x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 December 2017

Saleh has lost the battle, but the Houthis may have lost the war

Recent events may mark the beginning of the end for the conflict in Yemen, writes Mohammed Alyahya

A view of damage on a street where Houthis recently clashed with forces loyal to slain Yemeni former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa. Khaled Abdullah / Reuters
A view of damage on a street where Houthis recently clashed with forces loyal to slain Yemeni former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa. Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

The execution of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh earlier this week happened after three days of intense clashes in Sanaa. Saleh-allied forces, consisting primarily of Yemen’s Republican Guards, contested with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Saleh had been allied with the Houthis until just last week, when he abandoned their three-year partnership after strains in their relationship culminated in a fall-out that led to all-out conflict in Sanaa’s streets.

Clearly Saleh’s assassination was a message from the Houthis' patrons in Tehran. Its intended recipients are the Trump administration and its coalition allies. The message seems to be: Iran has the ability to overturn your best-laid plans. However, given Yemen’s history and sociology, it appears the Iranians may have overplayed their hand.

The alliance between Saleh and the Houthis was not an easy one. Throughout the past few years the Houthis have succeeded in infiltrating government agencies and intimidating officials and dissidents through brute force and tactics unprecedented even for Yemen in their barbarity. They held children hostage, executed youth activists and assassinated college professors. While they gained strength, Saleh’s faction slowly lost its power: the Iranians and their allies, notably Hizbollah, stepped in to upgrade support for the Houthis with arms, logistics and training.

In August, Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress, went to the street to celebrate its anniversary. The Houthis tried to stop the rallies. This led to tension between Houthi leadership and the organisers of the rallies among Saleh’s top leadership. In late August, the Houthis put Saleh under house arrest. They assassinated Khaled Al Radhi, one of his top lieutenants and closest advisers, who was responsible for liaising with foreign media.

The Houthis had demonstrated to many Yemenis, but most importantly to themselves, that they had the power to strong-arm Saleh and his camp. The power equation changed permanently on that August day in Sanaa. Since then, the Houthis saw themselves as the senior partners and Saleh their junior in an already fraying alliance. More importantly, it became clear to the Yemenis that the buffer between them and the Houthis' tyranny, as weak as it was, had evaporated entirely.

The paradox is that the death of Saleh may mark a turn in the other direction, with the Houthis and Iran getting weaker. The only reason the Houthis were tolerated in Yemen was because of the political cover they were afforded by Saleh. While undeniably employing brute force, he had a reputation as a pragmatic political operator with decades of experience. Saleh had sticks but he also had a basket of carrots.

The Houthis, on the other hand, employed henceforth unseen levels of brutality against whomever they deemed was a threat to them. Despite his countless violations, Saleh also utilised politics and negotiation, whereas the Houthis understand only total domination and brute force. In his own words, ruling Yemen was like “dancing on the heads of snakes,” a reference to his ability to twist arms, grease palms and make deals with so many of Yemen’s wide range of political actors. Little did he know that with the Houthis, he was not dancing on the heads of snakes, but feeding a crocodile. Winston Churchill once said, “an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last.”

By assassinating Saleh, the Houthis have pitted themselves against the GPC, the Republican Guards, Northern Tribes, Southern separatists and the Saudi-led Arab coalition. The Iranians have found themselves in a situation where it is only them and their proxy against an entire population and a slew of states. It’s not clear how long this state of affairs can be sustained: Yemen has no land borders with any of Iran’s other proxies.

Former GPC leader and vice president of Yemen Ali Mohsen al Ahmar has already ordered his troops to march on Sanaa. And the Saudi-led coalition has stated that it is ready to work with any parties in the country to eliminate the Iranian-backed Houthi militia’s domination. This may mark the beginning of the end of the Yemen war.

Mohammed Alyahya is a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council