May 2011 Briefs

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 5


On May 23, forces loyal to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh mounted an assault on the home of Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, the leader of the Banu Hashid tribe. Sheikh al-Ahmar has sided with Yemen’s growing protest movement in calling for the ouster of President Saleh, 65, who has been in power continuously since 1978, first as the president of the Yemen Arab Republic and then as the president of the unified Republic of Yemen. The assault on Ahmar’s compound succeeded Saleh’s ominous warning that the country was on the brink of civil war if prominent opposition members refused to come to the presidential palace and sign onto a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-sponsored negotiation that would create a framework for his transition from power (AFP, May 22). Loyalist forces reportedly hit al-Ahmar’s residence with tanks and heavy artillery in an effort to break the will of Hashid tribesman that ended in failure (Yemen Times, May 24). The tribal reaction to the Saleh-ordered actions temporarily closed the US Embassy as tribesmen blockaded its entrance. Al-Ahmar made a statement that “these attacks will not dissuade them from their national roles and continued advocacy of the people’s peaceful revolution until its objectives are achieved” (News Yemen, May 24). Between six and nine people were killed in the clashes, which wounded dozens. Al-Ahmar issued a statement slamming Saleh for his actions. Saleh was attempting to “ignite discord and civil war between Yemenis” said al-Ahmar (al-Jazeera, May 26).

As the GCC-led deal that included a future amnesty for President Saleh collapsed—a condition that was an anathema to many in the opposition camp—an opposition statement described the incident as “a symptom of the hysteria experienced by President Saleh and his entourage and their insistence on engulfing the country in a civil war” (Reuters, May 24). While the fighting escalated, parts of downtown Sana’a took on the air of a war zone, with plumes of black smoke billowing from government buildings occupied by tribesmen. The notion that al-Ahmar, 54, and other Hashid leaders have abandoned Saleh, a Hashid himself, may sound the death knell for the regime. The backlash of the violence may well reverberate beyond an inter-Hashid feud. As a leader of the northern Bakeel tribe called Faisal Manaa stated in reaction to events in the Yemeni capital: “We will not remain silent. We are warning the regime if it doesn’t withdraw its troops, we will be launching a comprehensive and fierce war against them” (AP, May 24).

Before the clashes erupted, talk circulated in Sana’a of weapons being suspiciously stored ahead of time in schools and government buildings in the city’s al-Hasaba district where Sheikh al-Ahmar’s villa is located, indicating that Saleh may have been preparing for the GCC negotiations to fall apart, thereby quickly engulfing the area in crossfire (al-Sahwa, May 24). A group of men arrived on the scene to try and mediate between Saleh’s forces and al-Ahmar’s armed guards. The situation quickly devolved into chaos as al-Ahmar’s villa was struck by ordinance with the mediators still inside. A spokesman defiantly bashed Saleh after his colleagues suffered in the attack: “The mediation committee blames Saleh for the attacks and killings; no one else will be held accountable. For this, we step aside from our mediation and stand on the side of Sadeq [al-] Ahmar against Ali Abdullah Saleh” (Yemen Post, May 24). After days of bloody battles, which left scores dead on the streets of the Yemeni capital, Saleh and al-Ahmar reached a shaky truce Yet, al-Ahmar emphasized he would not personally guarantee that the lull would last, stating: “If the Saleh regime wants a peaceful revolution, we are ready for that. If he chooses war, we will fight him” (al-Arabiya, May 27).


In a grandiose speech commemorating the withdrawal of the Israel Defence Forces from South Lebanon in May of 2000, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah implored the people of Lebanon and Syria to unequivocally back the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, which has been slaughtering protestors in the hundreds in recent weeks. Nasrallah told his intended audience that the besieged Syrian populace should be patient with al-Assad’s planned fixes for Syria’s massive human and economic deficits. “We call on all Syrians to preserve their country as well as the ruling regime, a regime of resistance, and to give their leaders a chance to cooperate with all of Syria’s communities in order to implement the necessary reforms” (AFP, May 25). Nasrallah, not wanting to appear completely deaf to reality in light of events in Syria, had this to say: “No one denies that Syria has committed mistakes, but no one can deny the historic achievement of Syria toward Lebanon, also Syria’s stance on Israel and the Palestinian resistance” (The National [Abu Dhabi], May 26). Hezbollah’s leader appears deathly afraid of a significant change coming to Syria, which would greatly alter the security calculus of the entire Levant region. If Alawite minority-ruled Syria were to suddenly transform into a Sunni majority-ruled state, creating a massive geographic wedge between the Shia areas of South Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley where the group has free reign to run its own affairs, Hezbollah would be cut off from its logistical bridgehead next door. If the al-Assad government falls, Nasrallah may indeed be the biggest loser following over a decade of on-again, off-again military successes against Israeli forces.

In his televised address broadcast on Hezbollah’s al-Manar channel, Hassan Nasrallah cobbled together a convoluted logical argument to invoke support for his long time allies in Damascus: “Overthrowing the regime in Syria is in the American and Israeli interest…They want to overthrow the regime and replace it with a moderate regime” (AP, May 26). A Sunni-run government, with Sunnis making up the overwhelming majority of religiously heterogeneous Syria, [1] may have little interest in supporting a heavily armed Shia milita steeped in a philosophy of permanent warfare on its border. A Sunni Syria may prefer to prop up a Sunni proxy force, creating a natural internal rival for Hezbollah, instead. Turning his trepidation and fear outward on the perennial ‘other’ in the Levant rather than dare adjust to changing sectarian power dynamics in the region, Nasrallah comes off as laughably hypocritical. While championing the protestors in Tunis and Cairo at 2011’s dramatic outset, Nasrallah has been forced to do a transparent volte-face to garner support for Bashar al-Assad who has supported him since he came to power concomitantly with the 2000 withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon. Rather than as less pliable state, Nasrallah insists that a new power in Syria would be more amenable to American and Jewish interests. Nasrallah frets that a new Damascene power structure would be “ready to sign any peace, meaning surrender, with Israel” (Reuters, May 26).

Undoubtedly, Nasrallah’s words were met with rage from Syrian protestors, who view the Hezbollah Secretary-General as an unwelcome interloper in their desperate revolution. In Deir ez-Zor Governorate, protestors burned images of Nasrallah in the town of al-Bukamal, which borders Iraq’s al-Anbar Governorate (Reuters, May 27). President al-Assad appears to be following a two-track policy of promising reforms that cannot materialize quickly enough while ordering his security forces to repeatedly gun down hordes of demonstrators in a wide array of cities across the Syrian Arab Republic. Al-Assad stated that there was “no going back” on reforms but did not explain how, even as reports surfaced that eight more protestors had been shot dead (as-Safir, May 27). As the Syrian President continues to speak in vague terms about reform, his Lebanese stalwart speaks with little more specificity on his behalf, unconvincing to either the Lebanese or the Syrian people. Syrian state media quoted Nasrallah as saying: “President al-Assad believes in reform, he is serious, determined and ready to go on with greater reform measures, but with responsibility and careful steps” (Syrian Arab News Agency, May 25). Hassan Nasrallah is a proponent of the global Arab revolution currently in vogue, but not when it threatens his movement or his stature in Lebanese society. He continues to insist that the fall of the al-Assad regime is entirely different from other recent and ongoing revolutions. Nasrallah argues that rather than bring about an Arab liberation movement, the Syrian uprising would end up eventually expanding Israeli military hegemony in the region if it engendered a weak transitional regime that would not be able to ‘resist’ the Israelis as well as Bashar al-Assad’s regime had.  


1. The US Central Intelligence Agency estimates that Sunnis comprise 74% of Syria’s population. See: