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Military Defections in Yemen Are Dubious


The story of the Arab uprisings remains such a vast story, it stretches from North Africa through the Middle East to the shores of the Arabian Sea. And let's focus on another Arab leader increasingly isolated, in Yemen.

Protesters there have been pressing for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down and he now appears vulnerable. The president lost significant support in recent days as his own tribe turned against him. Members of his party have resigned in protest, as have several Yemeni ambassadors.


Also, senior military leaders have defected. They include one of the most prominent generals, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who said this week that he was breaking with the president and siding with the protesters.

For more on Yemen's military and the role it's playing in the uprising, we contacted Mideast analyst Robert Powell of the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Mr. ROBERT POWELL (Economist Intelligence Unit): Guns talk and there's a plethora of guns in Yemen, but the bigger the guns, the bigger the tanks, then the louder the voice. So obviously the army has substantial influence. They are saying they will protect the protestors and oversee change - claim that caretaker role, as in Egypt.

However, they are nothing like as trusted, and the motivations of the people like Ali Mohsen are highly questionable.

WERTHEIMER: So should the protestors be concerned about these defections or welcoming these defections?

Mr. POWELL: A cautious welcome, but they are somewhat concerned that members of the army are riding on the back of these protests, perhaps to seize power themselves. Equally, people like Ali Mohsen and some of these commanders fought in the north, fought against the Shia uprising. The country is split between Sunni and Shia, the Zaidi Shia, predominantly in the north. They've been gradually marginalized. They've been attempting to reassert their power, their historical claim, if you will.

And so these northern rebels are extremely concerned about the war crimes that were committed against them by these characters. And they were in fact asking for an apology from Ali Mohsen for his behavior.

WERTHEIMER: He seems to be the most significant defection in the group, Major General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, a key player in the army itself. What do you think he's up to?

Mr. POWELL: It looks very much like he's seen a window. I mean, he's a pretty ambitious guy and he's also had a lingering, almost decaying, relationship with the president for some time, as the war in the north was prosecuted extremely badly and the Yemeni army suffered a number of defeats, and he was put in charge of that war and effectively he was scapegoated for the defeats.

When he was replaced, he was extremely bitter and he's been just waiting for his opportunity to undermine the president and effectively get his revenge. This is his moment.

WERTHEIMER: How seriously do we take the reports that he is a very conservative person, that he is an Islamist, that his leadership would go in another direction from the sort of the democracy that the protestors have been fairly vaguely talking about?

Mr. POWELL: Well, you can bet that the U.S. State Department's alarmed(ph) at his ascent(ph). He has a history that goes back to the 1980s. He used to recruit Islamist fighters to fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the mujahideen, and most vividly to fight with Osama bin Laden. And more recently there has been accusations that he has been recruiting al-Qaida to fight against the Shia in the north of the country.

So his politics, his sectarian outlook, is an enormous concern for the U.S.

WERTHEIMER: And how seriously do you think the United States should take the fact that he's declaring that he's going to take some sort of role?

Mr. POWELL: The U.S. will have to watch it extremely closely. It doesn't mean that he has the public backing to necessarily seize control. But if he does begin to move up to the, say, the higher echelons of power, then they will be worried.

You have to recall that there's been several attacks over U.S. soil that have been coordinated from Yemen. So they have a direct security concern of that country and everything that occurs in it.

WERTHEIMER: Robert Powell is a Middle East analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit. Mr. Powell, thank you.

Mr. POWELL: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.