An era in Yemeni history ended Dec. 4 with the assassination of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled Yemen officially and unofficially for 39 years. It was a task he likened to “dancing on the heads of snakes” — an apt description considering that members of the Houthi rebel group, which had a temporary alliance with Saleh until recently, are accused of killing him as he tried to escape the city of Sanaa. Personal feelings for the leader aside, it is hard to imagine a Yemen without Saleh. The man drove politics and conflict in the country for close to four decades, and his death will forever alter the course of Yemen’s civil war.
Saleh’s claim to Yemen’s presidency had been internationally disputed since 2011, but he had maintained influence among his many supporters, especially those loyal to the General People’s Congress party, and had been a constant political presence for decades. For the past three years, forces loyal to him fought against the U.N.-backed Yemeni government based in Saudi Arabia, but that government recently indicated it was willing to negotiate his conditional return to power. Now that Saleh has been permanently removed from Yemeni politics, the military conflict could tilt more toward Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council in the long term. But before that becomes evident, Saleh’s death will engender even more chaos and uncertainty in war-torn Yemen.
Saleh’s assassination and the events leading up to it show just how intent the Houthis are on retaining their grip on Sanaa and just how ready they were for the inevitable moment when the fragile alliance between their leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, and Saleh would break. (Saleh fought a total of six wars with the Houthis as president, after all.) On Dec. 2, the alliance, which had been steadily weakening, finally cracked when Saleh announced he would consider negotiating with the GCC-led coalition and would fight against the Houthis. Directly after the statement, Saleh’s loyalist forces wrested critical infrastructure from Houthi control, but the Houthis launched a fierce counteroffensive that included bombing the homes of tribal sheikhs who had supported Saleh’s defection from the rebel coalition. Houthi forces were able to reclaim pieces of key infrastructure, paralyzing the city of Sanaa.
The Houthis’ swift and decisive counteroffensive in Sanaa and their ability to assassinate the rebel president who betrayed them immediately strengthened their position. But the long-term prospects for the group are actually much grimmer now than before. With Saleh’s defection, the Houthis lost many of their loyalist allies as well as their heavy equipment. Then during the counteroffensive, Houthi fighters likely further alienated much of the tribal support they need to maintain control of Sanaa. The Houthis, aware their support is critically low, have already started trying to win back their loyalist and tribal allies, going so far as to eulogize Saleh in those efforts.
They don’t have much time. A fresh offensive is already underway by the GCC-led coalition in Sanaa. The coalition has been working to reclaim control over Sanaa since the Houthis seized it in early 2015. Now with Saleh’s death and with the Houthis more isolated than ever, the coalition is doubling down on its efforts. Airstrikes intensified over the weekend, and there are reports that new brigades have been deployed to the Nehim front, where the battle had been stalled for months.
For a moment, the GCC coalition had been heartened by Saleh’s turn against the Houthis, who they accuse of being Iran-backed proxies. Arab Gulf countries, and especially Saudi Arabia, judged that even toxic allies, such as Saleh, were better than none at all against the threat of Iranian proxies on the Arabian Peninsula. But the possibility of a GCC-Saleh partnership lasted a mere 72 hours, before Saleh was killed and the GCC coalition was left scrambling for other options. It’s possible that Saleh’s eldest son, Ahmed, could rise to take his father’s place. Ahmed has traveled to Riyadh from his base in Abu Dhabi to help the coalition reinforce the Nehim offensive, a task befitting his military training and reputation. But Ahmed lacks the grassroots support that his father had.
Saleh’s death has opened up a power vacuum in northern Yemen that will lead to shifting alliances. Tribal support will be critical to determining how the conflict progresses. Saleh’s fatal mistake was expecting the seven tribes around Sanaa to support his defection and to protect him as he fled his home village in Sanhan province. That didn’t happen, but it is unclear where tribal loyalties fall now. How the southern transitional council leaders react will also be of vital importance. The leaders have been working alongside the GCC coalition against the Houthis, but faced with a new political reality, they could decide to assert their own interests and push for southern secession.
Meanwhile, Yemen’s many humanitarian crises will raise the stakes of conflict. Just as the country is recovering from the worst of a cholera epidemic, the threat of spreading diphtheria is growing, made worse by a Saudi Arabian blockade on ports that is preventing the delivery of life-saving vaccines. Food and water shortages in the country — already some of the most severe in the world — will increase as winter approaches, putting Yemeni civilians in even more dire circumstances. And those same civilians will be at heightened risk of being caught in the crossfire in areas where Houthi and coalition forces face off, including near Sanaa, Taiz and Marib. To make matters worse, as the focus on the Houthis intensifies, the fight against the Islamic State and al Qaeda in Yemen could be temporarily pushed aside, which could embolden both extremist groups.
Saleh will be remembered in history for his many conflicting legacies. Known to be ruthless in his dealings with Yemeni civilians and elites, Saleh could be likened to former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for his ability to manipulate people and circumstances to further his own self-interest. Many Yemenis will be happy to see Saleh go, tainted as his rule was with financial corruption and violence. And yet, despite the complaints against him and the multiple assassination attempts targeting him, no other leader has been strong enough to govern over all the competing groups in Yemen. Now with Saleh’s death, Yemen, already at war with itself, risks devolving into even more factionalism and chaos, devoid as it is of a strong, unifying force.