DUBAI, May 26 – Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh may have provoked fighting in Sanaa with the country\’s most powerful tribal leader in a last-ditch effort to maintain power and weaken popular protests, analysts say.
Clashes began on Monday between security forces and tribesmen loyal to Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, who heads the powerful Hashid federation, a day after Saleh refused to sign a Gulf Cooperation Council-sponsored accord that would have seen him cede power in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
Saleh instead issued further demands, including that the opposition ink the accord in his presence, and explicitly warned of civil war.
"Faced with deadlock he himself created, Saleh opted for the strategy of chaos," said Frank Mermier, an expert on Yemen with the French research centre CNRS.
"Either the president has decided to start a civil war, or he is provoking clashes for Saudi Arabia to intervene," Mermier said, noting the close relationship between impoverished Yemen\’s oil-rich neighbour and the Hashid tribal confederation.
Mermier said that Saleh may push the six-nation GCC, of which Saudi Arabia is the leading member, to "carry out a new mediation with an amended plan that would benefit" him.
The plan that Saleh refused to sign provided for his departure within 30 days, the formation of a unity government with the opposition and a presidential election within two months.
Saleh, who has been in power for 33 years, has since January faced protests calling for his departure from power.
"Through the violence, Saleh wants to marginalise the peaceful protest movement," Mermier said, adding that the president "does not have many options."
The fighting has supplanted daily protests in a string of Yemeni cities as the centre of the media\’s attention, while the number of young people camped out in "Change Square" in Sanaa, the epicentre of the protest movement, has decreased.
Fares al-Saqqaf, the director of the Centre for Future Studies in Sanaa, agreed that the fighting marks a desperate attempt by the president to hang on.
"It seems that Saleh wants to provoke a civil war, expanding the fighting to dissident units of the army," Saqqaf said.
Until now, the forces of Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a general who has pledged support for the opposition but is not related to Sheikh al-Ahmar, have not entered the fighting, although they control part of the capital.
Even though the tribes are heavily armed and Sheikh al-Ahmar can count on thousands of experienced men in the highlands, Saleh still has the overall military edge, with aircraft and tanks at his disposal, analysts say.
But at the same time, "the army is mostly made up of tribesmen, and they may choose … tribal solidarity and rally to Sheikh al-Ahmar," Saqqaf said.
Abdul Aziz al-Sager, director of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre, said that "as long as President Saleh is determined to hold on to power, there is no other option but violence."
Yemen "is heading towards a Libyan scenario where the head of state provokes general clashes with the tribes," Sager said.
Only "a strong message" from the international community, including the neighbouring Gulf countries, will be able to stop the violence, he said.
Otherwise, Sager said, Yemen will be divided, not into a northern and southern part as in the past, but into distinct entities, among them a region controlled by the Zaidi Shiite rebels in the north.
North and south Yemen united on May 22, 1990, but the south declared its independence on May 21, 1994, sparking a civil war that ended with the region overrun by northern troops.
In addition to anti-regime protests, tribal feuds, poverty and a southern secessionist movement, Yemen is also battling a northern rebellion and an Al-Qaeda resurgence.