Yemen's fragile transition keeps civil war at bay

Islamist militants claimed responsibility for yesterday's attack on a gas pipeline in eastern Yemen, which they said was in revenge for the killing of an al-Qaida leader. Al-Qaida flourished in southern Yemen during last year's power struggle between the political elite as military and security units relocated north in support of rival leaders. A Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) deal for political transition is now in place, but regime rivalries are impeding progress as the fighting intensifies between security forces and Ansar al-Sharia, an insurgent group with close ideological and leadership links with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The agreement's failure could return Yemen to the brink of civil war and increase the al-Qaida threat in the Gulf and the West.


Political stalemate may lead to higher levels of fighting, exacerbating an impending humanitarian crisis. It would also obstruct the delivery of GCC financial assistance, essential to reviving the deteriorating economy. An expanded AQAP presence in the south will increase the risk of attacks against Saudi Arabia and Western interests.

What Next

The next three months provide a crucial window of opportunity for Yemen's political transition. While rapid progress on restructuring the political system and armed forces will be difficult to achieve, international intervention should hold the agreement together, making civil war unlikely in the short-to-medium term. The government is likely to step up its campaign against al-Qaida as it expands in Abyan province, likely leading to heavy casualties.
The GCC deal provided for the resignation of President Ali Abdallah Saleh and the election of Abd-al-Rab Mansour Hadi as president. The three-track approach involved:

  • a national dialogue leading to a new constitution and parliamentary elections within two years;
  • restructuring of the military and security forces under the control of an elected political authority; and
  • an internationally-backed programme of financial support to address economic and social problems.

Progress on implementing the deal has been slow. Hadi and the new government -- which is a coalition between the main political factions, the General People's Congress (GPC) and the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) -- have struggled to build their authority as the powerful political and military rivals that created the 2011 crisis remain in place. Saleh, for example, remains in Sana'a. As head of the GPC, he tries to issue orders to ministers and officials. His son and nephews, as well as forces loyal to his leading opponent, General Ali Mohsen, are still in their jobs.

Slow progress

The military restructuring is expected to take almost two years and has barely begun. The aim is to build up the authority of Chief of Staff General Ahmad al-Ashwal over the armed forces, and reunify the various units which split when Mohsen defected last year. It has taken more than two months to get the military units loyal to the political rivals to withdraw to their barracks or positions held in early 2011 and they will continue to prevaricate.

Hadi dismissed the head of the Air Force, Saleh's brother Muhammad Saleh al-Ahmar, and transferred one of Saleh's nephews from command of the presidential guards. Some, including al-Ahmar, resisted initially, stating they would only depart if there were similar moves against Mohsen and his supporters. Mohsen says he will go if Hadi or Saudi Arabia requests it.

Saleh's son and close relatives thus retain control over the Republican Guards and units, while Mohsen still controls the First Armoured Division and allied units. With Saleh's departure, Mohsen now appears the strongest leader: he has the support of the JMP, of influential tribal figures Sadiq and Hamid al-Ahmar, and of the Saudis. Mohsen is giving full backing to Hadi, making him indispensable in the transition process for now.

Dialogue stalls

There is no clarity yet over the National Dialogue, including the number and selection of delegates, or the agenda. The international community would like to see the dialogue completed within six months followed by a further three months to write a new constitution, but this timeframe is unrealistic considering the scale of social divisions and the slow pace of previous national dialogues.

The two main political coalitions will try to dominate the dialogue despite UN Security Council determination to ensure it involves all sections of society, including women, youth, southerners and the al-Huthis. Its success will depend on extensive consultation at local level.

Widening divisions

Many southern leaders and parts of the youth movement want to impose pre-conditions for taking part. Divisions among southern leaders have widened since the deal was signed. Reports are circulating of one group distributing arms in Aden, and of leaders intimidating local opponents. The youth movement, which still maintains its protest camps in Sana'a and other cities, is fragmented and confused about its aims.

If the southerners and the youth are not fully represented then elements within them will reject the dialogue's outcome in advance, making it difficult to implement. Some in the south, aware of the risks posed by their divisions, have called for 'south-south' discussions to agree a common position before entering the national dialogue. However, others worry that such a move would only exacerbate divisions and lead to the south's marginalisation.

Al-Qaida threat rises

As the transition stalls, Ansar al-Sharia is building up its organisation in the south. It now appears to have hundreds, possibly thousands, of fighters at its disposal. The threat it poses has rapidly escalated since it first appeared in 2011. It initially occupied the southern towns of Zinjibar and Ja'ar, but is now extending its reach into other parts of Abyan: it has set up a small Islamic emirate in Shabwa and has threatened to move into Hadramawt.

The recent reinforcement of armed forces in Abyan is a sign that the political elite is starting to put its differences aside to deal with Ansar al-Sharia. Under a new commander and supported by the air force, the army is beginning to make progress against the group, as the escalating casualty rate shows.

International mediation

Concern about al-Qaida is a major factor driving the intervention of the UN, the GCC and EU. They are keeping the transition process together and preventing the civil war which threatened to erupt in October. Diplomatic efforts and the threat of sanctions appear to be successfully deterring the key players from upsetting the process. This seems to have been a factor in persuading the head of the air force to obey the order to resign earlier this week.

However, the international alliance wants more rapid progress and next month will likely see moves to start consultation on the national dialogue. The Security Council is holding out the carrot of an economic aid summit in Riyadh in May and a proposed pledging conference in June to show Yemenis that there is benefit in supporting the GCC plan and working for a peaceful solution.


Oxford Analytica
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