The killing of Yemen’s former president has led the country into further uncertaintyand violence.
Iran-supported Houthi rebels shot and killed Ali Abdullah Saleh on December 4. He died either in a gun battle or was executed.
Saleh once saw the Houthis as uneasy allies in the country’s civil war. He announced an alliance with them in 2015, one year after the fighting started.
Now the rebels are working to take complete control of Sanaa, the largest city in Yemen.
The Houthis have captured more than 40 media workers. This includes employees of Yemen Today, a television broadcaster connected to Saleh.
James Mattis, the United States Secretary of Defense, spoke on Tuesday about conditions in the country. “The situation for the innocent people there, the humanitarian side, is most likely to [get] worse in the short term,” he said.
On Wednesday, Saudi Arabian-led airplanes began increasing airstrikes on Yemen.
Most observers agree there is little chance of the violence ending or a negotiated settlement in the near future.
For some, there was a sign of hope two days before Saleh’s death. That was when the former president communicated with Saudi Arabia, which is leading a military coalition against the Houthis.
Saleh publicly expressed a willingness to take part in peace talks if the Saudis and their allies lifted a blockade on Yemen’s seaports and airports. He also wanted them to let more humanitarian aid enter Yemen, which is suffering from mass starvation.
Saleh was ousted in 2011. He had helped the Houthis in their rise to power in an attempt to create a deal that would lead to his return to the presidency. But relations between Saleh and the Houthis had been worsening in recent weeks.
His fighters began battling the Houthis in southern districts of Sanaa. And Saudis stopped identifying Saleh as a “deposed dictator” and began speaking of him as “the former president.”
Observers say this marked the end of his unlikely alliance with the Houthis, which was based on a shared need.
The Houthis are strong militarily, but weak in governance skills. They needed the expertise of Saleh and his General People’s Congress party to reach deals with tribal leaders. The Houthis also needed help governing the territory they control in the north of the country. On the other hand, Saleh and his followers were not as strong militarily as the rebels.
Gerald Feierstein is an expert with the Middle East Institute, a research group. He says Saleh’s death weakens the Houthis’ position in their conflict against the internationally accepted government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Hadi also has the support of Saudi Arabia, and currently lives in exile in Riyadh.
Feierstein says Houthis have lost “an important symbolic presence that gave them some credibility as a broad-based movement.”
Now they will be considered as more of a “pro-Iranian … Shi’ite movement” with goals of completely changing Yemen, he adds. They will likely suffer greater decreases in their popular support. He says their support is already dropping as a result of never-ending conflict and violence against civilians.
“The big question is whether this … will force them back to the negotiating table,” he notes.
There are no signs that the Saudis and Hadi are interested in negotiations. After Saleh’s death, Hadi gave a hostile speech in which he spoke against the Houthis.
“Let us put our hands together to end the control of these criminal gangs and build a new, united Yemen,” he said.
The speech was broadcast on Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya television.
Ahmed Abdullah, Saleh’s son, now lives in Riyadh. He has promised to seek vengeance for his father’s killing.
“I will lead the battle until the last Houthi is thrown out of Yemen,” he said. “The blood of my father will be hell ringing in the ears of Iran.”
However, experts say vengeance and airstrikes are unlikely to be useful in moving the balance of power and ending the conflict.
Mamoun Abu Nowar is a military expert and former Jordanian Air Force general. He noted, “You need an international intervention to stop this war.”
Peter Salisbury is a researcher with Britain’s Chatham House, a group that studies international affairs. He said that Saleh may have divided people in the past. But the former president was also the person most likely to reach some kind of settlement.
“Without his deal-making skills, the civil war he helped to spark and the … humanitarian crisis it caused are only likely to get worse,” Salisbury suggested.