Implications of Saleh’s Assassination on Yemen’s Future

On December 4, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed in an attack south of the capital, Sanaa. This occurred two days after he announced the breakdown of his alliance with the Iranian-backed Houthi movement, known as Ansar Allah, and expressed readiness to engage with Saudi Arabia. While the circumstances of Saleh’s death remain unclear, his assassination will undoubtedly have a long-term impact on the future of Yemen.

Saleh and the Houthis have a long history. Their first confrontation was in the summer of 2004, when the former president ultimately killed the founder of the movement, Hussein al-Houthi, to quell the Zaidi rebellion in Saada, in northwestern Yemen. The killing of Saleh is perhaps a belated revenge by the Houthis. Between 2004 and 2011, the two sides clashed six times; however, their mutual dissatisfaction with the political process of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative made them obvious—though reluctant—allies. Hence, in September 2014 they coordinated the seizure of control of Sanaa and, in August 2016, formed a joint governing council to run the areas they captured. Since August 2017, tensions began to surface gradually as the Houthis became suspicious that Saleh might strike a deal with the Saudi-led coalition. The difficult alliance ultimately unraveled in a tragic way as the Houthis considered Saleh’s move a coup.

Who Will Inherit Saleh’s Mantle?

Both the Saudi-led coalition and the Iranian-backed Houthis lost with the death of Saleh. Ansar Allah no longer has a political cover or a major Sunni ally to maintain stability in northern Yemen. The Zaidi group also lost the organizational and bureaucratic support the alliance with Saleh had provided in the past three years. To claim there is continuity in the status quo, Ansar Allah are striving to garner enough support from ranking officials in the General People’s Congress (GPC), Saleh’s political organization, and from tribal leaders. Clearly, however, governing by fear and coercion cannot be sustained in the long run.

Moving forward, the Houthis will have to deal with the fallout from Saleh’s assassination at the expense of being fully focused on defending Taiz and Sanaa. With Iranian officials endorsing their recent actions and with no allies left at home or abroad, the Houthis will most probably move closer to Tehran. Yemen, for the Iranian regime, remains a low-risk investment at Saudi Arabia’s border; and the impression in Tehran is that Riyadh’s hand was just forced in Sanaa, as a result of the assassination.

Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition lost a potential partner who could have helped drain the Houthis’ resources and manpower. But Riyadh did not go all the way in supporting and protecting the former Yemeni president at the peak of his rebellion against the Houthis last week. The anti-Houthi alliance in Sanaa is now weak and divided; no one figure alone can fill Saleh’s shoes in uniting the GPC’s military, tribal, and political powers.

The first contender is obviously Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who has been increasingly undermined as the Saudi-led coalition questions his ability to command the battle on the ground against the Houthis. He also fell out of favor with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) due to increasing political tensions in the south of Yemen. The enmity between Saleh and Hadi halted peace efforts in the past few years, most notably during the rapprochement between Riyadh and the Houthis in 2016. With Saleh out of the picture, Hadi’s clout will most likely diminish further as the Saudi-led coalition will be looking for an alternative ally to lead on the battlefield.

That alternative has until recently been Hadi’s vice president, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Saleh’s half-brother, who has been leading the failed attempts so far to recapture Sanaa. And most recently, the name of Ahmed, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s eldest son, has popped up as the new strongman to help the ground game of the Saudi-led coalition. Ahmed arrived in Riyadh on December 5 after two years of an incommunicado house arrest in Abu Dhabi. The Republican Guard, which he led from 2004 to 2012, was integrated by Hadi into the Yemeni military, but Ahmed was exiled in 2013 to the UAE, where he served as an ambassador until 2015. Ahmed Saleh might be tasked with a military mission in Sanaa; however, it is not clear yet if he will play a role in the GPC.

While the three contenders are scrambling to woo the remnants of Saleh’s loyalists, the most crucial factor will be the relationship between Ahmed Saleh and Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. After four years of absence, the command of Ahmed Saleh over the Republican Guard is uncertain. These units, which were once loyal to him, fought alongside the Houthis since 2014. Most of his relatives and allies have been either killed or detained by the Houthis, most notably Tareq Saleh, the key commander who led the special forces. When Ali Abdullah Saleh was president, he had to oust senior military leaders to strengthen his son’s control of the Republican Guard, which might now impede Ahmed’s ability to gain the confidence of these forces.

Furthermore, Ahmed Saleh does not have the shrewdness of his father to manage the complex relationships with Yemeni tribes. It is also not clear whom he can trust from his father’s old guard, as the recent assassination indicated a betrayal in Saleh’s entourage through the disclosure of his whereabouts to the Houthis. Ahmed has also been sanctioned by the United Nations since April 2015 for engaging “in acts that threaten the peace, security, and stability of Yemen”; hence, rehabilitating his image will require arduous international efforts.

Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar has extended his hand to Ahmed Saleh and asked the Republican Guard to join ranks with him. While the circumstances might force the two to cooperate, the past will most likely continue to haunt them. In 1995, Ali Abdullah Saleh reportedly killed al-Ahmar’s son, Abdullah, with his own gun. In return, the current vice president is suspected to be behind the 2011 assassination attempt against Saleh at the presidential palace mosque.

Most importantly, Ahmed Saleh and al-Ahmar have competed for influence for years as Ali Abdullah Saleh was contemplating the transfer of power to his son. As part of the GCC initiative deal, al-Ahmar stepped down from leading the 1st Armored Division in return for Ahmed Saleh resigning from the Republican Guard command. In September 2014, the Houthis defeated the 1st Armored Division and al-Ahmar had to flee to Saudi Arabia quietly. After serving as the second man behind Saleh and Hadi, al-Ahmar most probably will not accept being second to Ahmed Saleh. If the Saudi-led coalition succeeds in advancing to Sanaa, the two relatives—the half-brother and the son of Ali Abdullah Saleh—will most likely compete for influence once again.

What to Expect Next in Yemen

The longevity of the Saudi-led war in Yemen has led to the gradual crumbling of alliances in both the south and north of the country. Emirati officials have found themselves governing the south and facing dissent, while the Houthis are struggling to run Sanaa and enforce order.

The experiment of the Saudi-led coalition in the south is indeed unraveling in Aden. On November 11, the leader of the old southern separatist movement, Hassan Baoum, criticized1 what he called “the Emirati-Saudi occupation of southern Yemen.” UAE officials have helped form the Transitional Southern Council, led by Aidarous al-Zbaidi, which is now challenging the Hadi government in Aden. The second annual conference of Baoum’s “Southern Revolutionary Council” last month recognized the Houthi government in the north and demanded international pressure to end the Saudi-led war on Yemen. While the focus is shifting to the north, the assassination of Saleh will also have impact on the calculations of the southern movements.

The key to what happens next in Sanaa depends on what the major tribes will do moving forward, most notably the tribal federations Bakil and Hashid (which Saleh’s Sanhan clan belongs to). The takeover of Sanaa in 2014 divided these tribes between those who endorsed the Saleh/Houthi alliance and those who endorsed Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, leader of the Hashid federation. Hence, the Houthis’ ability to maintain control of Sanaa depends on the stance of these tribes, which gave the Houthis safe passage in their territories and remained neutral during the recent clashes between Saleh and Ansar Allah. Both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition are trying to solicit the endorsement of these powerful tribes that have the manpower and territorial control to alter the balance of power on the ground. Most probably, the tribes do not trust the Houthis and are not pleased with how Saleh was treated. In return, Riyadh, which has provided them with funding and logistical support for decades, has also been imposing an embargo and launching airstrikes on them for the last three years.

The Saudi-led coalition believes there is momentum to build on after Saleh’s assassination and that tribal defections from the alliance with Ansar Allah might be difficult to achieve if these tribes did not feel that the Houthis are losing control. Indeed, on December 6 the UAE-backed forces launched an offensive to capture al-Hodeida province on the Red Sea coast, despite international concerns to avoid confrontations near the ports of the area. The Saudi-led coalition has not banned fuel shipments from reaching al-Hodeida in the past weeks, which will increase the humanitarian crisis in the Houthi-controlled areas. Meanwhile, the Saudis are backing another offensive toward Sanaa from Marib province, where they are opening military camps to recruit Saleh loyalists.

It is not clear whether the Saudi-led coalition will manage to swiftly exploit the collapse of the Saleh-Houthi alliance and at what cost, as there is no international appetite to support renewed Saudi efforts to escalate the war in Yemen. US backing of the Saudi-led coalition is in question because of growing opposition in Washington. On December 6, President Donald Trump called on Saudi Arabia to end its blockade of Yemen “for humanitarian reasons immediately.” On December 8, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Saudi Arabia “to be a bit more measured and a bit more thoughtful” about how it deals with Yemen (and Lebanon).

After 33 months of the Saudi-led war and three years of controlling Sanaa, the Houthis still have no game plan or exit strategy. Killing Saleh deprived them of a major ally and increased their isolation. Saudi Arabia is not expected to back out, but it is not clear what more can be done. A military solution will exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen without necessarily defeating Ansar Allah. If a political solution remains elusive, the major fallout of Saleh’s assassination might be accelerating the re-partition of Yemen.

To learn more about the history of the Yemen crisis click here

1 Source is in Arabic.