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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

The spark in the Houthi coup — Saleh Al Sammad 

The death of the second in command of the Iranian-backed rebels is a serious blow to the Houthis

The political leader of Yemen's Houthi rebels, Salah Al Sammad, head of the supreme political council, was killed in the eastern province of Hodeidah this week. Mohammed Hiwais / AFP
The political leader of Yemen's Houthi rebels, Salah Al Sammad, head of the supreme political council, was killed in the eastern province of Hodeidah this week. Mohammed Hiwais / AFP

Saleh Al Sammad was the highest-ranking Houthi killed by a Saudi air strike and his death may be one of the heaviest blows to the Iran-backed rebels since the conflict in Yemen began three years ago.

The Saudi-led coalition on Monday confirmed the death of Al Sammad, the Houthi Supreme Political Council leader, who served as second in command of the rebel group.

Although not a military commander, he was integral to the logistics of the rebel operation. His death will likely be a serious disruption to their communication and transport capabilities.

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The strike signals that Yemeni forces, supported by the Arab Coalition, remain focused on military defeat of the Houthis.

The air strike is likely to derail negotiations proposed by the newly appointed UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, who previously said that military escalation could "take peace off the table”.

As a top Houthi political leader in Yemen, Al Sammad was crucial to the military propaganda and served as the primary organiser of supply routes for the Houthis, who are fighting on three fronts.

The rebels named Mehdi Hussein Al Mashat as his successor, after a video published by the coalition showed an air strike targeting what is believed to be Al Sammad and two others in Hodeidah.

The Arab coalition last year named Al Sammad second on a most-wanted list of 40 Houthi rebels. The coalition offered $20 million (Dh73.5m) in return for information on the former Supreme Political Council leader, whose bounty matched that of the Houthi leader, Abdul Malik Al Houthi.

"This crime won't go unanswered," said the Houthis' overall leader, Mr Al Houthi. Six others were killed in the same raid, he said, although they have not been publicly identified.

Mr Al Houthi's bluster could be seen as an attempt to appease the dwindling Houthi constituency, said Baraa Shiban, a Yemeni caseworker at international human rights organisation Reprieve.

“Of course they would say that, they need to keep boosting the morale of their men who might have been shaken by the incident,” said Ms Shiban. “They have lost many of their commanders lately. It is clear they are being compromised.”

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Al Sammad made a name for himself in January 2015, when he led a group of armed Houthi militias in the storming of the presidential palace in Sanaa. He then placed the internationally-recognised president, Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, and the prime minister, Khaled Bahah, under house arrest. He demanded he be appointed vice president of Yemen, with the intention of eventually usurping President Hadi.

Two days after their arrest, Mr Hadi and Mr Bahah resigned their respective posts, citing an “unconstructive political maze”.

The rebels then seized the rest of Yemen's capital two weeks later.

This month Al Sammad called 2018 "the year of ballistics", referring to his group's cross-border missile attacks on Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom has been targeted with more than a dozen Iranian-made missiles launched from Yemen.

The Houthi leader's death is one of several recent victories for the Arab coalition, who have intensified their attacks since the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed in December 2016.

Saleh and his political party, the General People’s Congress, entered a marriage of convenience with the Houthi rebels after his removal in 2012.

Since then, the Houthi rebels have clashed with the GPC, with coalition reports of hundreds of former Saleh loyalists defecting to Saudi Arabia.

Experts say Al Sammad's death reduces the likelihood for a political resolution to Yemen's conflict.

“Al Sammad's death is yet another blow to the prospects for a successful political track," said Dr Joost Hiltermann, Mena director for the International Crisis Group. "Within the Houthi movement, he was considered to be a moderate who had good relations with the GPC.”

Although Al Sammad's death may have little impact on the Houthis militarily, their leadership will be wary of the risk of further air strikes against them.