Things Fall Apart in Yemen

The uprising in Yemen is spinning dangerously out of control. The West needs to prepare for the fallout.

Will James
On 11 June 2011 11:20

Events in the Yemen are deteriorating at an extremely worrying speed. Having continually defied diplomatic efforts to persuade him to step down, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has instead opted to engage in an increasingly bloody battle for control with Yemen’s various rival factions. Running street-battles with the forces of powerful tribal leader Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmah have left scores dead in recent weeks, with even Saleh himself coming under attack resulting in him requiring emergency surgery in Saudi Arabia – with some reports stating his injuries were much more serious than Yemeni officials have been suggesting.

With the defection of influential Army commander General Ali Moshen al-Ahmar to the opposition in March, Saleh stands as commander-in-chief of a divided military, and reports suggest he has even gone as far as deploying US-trained counter-terrorism (CT) forces against General al-Ahmar’s rebel forces.

With the Washington-backed Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) efforts to get Saleh to sign up to a transition deal with the opposition dead in the water, and rule of law collapsing around the country, the likelihood of continued unrest is now greatly increased. Even if Saleh uses the unexpected opportunity of his medical treatment in Saudi Arabia to finally agree to the GCC proposals and remain in exile, his loyalists – most notably his sons and nephews – still have control over elite army units. With or without Saleh, the long-term problems facing Yemen will not disappear.

The dangers for regional and international security if Yemen descends into prolonged disorder, or even civil war, are considerable. First of all, prolonged fighting would produce a disastrous humanitarian crisis potentially comparable to the situation in Libya. Fighting this last week alone has cost the lives of well over 100 civilians, and much more could be expected to lose their lives were both pro- and anti-Saleh forces to begin hostilities. And with a conflict that would mainly focus on urban areas –population centres like Sana’a and Taiz – the prospect of massive civilian casualties would be grave. Add into these considerations the potential for both Northern Houthi rebels and Southern separatist movements to take advantage of any instability, there is a real risk that the entire country could fracture.

Secondly, instability in Yemen could easily spill over into neighbouring countries. The prospect of Yemeni refugees fleeing over the borders into Oman and Saudi Arabia would put pressure on the entire Gulf region. Whilst Yemen suffers more than most other countries in the region from the ingrained problems of joblessness, poverty, illiteracy, demographic instability and ethno-religious tensions, these are nevertheless common ailments throughout the Gulf and unrest could easily spread.

Also, situated as it is in the geo-strategically important Gulf of Aden, any unrest in Yemen could affect maritime trade (an estimated 3.2 million barrels of oil a day passed through the Strait of Bab el-Mandab in 2009), with repercussions not only throughout the Middle East and the Horn of Africa but the entire Indian Ocean region.

Thirdly, and perhaps most ominously, is the obvious danger of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) exploiting the chaos and insecurity of a failed Yemeni state to launch increasingly sophisticated attacks against Western targets. AQAP is already considered the most active branch of al-Qaeda’s global operations, with several high-profile attacks, such as the December 2009 and October 2010 failed aircraft plots. With AQAP taking advantage of the current volatility – having seemingly gained a foothold in the city of Zinjiba– Yemen could yet fulfill the sobriquet of being the “next Afghanistan”.

For the US, the way ahead is littered with tough choices. Having backed the Yemeni strongman due to his (notoriously unreliable) willingness to tackle AQAP, the Obama Administration would not be able to stand idly by whilst civilians are gunned down in the streets to appease any pro-Saleh faction’s delusions of staying in power. Nor, however, is there an identifiable and united opposition with which the US can support – or rely on – in Saleh’s place. Whilst members of the opposition Islah Party have indicated that they would be willing to work with the US on CT issues, Robin Simcox’s recent conclusion that if “the Saleh family steps down... US CT efforts would essentially be reliant on untried deputies” is even truer following the latest and ongoing deterioration in the security situation. Apart from attempting to rekindle the GCC diplomatic track, the US and its allies need to prepare for the fallout in Yemen. This must include:

Protecting Civilians: Considering US reluctance to take the lead with the humanitarian catastrophe in Libya, it might seem fanciful to expect the Obama Administration to be prepared to deploy a credible and well resourced mission to respond to any potential humanitarian emergency in Yemen. Nevertheless, inaction in the event of a serious outbreak of violence would be untenable. The US must begin preparations immediately on a raft of economic and political incentives and penalties for all sides to refrain from acts of war against Yemen’s civilian population.

Developing Ties: Whatever Saleh’s next move is – whether he remains in Riyadh or overcomes his reported injuries to attempt to retake control in Sana’a – his long-term future is unsustainable. The US needs to quickly build ties with the most likely power groups to emerge in a post-Saleh Yemen. Whilst it is unlikely that any new faction – whether the Military, tribes or Islamist political parties – will be paragons of democratic virtue, any dialogue with any new elite must be focused on achieving the goals demanded by the Youth Movement since the uprising against Saleh began in January: greater economic opportunities, serious plans to tackle poverty and a more open and transparent political system.

Targeting AQAP: No matter what, the US and its allies must not lose sight of the most serious national security threat currently emanating from Yemen – AQAP. Whether Yemen descends into civil war, or if a post-Saleh coalition comes to power, the US must still retain the privilege to prosecute the war against AQAP unhindered.

For the moment, at least, the worst-case scenario for Yemen also looks like being the likeliest. Indeed, W. B. Yeats’ words could almost have been written with the current situation in Yemen in mind: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

Will James is a freelance writer and political analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @wmhjames

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