Tensions rise within Yemen’s rebel alliance
London- The alliance between the Houthi rebels and former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his supporters appears to be on shaky ground, despite claims to the contrary from the General People’s Congress (GPC) party leader.
Saleh appeared on Yemen Today TV network on September 4, claiming there were no tensions between him and the Iran-allied Houthi militia.
“There is no crisis or differences whatsoever but only in the imagination of those who want these decisions,” Saleh said, adding that there were no plans for a coup against the Houthis.
The interview was cut off unexpectedly, giving credence to reports that Saleh was under some form of house arrest.
Saleh’s comments were viewed by many as an attempt to ease tensions with the Houthis and it was reported that Iran had brokered a shaky truce. However, a spokesman for the militia acknowledged that issues remained between the two parties.
Muhammad Ali al-Houthi called for a “committee of scholars” to address discrepancies in organisations under Saleh’s control, Al Arabiya news channel said.
Reports from Yemen said the atmosphere in Sana’a was tense, with Saleh’s home heavily fortified and Houthis and their supporters seen removing posters of the former president.
“Sana’a is now divided between the two camps, with the Houthis holding about 70% of the capital and most of the north. More violence is all but certain; whether it can be contained is an open question,” wrote former CIA analyst and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Bruce Riedel in Al-Monitor.
Tensions between the two factions came to a head recently after Saleh’s GPC staged a massive rally in celebration of 35 years since its founding. The Houthis responded with a military parade. Clashes erupted after Saleh and Houthi leader Abdelmalik al-Houthi gave heavily charged speeches at their respective events.
The altercations in Sana’a resulted in the death of Colonel Khaled al-Radhi, a member of Saleh’s inner circle and the GPC’s vice-president of external relations. Radhi was killed at a Houthi checkpoint after an argument between his convoy and the rebels escalated to a shoot-out, local reports said.
Saleh called for the arrest of Radhi’s killers, although he did not mention the Houthis by name. “The political leadership… must take responsibility and accelerate the investigations and the arrest of the perpetrators and bring them to justice,” he said.
The situation should not be a surprise considering that the alliance between the two factions is a marriage of convenience and that there is a long, bloody history between the Houthis and the GPC.
The last decade of Saleh’s 34 years as Yemen’s president saw his government constantly at war with the Iran-allied militia. However, in 2015, three years after stepping down from power due to the “Arab spring” protests, Saleh joined forces with his former enemies and together they seized Sana’a, forcing the internationally recognised government to flee to Aden and later Riyadh. That ignited the current war, which has claimed more than 10,000 lives, UN estimates state.
Saleh’s motivations are unclear but analysts said he was possibly trying to parlay domestic dissatisfaction with the Houthis to reignite his political career.
“Saleh wants to capitalise on popular opposition to both the Houthis and the government, positioning himself as an alternative,” Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Reuters.
“He certainly wants to secure a place for his family in any post-war order… The Houthis are very paranoid that Saleh may cut a deal with Saudi Arabia and the UAE that will leave them out to dry.”
Analysts said the tensions between the GPC and the Houthis could signal the beginning of the end of the Saudi-led military intervention, which began in March 2015.
“A war within the rebel camp has a potential for dividing the kingdom’s enemies. Some senior Saudi officials have told their American counterparts that this may be their best chance to end the war on favourable terms,” wrote Riedel.