Seeds of future wars sown by Yemen's military shake-up
April 15, 2013, Originally Published in The National
The military restructuring will not solve Yemen's in-fighting. Rather, it could exacerbate it.
On April 10, Yemen's President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi boldly issued a decree to restructure the nation's military. The most notable achievements of this decree was dismantling former president Ali Abdullah Saleh's grip on the military by sending many of his relatives abroad as diplomats.
The decision reinforced Mr Hadi's previous military decrees to abolish the First Armoured Division led by General Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar, and the Republican Guard, led by Mr Saleh's eldest son, Ahmed. These two units stirred the most controversy.
Still, the decree is a major gamble by Mr Hadi, who is looking to ease the tensions that have paralyzed Yemen for the past two years. This move is aimed to define the function of the new military, but it will likely increase tensions in the long run rather than solve them.
The military structure is made up of three different powers: From the north, Gen Mohsen, who defected from the former regime, was named the chief military adviser to the president. As such, he will have major influence on the military. Together with the Islah party, the main opposition party in Yemen, they control almost half of the military.
Mr Hadi, who hails from the south, controls the second large portion of the country's forces.
The last component of the military belongs to the remnants of Mr Saleh's regime.
Based on these divisions, it is apparent that the military wasn't able to shake off former tribal influences, which leads to the conclusion that three main struggles are likely to arise due to geographical and ideological differences.
First, the northern powers of Gen Mohsen and Islah could threaten the Houthis, who control a largely autonomous area on the border with Saudi Arabia. Second, the southern powers of Mr Hadi could try to curb Hirak's separatist influence in the south. But the real struggle will manifest within the military, between the components as they strive for power and dominance.
In the past decade, the Yemeni government has fought an on-again, off-again guerrilla war against the Houthis, a Shia revivalist group. All of the six wars were spearheaded by Gen Mohsen under Saleh's regime. But, once Mr Saleh agreed to step down in late 2011, the conflict took on more of a sectarian character, as the Houthis increasingly clashed with tribal and religious militias linked to Islah. These two strands of anti-Houthi resistance are now coming together.
Gen Mohsen may have lost his armored division, but he remains a key military figure in the new order. More importantly, two of his allies have been named regional commanders in the areas bordering the Houthis' stronghold in the north. As expected, the Houthis have marched against Mr Hadi's military reshuffling, believing that their enemies are looking to surround them and destroy them.
The threat to the Houthis is highly dangerous, particularly since the Houthis tend to lash out whenever they feel cornered.
In the south, the rest of the military will be occupied with a different conflict. The leadership of Hirak, the southern movement pushing for secession, has refused to join the National Dialogue which is now underway. Almost all of the south's leadership, including Mr Hadi himself, belonged at some point to Yemen's Socialist Party.
Today, these leaders are divided between those who support the president, and in turn unity, and those who do not. Personal vendettas and long-standing feuds still color much of the interaction in the south.
Two scenarios are possible: First, as is the case in the past, mysterious assassinations could begin between these opposing forces. Or, the conflict could morph into several regional conflicts.
Ultimately, the lives of separatists will be in danger. The military will always support the home region of the president, Abyan, and Islahis will not hesitate to involve their militias and their hold on the military to gain control over southern territories.
Yet the most important struggle will be the one within the military itself. The two dominating powers of the military, Gen Mohsen and Islah on the one hand and Mr Hadi's forces on the other, could easily result in a typical north-south regional schism. But it could also take on a more ideological flavor between those aligned with Islah and those who oppose the conservative religious party. Islah is looking to rule and Mr Hadi, at some point, will have to seriously consider joining forces with them.
That leaves Mr Saleh's allies, the vulnerable component of the military, to seek new alliances outside of the military. It is likely that they will collaborate with the Houthis and Hirak.
The new military decree suggests that Mr Hadi is unlikely to step down in 2014, or even 2016 for that matter. Through the military, Mr Hadi is finally establishing his authority and if he leaves in the near future, the balance of power in Yemen will be skewed. Yemenis will continue to battle over political, ideological and regional influence.
The military restructuring doesn't solve Yemen's infighting. Rather, it could exacerbate it at a time when the country has more pressing issues. Within this military reshuffle are the seeds of years of future conflicts.
Sama'a Al Hamdani is a Yemeni researcher who lives in Washington DC and blogs at yemeniaty.com
On Twitter: @Yemeniaty