Yemeni Tribes Unify Under Western Darkness

By James Gundun – Washington, D.C.

As information flows from Yemen’s revolution, it quickly deposits into the black-hole of U.S. and European media. Sometimes this information completes the transit intact, but reports are more often jumbled and spliced before reaching the Western public. Even then, an estimated 3-9% of Americans are paying "serious" attention to the incomplete picture of Yemen’s revolution.

Last weekend naturally elapsed through this machine when many news sources, Western and non-Western, picked up the brutal clashes between Yemeni security forces and anti-government tribesmen. Most bandwidth has been diverted south to the ongoing battle in Zinjibar and Aden, where government forces and anti-government tribes are caught in a proxy battle against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and government-funded "jihadists." While international media generally positions Yemen’s tribes on the government’s side, they are largely fighting both Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime and AQAP after the government manufactured a takeover of Zinjibar in May.

As the U.S.-trained Republican Guard and Central Security Organization concentrate their remaining forces in Sana’a and Taiz, local units were ordered to retreat and reinforcements were withheld until mid-July.

The commander of Yemen’s 25th Mechanized Brigade tried to explained his situation in a recent interview with the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat. For reasons still unclear to him, Brigadier General Mohammed al-Sawmali found himself outgunned and "besieged" by AQAP militants at a local stadium. al-Sawmali admitted upfront, "The security services pulled out of Abyan leaving their weapons behind, and Al Qaeda seized these weapons, and is now using them against us. This is something that no one can deny."

"However, if you ask me about the motives behind this, I can only say to you ‘God knows.’"

Saleh’s Air Force knew exactly what it was doing when it “mistakenly” bombed a 200-strong tribal unit last Friday, killing at least 30 people and wounding dozens more. Civilians were also among the day’s collateral damage. One field commander, Mohammed Gaadani, clarified that his forces notified the government of their location after taking up position in a government building. He believed an accident was unlikely. Mohammed Shakim, a tribal leader from Abayan, similarly told The National, "Such strikes do not serve the fight on those militants. The government air strikes will cripple the progress of the tribesmen towards cleansing Zinjibar and other cities from these militants.”

Gaadani added, "It was not just one strike or two, but three in a row! This has made people very doubtful." Warning of "repeated mistakes," he would later tell Reuters after halting his fighters for two days, "they’ve returned now after we discussed the importance of fighting these extremist elements and clearing Zinjibar of their presence."

Trust between Yemen’s tribal network and Saleh’s regime remains MIA.

Less reported, although not completely ignored, is the battle near Sana’a airport, where tribesmen from the Arhab district joined in fierce combat with the Republican Guard. Government officials allege that a military camp near Sana’a International Airport came under occupation, necessitating an aerial response, and blamed the local al-Hanaq tribe (previously accused of harboring AQAP cells). Tribal officials, on the other hand, accuse the Republican Guard of shelling nearby villages, killing protesters and blocking ambulances from reaching the wounded. Bodies of the casualties were also mutilated and burned. These incidents, like the other tribesmen “mistakenly bombed” over the past months, display the regime’s brutality and fit a pattern of eliminating opponents in the crossfire.

One notable example, according to WikiLeaks and Saudi officials, was a 2010 attempt to bomb the now-defected General Ali Mohsen as he engaged the Houthi insurgency. Saudi pilots aborted their strike when they realized Saleh’s set-up. A senior aide to the general confirmed the version of events described in the cable, adding, “This was not the first attempt by the president and regime to kill him.”

"Our patience has finished and the aggression against us has gone beyond the limit… the remnants of the regime of Saleh have attacked us with all sorts of weapons,” tribal officials warned after suffering their first round of casualties. “The sons of the Arhab tribe will strike the Sanaa International Airport with all the available means of war in response to the attacks on them by air and the shelling of their villages and homes.”

As this operation would provoke a new round of hostilities, Yemen’s tribes have rallied their cause with an “all for one, one for all” mentality. Yet this formal ceremony, unlike the weekend’s carnage, resulted in deathly low Western media coverage. On Saturday roughly 600 tribal and revolutionary representatives gathered in Sana’a to form the Yemen Tribal Coalition, complete with its own Free Armed Forces. Chaired by Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar, the head of Yemen’s Hashid tribe, the coalition announced a 116-member Shura Council to spearhead its political decision-making. The al-Ahmars (particularly Sadeq’s brother, Hamid) aren’t widely trusted due to their connections with Riyadh, and some protesters believe they’re now resorting to escalation in response to losing Saudi favor. al-Ahmar’s announcement was issued at the headquarters of Mohsen’s First Armored Division, which has periodically obstructed street demonstrations.

Al-Ahmar’s militia has also guarded youth camps and the sheikh took a political highroad by opening the coalition to all tribes, parties and individuals seeking the end of Saleh’s regime. Prominent sheikhs of the Bakil tribe, larger but less powerful than the Hashid, attended in a display of solidity with the Houthi sect and Southern representatives. Although Sheikh Mohammed Nagi Shaef, the Bakil’s self-styled chief, denounced the alliance as an offshoot of the Islah party, his "loyalty" to Saleh discolors his rhetoric. The Yemeni Tribes’ Alliance is, according to an internal document, “the largest tribal group in the history of Yemen.”

“Saleh and his sons will not rule us as long as we are alive,” said al-Ahmar, whose home was assaulted by Saleh in an effort to provoke a tribal conflict.

The creation of this alliance is hardly free of danger, both internal and external. The interplay between Hashid and Bakil remains fluid, while the Houthis and Islah elements have competed for Al Jawf governorate at a high cost of human life. Additionally, a position of strength is unlikely to back down Saleh’s remaining security forces. al-Ahmar declared that an attack on one tribe constitutes an attack on all tribes, and that defending all parties is “a duty to my eyes.” This challenge will be met with increasing force until the tribes can ground what’s left of Saleh’s air support. al-Ahmar also condemned the “injustice, poverty, tyranny, humiliation, social practiced by the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh,” and issued a blanket warning against attacks on the revolutionaries.

He urged tribes from all parts of Yemen to rise up in defense of the Arhab and the youth, prepping the environment for new clashes.

To be fair, this newly-formed tribal alliance is incredibly complex and prone to foreign misreporting; propaganda is a constant factor. However Yemen’s revolutionaries and the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) announced simpler coalitions over a two-week period, only to dwell in the same U.S. darkness. Instead the media has shadowed President Barack Obama’s administration, which has yet to respond to any of these councils or ongoing human rights abuses. Many reasons explain the lack of reaction in Yemen, but the Republican Guard functions as a common denominator in these cases. A U.S.-trained outfit that has incurred the Yemeni people’s wrath, the Guard is commanded by Saleh’s son Ahmed, groomed to believe that he’s the rightful heir of Yemen.

Now keeping his father’s palace warm as Vice President Abd al-Rahman Mansur al-Hadi struggles to assert his authority, Ahmed’s abuses are being committed with U.S. equipment and political cover. So it’s little wonder why the U.S. establishment would ignore a tribal alliance reacting to these atrocities: like the revolutionaries, al-Ahmar’s demands include the total end of Saleh’s regime and the arrest of Ahmed, a Pentagon liaison. The Arhab tribe issued a similar demand in addition to Brigadier General Yahya Mohamed Abdullah, Saleh’s nephew and commander of the U.S.-trained Central Security Organization. Both have denounced the revolution as a hoax as they suppress non-violent protesters. This devious arrangement has shutdown the Obama administration’s response, kept UN sanctions off of Saleh’s back and wrote his familial immunity into the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative.

Al-Ahmar referenced the world’s silence when calling on Western countries to support Yemen’s revolutionaries: “We will not stay idly if something dangerous or illegal targets the people.”

Last Friday Jamal bin Omar, the UN’s special envoy, left Sana’a after multiple attempts to sign the U.S-Saudi drafted “30/60” initiative, sponsored by the GCC. Although Omar claims to have met opposition and youth representatives, he would have needed to tracked them down as they protested against foreign intervention. Warning that “the Yemeni political forces now have two options: to reach a compromise accepted by all to start necessary steps for a practical transitional period or to face danger of the collapse of the country or Somalizing it,” Yemen’s revolutionaries have committed themselves past the point of Saleh’s return.

They believe they can stand up for freedom without tearing their country apart – that Saleh can only manufacture an artificial civil war.

Contrary to Omar’s statements, negotiating with Saleh is the quickest path to “Somalization,” a word Yemen’s tyrant has grown accustomed to throwing on the revolution’s fire. With Yemen’s tribes coming together more than they’ve pulled apart, the UN is engaging in Saleh’s fear tactics at the orders of Washington and Riyadh. He has since emerged to declare his support for "a dialogue based on the peaceful power-transition initiative brokered earlier by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as well as the conciliation efforts by the UN envoy." If signed, the GCC’s initiative would prolong Saleh’s rule and dilute the revolution, ultimately increasing instability. His aides now promise a return and snap elections overseen by the government.

If fused with the opposition’s transitional councils, the tribal alliance’s weight could provide the muscle to topple Saleh for good. Who wants to hear about that in America?

– James Gundun is a U.S. spokesman for Yemen’s Coordinating Council for the Youth  Revolution of Change (CCYRC).  His blog, The Trench, covers the underreported areas of U.S. foreign policy.

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