President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s return to Yemen on Friday after four months in Saudi Arabia has sparked renewed violence after protestors launched demonstrations against the government that were violently repressed. Since the beginning of the uprising last January, Yemen—an already volatile and poor country—has plunged deeper into chaos, dividing the country and creating a power vacuum for al-Qaeda. On Sunday, Saleh attempted to appease protestors, promising elections and a peaceful transfer of power, as he promised many times before but failed to deliver. The opposition movement immediately rejected his option and demanded Saleh step down.
Despite Saleh’s repeated calls for a cease-fire throughout the uprising and most recently this past weekend, Yemen’s Revolutionary Guard (led by Saleh’s son and heir apparent) opened fire on protestors, killing dozens. Saleh’s calls for peace and negotiations combined with brutal crackdowns by security forces give protestors little confidence in the regime.
The continued violence has divided Yemen’s capital city of San’a between regime supporters and the opposition movement. Neighborhood street battles and firefights among opposing groups have escalated. Part of the city is occupied by militiamen belonging to the Ahmar family and troops loyal to General Ali Moshen, a respected military figure and defector from the regime, while other neighborhoods are controlled by Saleh loyalists.
Saleh’s return surprised the international community and crushed expectations that the embattled leader would soon step down. Last week, negotiations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) collapsed when Saleh refused to transfer presidential powers to Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi. Saleh has repeatedly announced his intent to resign, only to renege on his decision.
Throughout the crisis, the Obama Administration has relied on the GCC to negotiate Saleh’s transition. According to U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, “We want to see Yemen move forward on the basis of the [GCC] proposal, whether Saleh is in or out of the country.” While it’s important for the Administration to give political support to the GCC and encourage a peaceful transition of power, the United States must prepare for the consequences of a widening security vacuum.
As Yemen’s security forces divert their attention from hunting down members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to shooting protestors, security is destabilizing in the south. AQAP is estimated to have 300 militants in the southern provinces of Jouf, Marib, and Shabwa, and The Wall Street Journal reports that Zinjibar, the capital city of Abayan province, is already occupied by Islamist militants. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia fear that the uprising will empower AQAP and endanger strategic interests in the region. As both countries have been targets of AQAP attacks and rely on oil shipping routes through the Red Sea, further policy coordination and intelligence sharing is integral to ensuring the al-Qaeda threat does not expand.
Yemen’s vulnerability to terrorism has also spurred the enlargement of intelligence operations based in the Horn of Africa. Expanding on its success using drone technology in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the intelligence community is constructing drone bases in Ethiopia, the Seychelles, the Arabian Peninsula, and Djibouti. Last summer, drone attacks killed and wounded a number of terrorist targets in Somalia and Yemen.
After 33 years, Saleh’s days as head of state are numbered. His former allies and even his own Sanhan tribe have turned against him. Saleh has proven that he is not a good faith negotiator and is incapable of running his country. Despite its continued protests, Yemen’s opposition movement is fractured. Rival clans throughout Yemen are fighting for influence, and AQAP is setting up shop in the south. The longer Saleh clings to power, the quicker Yemen will drift into failed state status.