The death of Yemen’s strongman sets the stage for even more chaos

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Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh dominated the political life of his country for close to four decades. He was president for 33 years and survived the 2011 upheavals that rocked the Arab world, stepping down after political negotiations while autocrats elsewhere were cast out or killed. He later resurfaced, allying himself to a rebellion that unseated the weak Saudi-backed government that had replaced him, and became a key player in the civil war that has ravaged Yemen for the past three years.

Saleh, a Machiavellian political operator who held sway by manipulating Yemen’s mess of tribal and political divisions, infamously referred to his task as “dancing on the heads of snakes.” The snakes, critics contend, were of his own creation. In their view, Yemen was a country consumed by Saleh’s short-term alliances and cynical power plays. Whatever the case, Saleh’s dance has finally come to an end.

The 75-year-old former president was apparently killed on Monday by Houthi rebels. Though the circumstances of his death were not clear, some reports suggested he attempted to flee the capital, Sanaa, but was stopped and killed at a Houthi checkpoint. It is an astonishing development given that Saleh had been allied with the Iran-backed group as recently as last week.

It was Saleh’s tacit support that enabled the Houthis to seize the Yemeni capital in late 2014, driving out the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. And it was his designs on power that saw him maintain his pact with the Houthis — a faction linked to a Shiite sect that Saleh had repressed in the past — after the Saudi-led coalition began bombing and blockading the country in March 2015.


A Houthi militant cheers Ali Abdullah Saleh’s death in Yemen. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

That same thirst for power, however, was likely what drove Saleh to turn his back on the Houthis, possibly in the hope that his Abu Dhabi-based son could ultimately return home and take control. “Yemeni citizens have tried to tolerate the recklessness of the Houthis over the last two and half years but cannot anymore,” Saleh said on Saturday, in a gesture of conciliation with the Saudi-led coalition.

By the time he announced the break, forces loyal to him were already engaged in running battles in Sanaa with their new adversaries, with myriad civilians caught in the crossfire. “I call on our brothers in neighboring countries … to stop their aggression and lift the blockade … and we will turn the page,” Saleh said.

A page was indeed turned, but one written in Saleh’s blood and that of countless more of his compatriots.

In a televised speech on Monday after Saleh’s death, Houthi Abdulmalik al-Houthi said his group had defeated a “large-scale conspiracy that posed a threat to the security and stability of the country, aimed at supporting the forces of aggression” — a jab at Saleh’s volte-face and apparent collusion with the Saudis.

According to some reports, Houthi fighters were heard declaring his assassination revenge for the 2004 death of their movement’s founder, who was killed in a cave on Saleh’s orders. Houthi fighters also seem to be carrying out reprisal attacks and arrests on Saleh loyalists in Sanaa.

The chaos underscores the fundamental awfulness of the situation in Yemen. A hodgepodge of factions are at war inside the country, while foreign powers have meddled in its affairs (read: Iran) or pulverized its cities with months of airstrikes, allegedly killing hundreds of civilians (read: Saudi Arabia), perhaps even with munitions supplied by the West (read: the United States and Britain).


Saleh meets former president George W. Bush at the White House in 2005 (Paul J. Richards/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Saleh made a career of playing various sides against each other, including the United States, which directed large sums of money to Saleh’s government as part of a wider effort to combat al-Qaeda’s powerful, entrenched Yemeni branch. Al-Qaeda remains in operation in Yemen, as does a covert U.S. drone program that targets suspected extremists but has also been implicated in the deaths of many Yemeni civilians.

More than 10,000 Yemenis have died since March 2015, when the Saudi-led coalition began its campaign against Saleh’s forces and his Houthi allies. About 7 million Yemenis are on the brink of famine. But with Saleh dead, there are fears that things may get even worse.

“Having attempted to pull the carpet out from under the Houthis’ feet, the Saudis must now decide whether to engage in mediation efforts in a climate of zero trust, or to push on with a military campaign that has had few notable successes over the past two and a half years,” wrote Peter Salisbury, a Yemen expert at Chatham House. “Saleh was a divisive figure, but he was also the person most likely to be able to broker some kind of settlement. His death will only lead to deeper polarization in the conflict.”

Saleh’s death “will only aggravate fragmentation and conflict by adding layers of revenge,” tweeted Joost Hilterman, a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group. “Expect more fighting. Terrible for civilians in Sanaa and the north, who will bear the brunt. Yemen already a humanitarian catastrophe.”

In the current environment, Hilterman concluded, “no one wins.”

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