We have talked to the ORSAM Middle Eastern Adviser and Abant İzzet Baysal University Academic Member Assoc. Prof. Dr. Veysel Ayhan about the recent developments in Yemen. Ayhan evaluated the situation of the military forces supporting the opposition in Yemen, the relations of President Saleh with the tribes in the country, the claims about a foreign support behind the opposition and the recent developments’ potential for affecting Saudi Arabia. “The fall of the Saleh regime by a coup which would be led by certain leaders of the country so that they would take place in the new regime as well, would be in favor of the USA” said Prof. Ayhan.
ORSAM: The head of the northwestern military zone, Major General Ali Mohsen Saleh, announced he'll deploy troops to protect the demonstrators. In your analysis, why did he take the decision of renouncing his half-brother President Saleh?
Yemen has been recently hosting serious protests and demonstrations against the regime of the country. The fact that Abdullah Saleh has used force in order to suppress the demonstrations caused that he has lost his support and legitimacy both inside and outside of the country. In that respect, the important point actually is that, besides Hutsi and opposition groups in Southern provinces, the most important tribes in Yemen such as Hashid and Bakil tribes have been also withdrawing their supports from the Abdullah Saleh regime. As a result of this situation, there have been resignations from both the ruling parties and diplomatic missions outside of Yemen. In the period when there have been discussions about post-Saleh era, Ali Mohsen Saleh is displaying his intention to have an important privilege in the new political power to be restructured by supporting the opposition side. Moreover, considering that Saleh tribe has had privileges in the Yemeni army, trade, government and bureaucracy, they will demand to maintain these privileged relations in the new period as well; they will certainly want to preserve these privileges. In that context, I personally think that family members have started to support the opposition side in order not to become isolated or have any negative effects resulting from this potential changing.
In his more than 30 years of rule, how did President Saleh deal with the tribal power? What did he do to gain their support? Some major tribal leaders have renounced President Saleh, too. What is the idea in their minds? Is it a major blow for the Saleh regime?
When Saleh came into power and became the ruling power in 1978, there was a serious instability in the Yemen. On the one side, there were the effects of the civil war, and on the other side, there were the assassinations executed against some elected heads of state. On the contrary, President Saleh began to erase the trace of the war, and brought forward the idea of reuniting with South Yemen. He gave some privileges to the tribal leaders both in economic and political terms. He did not intervene in their authorities in their own regions. Obviously, the tribes have been represented in the state's apparatus. Following this period, in 1994, Abdullah Saleh declared a war against the separatist groups of the Southern Yemenis with the support of the Northern Yemeni Tribes, but in the end, he has achieved to combine the two Yemens. In fact, the Speaker of the Yemeni Parliament was Sheik Abdullah Al Ahmer, the head of the Hashid Tribal Confederation, and at the same time the leader of the Islah Party - an Islamic oriented party and the partner of the GPC in the first coalition government after the civil war of 1994. The Hashid Tribe was controlling the army and the security apparatus. However, in 2004, Northern Zeydi Tribal started to criticize the Saleh regime. As a result of the conflicts starting in the north, first Hutsi and then the other Bakil tribes ended their relations with the Saleh regime. At the period when the protests started in the South were tried to be suppressed with the use of force and the southern tribes supported the oppositions. Moreover, Abdullah Saleh, had the support of the Hashid Tribe which was the most important element at providing the safety of the regime. However, in the recent period, these tribes have also withdrawn their support from Abdullah Saleh. The main reason of that is their desire to preserve their power at the political structure in the new ruling power as well. The Yemeni soldiers and tribes have started to make their plans for the post-Saleh period. As a result of this situation, everybody agrees that the Saleh regime will no longer continue.
Who is leading the opposition now? In your analysis, is there any possibility that some foreign power is behind the upheaval?
Abdullah Saleh’s regime has been facing with the oppositions both on the north and the south for a long time. Prior the events of 2011, it was clear that the Saleh regime had lost the great part of the support that he had within the country. Therefore, in my view, the leading tribe of the opposition is the Hashid Tribe. The Hashids, the tribe from which President Saleh comes, are considered as Yemen's most powerful tribal confederation and include nine clans. All Hashid tribesmen have joined the opposition protesters and their leader said that the revolution in Yemen will be victorious. Yemen's second largest tribe, the Bakil, to whom Hutsi belongs, has abandoned the Yemen's president and has joined the protesters. Joint Meeting Parties, Islah (also known as Yemeni Congregation for Reform and the major member of JMP), from the Hashid leader the al-Ahmar family, (Sadek al-Ahmar and Hamid al-Ahmar), Al Iryani family, Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, (Founder and head of the Iman University, head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen and member of ISLAH party) South Yemen Movement, Socialist Movement, Yemen's Muslim Brotherhood, in addition, Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Brigadier Mohammed Ali Mohsen, Brigadier Hameed Al Koshebi and, Brigadier Nasser Eljahori have joined the opposition side. In this context, it is seen that the opposition movement in Yemen has been supported by all the sections and regions. Saleh does not have influence on the southern cities. His influence on the North has radically decreased. Now, his sons, his sons-in-law and some family members have been supporting the regime. He does not have any serious influence on any institution except the Republic Guard and the Special Forces which is under the control of his son. It may be inferred from this situation that some foreign powers have something to do with what is going on in this transition period, and also the USA and Saudi Arabia wants to play an important role in this process. The USA has been trying to convince Abdullah Saleh for leaving his power to some people who will be close to the USA. At that point, it is seen that they have been trying to give the ruling power to the Hashids tribes.
What is Yemen’s strategic importance for Saudi Arabia? How has Saudi Arabia changed its foreign policy toward Yemen?
Throughout the history, Yemen has been always an important county for Saudi Arabia. The three districts which are now under the control of Saudi Arabia had belonged to Yemen Territory until 1926. However, the recent developments and the Shiite riots in Yemen which are claimed to be supported by Iran are the turning point of the relations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has followed a weak policy toward Yemen and has always been liable to be affected by Yemen throughout the history. For that reason, Saudi Arabia also dealt with the civil war in Yemen between 1962 and 1967 and objected to the reunion of the two Yemen and supported the Southern struggle to be an independent state. During the period of 1980s, Riyadh government supported the idea of sending the Yemeni Arabs to the Afghanistan war, but they organized and supported some religious activities in order to empower Vahabi Selefi against the Shiite in Yemen. After the period of 1994, it supported the Abdul-Majid al-Zindani and Selefi movement, but on the other side, it started fighting with Hutsi and supporting the Saleh regime by supplying military power, economic and diplomatic aids. Although the background of the conflicts in Yemen is political, historical and sectarian, some people believe that Iran and Saudi Arabia are responsible for the resurrection of the conflict in 2004, between Hutsi and the government forces. Saudi Arabia believes that the establishment of a Shiite organization on its borders that resembles Hezbollah will be a threat as they are concerned of the possibility that Shiites become stronger in the region. “The stability and the security of Yemen are important to Saudi Arabia, to the region and to the neighboring states.” declared Usama Naggali, the spokesman of the minister of foreign affairs of Saudi Arabia. Although the governments of Saudi Arabia and Yemen blamed Iran for supporting Shiite militants, Iran accused Saudi Arabia of getting involved in the conflicts in Yemen. Moreover, on November 3, 2009, the Hutsi power started a military operation against the Yemeni and Saudi Arabian army on the Dukhan Mountain which is in the Saudi territory. Although Saudi Arabia had an extraordinary military power, it couldn’t expel the Yemeni groups from his territory during almost two mounts. This fact indicates that Saudi Arabia had a defeat in the eyes of Hutsi. During the developments in 2011, it has followed a policy which demands that Yemen has a ruling power which is close to it, especially a member of the Military for the post-Abdullah Saleh period. It has tried to prevent the groups who are close to Hutsi from taking over the government. If any of these groups took the power, it would certainly create a serious problem for the Saudi Arabians. If an organization like Hezbollah took the power in Yemen and controlled the country and the Saudi border, it would create a concern for Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia did not comment much about the Yemen upheaval. According to your analysis, will they give up supporting President Saleh? If so, why? Is there any dissent in Saudi regime regarding the policy towards Yemen?
Both Saudi Arabia and other regional powers agree that Saleh regime is coming to an end. The main strategy that Saudi Arabia has been following now is to determine the governmental structure that will take over the power after the Saleh period. They have been trying to ensure that the military leader takes over the power because they have had a good relation during the war that they had with Hutsi. At that point, in my opinion, they have pursuing an intensive diplomacy so that Major General Ali Mohsen Saleh or any other name that is close to him can take over the power. Therefore, it is necessary to take into account that Saudi Arabia is also a part of the combat among the Yemeni groups for the ruling power.
How will the eventual collapse of Saleh affect the Saudi interests and the region as a whole?
It will vary depending on how the system will be resolved. If the resolution in relation with the military, political and economic structure which was settled in 1978 was directly brought to agenda, this situation would threat Saudi interest as a whole. The primary interest of Saudi is a political structure that would control the Shiite groups such as Hutsi. In addition to the Al Qaeda, the major threat is the Shiite Groups. Riyadh believes that these groups are directly supported by Iran. If the influence of these groups increased on the government succeeding the Saleh regime, in the medium term it would create a problem for the Saudi Arabians and the Sunni regimes in the region. The ruling power which is vulnerable to the Shiite effect may accompany the enlargement of Iran in the region. Therefore, Saudi has been trying to form a government that will be close to itself for the sake of his own interests for the post-Saleh period. All in all, the weakness of the central government will let the other countries such as Iran increase their influence in the country and will pose a threat for the Saudi regime in term of military power. It would not be enough to consider the developments as if they would just bring about an increase of influence of the Al Qaeda in the region. The main concern is related to the potential effects of the Shiite groups which are close to Iran and the question about in what extent they will be effective following the Saleh period. Saudi Arabians has been attempting to prevent this potential reality.
U.S. is also very silent. What is the US attitude toward Saleh? Will his collapse be a good news or bad news for the US counter-terrorism strategy? Why?
I do not think that Saleh government is not aware of the presence of Al Qaeda in Yemen. Saleh government has used them to receive military and economic aid from the western countries. However, the US government has not wanted to work with a weak Yemeni government in the recent years. Therefore, Washington has also realized that Saleh government cannot sustain being the ruling power anymore for a long time. The reason of that perception is the resignations of military members and the tribal members. As a result, the US government has been supporting the leaders with whom they can have good cooperation. To make it more clear, the fall of the Saleh regime by a coup which would be led by certain leaders of the country so that they would take place in the new regime as well, would be in favor of the USA as this new situation would enable it to increase its relations with Yemen in the new period. It is possible that Yemen also have a similar transition period like Egypt. If the army took over the control of the government, what the USA has waited for would come true and they would certainly support this new formation. In my opinion, the USA has been attempting to make Yemen have a similar transition period like Egypt Lastly, in the news published in Al Jazeera, Robert Gates, the US defense secretary, said: "I think it is a real concern because the most active and at this point perhaps the most aggressive branch of al-Qaeda, the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, operates out of Yemen. And we've had counter-terrorism cooperation with President Saleh and the Yemeni security services. So if that government collapses, or is replaced by one who is dramatically more weak, then I think we'd face some additional challenges out of Yemen, there's no question about it. It's a real problem." As a result, it is seen that the USA wishes to see a stronger leader and a stronger government in the region after the Saleh period in order to continue his combat strategy with terrorism.
*This interview is conducted in Ankara in March 2011.