Heavy fighting erupted in Yemen’s capital of Sanaa today as the country edged closer to a full-blown civil war. Anti-government protesters have been challenging the 33 year rule of President Saleh for months who, despite several negotiations and agreements regarding his departure, has yet to leave office. The latest outbreak of violence has been between government troops loyal to President Saleh and supporters of tribal leader Sadiq al-Ahmar. Locals reported heavy shelling of residential areas as well as widespread gunfire. Meanwhile, the Sanaa airport remains closed and traffic on roads leading out of the capital was reportedly at a standstill.
Saleh’s refusal to step down threatens the country with a civil war whose effects on regional security and international terrorist activity could be dramatic. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has a strong presence in Yemen and is the arm of al-Qaeda that many counter-terrorism analysts regard as the most dangerous, particularly in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death. A civil war in Yemen would take pressure off of AQAP. For this reason, the US and Yemen’s northern neighbor, Saudia Arabia, are likely to attempt to circumvent a civil war in the troubled nation. The US was initially slow to say that Saleh should step down, but President Obama today called for the Yemeni President to ‘immediately’ end his 33 year rule. This call for an immediate end to the crisis represented an important step in US policy and signaled Washington’s growing unease with the political stalemate that threatened to undermine counter-terrorism efforts.
American hesitance to specifically ask for Saleh to abandon power – instead merely condemning the violent government crackdown against protesters – was no doubt due to the Yemeni President’s past willingness to cooperate with the US and allow American counter-terrorism operations to take place in his country. Today, in apparent response to Obama’s call for his immediate resignation, Saleh said that ‘[he doesn’t] take orders from outside.’ He also promised to remain in power and to stop the violence from descending into a civil war. Whatever Saleh’s ultimate fate, the path Yemen follows over the days and weeks to come and how the US and Saudi Arabia react to the unfolding events will have important repercussions for the future of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninusla.