Sanaa Airport Attack: Saleh show of force?

Tensions are running high in Yemen’s capital city of Sanaa following an April 7 attack on its international airport  by forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. On the same day, Saleh’s fighters are alleged to have sabotaged power lines into the capital, causing blackouts throughout the city. The move on the airfield came after current President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi issued a set of decrees the previous day in which he ordered the replacement of 25 civilian and military officials left over from the Saleh regime. Of those slated to be removed from their position was Air Force Commander General Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, the half brother of the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the leader considered to be behind the assault on the airport. For his part, al-Ahmar has refused to step down from his post and is actively challenging the Hadi administration.

Reforms in the Yemen’s military and civilian structures have been deemed essential for the success of the reconciliation process in the wake of the uprising against the previous regime. However, the attempt to restructure the military comes at a point of great tension for the southern republic. Hadi has been under immense pressure since he took the role of interim-President, the lion’s share of which is directly related  to the rooting out of Saleh’s allies and relatives from the influential military system known for its corruption and strong hold on the levers of power in the state. The Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), Yemen’s central opposition bloc, have placed the reforms as a condition of their participation in the government. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators continue to come to the streets demanding the removal of Saleh loyalists from the military.

While politicians and factions continue to war amongst themselves in Sanaa, the nation’s battle with militant Islam continues into yet another month with the militants achieving significant gains. The internal conflicts within the government have allowed the Islamists to launch numerous successful operations against the disorganized Yemeni military, resulting in hundreds of casualties on the side of the state. Opponents of the former President Saleh have charged him with undercutting the fight against the Islamists in a ploy to convince both the local and international communities that he is the sole leader capable of suppressing the militants and returning stability.

Despite the apparent urgency to enact the reforms as outlined in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) transfer of power agreement, the Hadi administration is likely to face great difficulties along the way for a number of well entrenched reasons. For the time being, Hadi does not seem to have the muscle to back up his policies, especially with the exclusion of defected army General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and his First Armored Division. While many of the people in the street support him in taking on the remnants of Saleh’s regime, the loyalists continue to head up the majority of top units in the military. In addition, local tribes that have benefited from Saleh and his policies are likely to maintain their support for him in the face of the reforms.

Another structural reason that soldiers are likely to stay with their commanders is the patronage system that has existed in Yemeni political and military culture for generations. Soldiers are paid through their commanders, not through the Defense Ministry, thereby owing loyalty to their units before owing to the Republic. Until this is changed, neither Hadi nor external forces are likely to have much success in unseating these leaders.

While Sanaa’s airport has since reopened, the attack on it can be viewed as a clear shot across the bow by Saleh and his allies. By way of attacking the airport, they have shown that they will not accept efforts of the new administration, the protesters in the streets, or the international community to take away their hard won power simply through agreements and decrees. As the situation stands now, the President does not appear to command the power needed to follow through with his reform mission. The continued assaults and acts of sabotage against state infrastructure should be viewed as warnings of wider-scale violence should Hadi insist on carrying out his proposed reforms. While the situation in Yemen remains tenuous and uncertain – both politically and militarily – this status will likely remain the constant

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