If this were any other time in the world we would probably be paying a lot more attention to Yemen. In the last four months there it has gone from Arab Spring style protests to a near Libya style civil war, but other than the occasional news article there is not a lot of talk about the fact that a nation where there is a strong Al Qaeda franchise is on the verge of total disintegration.
The issues there are pretty much the same as the issues in other Arab autocracies. The president Ali Abdullah Saleh has ruled Yemen for more than 30 years. He is basically out of the touch with the people and can not really conceive of leaving power. This is evident from the three deals for him to leave power that have been agreed on and then he has repudiated at the last minute.
Things are getting worse in the country in the south of the Arabian Peninsula. Saleh’s government has seen the defection of senior military leaders and these leaders have kept their troops and weapons with them. Just to add spice to the confusion there it is not a two sided conflict but three.
There are there is a strong tribal faction (the armed one) and there is the peaceful protester faction. The Saleh government makes little distinction between the two. While they trade artillery fire with the Islamists, they are also brutally cracking down on the protesters in Taiz, where as many as 50 people were killed when plain clothes government forces backed by snipers moved in to disperse a protest camp in one of the main squares there.
The Yemeni Security forces are defending their actions but denying that they were part of an organized government crackdown. From the New York Times article:
Yemen’s state-run media, quoting an unnamed government security official in Taiz, said the violence there was not an organized crackdown. The official said “armed groups” from the opposition coalition attacked a security station, setting fire to cars. The protesters then “kidnapped soldiers and took them to their sit-in square,” he said, where they were abused by the protesters. The official said the security forces then “decided on their own to go to the square and liberate their colleagues and clear the square from those making the riots, sabotage and murders.”
It is impossible to know what the truth is in a situation that is becoming more and more chaotic as every day passes. We expect an autocractic government to blame the protesters and try to frame them as criminal groups. That is pretty much the SOP for this kind of crack down, but there are other angles to this conflict as well.
The coastal city of Zinjibar has seen Islamists seize some of the government building and banks in the city. War plane have been used to attack these positions. It is unclear how many may have died in these attacks.
As I said above any other time this would be a world spectator event, as a large country which boarders Saudi Arabia began to come apart at the seams. The thing is that this country is also very poor and does not have large resources, so unlike Libya, there is not a lot there for the world powers to be interested in.
But they should be. If Yemen becomes a failed state like Somalia the repercussions could be huge. A rise in piracy along the Yemeni coast could potentially make the Gulf of Aden no-go territory with the Somali pirates to the south and Yemeni pirates to the north.
Perhaps more importantly there is the issue of overall stability in the Middle East. The House of Saud has made it clear in Bahrain that it is not willing to see popular uprisings on its boarders. The brutal crack down in the Bahrain might indicate that the Saudi Royal Family sees its interests in the Peninsula as a whole and not just inside its borders.
For the United States this is another sticky wicket. On the one hand we have an avowed policy of supporting democracy, on the other there is the very real chance that Yemen will fragment and at least part of it will become a safe haven for Islamists. Not to mention the fact that the Saleh government has been a moderately strong partner in our efforts against terrorism. It is almost a foregone conclusion that whatever government emerges in Yemen it will be less willing to continue in this direction.
This crisis shows the limits of diplomacy. There are no really good outcomes (in the short term) in this situation. There are major downsides to supporting President Saleh, there are major downsides to supporting the pro-democracy protesters and there is very little in the way of concrete actions that can be taken.
As of right now all there is to do is watch and hope for the best while fearing the worst.
The floor is yours.