On borrowed time, but how much?

Wednesday the 25th: the bloodiest day of street battles San‘a has seen since the start of the revolution. Accurate numbers aren't available, but it's possible today's fighting claimed more casualties than the March 18 massacre, or any of the massacres since. The obvious difference is that this was warfare, not a one-sided attack on unarmed protesters. And to be totally fair, the term "street battle" doesn't really cover it, since most of today's casualties came from artillery and rocket fire. On Tuesday, President Saleh's forces attacked the home of Sadiq al-Ahmar, oldest son of the late 'Abdullah al-Ahmar and current paramount shaykh of the mighty Hashid confederation of tribes. This alone would have been a bad move, but the timing of Saleh's attack made it an indefensible crime. Saleh's forces bombarded al-Ahmar's compound as the shaykh was hosting a mediation committee, come to negotiate an end to the fighting between Hashid and the president. A number of other notable shaykhs, not all of them from Hashid, were killed or wounded. The head of Yemen's Political Security organization was among them. This single incident has become a rallying point, and has brought the Bakil and Mur'ad tribal groupings into the San‘a conflict on the side of al-Ahmar.

On Wednesday the fighting and bombardment spread beyond al-Ahmar's neighborhood in north central San‘a. The airport seemed to be engulfed in fighting, and shells landed near Change Square as well, probably killing a number of soldiers from 'Ali Muhsin's 1st Armored Division (commonly known as al-Firqah, or "The Division").

But the significance of the tactic of bombardment goes beyond its potential to cause tons of casualties, among combatants and non-combatants alike. It goes beyond the fact that it raises specters of the Sa‘dah Wars, when civilians in Huthi-controlled areas were labeled as foreign enemies and infidels, unworthy of life or justice. What matters most about Saleh's tactic of choice is what it tells us about his range of options.

To make a long argument short, Saleh is relying on artillery and other medium- to long-range weapons because they are the only military assets he can trust. He's lost most of his military to the revolution; some of the units he has left are tactically worthless. A couple weeks ago, Saleh sent one of his younger sons--fresh out of Sandhurst but with the rank of Colonel--to subdue anti-regime protests in Hadhramawt at the head of a large, newly-formed mechanized unit. Their advance to the east was stopped by the tribes of Nihm, who forced the colonel to retreat, leaving behind his armor (which in Yemen is not so easily replaced).  In the south, the tribes of Yafi‘ forced the surrender of a Republican Guard garrison. The abandoned base and the villages that led the battle against the garrison were then bombed from the air, but the point had been made: Saleh's soldiers cannot, or will not, impose the president's rule by force.

Many soldiers are too young, or too old, or just untrained and unmotivated. Given the country's economic situation, they are likely unpaid. But there are also many in the Republican Guard and other loyal units who have personal ties to those they're being asked to kill. Now that Saleh has violated tribal law and gone to war with nearly all the tribes of Yemen, this is even more the case. There are today very few soldiers under the president's command who will be willing to kill for him, face to face, in street or mountain combat. His once-stalwart air force is divided as well, with some ranking officers defecting and a general shortage of planes, parts, and fuel.

But I'm getting away from the intended subject of this post, which was the people on the other side of the artillery. Since March just about every segment of Yemeni society, with the exception of his own immediate family and those they command, has been united against President Saleh. Huthis, Southern secessionists, Hashid, Bakil, Mur'ad, Yafi‘, you name it, they all called for the fall of the regime. Many of us thought and hoped that this united show of will would be enough to convince Saleh that his time was up. All of the tribes thought that the threat of their presence in San‘a would be enough to dissuade any more attacks. Clearly this was not the case. Now Saleh is testing the determination and unity of the tribes. His goal is the same as it has been since February: outlast the opposition.

The GCC deal was perfect for Saleh. Its content was abhorrent to most of the revolutionary factions, but it offered a way out. He hoped that it would splinter the opposition, draw the JMP leadership and the traditional elite away from the Youth. It didn't. Now that the tribes have taken his bait and started fighting, his hope is the same. First, he figures, the tribes and other armed groups will put themselves at odds with the Youth. Then, eventually, they'll turn on each other. All he has to do is survive long enough to reap the benefits.

This is not an unlikely path for events to take, now that fighting has begun in San‘a. Violence in Yemen can mean many things: in the tribal context, violence is usually symbolic, even when bloody (I'll be writing more about the symbolic value of violence during the current revolution in another post); in the political context, violence has sometimes served as a currency, a means by which power is transfered from one faction to another (from Socialists to Islamists, for example, during the 1994 war). But one universal truth about violence is that it is very good at perpetuating itself. Right now all the armed factions in Yemen may have a single enemy, but for this two-sided war to turn into a twenty-sided one, all that is required is time.

Back when the Yemeni revolution was just a twinkle in the eye of a few brave activists, analyst Gregory Johnsen made a conditional prediction: that revolution in Yemen would only stand a chance of taking off if 1) popular protest could break free of the mainstream opposition and sustain itself outside of the JMP, and 2) the Egyptian revolution was successful in deposing Hosni Mubarak (I think I'm summarizing accurately). In that spirit, I'm going to make my own prediction: that 'Ali 'Abdullah Saleh will survive in some position of power only if 1) major conflicts erupt among the important armed factions currently opposing him, and 2) Saudi Arabia and the US re-change their minds and throw their full weight behind Saleh again.

The first of these conditions is not too unlikely. As for the second, I can see the US re-backing Saleh, because they haven't fully un-backed him yet, and because the Obama administration lacks any kind of real vision for Yemen. But I doubt the Saudis will go back to supporting Saleh against all enemies. Unlike the US, they understand Yemen, and they recognize that Saleh is no longer as useful to them as many of his rivals are or could be.

I've been wrong before, including a few times in public and on this blog. What I'm offering here are my best guesses, based on a  good deal of research and hard thought. Your responses are welcome.