No blank check for al Qaeda in a post-Saleh Yemen

By James Fallon and Ayham Kamel It’s lonely at the top, at least for the embattled president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh. His former friends in the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council are pushing for an accelerated transition of power, while thousands of Yemenis brave ugly clashes with security forces and Saleh supporters ...

By , the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media.
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

By James Fallon and Ayham Kamel

It's lonely at the top, at least for the embattled president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh. His former friends in the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council are pushing for an accelerated transition of power, while thousands of Yemenis brave ugly clashes with security forces and Saleh supporters to demand his ouster. While Saleh could still refuse to budge, the overwhelming likelihood is that in the coming weeks he will relinquish his position, leaving an even weaker central government in his wake. Unrest has sapped Sanaa's already tenuous control over the country, and further upheaval in the Yemeni capital would allow al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to gain ground in the provinces. But Saleh isn't AQAP's only obstacle, and the group is unlikely to exert direct political influence or operate with impunity after he leaves.

While the particulars shift on a near-daily basis, Yemen's security situation is trending in one direction: down. Government forces have reportedly given up parts of Shabwa, Abyan, Marib, Sa'ada, and al Jawf provinces, with local tribes assuming de facto control. Influential regional military commanders have defected to the opposition, and while Saleh continues to advocate a transition "within the framework of the constitution," the deteriorating situation on the streets will limit his options. Even if his departure is negotiated, it could result in violence.

By James Fallon and Ayham Kamel

It’s lonely at the top, at least for the embattled president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh. His former friends in the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council are pushing for an accelerated transition of power, while thousands of Yemenis brave ugly clashes with security forces and Saleh supporters to demand his ouster. While Saleh could still refuse to budge, the overwhelming likelihood is that in the coming weeks he will relinquish his position, leaving an even weaker central government in his wake. Unrest has sapped Sanaa’s already tenuous control over the country, and further upheaval in the Yemeni capital would allow al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to gain ground in the provinces. But Saleh isn’t AQAP’s only obstacle, and the group is unlikely to exert direct political influence or operate with impunity after he leaves.

While the particulars shift on a near-daily basis, Yemen’s security situation is trending in one direction: down. Government forces have reportedly given up parts of Shabwa, Abyan, Marib, Sa’ada, and al Jawf provinces, with local tribes assuming de facto control. Influential regional military commanders have defected to the opposition, and while Saleh continues to advocate a transition "within the framework of the constitution," the deteriorating situation on the streets will limit his options. Even if his departure is negotiated, it could result in violence.

In the short term, any scenario is likely to include more leeway for AQAP. With Sanaa focused on political transition, and the country’s military and security forces in (at least temporary) disarray, the central government will be less able to rein in the terror group. If Saleh’s sons, nephews, and close associates are bumped from their positions in the security and counterterrorism forces, the United States and Saudi Arabia will lose their main point people for counterterrorism. And if Saleh’s friends are allowed to stay, their credibility in key provinces will be even shakier than it was before. (Their units are already abandoning some areas in the face of local opposition.)

While all of this is good news for AQAP, the group is unlikely to have a blank check in a post-Saleh Yemen. Both the United States and Saudi Arabia have extensive intelligence and strike capacity and will use it if necessary. The United States began to shy away from unilateral strikes last year, after a provincial deputy governor was mistakenly killed in an air strike and a U.S. drone was revealed to have fired the missile (despite Saleh’s claim of responsibility). Washington subsequently pared back such strikes to avoid jeopardizing its cooperation with Sana’a. But absent effective Yemeni leadership, the United States would be inclined to renew unilateral action — however reluctantly — if circumstances warranted it. Saudi Arabia could also intervene militarily along its shared border. Even the domestic environment could frustrate AQAP. Popular support for the group is generally low in Yemen, and tribal decisions about whether to back AQAP are based largely on local interests. There’s no guarantee that those calculations would shift radically in AQAP’s favor just because Saleh got the boot.

James Fallon and Ayham Kamel are members of Eurasia Group’s Middle East practice.

Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer

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