Overshadowed by the recent U.S.-Israeli fracas, the Iraqi elections, and the never-ending controversy over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it seems the only newsworthy story related to Yemen is the debate about whether or not to assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric with alleged ties to al-Qaeda.
But in the past few weeks, several alarming developments provide a stark reminder that Awlaki is not the most pressing threat facing the Yemeni government.
The first concern is that the cease-fire agreement between Sana’a and the Houthi rebels seems to be falling apart. The February 2010 truce was intended to formally end six years of sporadic fighting between government troops and Zaydi tribesmen in the Sa’dah region of northern Yemen. But recent reports that the rebels had fired upon a military plane, kidnapped eleven Yemeni soldiers on patrol, and killed a school guard, suggest that it is just a matter of time before intense fighting reignites—especially given the poor track record of these cease-fires.
Particularly worrisome is that a renewed insurgency in Sa’dah may again involve Saudi military intervention. Further Saudi engagement in northern Yemen will not only dampen the possibility of internationally mediated talks, but will also attract larger numbers of Yemenis to join the Houthis’ cause simply because of historic resentment for Saudi interventionism in the country. The rebels have already proven themselves capable of resisting Saudi and Yemeni ground and air assaults; thus any increase in Houthi manpower will only further undermine Yemen’s stability. Of equal importance is that the serious humanitarian crisis would likely get worse, with hundreds of thousands of people already displaced due to the war.
A second concern is that the secessionist movement in southern Yemen has become increasingly violent in recent months, and could gain momentum if the situation in Sa’dah escalates. Indeed, the success of the northern Shiite rebellion against government forces has in the past encouraged the southern movement to mobilize against the Yemeni government. Calls for secession have increased since former mujahid Sheikh Tariq al-Fadhli joined the movement last year. Any further demonstration of the government’s weakness in the north may therefore encourage the escalation of the conflict in the south.
But what is particularly alarming about the renewed violence in southern Yemen is that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh may react with military force rather than seriously addressing the South’s underlying political and economic grievances, a strategy which would play right into the hands of AQAP. Southern leaders have largely rejected the offers of support from Nasser al-Wahayshi, the leader of AQAP in Yemen. But this would quickly change if Sana’a were to intervene militarily. AQAP has been attempting to recruit southerners disenchanted with the grim economic and political conditions—conditions caused largely by the government’s policies. In a region of Yemen that contains the country’s largest oilfield, most of its land, and the important port city of Aden, an increasingly violent secessionist movement allied with al-Qaeda would mean utter chaos.
The third cause for concern is based on reports from various global and regional news outlets that between twelve and thirty AQAP members have traveled from Yemen to Somalia to provide funding and military training to Somali rebels, most notably Al Shabaab. Although this could be a sign that AQAP’s ability to operate in Yemen is waning, it could also be an indication that the group is expanding its power base further along the Horn of Africa, as analysts have long predicted. The number of AQAP fighters who have reportedly traveled to Somalia is by no means representative of a mass migration when compared to the several hundred AQAP operatives there are rumored to be in Yemen. Moreover, it would be hard to argue that Saleh’s government has squeezed AQAP out of the country, as many Yemeni al-Qaeda members enjoy protection from their tribes (recall how effective Awlaki has been at hiding so far). Either way, AQAP teaming up with Somali rebels is a particular concern given the current upsurge of maritime attacks in the region.
These three evolving areas of concern demonstrate the seriousness of Yemen’s problems. But when the country has come to the attention of the media and the public it has been for reasons of news sensationalism and politicking, which often leaves the impression that a counterterrorism strategy is a cure-all for the symptoms of Yemen’s condition.
The simple fact is that there are few if any short-term solutions to Yemen’s problems. Addressing the country’s weak economy and weak government will require a long-term commitment. Stephen Day of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues that western-backed initiatives will only create more problems. Arab countries must therefore take the lead in pushing President Saleh on these issues, particularly on national reconciliation talks. Saleh may have many negative attributes, but it does not change the fact that he is the only person capable of keeping Yemen together, even if his grip is now fragile at best. He has long recognized that the only way to maintain any sort of political cohesion is by courting the complex tribal system through the vast patronage network he created. Engaging Saleh must be done transparently, especially with regard to the use of donor funds. Ultimately, he will have to agree to step down in 2013, when he is constitutionally required to do so. A looming power struggle will likely ensue, one which could be brutally violent if Yemen’s problems are not addressed soon.
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