The Middle East Channel

Reforming Yemen’s military

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.