April 27, 2011

Yemen 2011 Estimates for Scenario 3

Scenario 3: State fragmentation with or without Saleh nominally in charge in Sana'a.

Current Situation: Country-wide, peaceful, anti-government protests have been met with the repressive use of force by Yemeni security forces. This violence, especially an incident in Sana’a on March 18 when over fifty protestors were killed by snipers, resulted in mass defections from the regime, including leading tribal and military figures on March 21. President Ali Abdullah Saleh made pre-emptive political and economic concessions at the end of January and the beginning of February that met most of the protestors’ demands. Saleh’s promise to not run for re-election in 2013 was met by skepticism from the opposition because he has announced in previous election cycles that he would not run. Negotiations over a potential transition have stalled and violent crackdowns have continued. Tensions are running high in the capital, where loyalist and defected troops have already fought and violent crackdowns continue. More broadly, the unrest has further weakened the central government’s control over at least six governorates.

The estimate focuses on the following key questions:

  • If Yemen fractures, what are the outlines of the major pieces?
  • What sources of conflict would state collapse lead to?
  • Who is likely to fill the power vacuums in each area, with what objectives and what potential conflicts?
  • What factors would drive a stalemate or fragmentation toward reunification or transition?

The estimate also focuses on the following questions:

  • How will neighbors react?
  • How will al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) react?
  • How will other al Qaeda franchises and al Qaeda central react?
  • What events are likely to trigger mobilization of the population for significant communal conflict? Along tribal, sectarian, ideological, geographical, or other lines?
  • What are the humanitarian risks involved?

The estimate is based on the following assumptions:

  • A declaration of secession or independence is initiated unilaterally.
  • There are bases for governance and order in the event of state fragmentation.
State Fragmentation

Yemen’s central government has never had complete control over its territory. Some regions have historically been administered under local governance systems. President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s approach has been to co-opt local leaders in an oil- and drug-funded patronage system rather than to impose power from Sana’a through formal structures. The ongoing political crisis further weakens the central government, and a protracted political stalemate would increase the likelihood of state fragmentation. Such fragmentation could result from several developments: First, some factions could reject the establishment of a negotiated transitional government and seize the opportunity to sever ties with Sana’a. Second, prolonged armed conflict centered in Sana’a could so occupy the central government and disrupt patronage and formal governance systems that it opens the door for factions to become independent. Third, factions could take advantage of the lack of resolution to the political unrest to establish significantly greater local autonomy. Should one faction push for independence from the central government, it is likely that others will also seek autonomy, either through similar efforts of their own or as a result of the central state’s collapse.

Many of the factions that are likely to seek independence in the event of a state collapse or prolonged stalemate are already identifiable. The unification of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) with the former Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in 1990 to form the current Yemeni state did not reconcile the distinct regional identities of the Yemeni population. Governorates that used to be part of the PDRY share a cohesive southern identity strengthened by common perceptions of political and economic marginalization at the hands of the current northern-based Yemeni state. That identity has already fueled the formation of the Southern Movement, whose aims include attaining either greater autonomy or independence from Sana’a and Saleh. Eastern tribes, whose territories lie in the former PDRY, have had limited interaction with the central government even in its current incarnation. In the north, the al Houthis, a group of Zaydi Shiites, have fought the Yemeni government since 2004. Yemeni Shiites who do not believe in the al Houthis’ cause reject the rebels and have labeled their interpretation of Shiite Islam as a form of apostasy. South-central Yemen, the southern region of the former YAR, is primarily Sunni and is distinct from the Shiite north. It is easy enough to identify the sectarian, ideological, and tribal fault-lines along with the Yemeni state could crack.

The political unrest in Yemen has already further weakened the central government’s role in many governorates, including Sa’ada, Ma’rib, al Jawf, Shabwah, Abyan, and Aden. If the political crisis protracts or becomes a military conflict, it is quite possible that Sana’a will lose all meaningful control over significant portions of Yemeni territory.

Northern region

Yemen’s Shiite population is concentrated in the north; should the north break away from the central government, it will likely result from a push by part of the Shiite community to re-establish a Zaydi imamate. There are currently no indications that the establishment of an imamate is a long-term goal within the Shiite community, and the al Houthis have repeatedly denied accusations that they seek an imamate. Such denials have resulted from accusations by Saleh accompanied by periodic armed conflict—it is not inevitable that they would continue if it appeared that the central Yemeni state was in real danger of collapse. Should the Shiites separate from the Sunni regions, it is likely that Shiite areas such as Amran, Hajjah, al Jawf, Sa’ada, and Sana’a would constitute the new semi-autonomous Shiite region.

Neither is it clear which Shiite leaders would control this region should it break away from the state. However, the question of leadership will likely deepen the divide within the Yemeni Shiite community between those who subscribe to Abdul Malik al Houthi’s philosophies and those who reject them. The divide may lead the al Houthis to separate from the rest of the Shiite community. Al Houthi strongholds such as Sa’ada and Amran governorates would constitute the consolidated al Houthi region, but it is also likely that the western part of al Jawf, and potentially Hajjah governorate, will be part of the region. The current leader of the al Houthis, Abdul Malik al Houthi, will likely continue in a position of power in the al Houthi-controlled area.

Central and Western regions

The northern region could separate from the central and western regions of Yemen. The remnants of Yemen’s central government would continue to control the central and western regions. Should President Saleh remain nominally in power in Sana’a, however, it is likely that political leaders will establish a separate government, especially in Taiz, Ibb, and Hudaydah, where the call for Saleh’s resignation has been strongest during the unrest. Governorates in the central and western regions include al Bayda, Dhamar, Hajjah, Hudaydah, Ibb, Ma’rib, al Mahwit, Sana’a, and Taiz. These regions have also avoided much of the historical violence that other Yemeni regions have experienced, except for Ma’rib governorate, which has a strong AQAP presence and tribal unrest. It is possible that the tribes in Ma’rib will seek to break off from the central region. Resource considerations, including Ma’rib’s oil reserves and the pipeline that runs to the western coast, will likely influence whether the tribes are able to fully break off from the regional bloc. It is more likely that Ma’rib will remain connected in order to ensure that the oil pipeline is protected.

Southern region

It is very likely that the southern region, led by Southern Movement leaders, will seek independence from the north should state fragmentation occur. The outline of the south runs along the borders of the former PDRY, and may include the eastern region as well. Southern governorates include Abyan, Aden, Dhaleh, Lahij, Shabwah, and those in the eastern region, Hadramawt and al Mahra. Aden, the former capital of the PDRY, will likely be the seat of a formal central government for the south. Shabwah governorate has some oil reserves; most of the oil, however, is in the eastern region.

The extent of support for the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), whose traditional base is the south, is unknown. YSP leaders rejected the idea of secession during the civil war, favoring Yemen’s unity over an independent south. This rejection of the popular discontent with the north may prevent individuals active in the YSP from gaining political power in the south.

The Southern Movement leadership has spoken in solidarity with the youth movement in support of ousting Saleh from power. Southern independence from the north, however, will very likely change this calculus. Instead, the south will focus internally, especially over the question of leadership. Southern leaders forced into exile after the 1994 civil war, such as Ali Salim al Beidh, will likely attempt to return to south Yemen and re-enter the political scene. It is unclear whether the people would accept the expatriate leaders’ return after over fifteen years of exile. It is more likely that Hassan Baoum, who heads the supreme council of the Southern Movement, will be empowered.

Tariq al Fadhli, a former mujahid who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, may also be further empowered should the south become independent. Fadhli defected from the regime in April 2009 and voiced support for the Southern Movement after the central government discontinued payoffs to him. Since then, however, he has strongly criticized the entrenched political elite – including the politicians in Sana’a and southern opposition leaders – for being self-serving and unwilling to effect change. Fadhli’s support base is in Abyan governorate, an AQAP stronghold. He may permit the group to further entrench itself.

Eastern region

Governance of the eastern region, consisting primarily of Hadramawt and al Mahra governorates, will likely remain unaffected in the event of state fragmentation. Geographically, it is primarily desert, part of what is known as the Rub al Khali or the “Empty Quarter.” The population is concentrated along the coast. Control over Hadramawt and its Sayun-Masila basin, which holds over 80 percent of the country’s total oil reserves, will likely be central to a potential resource conflict in the region. Yemen’s central government does not have a strong presence in the eastern-most regions of the country, except along the oil pipeline, which runs from the Sayun-Masila basin to the coastal city of Mukalla.

The absence of the Yemeni state in the region, except near oil infrastructure, has permitted local governance structures to survive. Should the eastern region separate from the southern region, it is likely that local tribal leaders will continue to govern. 

Reactions from internal interests

Youth Movement

The youth movement, which is strongest in Sana’a, will vocally oppose any form of fragmentation because it believes in the concept of a united Yemeni state. If Saleh remains in power, the youth will likely continue to protest against the remains of the regime in the capital. It is likely that any influence the movement had outside of the capital will be lost as regions break away from the central state.


There are already semi-autonomous sub-states that are ruled by tribal confederations in Yemen, especially in the more remote regions of the country. Traditional methods of conflict resolution will likely prevent widespread violence even in the areas that have had a central government presence. The loss of control by the central government will likely be most felt by tribes currently receiving government benefits.

Impact on security forces

State of security forces

The collapse of the central government through state fragmentation will greatly affect the cohesion of the security forces. Units deployed in regions that break away will either switch loyalties, dissolve, or redeploy to Sana’a. Breakaway regions will likely form local militias, or invest in militias already established by local families.

State of counter-terrorism operations

Counter-terrorism operations will be severely affected by any form of state fragmentation. Security forces will not have the capabilities to gather needed intelligence on AQAP militants in the country, and even should a counter-terrorism operation be planned, it would face a series of obstacles. State fragmentation will create new complexities that will hinder the timely and successful execution of counter-terrorism operations, such as tribal politics and new governments with which to negotiate. Further, it would be increasingly difficult to apply consistent pressure in AQAP strongholds should counter-terrorism operations resume in a fragmented state. AQAP militants may be able to relocate in out-of-reach areas. 

Reactions from al Qaeda and affiliates

Al Qaeda and its affiliates will likely frame the collapse of the Yemeni state within the Islamist discourse of a coming caliphate in the Arabian Peninsula. It is very likely that al Qaeda and its affiliates will attempt to take advantage of the deteriorated state of Yemen’s security forces and the loss of intelligence associated with the fragmentation of the Yemeni state. This would happen whether Saleh remains nominally in power in Sana’a or not. Al Qaeda’s core leadership may call for al Qaeda operatives to increase their fight in Yemen to reunite the country under an Islamic caliphate.

AQAP will likely further consolidate control in its safe havens and will benefit from any form of state fragmentation. It will do so by working through its local network to increase the benefits that it gives to the local population and by attempting to influence local tribal governance. There is also the potential that AQAP will coordinate with other al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Yemen. It is likely that AQAP will attempt to execute another major international attack under these favorable conditions. 

International reactions

It is likely that international actors would call for Yemeni factions to remain united. It is unlikely that states will officially recognize breakaway regions.

U.S. and Western allies

The U.S. and other western allies will likely call for dialogue between Yemeni factions in order to encourage stability under a central government and to limit the outbreak of violence. If Saleh is still in power, the U.S. will likely seek to pressure him to transition power to an actor more acceptable to the Yemeni street to prevent factions from breaking away from the state.

Saudi Arabia and GCC

Saudi Arabia will likely continue to use payoffs to buy support from tribes. It will also seek to limit any al Houthi influence in north Yemen and to prevent the spread of instability into Saudi territory. Both Saudi Arabia and the GCC will very likely call on Yemeni factions to negotiate terms acceptable to all in order to maintain a united Yemeni state.


The Iranian regime will likely seek a foothold in Yemen if the Shiite north becomes its own semi-autonomous region by providing the local government with financial and other forms of assistance. 

Prospects for Reunification

It is unlikely that Yemeni factions would seek to unite should the country break apart. There are two forces that could drive factions back to a central Yemeni state: a military push from the state to re-assert control and economic collapse in breakaway regions. The Yemeni military may seek to unify the country. Military forces could attempt to prevent the fragmentation of the state by engaging with local militias to assert state control over a territory. It is very likely that the military will seek to maintain control of Yemen’s oil reserves and Yemen’s major city, such as Aden, Taiz, and Hudaydah. Economic collapse in breakaway regions may force local leaders to look toward a central Yemeni state for assistance. Food and water scarcity, for example, may require local leaders to establish a relationship with a central state that can distribute basic goods.

The following event may lower the likelihood of state fragmentation:

  • Peaceful transition of power from Saleh in a negotiated settlement that is broadly accepted.

The following events may increase the likelihood of state fragmentation:

  • Prolonged political unrest leading to the strengthening of local administrations.
  • Establishment of a non-representative new government rejected by certain regions.