Yemen lurches toward civil war

A defected Yemeni soldier holds up his weapon as he joins anti-government protesters demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, on March 21, 2011.
Ahmad Gharabli

SANAA, Yemen — Beleaguered Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh vowed in a speech Tuesday on state television that he would never let the military take power from his “legitimate” government.

The president, in some of his strongest language yet, said that any attempt to seize power by rebellious generals would result in a bloody civil war.

"Those who want to seize power through coups must be aware that this will not happen," the president said in his speech. "The homeland will not be stable, there will be a civil war, a bloody war. They should weigh this carefully."

The vast majority of Yemeni regulars are under the command of Maj. Gen. Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar and other top commanders who have defected in recent days, including most of Yemen’s armored and infantry divisions. Saleh’s remaining power base is now centralized in three divisions of Yemen’s most elite forces, which, incidentally, comprise units that have been trained by the United States and the United Kingdom.

Saleh’s power “hinges on the Republican Guard, the Central Security Forces and the Yemeni Special Forces to some degree and also what [Saudi Arabia] and U.S.A. do,” said Gregory Johnsen, a leading expert on Yemen.

Saleh’s close family members control all three of these elite military branches.

Yemen’s Central Security Force has an estimated strength of 50,000 troops and is under the command of Saleh’s nephew, Yahya Muhammad Saleh. These forces were previously responsible for policing the protest camp in front of Sanaa University, but have now been replaced by Ali Muhsin’s troops, which have vowed to protect the protesters from attacks like the one last week that killed more than 40 anti-government demonstrators.

The Republican Guard, tasked with protecting the president himself, appears to be split between supporting Saleh and the protesters. Despite being under the command of Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, the commander of the Guard’s 26th brigade defected to the revolution late Monday night.

Yemen’s Special Forces, which act as the country's counterterrorism unit and which remain wholly loyal to Saleh so far, are perhaps the most highly trained of Yemen’s elite forces. In 2002, the United States conducted special counterterrorism training operations with the brigade.

If civil war were to break out in Yemen, it would be these forces fighting on the side of Saleh and against Ali Muhsin and Yemen’s regulars.

“Saleh’s top commanders are still in this fight because they have luxurious lifestyles they are willing to fight for,” said Abdul Ghani al-Iryani, a leading Yemeni political analyst.

With lines drawn and solidifying between rebel and loyalist military forces, the wild card lies with the country’s disparate tribal groups, which have historically operated outside of government control.

Each village, and in some cases each family, in tribal areas is under its own leadership. While these smaller, less influential sheikhs might be swayed to act by more prominent tribal figures, they are in no way beholden to them or obliged to obey their commands.

Tribal leaders who have already expressed support for the protests will not necessarily fight alongside Ali Muhsin and his forces against Saleh. By the same token, tribes loyal to Saleh might not necessarily join Saleh’s elite units to fight Ali Muhsin and the revolution, analysts said.

Analysts said that Saudi Arabia and the United States could also play a significant role in any outcome.

The United States has, in the past, viewed Saleh as an ally in the fight against Al Qaeda and its offshoots in the region. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has used Yemen’s lawless tribal regions as a base of operations but has been weakened by cooperation between Saleh and U.S. counterterrorism forces.

Although the United States has condemned the violence against protesters and called for political reforms in Yemen, it has not yet openly called for Saleh’s resignation.

“I hope that privately the U.S. is pressuring [Saleh] to leave, but most sources suggest that this is not the case,” Johnsen wrote on his blog, Waq al-Waq. “The U.S. is too concerned about what will happen with [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] if Saleh leaves.”

Saudi Arabia, so far, has focused its attention on its other neighbor, Bahrain, sending 1,200 troops there to help quell protests by its Shiite majority against its Sunni leadership. Saudi Arabia, analysts say, is likely more concerned about the sectarian undertones of the Bahrain unrest, which it fears could spread to its own Shiite minority and empower Iran.

“What Washington and Riyadh tell President Saleh right now is extremely important,” Johnsen said in an email.