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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Renewed and risky Saudi mediation


An army soldier watches a march at a celebration by anti-government protesters commemorating the anniversary of Yemen's reunification in Sana’a. (File Photo)

An army soldier watches a march at a celebration by anti-government protesters commemorating the anniversary of Yemen's reunification in Sana’a. (File Photo)
By joining members of his inner circle for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia a day after an attack on his presidential compound, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has effectively empowered the kingdom to renew its efforts to resolve Yemen’s three-month old crisis.

In a first step, Saudi Arabia on Saturday negotiated a one-week ceasefire in the fighting between forces loyal to Mr. Saleh and tribesmen belong to the Hashed tribal confederation, Yemen’s most powerful tribal group. A member of the Al Ahmar clan, that heads the Hashed, is also reported to be in Saudi Arabia for treatment of wounds.

The office of opposition lawmaker Sheikh Hamid Al Ahmar however denied that he had been wounded in a bombardment by government forces of his home in Sana’a in which 19 people were killed and 40 wounded. The house was bombarded after the attack on the presidential compound. Mr. Ahmar’s office said he was unharmed and in a safe location.
Saleh loyalists were reported to be attacking Al Ahmar positions in Sana’a late Friday night despite the tribe’s agreement to the ceasefire. Press reports said explosions were heard near Al Ahmar strongholds in the city.

Mr. Saleh is reported to have neck and chest burn wounds that forced him to cancel a television appearance after the attack on his compound. The president released an audiotape instead, in which he slurred his words.

The opportunity for a revived Saudi effort to end the Yemeni crisis is enhanced by the fact that the most significant members of Mr. Saleh’s inner circle are also in the kingdom. The officials being treated for wounds suffered during the attack on the compound include the prime minister, the speakers of the parliament and the Shura or Consultative Council and Mr. Saleh’s top defense and interior affairs aides.

The Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) last month abandoned efforts to resolve the Yemeni crisis after Mr. Saleh several times backed out of signing a deal that would have eased him out of office within 30 days and guaranteed him immunity against potential prosecution.

Mr. Saleh’s arrival in Saudi Arabia signals the backfiring of his recent escalation of the situation in Yemen to the brink of a civil war that he believed would have enabled him to further brutally crack down on his opponents and re-consolidate his position as the country’s authoritarian leader.

Mr. Saleh and his aides were wounded when a rocket or mortar attack caused an explosion in a mosque in his compound where they were praying at the time. Seven of the president’s guards were killed in the attack.

It remains unclear who is responsible for the attack. The tribesmen have denied responsibility. One possibility is that the powerful dissident commander of the Yemeni military’s first armored division, General Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar, a Hashed himself, may have carried out the attack in retaliation for a mortar and rocket attack last week on his headquarters by Saleh loyalists. Gen. Ahmar is believed to have so far stayed on the sidelines of the fighting between the loyalists and the Al Ahmars.

Irrespective of who was responsible, the attack by seriously wounding the Yemeni leadership has strengthened Saudi influence with the president and his most senior aides forced to seek help in the kingdom.

Saudi mediation efforts are helped, albeit temporarily, by the fact that Mr. Saleh’s escalation of the crisis effectively turned it from an effort by protesters to force the president’s departure and a dismantling of the system that underpinned his autocratic rule into a power struggle with the tribesmen.

Saudi and US officials fear that the power vacuum created by Mr. Saleh’s departure could accelerate Yemen’s descent into chaos and anarchy. Mr. Saleh left family members behind in charge of key military units, but none of them are believed to be capable of filling the vacuum.

The risk of a further deterioration in Yemen’s security situation is also enhanced by the secrecy surrounding the wounds that Mr. Saleh suffered as well as confusion about his departure to the kingdom and whether he will be able or allowed to return. Some Yemeni officials insist that Mr. Saleh is still in Yemen.

The fears of increased anarchy and chaos were also fuelled by the defection on Saturday of the commander of a military base in the southern city of Taiz, Jabran al-Hashed. His defection came after he was besieged in his office and urged to defect by soldiers who had refused to fire on demonstrators in Taiz, according to the Yemen News Website.

Republican Guards, led by one of Mr. Saleh’s sons, along with police and armed men in plain clothes, fired on Friday on demonstrators in Taiz, according to protesters in the city. More than 15,000 people marched in the city to condemn a government attack on anti-Saleh demonstrators that began May 29 and lasted until the early hours of May 30. At least 21 people were killed in that crackdown.

The window for a Saudi-sponsored resolution of the Yemeni crisis is likely to close quickly. Failure to prevent an escalation of the violence and a filling of the power vacuum that would meet the demands of both the anti-government protesters and the tribesmen bares the risk of the conflict spilling across Yemen’s border into the kingdom as well as Oman. It also could enable Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to strengthen its position in parts of the country.

To avert escalation, Saudi Arabia will have to effectively unseat Mr. Saleh by persuading him to accept that his 32 years in office have come to an end or preventing him from returning to Yemen. The kingdom will also have to ensure that the ceasefire between government forces and tribesmen is implemented and that a transition government fills the power vacuum. It is unclear how military forces commanded by the president’s relatives would respond to an effort to exploit Mr. Saleh’s departure to put an end to his rule.

The risk in the Saudi mediation effort is further that the kingdom has positioned itself as the driver of forces seeking to maintain the status quo in an Arab world racked by anti-government protests in demand of far-reaching political and economic reform.

While Saudi Arabia has favored Mr. Saleh’s departure, it is unlikely to want to see real change on its doorstep. As a result, the kingdom could become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

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