Saleh’s assassination adds new twist to Yemen’s complex war
London - The assassination of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh by Iran-backed Houthi rebels brought new challenges for the war-torn country and the region.
Despite having been allied with the Houthis since 2014, Saleh was viewed as the person able to help end the war in Yemen. The conflict has pitted the Houthis and — until recently — forces loyal to Saleh against a Saudi-led coalition backing the internationally recognised government led by President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
A flexible, if not opportunist, politician who was previously allied to Saudi Arabia, Saleh was seen as more likely to reach a deal with Riyadh than the ideologically motivated Houthis.
In the event of failing to agree on a truce in Yemen, observers said that, had Saleh turned on the Houthis, the former president would have won against the rebels. That assumption was proved wrong.
His death, as well as the killing and arrest of many of his loyalists, gave the Houthis and, by extension, Iran a stronger grip on Sana’a and much of northern Yemen.
Politically, the Houthis have suffered a major setback in losing the backing of Saleh’s supporters. Iran also lost diplomatic cover in the death of Saleh and reports exposed Tehran’s involvement in Yemen, especially in providing the Houthis with ballistic missiles that could reach Riyadh.
Militarily, the rebels have the upper hand as they pre-empted Saleh’s loyalists in Sana’a. It remains unknown for how long the Houthis can subdue the opposing forces.
“They (Houthis) have defeated their only real competitor on the ground and in doing so have intimidated those who may want to oppose them in the future,” wrote April Longley Alley, project director for the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula at the International Crisis Group.
In areas that are not under strict Houthi control, many members of Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party have switched sides and are backing Hadi’s government.
The United Arab Emirates, which is part of the Saudi-led alliance, indicated it would support Saleh’s son, Ahmed, a former commander of the Yemeni Army’s Republican Guard who is based in Abu Dhabi, against the Houthis.
The divisions between the Houthis and Saleh’s loyalists, however, won’t necessarily translate into a military victory for the Saudi-led coalition as that alliance, too, is riddled with divisions.
Many of Yemen’s anti-Houthi forces are themselves foes. When news of Saleh’s death broke, anti- Houthi southerners celebrated with fireworks as the former Yemeni leader had engaged in wars with them in the past.
Neither a military victory nor a diplomatic solution appears in the cards anytime soon, meaning the threat to Yemen’s security — and that of the region — will continue.