Military restructuring in Yemen: Unravelling a tangled web

April 26, 2012 6:04 pm1 commentViews: 35

The restructuring of the Yemeni military was one of the central demands of the revolution. Fernando Carvajal analyses the difficulties President Hadi faces in doing this, and where this all may lead.

Since 2011 the international community has feared a total breakdown of the Yemeni military establishment, fragmenting the armed forces to a degree where major conflict would erupt leading to a civil war. This scenario developed in April after a number of government officials defected from the government on March 21, 2011 and declared their protection of civilian protesters. Beginning in April, Yemenwitnessed a number of proxy battles between government supporters and armed militias ʻAligned to Gen. ʻAli Muhsin and the al-Islah party. This fear of total fragmentation then led to the initial GCC-led initiative for political transition in April. The back and forth game that ensued inYemen, on whether to sign the GCC initiative or not, allowed both sides to strengthen their own positions. The periphery was soon lost, or abandoned, and handed over to a number of tribal or militant groups in areas such as al-Jawf in the north, Ma’rib and Hadhramawt in the East and Abyan in the south. The province of Saʻdah, bordering Saudi Arabia, continues to remain under control of Huthi rebels under the leadership of ʻAbd al-Malik al-Huthi. This group, at war with the central government since 2006, represents a major security threat to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and stability along the border continues to depend on a delicate agreement placing renowned arms dealer Faris Manʻa as governor of the province of Saʻdah. Contacts with the rebels has prevented cross-border incursions since 2011, but has not decreased the threat to Saudi Arabia.

Obstacles for Institutional Restructuring

Fears among regional and international actors led to a re-drafting of the GCC Initiative for political transition, signed on 23 November 2011 in Riyadh, wherein priorities where set beyond the handing over of power by ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh to his Vice President Hadi. The top priority set to strengthen the political transition became the orderly demilitarization of cities and restructuring of the entire armed forces, not just the army. This is set to be followed by the start of a comprehensive National Dialogue process. The framework established to administer demilitarization and restructuring of the armed forces was organized within a military commission with equal numbers of officers from units which defected in March 2011 and those still under the control of Ministry of Defense.

The first move to implement one of the “pillars” of the GCC Initiative was the removal of General ʻAbdullah Qayran in Taʻiz and Mahdi al-Maqwalah (of Sanhan), chief of the Southern Command based in ʻAden, in January and March respectively. While General Qayran’s removal was cause for much jubilation inside Freedom Square in Taʻiz, Maqwalah’s departure left a sour taste after Ansar al-Shariʻah escalated their activity in Abyan and caused more people to flee the province to neighboring ʻAden. It has been clear to many that President Hadi and his advisors are carefully calculating their moves, amidst mounting pressure from Western governments, in order to minimize consequences from such an unpredictable balancing of personalities within the armed forces. The incident that followed the sudden announcement Saturday morning April 7th by President Hadi replacing Air Force Chief Muhammad Saleh al-Ahmar (half brother of ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh) is a perfect example of the difficult task. Sanʻa International Airport was closed the entire day as result of fighting within the property, which also serves as the main runway for the Air Force located in the southern area of the civilian airport. Accusations flew back and forth between loyalists to General Muhammad Saleh, who was then appointed Deputy Minister of Defense, and airport officials. The airport re-opened on Sunday. General Saleh appears to have accepted President Hadi’s order and on 16 April he left his post and traveled to Sanhan. But the issue remains unresolved as of 21 April.

In her most recent opinion piece, Ginny Hill indicated many of the obstacles to restructuring the armed forces were anchored on continued regime competition. That is, in the context of the equation that pins ousted President ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh, his long-time confidant General ʻAli Muhsin (Firqahh Commander) and the al-Ahmar family on a confrontation for survival in a transitional period. Much of this competition is indeed obstructing the restructuring, but observers are also missing much of the larger picture. The military has not only been a family dominion, it forms part of the principle instrument of patronage inYemen since 1962 in the north and 1967 in the south. It would be a colossal mistake to assume that Saleh’s relatives and their regime competitors where the only ones standing in the way of a comprehensive restructuring of the armed forces. Elites from the north and south are fully dependent on the military and intelligence services for the own survival. In addition, the most difficult obstacle to overcome will be the deeply rooted tribal interests that overlay the armed forces.

Hashid and Sanhan

In this situation we must first consider the struggle for survival within the Hashid tribal confederation. Shaykh Sadiq ibn ʻAbdullah al-Ahmar, brother of Hamid al-Ahmar, is the paramount shaykh of Hashid, to which the village of Sanhan belongs by means of tribal alliance. Many attribute the rise of ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh and his 33 years of rule to a “deal” from 1978 between Shaykh ʻAbdullah al-Ahmar, ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh, and ʻAli Muhsin. This deal would protect the longstanding position of Hashid and its tribal members within the political structure of the Republic. It is then no mystery as to why Shaykh Hamid al-Ahmar has been one of the principle supporters of the ‘Youth Revolution’ of 2011. Primarily, the al-Ahmar family began to feel threatened by changes in the relationship with Saleh in the past ten years, when it was decided to prepare Ahmad ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh to succeed his father as president of Yemen.

This move to select Ahmad ʻAli as successor was not in itself a threat, but rather the restructuring of political relations that aimed at alienating Bayt al-Ahmar from the decision making process. Hamid began to see new blood at the presidential palace, a new patronage network that threatened his own. Such moves were also reflected in the repositioning of the Republican Guard, in particular, vis-à-vis ʻAli Muhsin’s Firqahh. During the six wars against Huthi rebels in the north the struggle between Ahmad ʻAli and ʻAli Muhsin deepened to direct conflict within al-Urdhi (headquarters for the Armed Forces) and the office of the Chiefs of Staff. The internal conflict also began to affect tribal relations. Interests of various shaykhs were threatened when some tribal areas were protected by the government while others were neglected during the war against Huthi rebels. These tribal leaders not only had interests in areas in ʻAmran and Saʻdah, but also their tribesmen were being killed without any retribution. Many shaykhs were requested to send troops to fight Huthis only to be underpaid or under equipped. While Sanhan believes to be the center of power over the past 33 years, it is Hashid who claims primacy and aims to prevent southerners from taking over a unified Republic, and its resources.

Tribal Patronage

Underneath the surface then lie the mid-level shaykhs of Hashid and Bakil (the second-most powerful tribal confederation). Many of these tribal leaders, allied to the house of Shaykhs al-Shayf and ʻAbu Ras, for example, in addition to Bayt al-Ahmar, believe that restructuring of the armed forces is a direct threat to their own individual survival. Northern shaykhs are inherently linked to an extensive patronage network with origins at the end of the northern civil war of 1962-1970. They are not just part of Saleh’s or ʻAli Muhsin’s patronage, they are part and parcel of the Republic’s patronage legacy. Many leaders may not be in government of Parliament, but they and their tribes have been vital keepers of the Republic, and if their patron is removed then they will lose all privileges, most importantly income and weapons as result of their conscripts within the various branches of the military. A comprehensive restructuring of the armed forces, beyond the removal of Saleh’s, ʻAli Muhsin’s and al-Ahmar’s relatives would also require addressing the presence of many tribal elements loyal to one side or the other. President Hadi must first calculate the consequences from removing personnel from one side quicker then the other, or removing a larger contingency from one side as oppose to the other.

President Hadi must surely be asking himself, which side do I remove first? Which will pose the least challenges? What will the one side do when elements from the other are removed? If a tribal leader with interests in the armed forces begins to feel his patron will lose in the process, they may recall their tribesmen and withdraw to their local area. This will strengthen their position in the periphery and deprive the government of authority within their territory. By withdrawing their men, they will not hold loyalty to any one until it is renegotiated, at a high price indeed. The men will withdraw with their weapons, since no one at this time is powerful enough to prevent them from doing so. How many shaykhs will opt for this choice? We don’t know. If one side is removed before the other, in proportion or otherwise, it may be clear to both patron and client that a fight against the President as proxy or against the other side directly will be in their best interest. President Hadi has everything to lose in this scenario.

At a time of deep economic crisis across the country, ignored by all sides, tribal leaders must protect their own interests in order to prevent further unemployment and deeper discontent among local populations. Patronage is not only a tool for wealth creation in Yemen, it is a way to remain relevant vis-à-vis local tribal populations and retain the prestige of hereditary titles. Reports of widespread famine in Yemenoften focus on urban populations, which suffer tremendously as result of sky-rocketing inflation, but it is in the mountain and dessert villages where hunger is merely satisfied with bread and water, or wheat (‘azid) and yogurt. Shaykhs may not spread the wealth around as evenly as people would want, but at minimum they do provide some relief to people in their villages. It is not in their own interests to allow people to starve, for they will lose the foundation of their own reputation and status. Shaykhs do not only have a dozen or so tribesmen as guards for their own protection in the public sphere, this is a way to provide ‘employment’ to tribesmen and also to strengthen their own patronage networks.

A Careful Balancing Act

As one tribal figure put it, and as much as I tried to avoid the cliché, there are three main concentric circles when dealing with restructuring of the armed forces. The first circle includes Saleh and his family, ʻAli Muhsin and Bayt al-Ahmar, in essence, Hashid and Sanhan. The second circle is referred to as the circle of corruption. This is where the patronage network extends to relatives, business associates and tribal elements. The third circle is what many refer to as the circle of hope, where many of the officers capable of constructing a modern, professional military lay. Tribal elements in the military and mature officers do see a light at the end of the tunnel, but they realize it’s a long tunnel. The GCC initiative was meant to primarily prevent a civil war in theArabian Peninsula. It managed to stave off much of the tension mounting through 2011. But the GCC deal was mainly a deal between the elite, Saleh and ʻAli Muhsin, Saleh and al-Ahmar, and Saleh and al-Islah. It failed to address the people’s demands, and left a window of opportunity for whoever can rescue those hopes for change.

At the moment al-Islah seems to be gaining ground on this front. Although protest squares are now occupied by a solid majority of supporters of al-Islah, Friday prayers continue to attract a large number of independents. This portion of society is no longer interested in the permanent, physical presence at Change Square (Sanʻa) or Freedom Square (Taʻiz), but rather makes itself available to the rally calls to protest each week. This is a great asset for al-Islah, ʻAli Muhsin and bayt al-Ahmar. They have proven their resolve and to a certain degree, their public support. In real terms, it may not mean much since Friday prayer demands are no longer based on issues espoused by large crowds in 2011. Yet, this still keeps President Hadi thinking of what the intent is and what may be the options available to Islah’s side, and to ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh on the other hand.

President Hadi has yet to make his mark in the public sphere, but he has moved cautiously to strengthen his position in the face of mounting pressures from all sides. The president still has much to accomplish in the short term, while his options still remain open and potentially leading to change in real terms. The relationship between Prime Minister Muhammad Salem BaSundwah and President Hadi may not be a match made in heaven, but it is not a destructive one either. Outside influences on the Prime Minister are obvious, as he is the spokesperson for the opposition group the Joint Meeting Party (JMP), as part of the transition government. Everyone understands that although the JMP is fragmented at the moment, half of the ministers in government must protect the group in order to protect themselves. It still remains a difficult task to convince cabinet members to accept losses on their side of the camp. Whether the losses are on the civilian side, such as governors, or the military, neither the General People’s Congress (GPC) nor the JMP can accept huge losses at any one time. At the moment, reality points to all losses being one sided, and even though Gen. ʻAli Muhsin promises to resign and retire from government service, the GPC sees no movement against the opposition on the part of President Hadi, who is in fact the leader of the GPC as its Secretary General.

All of this balancing comes in the backdrop of demands by all sides to engage the process for National Dialogue. As prescribed by the GCC Initiative, the Dialogue process is meant to reconcile all sides, in particular the Southern Secessionist movement and the Huthi rebels in the north. Most in the opposition claim dialogue is moot without military restructuring, aimed at removing all influence from former president ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh and his relatives. But some, in diplomatic circles and within the party in majority in parliament (GPC) claim there cannot be any restructuring until the dialogue begins. We are back to square one, what comes first, the chicken or the egg? It seems even the United States has realized restructuring of the armed forces will take longer than expected, and this has led officials visiting Sanʻa to announce their support for the start of the Dialogue process even though the military is still relatively intact. If work is to be done inYemen, under relative stability, it will continue at a slow pace. As of April 11 President Hadi initiated new military operations against Ansar al-Shariʻah in the south (some units have refused the order). This will lead to further clashes around the country that have to be contained, at minimum, before the president’s next move regarding the armed forces or the National Dialogue. BaSundwah’s visit to Doha from April 9-11 may lead to further support from regional neighbors, but unfortunately his first announcement focused on support for the National Dialogue, not the economy or further pressure to be exerted on personalities on the list to leave the country. Further patience will be required if deeper fracturing of the armed forces is to be avoided, which could once again threatened a civil war scenario.

Fernando Carvajal

Fernando is a PhD candidate and Yemen specialist at the University of Exeter (UK) and is currently in Sanʻa. He has conducted field work throughout Yemen since 2000.

This article was originally published by the Yemen Peace Project

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  • A_guneid

    A generally good account of what is going on in The Yemen. One thing, only, is missing. The five miles long Friday prayers, the black seas of Women & The Millionian demos, are made by The Civil Society. Civil  Society, is the bread and butter of Yemen revolution and if their aspirations are not fulfilled, it will be a matter of time, before they rise up again. Civil Society, is, also a geographical entity, in areas where there is no “Da’ei” and “Maghram”, the hallmark of Yemen Tribalism