President Ali Abdullah Saleh's sudden return to Yemen will be destabilizing, but will not change the underlying dynamics of the country's political conflict. Saleh recently returned to the capital Sana'a after some three months of medical treatment in Saudi Arabia following a June assassination attempt that left him severely wounded. His return came amid renewed clashes between pro- and anti-Saleh forces in the capital that erupted after security forces killed protesters on Sept. 18.
Saleh called for a ceasefire in an effort to position himself above the fray, but attempts to paint himself as a mediator are unlikely to succeed. Despite Saleh's absence from the country and nine months of protests against his 33-year reign, he retains some support, a factor that has led to a protracted stalemate rather than his overthrow.
Saleh will not be able to regain control of Yemen. He could, however, potentially extend the stalemate for months, degrading stability even further in the process. Although widespread military and political defections have occurred, pro-Saleh units are better equipped and led by loyal family members. Both sides enjoy some tribal support as well. The ultimate balance of military power remains unclear, but if fighting escalates, it is unlikely that either side would enjoy a decisive advantage.
Although this reality could spur dialogue, the more likely outcome is a protracted and indecisive armed conflict. A political agreement along the lines of the GCC-brokered transition deal is unlikely to solve Yemen's deeper crisis or restore central government control over the country. State stability is very likely to continue to devolve in any scenario.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is one potential beneficiary of this situation. AQAP has gained more space to operate as a result of the conflict, with Islamist militants sympathetic to the terror group seizing territory in the south of the country. The Yemeni regime has parlayed the AQAP issue to manipulate external support, resulting in a greater degree of patience from the international community than has been the case in other Arab uprisings.
There is both regional and international consensus on Saleh transferring power, but the same is not necessarily true for his family members and allies in key security positions. Outside actors probably still view maintaining the coherence of counter-terrorism units as a preferential outcome, despite their politicized role and intimate links to the Saleh regime. The European Union, United States, United Nations, and the Gulf Cooperation Council meanwhile are likely to continue to pressing for negotiations for a political transition, but they do not have the capacity to bring a swift end to the Yemeni crisis, further increasing the risk of a protracted and violent stalemate.