Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed amid fighting between his supporters and their former allies, the Houthi movement on December 4. Until recently, Saleh loyalists had been fighting alongside the Houthis in a war against the Saudi-backed president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, but a dispute over control of the Yemeni capital of Sana’a on November 29 triggered armed clashes that have left more than 125 people dead. On November 2, Saleh offered to “turn a new page” with the Saudi-led coalition if it stopped attacking Yemen and ended its crippling blockade of the country. The Houthis accused him of a “coup” against “an alliance he never believed in”.
Sources in the Houthi militia said its fighters stopped Saleh’s armoured car with an RPG rocket outside the embattled capital Sanaa and then shot him dead. Sources in Mr Saleh’s party confirmed he died in an attack on his convoy. His death marks a dramatic shift three years into a war in a state of stalemate. It risks the conflict becoming even more volatile.
Saleh, a former military officer, became the president of North Yemen in 1978 after a coup but, when north and south reunited in 1990, was elected as the first president of the new country. Saleh was an important player in Yemen’s descent into civil war, when his reluctant departure from power by the Houthis in 2012 brought his Saudi-backed deputy, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, into office. The Houthis, who champion Yemen’s Zaidi Shia minority, fought a series of rebellions against Saleh between 2004 and 2010. They also supported an uprising in 2011 that forced Mr Saleh to hand over power to Hadi.
But in 2014 Saleh forged an uneasy, unlikely alliance with his former opponents, the Houthis, to facilitate their takeover of Sanaa and ultimately to force Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia. While it lasted, the alliance benefited both sides. Saleh used Houthi firepower and manpower, while the Houthis gained from Saleh’s governing and intelligence networks.
In the past week, that equation changed as Saleh moved to increase his power in Sanaa and signaled that he was swapping sides, seeking a dialogue with the Saudis and their allies, including the United Arab Emirates. In a speech on December 2, Saleh appeared to indicate the end of his loyalists’ alliance with the Houthi fighters. He said he was ready to turn a “new page” in ties with the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis, if it stopped attacks on Yemeni citizens and lifted a siege.
Residents on December said a Saudi-led coalition air strike overnight killed 12 Yemeni civilians in one family in the northern province of Saada, the home territory of the Houthis. Army units loyal to Saleh have been clashing with Houthi fighters in the past five days.
In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi called for calm and restraint. “All internal disputes should be resolved through dialogue to block the grounds for any abuse by the enemies of the Yemeni nation,” he said, according to a statement on the ministry’s website.
The war in Yemen has hit a stalemate, and it is hard to say which side is winning. “For Houthis, the definition of winning is just survival, and they’re doing a pretty good job at that; for the Saudis the definition of winning is restoring the internationally recognised government,” said Adam Baron, visiting fellow at European Council on Foreign Relations. “There’s a possibility that [Saleh’s] apparatus will be radically weakened, if not marginalised in the coming period; this leaves the Houthis as the key power in northern Yemen,” he added.
The conflict between the loyalists and the Houthis is exactly what the Saudi-led coalition wants, because together Saleh’s forces and the Houthis were strong enough to hold on to Sanaa and repel the forces of the Saudi-backed government and its Gulf Arab allies from much of the mountainous north. Despite that, even if some part Saleh’s former forces ally themselves with the Saudis, which seems at least possible now, that by itself won’t guarantee their victory. In turn, this means that Yemen, a now near-permanently unstable and divided state, becomes even more nagging a thorn in Saudi Arabia’s side, with constant threat of missiles and Houthi raids. Add to that growing power of Hezbollah and Iran in the region and you get difficult times for Saudi Arabia. If the Saudis won’t find a way to ally themselves with one of the sides in the conflict, their position will still be unfavorable.