The shelling of President Saleh’s palace in Sanaa this morning is likely the first salvo in the next phase of unrest which began in Yemen in January. Despite the claims of most headlines over the past couple weeks, the country is not sliding toward civil war (at least by Yemeni standards), if only because Yemen has persisted at varying levels of overlapping internal conflicts since its inception (as laid out in the BPC’s recent report). Rather, today’s events appear merely to confirm the shift in the conflict’s center of gravity from the negotiating table to the balance of forces in the capital city.
Tribes and security services loyal to Saleh on the one hand, and a constellation of tribal and defecting military groups on the other, occupied strategic crossroads and passes in and around Sanaa throughout months of transfer-of-power talks. This was unusual only in scale: Yemen is a highly tribalized society where competition for resources is always acute, so political dialogue is often underscored by strong-armed bargaining tactics. Such brinkmanship frequently creates useful compromises. However, it can also escalate into politics by other means, especially when the outcome is the fate of the man who has ruled the country for thirty-two years.
The latter situation is unfolding now, as the GCC-mediated transition agreement collapsed in the face of Saleh’s repeated last-minute excuses against signing. Brinkmanship spilled over, as opposition tribes immediately cut off electricity and fuel to the capital, occupied government buildings and called for reinforcements to descend on Sanaa. Saleh intensified the situation further by responding with artillery strikes on opposition leaders and helicopter gunships against tribes heading toward the capital. His troops have also violated ceasefires with tribal forces loyal to opposition leader Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar.
Whether or not Sheikh al-Ahmar’s forces are behind today’s attack on Saleh, both sides appear to have abandoned any remaining pretense of diplomacy, at least for the time being. Various estimates now put the balance of forces around Sanaa at 50,000 fighters on each side. This rough parity could well eventuate in a stalemate, but currently each side believes it has good reason to itch for a fight. Through his extended family and kinsmen, Saleh still commands the majority of Yemen’s elite security services and heavy military units, including the Republican Guard, U.S.-trained and -equipped counterterrorism forces and a hefty portion of the regular army and air force.
Moreover, he can legitimately hope to exploit the distrust and poor coordination between Sheikh al-Ahmar and Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no direct relation), the latter of which has largely remained on the sidelines with his 1st Armored Division after defecting in March. For his part, Sheikh al-Ahmar has watched his ranks swell in recent weeks, and his tribal fighters have held up surprisingly well in street fighting against loyal units.
Ultimately, a return to the negotiating table can never be ruled out in Yemen. However, Saleh has historically either crushed revolts ruthlessly, as with the 1994 Yemen Civil War, or fought them bitterly and endlessly, as with the Sa’dah insurgency (2004-2011). With the current unrest directly threatening his regime, it is hard to imagine him using the velvet glove. For their part, none of the opposition forces believes Saleh will ever negotiate in good faith. Moreover, defections from loyalist ranks have only increased over time. The key in coming days (and perhaps weeks) will be the extent of Saleh’s response to today’s attack: does he use it as a pretext to try to extinguish the armed rebellion at the heart of his regime, or does the city continue to simmer amid a series of ceasefires and limited engagements?