By William Tucker
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime is nearing collapse. Saleh has lost the support of elements of the military and several of Yemen’s major tribes – both of which are vital to his regime. Earlier today General Ali Moshen al-Ahmar, Saleh’s half brother, left the government and defected to the opposition. Al-Ahmar’s move is nothing more than political opportunism, but with the support of a large section of the Yemeni military the announcement is not exactly foolish. Yemen’s opposition movement may be able to get people into the streets to protest, however there is no evidence yet available that would suggest they are ready to rule if Saleh stepped down making al-Ahmar’s move all the more interesting. At the moment the security elements still loyal to the regime are facing off with al-Ahmar’s forces in strategic locations in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. No shots have been fired yet, but the possibility of a war between the military and Yemen’s security forces is a very real threat. The possibility of a wider civil war along the familiar northern and southern split is yet another consideration that cannot be ignored.
The Syrian regime of Bashir al-Assad is another target of regional unrest, but his hold on power is not yet in jeopardy. Truth be told, this could change within the next week. Assad has managed to play the various elements of Syrian society off of one another, much in the same fashion as his father did, and this approach has worked well in the ten years of his reign. The Syrian economy, however, is in shambles and this has given the once fragmented opposition groups motivation enough to challenge the Assad regime and his repressive security apparatus. The real problem for the Syrian opposition is the lack of any organized political entity capable of taking the reins of government in the event Assad falls. The closest political organizations capable of doing anything would be the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which is not in the best shape, or perhaps one of the larger Palestinian militant groups that Assad is sheltering.* Ultimately it is still too early to tell and it is possible that the opposition could create an ad hoc governing council to facilitate the transition to a permanent constitution and government.
The next few days will be tense for both countries and their respective neighbors. The Saudis are concerned over Yemen, not because they are ardent supporters of Saleh, but because they don’t want another war on the Kingdom’s borders. Same goes for Syria. Political instability in Syria can easily spill over into neighboring Iraq and Lebanon – two nations that have more than enough trouble on their own. Thus far the unrest in Syria and Yemen has been rather bloody and it is unlikely that this will end anytime soon. The departure of the current governments will not bring this bloodshed to an end; instead it is more likely that it would be the beginning of a protracted struggle for control.
*In this instance I’m not suggesting that a Palestinian group operating out of Damascus would seize power, but they are organized and can have substantive influence in any future government.
Update: CNN is reporting that negotiations are underway between Yemeni President Saleh and three Generals that have defected to the opposition. The gist of the negotiations will reportedly allow Saleh to remain in power until the end of the year at which time a transitional government would take over. It is not clear that these defecting Generals have the support of the opposition, or that they speak on behalf of the people in the streets. To be quite frank, I don’t buy any of this.
Photo: Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh on the left; Syrian President Bashir al-Assad on right. www.presidentassad.net