Ali Saleh Afash Image Credit:

Al Mukalla: Two decades after Ali Saleh Al Ahmar Afash, a brother of Yemen’s ousted president, left his post as a commander of the Republican Guard, Yemeni president brought him back to the same job. Afash is known as the founder of the Republican Guard, a once-mighty Yemeni unit that protected Saleh’s regime for decades. Saleh sidelined Afash as he was grooming his son for the presidency. This month, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi issued a presidential decree appointing Afash as a commander of the country’s reserve force, the new name of the Republican Guard.

Hadi’s move to bring to back Saleh’s relatives and supporters to the army has left experts questioning the significance such decisions on the current war with Iran-backed Al Houthis. “This is a deliberate move aimed at using Afash’s old bonds for rearranging the Republican Guard,” Ali Al Tawati , a political analyst, told the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television network. Afash was among dozens of army officers who fled Al Houthi-held Sana’a after militants killed Ali Abdullah Saleh on December 4 after he led a brief military uprising in Sana’a.

As a veteran commander of the Yemeni army, Afash can use his connections within the army to convince army generals who did not join the fighting or those who support Al Houthis to switch sides and join his new military camps, Al Tawati said.

As a tribal leader from Hashed, a powerful Yemeni tribe, Afash can also incite tribes that surround Sana’a to revolt against Al Houthis.

“We are in need of reviving and old strategy by attracting key figures who used to lead Yemen before Al Houthi coup,” Al Tawati said.

Critics argue that Saleh’s relatives, including Afash, have little influence on the ground as Al Houthis defanged them since day one of their coup. Peter Salisbury, a senior consulting researcher at Chatham House in London, told Gulf News that Hadi decided to approach Saleh’s relatives to boost his influence in northern Yemen and Saleh’s supporters have made no difference on the ground. “Hadi wants to demonstrate that he has a constituency in the north, and after Saleh’s death the best way to do that is by demonstrating a relationship with Saleh’s allies and the GPC, who remain broadly popular,” he said, referring to the General People’s Congress party.

Saleh’s brutal killing by Al Houthis has divided Saleh’s supporters with some of them opting to decamp to government-controlled areas where they vowed to take revenge. Others remained in Sana’a under Al Houthis’ repressive rule. Al Houthis have dispersed two pro-Saleh rallies in the capital that demanded the return of Saleh’s body. “Some people with ties to Saleh have decided that their best course of action is to work with Hadi, who will see the appointment as a demonstration of broad support for his government. Others are waiting to see how the chips fall and others yet are looking for alternative patrons. None of this, however, actually changes the balance of power on the ground,” Salisbury said.

Despite receiving massive assistance from the Saudi-led coalition and the defection of hundreds of soldiers from Al Houthis, government forces have yet to achieve major territorial gains in Nehim district, just outside of Al Houthi-held Sana’a. Most of big gains were scored on the Red Sea front where UAE-backed Yemeni forces have liberated a large coastal areas in Hodeida and Taiz.

On social media, activists questioned the timing of Hadi’ appointment of Afash as it came on the eve of what is know as “Friday of Dignity” when Saleh’s snipers gunned down dozens of peaceful anti-regime protesters in Sana’a in March 2011. The massacre triggered big defections of army generals in Saleh’s regime and forced Saleh to step down. The activists argue Hadi is recycling generals he removed in 2012 and 2013.