Yemen slides into civil war

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has retained control of Yemen for 32 years by managing the country's numerous unrelated conflicts. Now, they are flaring up again – and appear to be beyond his control.

By , Correspondent

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    Antigovernment protesters react as they block the road with rocks and burning tires during clashes with Yemeni security forces in Taiz, Yemen, on Wednesday, June 1.
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After months of trying to tamp down unrest, Yemen's embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his security forces have become embroiled in a conflict that meets all the classic definitions of a civil war.

He and his security forces are now fighting on three main fronts: In the capital of Sanaa, Saleh loyalists are engaged in a pitched battle with tribesmen under the direction of Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, leader of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation; Islamist militants have taken control of the southern province of Abyan; and in the southern city of Taiz, Saleh's Republican Guard violently dispersed protesters. Yemeni government forces have reportedly killed more than 50 people since Sunday.

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Saleh has maintained power for 32 years through deft handling of the country's various conflicts – reuniting north and south Yemen after a civil war, securing the loyalty of tribal leaders through a generous patronage system, and drawing aid from the West to fight Islamist militants including Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

However, analysts appear increasingly uncertain that Saleh will be able to pull out of this chaotic situation, which reflects deep divisions that go beyond the popular dissatisfaction with Saleh's leadership, writes Khaled Fattah in a Guardian Op-Ed.

Saleh cannot hold on for ever, and he will find it increasingly difficult to negotiate the terms of his departure. But while his exit from the political arena will be a symbolic victory for the people, his replacement with another leader will not save the country from its divisions.

Yemen is a deeply fractured country that is in conflict with itself.

In Sanaa, a brief truce between Saleh and Mr. Ahmar has completely disintegrated. In the most recent round of fighting, tribesmen took over the headquarters of the ruling party, as well as several other government buildings in the Hasaba neighborhood, despite heavy shelling by the government. The tribesmen were fighting partially to defend the residence of Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar, whose home – also located in Hasaba – has been targeted by the government in recent days, Al Jazeera reported. Residents told The New York Times that it was the fiercest fighting they had seen yet.

Mr. Ahmar has emerged as one of Saleh's most formidable rivals. Last week, Saleh ordered the arrest of Ahmar, whose tribal fighters pose the most significant threat to Saleh's control of Sanaa.

In addition, one of Saleh's top military generals who defected to the rebel side in March, Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, is leading his forces against Saleh loyalists in the capital. Despite such defections, Saleh has retained a tenuous hold on much of the military. However, the loyalty of his Republican Guard forces could crumble if he presses them harder to shoot on their fellow citizens, reports McClatchy.

"Many of us are waiting for the right time to join the revolution," a member of the elite Republican Guard, which is led by Saleh's son Ahmed Ali, said on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals. "Even if we stay for now, we will leave if ordered to fire on our brothers."

That Saleh is fighting different battles throughout the country – against tribal leaders in the capital, against militants in the far south, and against antigovernment protesters in the south – is the result of numerous unrelated conflicts that Saleh has managed for years but never settled, according to Mr. Fattah of the Guardian.

Saleh adopted "management through conflicts" as one of his essential tools of governance. As a result, on the eve of the revolution, the map of Yemen was completely scarred with deep, unresolved violent conflicts: a northern rebellion, a southern separatist movement, militant jihadists, and bloody intertribal disputes. Each of these conflicts created its own geographical zone of political, economic, and security grievances. Each created its own orbit of victims and beneficiaries. The Yemeni revolution is a geographical amalgamation of all of these.

Unlike the other Arab countries where popular protests blossomed, the Yemen of Saleh is neither a police state nor a military dictatorship. It has been governed by a complex, overlapping and competitive structure of familial, clanistic and tribal networks that are constantly mirrored in the security apparatus and in the military.

Some have speculated that Saleh had intentionally allowed Islamist militants to gain control of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province, so that he could play the Al Qaeda card – attracting help and support from the West in particular, The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday.

But Hussein Ibish, the executive director of the Hala Salaam Maksoud Foundation for Arab-American Leadership, writes in an Op-Ed for Now Lebanon that the conflagration has moved beyond any one person's manipulation and Yemen could soon to be a failed state.

Under any controlled circumstances, Saleh would easily have been able to prevent 200 fanatics from overrunning a regional capital. It’s possible he didn’t want to, as some opposition figures claim; but it’s also undeniable that military forces on all sides are concentrated in Sanaa, the scene of a power struggle within the elite that has effectively split the military.

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