Editor's Note: Barak Barfi is a research fellow with the New America Foundation.
By Barak Barfi – Special to CNN
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s decision to attack a key tribal chief has brought the country to the precipice of a civil war, which risks engulfing the entire nation in a cauldron of violence. But his audacious move is fraught with risks that could backfire and hasten his downfall.
With Washington lacking any influence over the conflict’s actors, all it can do is sit back and watch as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other Islamist militants extend their influence in tribal regions where military units have abandoned their posts and left their weapons stores exposed to looters.
For almost four months, a peaceful protest movement has demanded Saleh resign from power after 33 years as Yemen’s president. He has responded by unleashing all the weapons in his arsenal to dislodge demonstrators camping out in squares across the nation - from dispatching hired hoodlums to cow them to deadly snipers to eliminate them. None have been successful as the protesters have refused to back down.
Saleh's latest ruse seeks to transform the conflict into a tribal war. He has sent military units to attack the compound of tribal sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar. Al-Ahmar has been a key Saleh critic and has spearheaded the campaign to end his rule by offering the protesters moral support and tangible items such as foodstuffs and blankets.
It is not at all clear the president’s ploy will work.
Al-Ahmar is the paramount sheikh of the Hashid tribal confederation of which Saleh’s Sanhan clan is a relatively minor member. Al-Ahmar can draw on allies that Saleh's smaller tribe cannot.
While Saleh is president of a collapsing country, al-Ahmar is the chief of a functioning tribal network. And with his cash reserves depleted, Saleh will soon be unable to buy the loyalty of clans that support him purely for financial reasons. In short, though the president has the artillery and heavy weapons, al-Ahmar has the manpower that will ultimately be necessary to prevail.
A key player in the burgeoning battle will be General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar. A kinsmen of Saleh, he is of no relation to Sadiq al-Ahmar. Though the general is currently on the sidelines in the conflict between Saleh and Sadiq al-Ahmar, he abandoned the president and pledged to defend the protesters.
The general’s support will be crucial to Sadiq al-Ahmar if he hopes to withstand Saleh's barrage. With the three sides having divided the capital into an urban battlefield, bombarding each other with tanks and missiles, observers need a color-coded map to know which faction controls various neighborhoods and government buildings.
The violence and the instability it has engendered have allowed Islamist militants with possible ties to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to overrun key towns in southern provinces where a secessionist movement has been agitating against Saleh since 2007.
The Islamists control the city of Zanzibar and have made inroads in Lahj and Hawta.
With the military more interested in the developing political drama in Sana’a than in hunting down AQAP, the group has been able to extend its influence without fear of reprisals.
It will take a concerted and coordinated effort by the Yemeni security forces to drive its members off - a remote possibility with rival units pointing their guns at each other. As I noted in congressional testimony in March, ‘2011 holds great promise for a group that has historically thrived on political instability.’
There is little that Washington can do to prevent its nightmare of an emboldened AQAP from coming true. But though its modest influence over Saleh has disappeared, President Barack Obama’s advisors believe they can still guide his actions.
Obama’s counterterrorism advisor John Brennan sought to entice Saleh to resign by suggesting the president would praise such a step in his Middle East policy speech two weeks ago at the State Department. Washington falsely believed it could buy Saleh's loyalty and with it stability in Yemen. But with Saleh fighting for his political survival, Washington’s concerns are of no importance to him today.
The only country that has a remote possibility of resolving the nascent civil war is Saudi Arabia. Riyadh exerts a strong influence on both Saleh and the tribes that have turned against him through the lavish patronage the monarchy provides Yemeni factions.
If Saleh is compelled to leave Yemen, Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries that could possibly offer him refuge. The Saudis have sought to subordinate their role in the crisis under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council, but must now take a firmer stance to prevent the complete breakdown of the Yemeni state, which would have regional repercussions.
Yemen has shown a remarkable resilience in withstanding four months of protests that would have paralyzed its neighbors. But the country faces a potential collapse if a tribal war develops between the nation’s power brokers.
The only winner in such a bloody battle would be Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, given free rein to extend its tentacles throughout a leaderless state.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Barak Barfi.