The Middle East Channel

Reforming Yemen’s military

Yemen's army chief of staff, Major General Ahmed Ali al-Ashwal, arrived in Washington, DC earlier this week to review the current state of military cooperation between Sanaa and Washington. Much rests on whether Yemen's new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, can effectively reform the country's military and security forces and bring them under unified, professional leadership. White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan recently voiced support for al-Ashwal as "an impressive and professional military officer" and praised Hadi's understanding of what it would take to "turn the Yemeni military into a professional and first-rate military organization."

But neither Hadi nor al-Ashwal has a free hand in their task of restructuring the military and security services. Hadi commutes from home to meetings at the palace across a city divided into zones of multiple military control and studded with checkpoints. So far, he has tried and failed to persuade Yemen's rival factions to withdraw their armed forces and militiamen from Sanaa. Stability for now depends on maintaining the balance of power between the Republican Guard under the command of Saleh's son, Ahmed Ali, and the First Armoured Division under the command of Saleh's kinsman, General Ali Mohsin. Both factions are counting on support from powerful external stakeholders.

The struggle to reform the security services is complicated by the perceived urgency of counter-terrorism concerns and the speed with which al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia is expanding its presence in the southern governorate of Abyan. Within days of Hadi's inauguration as president, militants ambushed an army division in Abyan, killing more than 150 government soldiers. Propaganda footage on YouTube shows Ansar al-Sharia building roads, restoring electricity supplies and delivering vigilante justice, which includes the execution of collaborators accused of supplying intelligence to the Yemeni government.

Yemeni troops are struggling to claim and hold ground in Abyan, yet Western governments are reluctant to frame the conflict as an insurgency. Counter-terrorism remains the central focus of Western engagement, based on concerns that Ansar al-Sharia's growing footprint amounts to a parallel win for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and will boost AQAP's capability to launch strikes on Western targets. However, that threat has not yet been demonstrated as AQAP has not attempted to launch a high-profile attack in Sanaa or beyond Yemen's borders for more than 16 months.  

In a sense, the current problem has its roots in past short-sighted decisions. Throughout the last decade, successive U.S. administrations have trained and funded boutique counter-terrorism units under the command of Saleh's nephew, Yahya, and -- to a lesser extent -- within Ahmed Ali's Yemeni Special Operations Forces. During 2011, as Ansar al-Sharia began to gain ground in Abyan, Yayha preferred to keep his counter-terrorism unit stationed in Sanaa as a de facto regime protection force rather than deploy to the field. Now, in a shift away from their previous reliance on specialist units, U.S. officials are offering to extend counter-terrorism advice to regular army divisions. Such are the perceptions of risk in Abyan, however, that U.S. sponsorship of Yahya's unit may yet continue, even as the Pentagon seeks to build wider alliances within the Yemeni military.

In parallel, U.S. intelligence sharing with the National Security Bureau -- run by Saleh's nephew, Ammar -- also looks set to continue for the time being. Ongoing cooperation between the U.S. administration and Saleh's family will stoke anti-American feeling among Yemeni protestors, who have spent more than a year demanding the dismissal of Saleh's relatives from military command positions. Although Saleh is no longer head of state, he has a stake in the country's largest political party, the General People's Congress, and his patronage network is largely intact, while his son is still believed to hold presidential ambitions. Many Yemenis believe U.S. military cooperation provides the younger generation in Saleh's family with a continued stake in the ongoing transition process, despite the family's association with violence against protestors in Change Square. In contrast, General Mohsin's "pro-revolutionary" forces have never received Western military training or assistance.

Ironically, as Saleh's childhood playmate and long-time ally, General Mohsin spent more than 30 years at the heart of the regime, although he grew increasingly antagonized by Saleh's efforts to concentrate power around his immediate family. General Mohsin's decision to disassociate from Saleh's family in March 2011 followed a sniper attack on demonstrators corralled inside Change Square, which killed more than 50 people. General Mohsin's subsequent decision to station the First Armoured Division around the boundaries of Change Square enabled him to brand himself as the protector of the revolution, a banner that he continues to fly. While General Mohsin confronts growing opposition from supporters of the Houthis, a Zaidi Shiite family who control territory in the northern province of Saada, and from "independent" protestors who reject his sponsorship of the revolution, the movement calling for his resignation lacks coordination and sustained momentum.

General Mohsin recently indicated he would retire at President Hadi's request, but -- for the time being, at least -- he is thought to enjoy the support of King Abdullah and Crown Prince Naif in Saudi Arabia, and thus is not likely to be leaving any time soon. Senior Saudi princes see four growing threats to their interests in Yemen: the expansion of territory under Houthi control, Iranian activity, AQAP, and a popular protest movement. The extent of Iranian activity in Yemen is hotly contested but Saudi perceptions of Iranian influence factor almost as highly as the reality, because they influence Saudi views of their own options. In the last five years, Riyadh has lost three key interlocutors in Yemen, following the deposition of Saleh, the death of Crown Prince Sultan, and the death of Yemen's tribal patriarch, Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar. Prince Naif and King Abdullah may be inclined to let the dust settle in Sanaa before putting pressure on Ali Mohsin to retire and initiating any further changes.

During autumn 2011, negotiations over Saleh's departure from office took place against the backdrop of shelling and gun battles between troops under the command of Saleh's family and General Mohsin's division. Paradoxically, these internal divisions weakened the regime, yet they also enabled the regime as a system to survive because fear of full-blown civil war encouraged the international community to adopt a softly-softly strategy that focused -- first and foremost -- on persuading Saleh to relinquish power. In November, Saleh agreed to stand down, in part, because it was clear that both factions were equally weighted, and there could be no outright winner. Negotiators deliberately deferred the issue of military restructuring (and thus the resolution of elite competition) until after February's one-man election, which rubber-stamped Hadi's elevation from vice president to president.

Now, supporters of Saleh's family are trying to downplay the extent to which rivalry between the two sides hinges solely on personal animosity. Instead, they emphasise different visions for Yemen's future, claiming that Saleh's son and nephews represent a moderate counterweight to Mohsin's Islamist sympathies and his alliance with Islah, the main Islamist political party. Yemenis of all stripes who took to the streets a year ago in the hope that new faces would replace the established regime families still hope that popular pressure will dislodge the remnants of Saleh's patronage network. That may prove to be the case but while external stakeholders retain an interest in the status quo, Yemen's patient revolutionaries face higher hurdles.

Ginny Hill is an associate fellow at Chatham House in London, where she runs the Yemen Forum.

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The Middle East Channel

French shooting suspect jumps to his death

Mohammed Merah, the 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian origin suspected of killing three paratroopers and three Jewish students and a rabbi, died on Thursday in Toulouse, France. According to French Interior Minister Claude Gueant, Merah jumped from a balcony firing "with extreme violence" as security forces stormed the apartment in which he had barricaded himself for over 30 hours, surrounded by 300 policemen. After negotiations on Wednesday the suspect had said he would turn himself in, but had gone back on the pledge and cut off communication. However, during the conversations, he confessed to the killings, saying they were to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children, as well as to protest France's role in the war in Afghanistan and last year's banning of Muslim women wearing face veils. He said he was a member of al Qaeda and was trained in the Waziristan region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins, Merah shot and wounded two police officers during the raid before coming to his death. 


On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved a statement supporting the U.N. and Arab League envoy and former Secretary General Kofi Annan's peace plan on Syria. Russia and China, who have blocked resolutions in the past, agreed to this non-binding statement, which lacks the authority of a Security Council resolution. The statement expressed the council's "full support" for Annan's peace efforts and appealed to the Syrian regime and opposition "to work in good faith with the envoy towards a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis." Despite the U.N. pressure to end violence, fighting across Syria continues. The Syrian opposition claimed heavy shelling and tanks in the Arbaeen neighborhood of the city of Hama, where dozens of people were reportedly killed by Syrian army attacks in the past two days. Clashes also continue in the Damascus suburbs of Harasta and Irbin, where regime helicopters and artillery fired on defectors who had previously incited an attack. The United Nations believes that more than 8,000 people have died in the year-long uprising in Syria.


  • Bahrain's justice minister said the trials of 20 health workers who treated injured protesters during last year's uprisings will proceed.
  • Violent clashes continued for a second day between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants on the southeast border with Iraq, resulting in the deaths of seven Kurds.
  • Three Filipino sailors were kidnapped in Yemen by Islamist militants wishing for the exchange of one of their tribe's prisoners.

Arguments & Analysis

'Assad family values' (Patrick Seale, Open Democracy)

"The regime's victory at Homs has opened a new phase in the crisis, in which negotiations, presided over by Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, might now be given a chance. Annan has been mandated by both the Arab League and the United Nations to bring about a ceasefire and create the conditions for a dialogue between the regime and its opponents. He has condemned the arming of the opposition and declared that his immediate goal is to stop the killing. Although the regime's onslaught continues and armed rebels refuse to put down their guns, there is yet a slim chance that Annan may succeed. In both camps there are men who now realize that there can be no military solution to the crisis -- either in Syria or in Iran."

'Turkey vs. Iran' (Mustafa Aykol, Foreign Affairs)

"The clash between Turkey and Iran has been more than just rhetorical. Tehran has been Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's biggest supporter, whereas Ankara has come to condemn the regime's "barbarism" and put its weight behind the opposition, hosting the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, the rebel government and army in exile. In Iraq, Iran is a patron of the Shias; Turkey is, at least in the eyes of many in the Middle East, the political and economic benefactor of the Sunnis and the Kurds. And the two countries have had tensions over the missile shield that NATO deployed in Turkey in September 2011. The Turkish government insists that the missile shield was not developed as a protection against Iran. Nevertheless, in December, an Iranian political official warned that his country would attack Turkey if the United States or Israel attacked Iran." 

'Saudi Arabia and Syria: logic of dictators' (Madawi al-Rasheed, Open Democracy)

"The Syrian uprising is therefore an opportunity for the Saudis to kill two birds with one stone. The more the Saudi Sunni majority feel agitated by delayed reforms, economic problems, and increasing repression and arrests, the more the Saudi government wants to absorb these challenges through aggressive regional politics against an external "Shi'a Safavid enemy" and its local Arab allies. The underreported Shi'a revolt in Qatif, in the oil-rich eastern province, started in March 2011 and continues to pose a serious challenge. The regime attributes Shi'a agitations to Iranian support. The battle between security forces and local Qatif Shi'a has at the time of writing led to seven deaths and hundreds of arrests. From a Suadi regime perspective, getting rid of Bashar al-Assad can only erode Iranian influence both in the Arab Mediterranean region and in the Gulf itself."

--Tom Kutsch & Mary Casey

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