sign it until the opposition actually comes here and signs in the presidential palace." The opposition, of course, had signed the deal the night before, as instructed by the GCC--and this was a last-minute condition that Saleh imposed. His attempt was to say, "It wasn't me, the opposition was unwilling to compromise. I would have signed if they just came." That didn't work, and then that night his troops started barricading and positioning weapons in their training school near the compound of the Sadeq al-Ahmar, the head of the Hashid tribe. The next morning, fighting broke out, and it has continued to escalate since then.

President Obama has said that Saleh should go (GulfNews). But what if he does? You seem to think he will, right, at some point?

At some point, Saleh will either be forced out, or will have to vacate the presidency. I don't see him lasting out his term, which is to 2013. But people have made that prediction about Saleh before and have been proved very wrong. There is a very famous case that Saleh likes to bring up. Right after he came to the presidency, the CIA predicted that he wouldn't last six months in power, and here he is thirty-two years later, and still the president of Yemen. The real question is not when or if Saleh leaves, but the manner in which he leaves the presidency. Is it something in which he drags the entire country into civil war in an attempt to hold onto power? And it appears that that's where we're headed, particularly with the fighting today between the First Armored Division and the Republican Guard and central security forces.

Is there a likely person to replace him as president?

Not necessarily. The U.S. Embassy has run these games for a number of years in which they try to come up with names of people who would eventually succeed Saleh, and every year they came up empty. The best option for Yemen would be some sort of a transitional council with a number of people representing different interests, so that they would be able to help Yemen maneuver from Saleh's rule to a more democratically elected president. But this is going to take some time. I know there's been a plan put out by Faisal Amin Abu Ras, Yemen's former ambassador to Lebanon who resigned in the aftermath of one of the massacres of protestors back in March. He's provided a lot of very interesting plans. Other people have talked about different variations of this. But if it becomes a bloody war, then all bets are off.

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