Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh famously said ruling Yemen was like ‘dancing on the heads of snakes’. He controlled Yemen’s sectarian population and outmaneuvered his rivals for more than 30 years. Even after resigning from office following the Arab Spring, he formed a rebel coalition with the Houthi militia and became a key player in the capture of Sana’a, which catalysed the civil war. He has remained a pivotal figure throughout the conflict, acting as a conduit between unlikely political and military allies. However, on 2 December 2017, Saleh made a fatal misstep by publicly switching allegiance from the Houthi rebels to the Saudi-led coalition. Two days later, he was dead.
There was already speculation the alliance was fracturing prior to Saleh’s defection, with observers noting he had lost all political allies. It appeared the strongman had served his purpose, and the rebel movement was looking to clear the path for Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi to assume leadership—an eventuality that Saleh would most likely not have supported. Campaigning had already begun for al-Houthi to rule Yemen, with billboards erected across the capital. It’s therefore unsurprising that al-Houthi welcomed Saleh’s passing and stated his forces would continue to work toward their political objectives. This agenda may well have been Saleh’s primary motivation for reaching out to the Saudis.
Saleh’s announcement was interpreted by many as a last-ditch attempt to maintain his residual power, resolve military deadlock and lift the three-year siege that’s contributed to ongoing humanitarian crises. To the Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels, however, it was a coup. Following Saleh’s defection, violence in the capital rapidly intensified, with Houthi and Saleh loyalists turning on each other. Saleh fled Sana’a and was killed shortly after when his motorcade was attacked by Houthi forces. Needless to say, that was the end of the alliance.
At this stage in the post-Saleh transition, the Houthis are emboldened and Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) is leaderless. For the GPC to remain relevant, Saleh loyalists are likely to make a decisive move against their former Houthi allies, who currently maintain de facto control of Sana’a and North-West Yemen. Unverified reports quote Saleh’s son, Ali Ahmed Saleh, as saying that he will lead the battle to ‘take back Yemen’. Meanwhile, Saleh’s nephew and military advisor, Tareq Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, is a prime candidate to command any ensuing operations against the Houthis. This situation requires close monitoring to see how the Saleh camp responds.
Houthi rebels currently have the upper hand in Sana’a and will seek to capitalise on their new-found autonomy. It’s likely that Saudi military action will escalate over the coming days to disrupt this momentum. There have already been reports of Saudi airstrikes against Houthi targets, such as the presidential palace. Saleh loyalists will take advantage of any Houthi losses to re-establish their own credibility.
After six years of civil war and more than two years of intervention, the Saudi-led coalition has been unable to accomplish an acceptable end-state. Ongoing involvement continues to weaken Saudi interests and authority, but it remains unclear whether this week’s events will stimulate an exit strategy from the protracted conflict. While Saleh’s declaration was initially considered a big win for Saudi objectives, it lasted a mere 48 hours. Instead, Saleh’s death has been a significant boost for Houthi morale and Iranian interests. By removing Saleh from the equation, the Houthis have sent a very clear message to Riyadh: negotiations are not an option.
Remy Tanner is the International Security Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.