Yemen turns tribal, defections continue in Libya, more deaths in Syria

In Yemen a major tribal leader has turned against Saleh, this is a new situation with renewed fighting, and with people fleeing for their lives:

• Fighters loyal to Sadeq al-Ahmar, the tribal leader who this week turned against Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, continued their move into Sana’a. Heavy fighting is reported in the al-Hasba neighbourhood, with at least 15 people killed overnight. Sana’a airport is closed and residents who can are leaving as the fighting intensifies.

 Syrian security forces have continued their assault on Rastan, hitting it with artillery and gunfire. Rights activists put the death total today at 15, bringing the total since the siege began to 72 (though there is no way to independently verify the figures). A two-day meeting of Syrian opposition figures in Turkey ended with a call from the 300 delegates for Bashar al-Assad, the president, to resign. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said Assad’s legitimacy had “nearly run out”.

The Economist has a piece from its correspondent in Sana’a on the battle in Yemenbetween President Saleh and the leaders of the country’s most powerful tribe, the Hashid:

Led by the al-Ahmar family, Mr Saleh’s bitterest rivals, the tribesmen now control the interior and water ministries, the ruling party’s main building and one of the city’s main police stations.

Many of Sana’a’s residents are panicking. Long lines of cars and buses, with luggage piled on the roof, are filtering out of Sana’a and into the mountains that surround it. Those staying put are hoarding basic supplies, withdrawing their savings from banks, filling buckets with petrol and barricading themselves indoors.

 Francis Matthew of the Gulf News highlights the role of Hamid al-Ahmar, the prominent Yemeni businessman and politician – and brother of Sadeq al-Ahmar, the tribal leader at the centre of the conflict – who turned against Saleh this week. (Our correspondent Tom Finn wrote about the family last week.

The political initiative was seized this week by Hamid al-Ahmar, when he rebelled against Saleh. A businessman and politician, Ahmar holds an important position in the major Hashid confederation. His elder brother Sadiq al-Ahmar is the paramount chief of the Hashid confederation, and they are the sons of the late Shaikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, who was a major figure in Yemeni politics till his death in 2007, backed by substantial Saudi influence. A third brother, Hussain, commanded the Saudi-backed Hashid militia in the recent fighting in Sa’ada.

Hamid al-Ahmar’s challenge will be viewed favourably by Saudi Arabia, which has had a close relationship with his family for decades. The Saudi leadership is the most concerned of all the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) states that Yemen does not slip into chaos, and it will naturally back an alternative to Saleh based on northern leaders. And if Ahmar is dismissed as being just a businessman rather than a politician, his relative, General Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar is an effective military commander who has already rebelled against Saleh.

But Matthew says the intervention of the Ahmar family is not necessarily a win for the pro-democracy opposition, who have rejected the idea of supporting a leadership bid from another member of the power elite

They have promised to hold out for a peaceful transfer to a civilian authority. The activists are slowly developing their own management structure and deciding on mechanisms to nominate their leaders, but this was not sufficiently advanced to enable them to send observers to the GCC transition talks.

But others who are not yet part of the action are the leaders from the south. When Yemen united in 1990, the president of South Yemen, Ali Salim al-Beidh, became vice-president of the united country. He despaired that Saleh would not listen to his concerns, and resigned to lead a breakaway movement when he declared the Democratic Republic of Yemen, which only lasted in the south from May to June 1994. Beidh is the leader of Al Harak, a party dedicated to a southern breakaway.

The GCC sees Yemen as too important and too close to be allowed to fail. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Saudis ran massive grant programmes which they allowed to wither away after the border settlement in 2000. Now they are leading GCC efforts to find a political solution. They have reopened their links with northern political leaders like al-Ahmar to try and find a way forward.

But in the end, any long-term solution in Yemen will also need to take into account southern ambitions, as well as the new demands of the young people on the streets, who have time and demographics on their side, even if they have failed to find a leader to articulate their demands and take part in the talks this time round.

My colleague Brian Whitaker has the following useful context for the situation in Yemen:

Fighting in and around Yemen’s capital seems to be intensifying, and this morning there are reports that Sana’a airport has been closed. Is this the end for President Saleh? Certainly many people are hoping so.

With many erstwhile supporters – both civil and military – abandoning him, it’s clear that Saleh can never regain the authority he once had. But there’s still the question of how, exactly, he can be ousted from office.

One thing to keep in mind is that armed conflict in Yemen is not unusual; in fact it’s almost routine. The regime has fought an on-off war with Houthi rebels in the north for years, as well as a separatist insurrection in the south which sprang up more recently. Tribal militias have also fought the army often in the past, and sometimes got the better of it.

Saleh’s regime, therefore, is well accustomed to sitting-out periods of turmoil, and even military setbacks, without feeling that its survival is challenged to the core. The difference this time is that a lot of the fighting is concentrated in the capital rather than more remote areas where it would be only scantily reported, and that its objective this time is the removal of Saleh himself.

The situation now is beginning to resemble that in Ivory Coast earlier this year when Laurent Gbagbo was holed up in his presidential compound and refusing to budge. Saleh has his own well-protected compound and in theory could stay there for ages while the country falls apart all around him.

In fact, even if he were to resign, he would technically still be president unless the Yemeni parliament – where his party holds an overwhelming majority – agreed to accept it.

Unicef, the UN children’s organisation, has sent us this blog from one of its staff members in Libya. Rebecca Fordham recounts the impact the conflict has had on two children in particular. It’s worth quoting at some length:

June 1st 2011: I witnessed the graphic impact of conflict on children when I boarded a boat coming into Benghazi from Misrata. Two young boys, who had been severely injured by explosive remnants of war (ERW) lay on beds inside the on board field hospital, provided by LibAid, with their fathers standing patiently beside them.

Both boys stared out, Ayman, 14, his wrists heavily bandaged and, Mamud, 9, lying quietly in the bed next to him. The boys had been playing close to the Medical Technical College in Misrata, Ayman’s father told me, when his son picked up what he thought was shrapnel from an exploded bomb to take home and show his family. It exploded when he touched it.

His father knew there were “cluster bombs” that had been dropped close by, and that they could explode when someone tried to move them but, he didn’t know the exact location and what they looked like.

Children are particularly at risk, because their natural curiosity means that they often pick up items that adults are more cautious to touch. In Libya, where some children have been living under extremely challenging and stressful conditions for over three months, they need to understand the dangers of unexploded ordinance and also have safe spaces to play.

The ERW threat in Misrata is particularly grave. Limited surveys of Misrata confirm the use of cluster munitions and anti-personnel mines amongst a litany of ERW across the city. It has been reported that 30 ammunition storage areas have been destroyed by air strikes, spreading even more ERW. According to ICRC [Red Cross], in the past six weeks there have been 13 reported casualties from ERW in Misrata.

Both Ayman and Mamud were taken to a Misrata hospital where Ayman had to have both his hands amputated. They are now receiving medical treatment in Benghazi. I have visited the hospital and hope to again soon.


About Aussie

Married with children. Bachelor of Economics and Commerce, Melb 1975
This entry was posted in Libya, Syria, Yemen. Bookmark the permalink.