Whoever manages to control Yemen’s state resources, and particularly its oil, will be able to wield control over the country’s tribes by restoring the system of patronage relied on by ex-president Saleh for decades. The game to control this system is now intensifying.
The playing field in this Yemeni battle is extremely complex, and includes Houthi rebels in the north, separatists in the south, an increasingly emboldened al-Qaeda cluster, a divided military, a new government and a Saleh family network that still controls key positions.
A key figure in this equation is General Ali Moshen al-Ahmar, the country’s top military commander who broke with Saleh and sided with the civil-society protesters in March 2011. His “dissident” troops have since fought against Saleh’s forces across the country.
General Moshen, commander of the First Armored Division and the Northwestern military region, is also believed to have amassed a fortune greater than Saleh’s, and some sources say he has his hands in some of the country’s biggest oil deals. The Yemen Post cited an unnamed Western diplomat as saying that the General is a “major beneficiary of diesel smuggling”, an estimated $10 billion business annually.
While the Saudi/Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-brokered deal forced Saleh to resign and hand power over to his deputy, Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi, in exchange for immunity, it left his security apparatus in place – an apparatus run by his relatives, who also control parts of the military. As such, Saleh still manages to wield influence from behind the scenes. But he has seen which way the winds are blowing. He has vowed to return to Yemen, and in the second week of March, he attempted to re-enter the political fray rather publicly – a move not lost on General Moshen.
A previous deal put forward by the GCC and rejected by Saleh had envisioned 10 of Saleh’s opponents also relinquishing power and leaving the country. Last week, Saleh had a change of heart, demanding that the old deal be implemented instead.
Among those Saleh is targeting is General Moshen.
Though Hadi was Saleh’s deputy and chosen to replace him, that relationship is fraught with difficulties that now see the Saleh-family apparatus fighting against the acting president and his supporters.
It is important to note that General Moshen publicly supported Hadi ahead of the single-candidate elections in mid-February and described him as a “brother” who would help deliver Yemen from turmoil.
One of Hadi’s biggest challenges right now is Ahmed Saleh, the president’s son and commander of the Republican Guard. Ahmed Saleh has moved his residence to the presidential palace to attempt to assume his father’s position.
Some Yemeni analysts believe that Ahmed Saleh is concerned about the relationship between Hadi and General Moshen, and this may be one of the reasons for the ex-president’s recent statements in which he criticized the new regime for being “weak” and demanded that his opponents leave the country with him.
Military: Fluid Allegiance
In the meantime, the al-Qaeda cluster has stepped up attacks since Hadi assumed power, and opposition forces in Yemen accuse Saleh of using AQAP in a proxy battle against his rivals, undermining attempts by Hadi and General Moshen (with help from US airstrikes) to target AQAP strongholds.
The conflict among Yemen’s top military commanders has opened yet another window of opportunity for AQAP, whose attacks in March have far exceeded previous attacks in terms of casualties and destruction.
This dangerous military split became particularly vivid in early March when as many as 185 soldiers were killed in fighting with the AQAP-linked Ansar Al-Sharia group in Abyan Province. As more details emerge, collusion becomes a possibility. When the first Ansar Al-Sharia fighters descended upon a military base in the town of Dofus, the military leaders there had already fled the area and the soldiers retreated, leaving their weapons behind for AQAP to seize. A simultaneous attack occurred in the East Kood District. Reinforcements for both were called in but slow to arrive. Eventually, the bases were retaken by the military but only after heavy losses of both soldiers and weapons, including a tank, missiles and launchers and anti-aircraft guns. They also managed to take over 50 prisoners, 10 of them officers.
The attacks took place on the same day that the Military Commander of the Southern Region, Mahdi Maqwala, a Saleh supporter, was scheduled to relinquish his position to a new commander appointed by Hadi, Major General Salen Qatan.
At the same time, there is growing discontent within the military ranks, as soldiers protest against Saleh-family corruption and allegiance remains very fluid.
The Yemeni Air Force is in a state of chaos after officers launched a rebellion against their commander, General Muhammed Saleh al-Ahmar, the ousted president’s half-brother.
In addition, earlier this month, some 500 members of the First Brigade of Marine Infantry protested outside Hadi’s residence, demanding that their commander, Brigadier Hussein Khairan, another Saleh supporter, step down. There have also been reports of exchanges of fire between General Moshen’s troops and the Central Security Forces led by Yahya Saleh, outside Hadi’s residence.
Oil, AQAP and Proxy Wars
Controlling the country’s tribes requires controlling its oil resources so that state revenues can be funneled back to influential leaders and patronage to the regime can be secured. This is a growing challenge in areas where AQAP is operating and gaining its own tribal support. With the military increasingly divided, AQAP is stepping in and will soon be able to operate without military resistance.
Both Mohsen and Hadi have vowed to fight the AQAP and assist the US in the “war on terror”. But the AQAP continues to be an attractive way to fight various proxy wars for control over the country.
Opposition forces in Yemen have accused Saleh of supporting AQAP in an attempt to undermine the new government and General Moshen, and also to demonstrate to the US and other external players that only he can fight al-Qaeda.
Certainly, if the country manages to descend further into chaos and AQAP attacks become an even greater threat to key oil routes through the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Saleh stands a better chance of returning to power. Under the scenario, attacks on pipelines that could threaten oil shipping routes as well as the demonstration of a clear threat to US and Saudi targets would top the AQAP agenda.
By Jen Alic of Oilprice.com
Jen Alic is a geopolitical analyst, co-founder of ISA Intel in Sarajevo and Tel Aviv, and the former editor-in-chief of ISN Security Watch in Zurich.