On Friday Yemen's new president, Abd Mansour Hadi, issued what some government officials and political analysts described as a sweeping military restructure. Among the casualties of his firing range: Mohammed al-Ahmar, Ali Abdullah Saleh's half-brother and commander of the Air Force, his nephew Tariq and the governor of Abyan governorate. The foreign powers behind Hadi's takeover hailed his moves as integral to restoring confidence in an opaque transition.
"The Group of Ten Ambassadors considers that the Presidential decrees are fully consistent with both the letter and the spirit of the GCC Initiative and with the responsibilities entrusted to President Hadi by the Yemeni people in the election of February 21, 2012. The changes will serve to eliminate points of friction and reduce tensions as envisioned in the GCC Initiative and Implementing Mechanism. The Group of Ten Ambassadors calls on all Yemenis to cooperate fully with the decrees and will view with utmost concern any steps to resist their implementation or impede the operation of the airport or other state institutions, facilities, or infrastructure."
At face value, removing several of Saleh's relatives from Yemen's chain of command advances the prospects of a complete overhaul. Hadi also stands to improve his popularity by challenging Saleh's authority, theoretically reducing the number of obstacles in Yemen's two-year transitional phase. However these benefits, like Yemen's electricity, are far from certain. Given the standing mutiny against Mohammed, Saleh is motivated to cut his dead weight and salvage the positions of his son and nephew, who still command his personal military units. The Republican Guard and Central Security Organization led Saleh's crackdown throughout the last year, taking hundreds of protesters' lives in the process, and the strongman maintains significant power through these U.S.-trained units. Defense Minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed recently told Yemen's parliament that Saleh is using his son's headquarters as his war-room.
Having battled Ahmed throughout last summer after Saleh evacuated for medical treatment in Riyadh, Hadi is viscerally aware of their potential for collateral damage. A phased firing, then, is meant to limit the spillover - he cannot contain the damage if Saleh's relatives are dismissed at once. The possibility remained that Saleh would accept his losses as a compromise to keeping Ahmed and Yahya in power, but Hadi's modest actions immediately triggered an excessive response from the old regime's loyalists. Mohammed ordered his remaining forces to seize control of Sana'a International Airport and threatened to target incoming planes. In a calculated defense, his aids said the de facto chief will only resign after Hadi fires more oppositional figures, starting with rogue general Ali Mohsen. Mohsen flipped sides early in the revolution to avoid becoming a primary target and cannot be ordered to stand down now.
Saleh has similarly refused to leave the country until Mohsen exits, a condition designed to entrench himself in Sana'a.
Elsewhere in the capital, a barrage of shells fell on the neighborhood of opposition figure Hameed al-Ahmar. Leading members of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) are frequently targeted after political breakdowns. Tribesmen were also ordered to attack oil pipelines in Marib governorate, another tactic that is normally blamed on anti-government tribesmen or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) but sometimes attributed to Saleh. This reaction offers a brief preview to the carnage that Ahmed's firing will bring,
Another international response may be forthcoming after the "Ten Ambassadors" tripped between Friday and Saturday's events, but any statement will sound as hollow as the last. Just as the White House's previous warning to Saleh refrained from addressing him directly, today's statement called on "all Yemenis to cooperate fully with the decrees" - as if anyone besides Saleh bears responsibility. These are the same powers that granted immunity to Saleh's family, currently allow them to maintain power, then act surprised when he disobeys. For instance, Abyan governor Saleh Al-Zawari recently accused the regime of surrendering territory and weapons to AQAP, so his removal will have a limited impact on the situation. Saleh's rebellious half-brother was also reassigned as an assistant to the Defense Minister. Left alone, Hadi's movements will only add to Yemen's instability. He's caught in a strategic dilemma: he cannot dismiss Saleh's closest relatives without building his own power base first, but he doesn't have months or years to wait either.
As for Saleh, he's still playing the international community because they're all actors in the play. Repeating the status quo will once again demonstrate that foreign powers are uncommitted to dismantling his regime, and more interested in controlling Yemen's future government.