Yemeni domestic politics are such a Mulligan stew that it’s hard to identify “sides” or predict outcomes. Iran provides support to at least one ethnic rebel group (the Houthi Zaidi Shias of the northwestern province), and al Qaeda works with some of Yemen’s homegrown Sunni extremists. It would be optimistic to identify a unified Yemeni opposition with a true political agenda. The neighboring Saudis and Omanis have relied on the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime to impose order on the fractured nation. U.S. prosecution of the war on terror depends heavily on cooperation from the Saleh government. The multinational coalition against piracy is increasingly relying on such cooperation as well.
So it’s not the best of news that Monday saw the defection of several of Saleh’s most senior military commanders to the opposition. Some media reports indicate that Saleh’s senior tank commander has deployed armored forces against the government loyalists in Sanaa. These moves are especially significant because of the geographic commands involved: the Northwestern Military District, where Sanaa is located, and the Eastern Military District, which Saleh has little hope of holding with the forces that remain loyal. Two lower-ranking generals who command forces in smaller areas have also thrown in with the opposition.
Saleh is putting a brave face on the crisis. But his ambassador in Saudi Arabia today announced support for the opposition – another telling development, given the conservative viewpoint of Yemen’s dominant neighbor. The ambassador apparently doesn’t fear offending the Saudis or sending a prejudicial signal about the Saleh government. Yemen’s ambassador to the UN is also reported to have resigned over the government’s lethal suppression of protesters.
The Saudis intervened in Bahrain last week, but none of Yemen’s neighbors has the resources to forcibly restore order inside the country. Neither does the United States. Yemen doesn’t have the benefit Egypt and Tunisia do, of nationalist traditions and respect for the central government; the nation’s prospects for peaceful democracy are poor at the moment, and its vulnerability to exploitation by terrorist groups is high.
Yemen’s territory, with long frontage on the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, has already served as a haven for Somalis – both terrorists and refugees – as well as a training ground for al Qaeda. The establishment of an Iran-friendly government there would be a major blow to regional stability. In the realm of maritime piracy, a poorly governed Yemen would be a huge headache, as opposed to the asset Yemen can be if it controls its territory and maintains its current relationships.
The U.S. need not prop up superannuated dictators in order to foster stability. But in a country like Yemen, merely urging the failing government to avoid injuring its people – the mantra repeated by Hillary Clinton – is valueless. Iran, al Qaeda, and an assortment of indigenous Islamists are already seeking to influence the outcome there. The forces for liberalization are entirely urban and badly outnumbered. Perhaps we can hope that one of the defecting generals will establish himself as the new national leader and shoulder off the extremists. Someone has to.