Yemen on verge of civil war, Al Qaeda strengthens
A Yemeni army soldier loyal to dissident General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar monitors a demonstration by tens of thousands of anti-regime protesters in central Sanaa against President Ali Abdullah Saleh after the Friday prayers on June 3, 2011. (Getty Images)
June 3rd, 2011
08:48 AM ET

Yemen on verge of civil war, Al Qaeda strengthens

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.

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Topics: Terrorism • Yemen

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soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    If Yemen would fall into further chaos and became a failed state, then the Gulf of Aden will be flanked by 2 failed states with Yemn on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia round the African Horn. There would be no safe passage for goods transport through the Suez Canal into the Indian Ocean. Imports and exports to and from East Asia would suffer.

    June 3, 2011 at 9:56 am | Reply
    • ram

      ..and then you will have Yemeni pirates to join the Somalis.
      Well man pirating happened throughout the ages. Spain, France, Britain had their pirates scourging the seas of the world which in effect indirectly built their countries. America had the bucaneers off the coast of New Orlean, whose goods that were looted indirectly benefited the american economy. Perhaps this new piracy is a way of building up those countries just as the former colonialist did.

      June 4, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        You're right! It's a real pity that our world today is forested by a jungle of international law. So this nostalgia of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" is history.

        June 5, 2011 at 5:27 am |

    I do not see how this news agency can publish a report on Yemen's instability without mentioning the fact that the entire country is enslaved by the government contolled cash crop qat, which acts as a depressant. It has effectively reduced the majority of the country– and this INCLUDES professionals and officials– to lazy, dozing, careless, uninspired and irresponsible people. The Yemenis themselves NEED TO FIGHT AGAINST THIS. No government can truly help this situation until the Yemenis themselves wake up to it. They are a people with as much potential as any in the world, and they have chosen to live in la-la land. Yemen, recognise the enemy and begin the battle within! Then bind yourselves together and break free!

    June 3, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Reply
  3. Onesmallvoice

    Let's all hope that this cursed government of Ali Abdullah Saleh collapses in Yemen. The sooner,the better,I say!!!

    June 3, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Reply
    • trixen


      June 3, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Reply
  4. keepamericaalive

    It is amazing how people think we should go and solve the worlds problems!! We cannot even solve our own economy. We keep giving billions of cash to Egypt and dozens of other countries. Stop it for just one year. Let all of the countries work out there own issues and see what the world looks like. Why is it everyone thing we need to get involved it makes no sense at all. Charity begins at home until we ourselves can get out of the mess.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Reply
    • belj

      I think nations worldwide can comment and as a united group, attempt to get indivuals like Saleh, and Assad in Syria, to step down. I agree with you though, a country's leader has first reponsibility to people in their own country and should address domestic issues appropriately before telling the remainder of the world how to live. We had the same here (UK)when Obama was visiting and D Cameron was declaring Britain and US would lead the world. I thought, yes, OK, enough egotistical posturing and delusion of being an international statesmen, how about settling down and actually managing to solve some of the UK's myriad problems first. If a politician can't put their own house in order, then how do they expect to be taken seriously sorting out international issues. Plus there is a thin line between appopriate concern for oher nations and a colonial mentality in wanting to dictate what happens in them.

      June 4, 2011 at 5:46 am | Reply
  5. TowelHeadsAreMorons

    Let the towel heads kill each other.

    June 3, 2011 at 11:24 pm | Reply
  6. belj

    Pres Obama's advisors believe they can still guide Saleh's actions; really, they don't seem to have had much influence so far. He has been attacking his own people for months, and all attempts by anyone to get him to stop/stand down have failed. I can't work out where the country is headed, ultimately. It's a very different situation from any of the other seeing protests against leaders, in terms of various groups involved.

    June 4, 2011 at 5:42 am | Reply
  7. Roman Gil

    What Economic Recovery? Let's Get Doped Into Foreign Affairs to Forget the Failing Economy.

    In May, the American economy added the insignificant number of 38,000 jobs. America is overpopulated with over 311 million people (nobody knows how many illegal aliens) and cannot support its own population, but millions of new illegal and legal immigrants arrive each year. There is no industrial plan to bring back the millions of jobs and industries that global corporations exported and continue to export.
    My blog has solutions.

    According to the US government's own statistics, 36% of men 16 to 64 years old are out of the work force. Most don't count because they are not looking for work. It takes money to look for work, after a while people vanish from the unemployment statistics.

    In my blog, I loaded George Washington's "Farewell Address" advising America. I highlighted the parts that we are violating. Communist China is following this advice and we are committing the folly of ignoring it. My blog contains solutions to our problems that the politicians have failed to implement.

    While we drop bombs in Muslim countries financed with debt money, the Communist Chinese announced that they are buying large amounts of European government debt and that they opened a direct railroad linking China with Antwerp, Belgium in Western Europe. Europe is now China’s largest market. Europe is now globalized like America with their global corporations exporting their industrial base to China. Last year China announced that they have a controlling interest in Iraqi oil and are receiving oil from their Iraqi oil fields. The Communists understand capitalism better than we do and that economic power controls governments.

    In the USA, only 9% of the economy is industrial. 76% of the jobs created during the "recovery" pay $9 or less per hour with little or no benefits. 47% of American households are too poor to pay income taxes. The Federal Government must beg and borrow $1.65 trillion dollars this year. Many States and local governments are bankrupt. Local Property taxes are crushing the middle class in many States invaded by illegal aliens. Their children consume Medicaid and school services. Bankrupt States like New York have dumped welfare Medicare costs on the counties.

    In Europe from Spain to Greece, people are protesting that they have no future because there are no jobs. Europe like America exported its industrial base to China and Third World cheap labor countries. European governments are as deep in debt as America and their economies are failing under globalization.

    Obama got us involved into a third Muslim war to get us deeper into the Israeli-Muslim conflict that caused us to inherit Israel's enemies. The "war of Terror" has cost us in ten years $5 trillion dollars and now a powerful special interest group of war contractors will keep a permanent debt financed war going until we are in debt slavery.

    Roman Gil

    June 4, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Reply

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