Military restructuring: unraveling a tangled web

Since 2011 the international community has feared a total breakdown of the Yemeni military establishment, fragmenting the armed forces to a degree where major conflict would erupt leading to a civil war. This scenario developed in April after a number of government officials defected from the government on March 21, 2011 and declared their protection of civilian protesters. Beginning in April, Yemenwitnessed a number of proxy battles between government supporters and armed militias ʻAligned to Gen. ʻAli Muhsin and the al-Islah party. This fear of total fragmentation then led to the initial GCC-led initiative for political transition in April. The back and forth game that ensued inYemen, on whether to sign the GCC initiative or not, allowed both sides to strengthen their own positions. The periphery was soon lost, or abandoned, and handed over to a number of tribal or militant groups in areas such as al-Jawf in the north, Ma’rib and Hadhramawt in the East and Abyan in the south. The province of Saʻdah, bordering Saudi Arabia, continues to remain under control of Huthi rebels under the leadership of ʻAbd al-Malik al-Huthi. This group, at war with the central government since 2006, represents a major security threat to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and stability along the border continues to depend on a delicate agreement placing renowned arms dealer Faris Manʻa as governor of the province of Saʻdah. Contacts with the rebels has prevented cross-border incursions since 2011, but has not decreased the threat to Saudi Arabia.

Obstacles for Institutional Restructuring

Fears among regional and international actors led to a re-drafting of the GCC Initiative for political transition, signed on 23 November 2011 in Riyadh, wherein priorities where set beyond the handing over of power by ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh to his Vice President Hadi. The top priority set to strengthen the political transition became the orderly demilitarization of cities and restructuring of the entire armed forces, not just the army. This is set to be followed by the start of a comprehensive National Dialogue process. The framework established to administer demilitarization and restructuring of the armed was organized within a military commission with equal numbers of officers from units which defected in March 2011 and those still under the control of Ministry of Defense.

The first move to implement one of the “pillars” of the GCC Initiative was the removal of General ʻAbdullah Qayran in Taʻiz and Mahdi al-Maqwalah (of Sanhan), chief of the Southern Command based in ʻAden, in January and March respectively. While General Qayran’s removal was cause for much jubilation inside Freedom Square in Taʻiz, Maqwalah’s departure left a sour taste after Ansar al-Shariʻah escalated their activity in Abyan and caused more people to flee the province to neighboring ʻAden. It has been clear to many that President Hadi and his advisors are carefully calculating their moves, amidst mounting pressure from Western governments, in order to minimize consequences from such an unpredictable balancing of personalities within the armed forces. The incident that followed the sudden announcement Saturday morning April 7th by President Hadi replacing Air Force Chief Muhammad Saleh al-Ahmar (half brother of ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh) is a perfect example of the difficult task. Sanʻa International Airport was closed the entire day as result of fighting within the property, which also serves as the main runway for the Air Force located in the southern area of the civilian airport. Accusations flew back and forth between loyalists to General  Muhammad Saleh, who was then appointed Deputy Minister of Defense, and airport officials. The airport re-opened on Sunday. General Saleh appears to have accepted President Hadi’s order and on 16 April he left his post and traveled to Sanhan. But the issue remains unresolved as of 21 April.

In her most recent opinion piece, Ginny Hill indicated many of the obstacles to restructuring the armed forces were anchored on continued regime competition. That is, in the context of the equation that pins ousted President ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh, his long-time confidant General ʻAli Muhsin (Firqahh Commander) and the al-Ahmar family on a confrontation for survival in a transitional period. Much of this competition is indeed obstructing the restructuring, but observers are also missing much of the larger picture. The military has not only been a family dominion, it forms part of the principle instrument of patronage inYemen since 1962 in the north and 1967 in the south. It would be a colossal mistake to assume that Saleh’s relatives and their regime competitors where the only ones standing in the way of a comprehensive restructuring of the armed forces. Elites from the north and south are fully dependent on the military and intelligence services for the own survival. In addition, the most difficult obstacle to overcome will be the deeply rooted tribal interests that overlay the armed forces.

Hashid and Sanhan

In this situation we must first consider the struggle for survival within the Hashid tribal confederation. Shaykh Sadiq ibn ʻAbdullah al-Ahmar, brother of Hamid al-Ahmar, is the paramount shaykh of Hashid, to which the village of Sanhan belongs by means of tribal alliance. Many attribute the rise of ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh and his 33 years of rule to a “deal” from 1978 between Shaykh ʻAbdullah al-Ahmar, ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh, and ʻAli Muhsin. This deal would protect the longstanding position of Hashid and its tribal members within the political structure of the Republic. It is then no mystery as to why Shaykh Hamid al-Ahmar has been one of the principle supporters of the ‘Youth Revolution’ of 2011. Primarily, the al-Ahmar family began to feel threatened by changes in the relationship with Saleh in the past ten years, when it was decided to prepare Ahmad ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh to succeed his father as president of Yemen.

This move to select Ahmad ʻAli as successor was not in itself a threat, but rather the restructuring of political relations that aimed at alienating Bayt al-Ahmar from the decision making process. Hamid began to see new blood at the presidential palace, a new patronage network that threatened his own. Such moves were also reflected in the repositioning of the Republican Guard, in particular, vis-à-vis ʻAli Muhsin’s Firqahh. During the six wars against Huthi rebels in the north the struggle between Ahmad ʻAli and ʻAli Muhsin deepened to direct conflict within al-Urdhi (headquarters for the Armed Forces) and the office of the Chiefs of Staff. The internal conflict also began to affect tribal relations. Interests of various shaykhs were threatened when some tribal areas were protected by the government while others were neglected during the war against Huthi rebels. These tribal leaders not only had interests in areas in ʻAmran and Saʻdah, but also their tribesmen were being killed without any retribution. Many shaykhs were requested to send troops to fight Huthis only to be underpaid or under equipped. While Sanhan believes to be the center of power over the past 33 years, it is Hashid who claims primacy and aims to prevent southerners from taking over a unified Republic, and its resources.

Tribal Patronage

Underneath the surface then lie the mid-level shaykhs of Hashid and Bakil (the second-most powerful tribal confederation). Many of these tribal leaders, allied to the house of Shaykhs al-Shayf and ʻAbu Ras, for example, in addition to Bayt al-Ahmar, believe that restructuring of the armed forces is a direct threat to their own individual survival. Northern shaykhs are inherently linked to an extensive patronage network with origins at the end of the northern civil war of 1962-1970. They are not just part of Saleh’s or ʻAli Muhsin’s patronage, they are part and parcel of the Republic’s patronage legacy. Many leaders may not be in government of Parliament, but they and their tribes have been vital keepers of the Republic, and if their patron is removed then they will lose all privileges, most importantly income and weapons as result of their conscripts within the various branches of the military. A comprehensive restructuring of the armed forces, beyond the removal of Saleh’s, ʻAli Muhsin’s and al-Ahmar’s relatives would also require addressing the presence of many tribal elements loyal to one side or the other. President Hadi must first calculate the consequences from removing personnel from one side quicker then the other, or removing a larger contingency from one side as oppose to the other.

President Hadi must surely be asking himself, which side do I remove first? Which will pose the least challenges? What will the one side do when elements from the other are removed? If a tribal leader with interests in the armed forces begins to feel his patron will lose in the process, they may recall their tribesmen and withdraw to their local area. This will strengthen their position in the periphery and deprive the government of authority within their territory. By withdrawing their men, they will not hold loyalty to any one until it is renegotiated, at a high price indeed. The men will withdraw with their weapons, since no one at this time is powerful enough to prevent them from doing so. How many shaykhs will opt for this choice? We don’t know. If one side is removed before the other, in proportion or otherwise, it may be clear to both patron and client that a fight against the President as proxy or against the other side directly will be in their best interest. President Hadi has everything to lose in this scenario.

At a time of deep economic crisis across the country, ignored by all sides, tribal leaders must protect their own interests in order to prevent further unemployment and deeper discontent among local populations. Patronage is not only a tool for wealth creation in Yemen, it is a way to remain relevant vis-à-vis local tribal populations and retain the prestige of hereditary titles. Reports of widespread famine in Yemenoften focus on urban populations, which suffer tremendously as result of sky-rocketing inflation, but it is in the mountain and dessert villages where hunger is merely satisfied with bread and water, or wheat (‘azid) and yogurt. Shaykhs may not spread the wealth around as evenly as people would want, but at minimum they do provide some relief to people in their villages. It is not in their own interests to allow people to starve, for they will lose the foundation of their own reputation and status. Shaykhs do not only have a dozen or so tribesmen as guards for their own protection in the public sphere, this is a way to provide ‘employment’ to tribesmen and also to strengthen their own patronage networks.

A Careful Balancing Act

As one tribal figure put it, and as much as I tried to avoid the cliché, there are three main concentric circles when dealing with restructuring of the armed forces. The first circle includes Saleh and his family, ʻAli Muhsin and Bayt al-Ahmar, in essence, Hashid and Sanhan. The second circle is referred to as the circle of corruption. This is where the patronage network extends to relatives, business associates and tribal elements. The third circle is what many refer to as the circle of hope, where many of the officers capable of constructing a modern, professional military lay. Tribal elements in the military and mature officers do see a light at the end of the tunnel, but they realize it’s a long tunnel. The GCC initiative was meant to primarily prevent a civil war in theArabian Peninsula. It managed to stave off much of the tension mounting through 2011. But the GCC deal was mainly a deal between the elite, Saleh and ʻAli Muhsin, Saleh and al-Ahmar, and Saleh and al-Islah. It failed to address the people’s demands, and left a window of opportunity for whoever can rescue those hopes for change.

At the moment al-Islah seems to be gaining ground on this front. Although protest squares are now occupied by a solid majority of supporters of al-Islah, Friday prayers continue to attract a large number of independents. This portion of society is no longer interested in the permanent, physical presence at Change Square (Sanʻa) or Freedom Square (Taʻiz), but rather makes itself available to the rally calls to protest each week. This is a great asset for al-Islah, ʻAli Muhsin and bayt al-Ahmar. They have proven their resolve and to a certain degree, their public support. In real terms, it may not mean much since Friday prayer demands are no longer based on issues espoused by large crowds in 2011. Yet, this still keeps President Hadi thinking of what the intent is and what may be the options available to Islah’s side, and to ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh on the other hand.

President Hadi has yet to make his mark in the public sphere, but he has moved cautiously to strengthen his position in the face of mounting pressures from all sides. The president still has much to accomplish in the short term, while his options still remain open and potentially leading to change in real terms. The relationship between Prime Minister Muhammad Salem BaSundwah and President Hadi may not be a match made in heaven, but it is not a destructive one either. Outside influences on the Prime Minister are obvious, as he is the spokesperson for the opposition group the Joint Meeting Party (JMP), as part of the transition government. Everyone understands that although the JMP is fragmented at the moment, half of the ministers in government must protect the group in order to protect themselves. It still remains a difficult task to convince cabinet members to accept losses on their side of the camp. Whether the losses are on the civilian side, such as governors, or the military, neither the General People’s Congress (GPC) nor the JMP can accept huge losses at any one time. At the moment, reality points to all losses being one sided, and even though Gen. ʻAli Muhsin promises to resign and retire from government service, the GPC sees no movement against the opposition on the part of President Hadi, who is in fact the leader of the GPC as its Secretary General.

All of this balancing comes in the backdrop of demands by all sides to engage the process for National Dialogue. As prescribed by the GCC Initiative, the Dialogue process is meant to reconcile all sides, in particular the Southern Secessionist movement and the Huthi rebels in the north. Most in the opposition claim dialogue is moot without military restructuring, aimed at removing all influence from former president ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh and his relatives. But some, in diplomatic circles and within the party in majority in parliament (GPC) claim there cannot be any restructuring until the dialogue begins. We are back to square one, what comes first, the chicken or the egg? It seems even the United States has realized restructuring of the armed forces will take longer than expected, and this has led officials visiting Sanʻa to announce their support for the start of the Dialogue process even though the military is still relatively intact. If work is to be done inYemen, under relative stability, it will continue at a slow pace. As of April 11 President Hadi initiated new military operations against Ansar al-Shariʻah in the south (some units have refused the order). This will lead to further clashes around the country that have to be contained, at minimum, before the president’s next move regarding the armed forces or the National Dialogue. BaSundwah’s visit to Doha from April 9-11 may lead to further support from regional neighbors, but unfortunately his first announcement focused on support for the National Dialogue, not the economy or further pressure to be exerted on personalities on the list to leave the country. Further patience will be required if deeper fracturing of the armed forces is to be avoided, which could once again threatened a civil war scenario.

Playing with fire

President Saleh's speech earlier today was a textbook example of the first rule of propaganda: attribute all of your crimes to your enemy. It's the kind of political rhetoric that is beautiful in its pure dishonesty. That is to say that every single sentence in this speech is not only false, but the exact opposite of the truth. If you could take a photographic negative of this speech, or somehow reverse the polarity of it, it would become a perfect statement of fact. For your edification, the BBC's translation of today's speech is below:

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate

O large crowd, brothers and sisters, my young sons and daughters, may God bless this Friday and many happy returns of the day.

We salute this million-man crowd of great Yemeni people in all the governorates. This month, we will celebrate the national day of the 22nd of May.

We congratulate the great Yemeni people on these feelings and unprecedented enthusiasm and support for constitutional legitimacy.

We call upon all the sons of the country to be united in one rank to face all economic, political, and subversive challenges caused by the operatives of the Joint Meeting Parties, the JMP, who block roads and kill the people whose souls it is not permissible to kill.

O JMP and your allies, stop playing with fire. Our people, in all villages, districts, and suburbs, backed by our brave Armed Forces, will not stand idle; they will respond properly. On Wednesday, you attacked government institutions, killed people whose souls it is not permissible to kill, and assaulted the building of the Council of Ministers and the  radio building, and previously assaulted Al-Thawrah Sports City. These are acts of sabotage; you have damaged in three months what we have been constructing for 32 years. These are the subversive elements that want to profit at the expense of those in power to slaughter our Yemeni people, cut out their tongues, behead them and block roads. O JMP and the lawless elements that support it, stop playing with fire.

Our people will have to defend their institutions, villages, houses. We will face the challenge with a challenge. Those who want power have to get it through ballot boxes. No killing the souls of the people whose souls it is not permissible to kill, no road blocking, no cutting off gas and oil in Ma'rib; these belong to the people, not the General People's Congress [GPC] or the JMP - these belong to the people. You get your salaries through them, people live on these resources. O JMP, stop playing with fire.

These are subversive elements; they are not loyal to the country. We call upon everyone to start constructive dialogue, sponsored by any side, anywhere. We call upon you to start a reasonable dialogue.

A tribute to the millions of our people, and may God's peace be upon you.

Source: Republic of Yemen TV, Sanaa, in Arabic 13 May 11, BBC Monitoring

We've seen Brother President 'Ali 'Abdullah use this kind of quasi-religious talk before; he's not very good at it. After this week's massacres and pre-escalation activities in San‘a, Ta‘iz, and Hodaydah (and now Ibb), and a promise from the leading Youth organization of major escalations next week, the subtext of this speech is that Saleh has few or no cards left to play. He's slipping into the realm of Qadhafi-esque self-parody with this speech; all that's missing are the helwasa pills.

Saleh has threatened the collapse of the state. Done: the banks are out of money, there's no cooking gas, drinking water, or fuel. There's no parliament, most foreign missions and more than half of the military is in a state of mutiny. But the protests continue.

Saleh has threatened the rise of al-Qa‘idah. Well, according to Shatha al-Harazi and others, AQAP is operating in the open in parts of Yemen, and in other parts tribal leaders have AQAP on the run. And the Americans (the real audience for Saleh's hysterics) have re-started their own mis-guided counter-terror operations, and will continue to shoot up southern Yemen with or without Yahya Saleh's help.

Saleh has played all manner of games with the GCC, which is trying its best to save him from destruction despite his own best efforts to the contrary. But Yesteday Qatar—the only Gulf state that commands respect and admiration outside its own borders—publicly removed itself from the GCC's Yemen process, in what I take to be a challenge to the other Gulf states. Qatar has long been angling for regional influence and prestige; by taking a more realistic, tough line on the Saleh regime, it will certainly gain both from the Yemeni people and opposition factions.

Finally, President Saleh has threatened outright civil war. Of course no one wants war, but signs are that leaders on various sides are preparing for it. General 'Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar is ready. The tribes of Nihm and Yafi‘ proved this week and last that they are more than ready. Saleh still commands a military force, to be sure, but not necessarily the most formidable one in the country. Gregory Johnsen described him as "a warlord with an army"; my suspicion is that if he tried today to order that army into war, he would not be at all pleased with the results.

The Youth are planning the final stage of their protests, with the full knowledge that dozens if not hundreds of them will die. The rebellious military units and tribal armies are becoming more bold and more willing to take on the regime. The only one who doesn't know that Saleh's time is up is Saleh himself. The GCC deal was the best he'll ever see; in prolonging the endgame, he's the one playing with fire.

Playing dumb: US policy in the face of popular protests

Yesterday the Yemen Peace Project had a chance to talk at length with a US State Department official about US policy toward Yemen and the current political and security situation there. I began by mentioning the March 8/9 incident in which security forces identified by witnesses as Republican Guard units attacked protesters at Sanʻa University with live ammunition and gas. I asked if the State Department or the White House would be issuing a formal condemnation of this attack, or the previous attacks on protesters in Ibb (thugs with guns and clubs) or ‘Amran (tanks and small arms). The official said that no such statement would come from the State Department, but that DoS would urge an investigation into the incident. I can’t quote my source, but DoS spokesman Mark Toner matched him almost ver batim in yesterday’s press briefing:

We’re still working to establish the facts of what happened. We’re aware that there was an altercation where security forces reportedly used tear gas and live fire to disperse protestors. We understand there was one fatality, and we certainly extend our condolences to that individual’s family. And we urge the Government of Yemen to investigate and hold accountable those who appear to have utilized excessive force.

Again, we’ve seen security forces in Sana’a. They’ve made efforts to improve security by preventing clashes between the demonstrators and the – screening demonstrators for weapons. But they need to do more to prevent these kinds of incidents in the future. We remain deeply concerned about ongoing violence in Yemen, and we continue to call on security forces and demonstrators alike to exercise restraint and to refrain from violence.

The laughable part of this statement is the idea that US officials are diligently “working to establish what happened.” US embassy staff in Sanʻa don’t go outside on a good day, much less head to the center of anti-government protests to conduct interviews. Bottom line, the US is going to strongly urge that an investigation be carried out by the same Yemeni forces who did the shooting. That investigation will (already has done) conclude that it was really the protesters who started the shooting. This will be a lie. The US will not raise the issue again.

More troubling is this insistence that Yemen’s security forces have been trying really hard to prevent violence. While the incident in question was the first instance of uniformed personnel firing on protesters in Sanʻa, they have been doing so with regularity, and horrific effect, in ‘Aden, and more recently in ‘Amran and maybe Saʻdah. And as Greg Johnsen and most of the Western freelance journalists currently in Yemen have made clear, the thugs responsible for most of the violence thus far in Sanʻa—the ones DoS thinks security forces are doing a great job of restraining—are largely plain-clothes soldiers and other government employees.

I stressed the fact that if it is Republican Guard and—as witnesses have reported in other cases—Counter-Terror units attacking protesters, that would mean that US funding and training is being used, in a very direct and undeniable way, in the repression of what President Obama has said are legitimate popular demonstrations. My source fell back on the statement that DoS does not have enough information to have an opinion on this.

I asked my source about the embassy’s ability to investigate incidents like this, or really to know anything about what’s going on in Yemen, from within the walls of their compound. He assured me that they do have their ways of gathering information, including asking other foreign missions in San‘a what’s going on. I was less than reassured by this.

I asked about Secretary Clinton’s statements on Iranian involvement in protests in Yemen and elsewhere. My source, strangely, was not aware of the Secretary’s claims, but was sure that the DoS does not have any reason to believe that Iran is involved in protests. We were also able to agree on the complete falsehood of prior claims by the Saleh regime of Iranian involvement in the Huthi movement. I have since emailed to my source copies of news articles quoting Clinton on this subject. I await a response.

The big take-away from this interview can be summed up this way: the US supports democracy everywhere, and insists that the rights of assembly and free speech are universal human rights. The US further insists that it is up to the Yemeni people to decide how and by whom they are governed. However, the US will only support a process of peaceful dialogue between the government and the opposition parties. This position essentially ignores the will of the Yemeni people. Protesters in all of Yemen’s cities have made it clear that most of them don’t trust the JMP to represent them, and the JMP, smartly recognizing this fact, has said that dialogue with the government is impossible while Saleh remains in power. I asked if, using the case of Egypt as a parallel, the US could foresee a point at which it may change its position and call for Saleh’s resignation. The clear message I got back was that US support for Saleh is essentially unconditional, and that the US really, really wants Saleh to stick around. DoS also insists that Saleh is sincere in his calls for dialogue and that it’s the opposition and the protesters who are preventing or sabotaging progress and reform.

Given the position stated above on the right of the Yemeni people to choose their own government, I felt it made sense to ask if the US position on the question of Southern secession might change, in light of the fact that over 70% of southerners support independence. The answer was a simple no. The US will continue to support Yemeni unity, essentially at any cost.

I can't say I was surprised by what I heard yesterday, but I was disappointed by the State Department's conviction that Saleh is leading the way forward, and that the opposition had better get on board or be left behind. This is willful ignorance. The US government isn't stupid. They know that no one is going to be punished in Yemen for killing protesters, and they know that Saleh isn't interested in sharing power or restructuring his rule in any meaningful way. That the US insists on pretending to believe otherwise makes it complicit, in my opinion, in the violent repression of protests and the trampling of democratic expression.