Will Yemen's fierce fighting push protesters to take up arms?

After three days of rocket attacks, shelling, and shooting that have killed 60, some worry Yemen's protesters – who have so far used sticks and Molotov cocktails – may take up conventional arms.

Anees Mahyoub/AP
Protesters throw rocks at an anti-riot vehicle during clashes with security forces, in Taiz, Yemen, Monday, Sept. 19. In the southern city of Taiz, at least one protester was killed and several others were wounded Monday in clashes between anti-regime demonstrators and security forces, according to witnesses.

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A third day of fierce fighting in Yemen's capital has pushed the death toll above 60, with protesters reportedly being killed and injured by rockets, heavy shelling, and machine-gun fire. The fighting, which has been largely contained to battles between government loyalists and defected soldiers, has raised concerns that Yemen's largely peaceful protesters could take up arms in self-defense and push the country into full-blown civil war.

“What has been remarkable is the peaceful nature of the demonstrators. But I am afraid that you will get a situation where people will start fighting back,” Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, told The Washington Post.

Another group with the potential to wreak havoc is the large number of defected soldiers who have so far stayed out of the fighting. Should they join the soldiers already fighting government forces, the situation could quickly devolve into a Libya-like civil war, according to the Post. “It’s not two equal forces fighting it out to the end, but it could be,” said Robert Burrowes, emeritus professor at the University of Washington. “I think it could very easily develop into something like Libya.”

The fighting spread on Tuesday to the neighborhoods of Yemeni government officials, and rockets and shells rained down on the makeshift protest camp in Sanaa's Change Square. An unnamed Yemeni official told the Post that the civilians killed were caught in crossfire and not deliberately targeted. He also said that the protesters had been throwing Molotov cocktails.

On Monday, a UN envoy and a representative of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional bloc, arrived in Yemen to work out a transfer of power agreement, the BBC reports. Regional and international bodies have been trying since the spring to work out a deal in which Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is recuperating in Saudi Arabia from a June assassination attempt, steps down and gives his vice president the authority to form a national unity government. In exchange, Mr. Saleh and many of his former officials would receive immunity from prosecution.

Saleh has given his deputy the authority to negotiate on his behalf, but whether talks will go any further is unclear. The president has backed out of three previous deals at the last minute, and protesters see this latest promise to negotiate a deal as yet another stall tactic. Saleh has long played Yemen's diverse factions against each other, using a divide-and-conquer strategy to stay in power for 32 years.

Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy writes that Saleh's latest effort to undermine the unity of those opposed to his rule appears to be working, in part because the US and international community – consumed by Libya, Syria, and the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN – have lost the sense of urgency they had early on about pulling Yemen back from the brink.

Even though thousands of incredibly determined and resilient Yemenis continued to protest regularly, and analysts warned with increasing desperation that missing the opportunity to bring about a transition would be a disastrous mistake, the urgency faded away. Indeed, Saleh's regime counted on that fading external urgency as part of its strategy of delay and distraction, hoping to outlast, confuse, divide, and where possible crush the protest movement. Now, Yemenis are paying for that neglect in blood.

The US, the GCC, the UN, and Yemen's opposition need to push for Saleh to leave power now and for Yemen to immediately begin a meaningful political transition. Not in a few months, not in a few years, and not empty promises of future change which no Yemeni any longer believes.

The US and the international community has left mediation efforts to Saudi Arabia and the GCC. But Mr. Lynch writes that the GCC has proven that it is unable to bring about a resolution and the violence has rendered tenets of the deal – namely immunity from prosecution for Saleh and his officials – unacceptable to the various facets of the opposition.

With the list of dead and wounded Yemeni civilians growing and rage swelling across the country, few are likely to be interested in the GCC's deal granting amnesty to those responsible for a fresh massacre. I agree with them. One of the most important accomplishments of Libya and of the rapidly evolving international norms around the Arab uprisings has been the rejection of impunity for such atrocities, and Saleh's regime should be no exception.

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