Geopolitical Dimension of the Rebellion in Yemen

A tide of extremism is sweeping across Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group seeking to overthrow the pro-Western regimes in Yemen and the nearby Saudi Arabia, is regarded as the number one terrorist force in the region. The group’s activity increasingly bothers Washington whose list of priority zones includes the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. In the past, the concentration of CIA agents in Yemen used to be a factor of several lower than, for example, in Pakistan but Yemen’s peaceful atmosphere eventually proved deceptive as the country started to slide towards radicalization. The weakness of the country’s central authority and the discord within its society contribute to the process.

So far protests in Yemen are upholding demands for social change. In some cities, the numbers of protesters reportedly reached at least 5,000. The administration is trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to rebuild the national unity: in February, Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh who has been running the country for 32 years rolled out a plan for a coalition government to which all opposition parties were promised entry tickets. If the attempt at compromise fails, the temperature of conflicts between Yemen’s tribes will promptly climb to the point of boiling and the divided country will sink into the chaos of a civil war.

The opposition has no intention to soften its stance despite Saleh’s openness to compromise. As a general strategy, the administration deliberately adds fuel to conflicts between tribes, and moreover brings hundreds of tribesmen to Sana’a from the country’s peripheral northern regions where the current president continues to enjoy support. Saleh’s main rivals are the Hashid tribe’s leading Al-Ahmar clan, one of Yemen’s wealthiest and most influential. The Hashid are inferior in numbers to their rivals, the Bakil tribe, but must be credited with being better organized politically. In February, Sheikh Husayn ibn Abdullah al-Ahmar and his brother Sheikh Hameed Al-Ahmar urged Saleh to step down, using impressively strong language in their statement.

The standoff between the two top clans adds additional dimension to the unrest in Yemen. The Hashid are drawing ever greater numbers of supporters to their side, including even some factions from the Bakil tribe. Still, the Al-Ahmar clan’s main allies are the heavily armed and Yemen’s top influential Kavalan tribe living in the region east of Sana’a. Several other tribes from the Ma’rib province also joined the Al-Ahmar clan in opposing the regime. Ma’rib is the scene of the administration’s particularly ferocious fight against Muslim terrorists, but the locals suspect that the anti-Al Qaeda campaign is a pretext for gaining control over the oil-rich province. Al-Ahmar’s clan is likely trying to take advantage of the protests in Yemen to simply get rid of the country’s president.

Until recently, Saleh could count on the US support and on the security of his positions in Yemen’s capital, the latter also being a strategic asset. It is believed in Yemen that controlling Sana’a is tantamount to controlling the country. At the moment anti-government protesters are flooding the city streets while Saleh’s and Al-Ahmar’s clans are wrestling over the support from the tribes inhabiting the adjacent regions and accordingly capable of severing the capital’s supply routes. If the strife between tribes spills over Yemen, Sana’a is bound to be the epicenter.

A question mark is hanging over the US support for Saleh who even charges Washington and Tel Aviv with inciting the unrest. Washington has been propping up Yemen’s senior-aged leadership for years thus rewarding it for the war on Al Qaeda and for the overall pro-US policies. Nevertheless, Yemen faces a major instability. Washington is aware of the majority discontent in the country and can be expected to lightheartedly sacrifice Saleh to retain strategic control over Yemen.

The shakiness of Saleh’s regime alarms the nearby Saudi Arabia no less than the US. Riyadh and Sana’a are allies and – obviously with a blessing from Sana’a – Saudi Arabia bombed the Yemeni Shiites, a 42% minority in the country where 52% of the population are Sunni Muslims. There is concern in Saudi Arabia that the pattern set by the Yemeni Shiites will inspire its own Shia Muslims to rise against the government. It factors into the reckoning that the Yemeni and Saudi Shiites are oriented towards Tehran and that the Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia inhabit Nejd, the region containing some of the country’s most valuable oil reserves.

The Shia insurgency can trigger unrest in the neighboring Oman, where the Shiites are politically under-represented. A conflict of such proportions has a potential to translate into destabilization across the entire Arabian Peninsula, to erode the US dominance in the region, and to empower Iran as a result. The US is worried about possibly ceding control over the Gulf of Aden to Iran which has already built a naval base in Eritrea, just across the Red Sea, and is backing Shia protests in Bahrain which hosts a US naval base and the US 5th Navy command. US and French soldiers are deployed in Djibouti which shares a border with Eritrea.

Iran is not Washington’s only headache in the region — China is also in the spotlight. The US cherishes control over Yemen’s Aden seaport which it can use to seal off the straits of Bab-el-Mandeb serving as China’s main commercial inlet to the Red Sea.

The stakes running high, the US establishment is increasingly audible about a military intervention in Yemen. Congressman J. Lieberman said Iraq was yesterday’s war, Afghanistan — today’ war, and Yemen would be tomorrow’s war if the US showed enough foresight.It seems that Washington is trying to, massively dispatching intelligence operatives and military instructors to Yemen. US pilots disguised as local air force staff are known to have bombed the positions of the Shia insurgents. US drones and the technicians taking care of them are coming to Yemen, Djibouti, and Kenya in large numbers.

The impression is that for the US Saleh is a discounted figure. Even if he manages to hold out till the 2013 elections, his more distant political future hardly stands a chance.

Source: Strategic Culture Foundation

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