Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Yemen on the Brink

Yemen’s political crisis is rapidly escalating. President Ali Abdullah Saleh continues to resist stepping down at a defiant press conference today. But the tone has changed and he is probably severely weakened by defections

The question of what happens in Yemen now that Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Saleh’s half-brother, has defected to the opposition lies in the hands of the Saudi’s. Mohsen is commander the northwestern military zone, has significant influence in Yemen’s old guard and has deployed an armored formation to protect the protester. His armor is surrounding the presidential palace, where Republican Guard units under the command of Saleh’s son, Ahmed, have taken up defensive positions. This could get very messy, quickly and much depends on whether the Saudi’s support Saleh (who has requested their help) is firm or if they decide to throw him under the bus. I’m betting that the Saudi’s will find a way for Saleh to depart the political stage.

The Saudi’s will have enormous leverage to form a new government. From a political standpoint, general Mohsen might not be the Saudi’s first choice, despite his conservative credentials. He was instrumental in defeating the far more secular south during the civil war, something that pleased the Saudi’s, but as a conservative Islamist might not follow Riyadh’s lead. However, he and his tribe have strong ties to some members of the Saudi royal family. So does Saleh.

This is not Bahrain – with an easy land bridge to cross – so sending troops to Saana, if that is the decision in Riyadh, is likely not an option. Furthermore, the army is split, has tribal loyalties and should not be compared to the Egyptian military. The Saudi’s need to tread carefully since a bad outcome would destabilize the southern border – and stability is what Riyadh is all about.

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