Saleh killing increases Yemen chaos

Ex president of  Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh on April 22, 2011 in Sana'a
Ex president of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh on April 22, 2011 in Sana'a REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Yemen's Houthi rebels on Tuesday moved to strengthen their grip on the capital, Sana’a, after the death of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.


Saleh was killed on Monday when he was fleeing the city following the collapse of his alliance with Houthis.

He was reportedly planning to negotiate with Saudi Arabia, which had opposed the allies.

At least 234 people were killed and 400 wounded in clashes that took place immediately after Saleh’s death, according to the Red Cross.

Ousted but returned

Saleh's death comes as a big shock, as he has been a major political figure in Yemen, which he ruled for over 30 years.

He was initially ousted as president in 2012 during the Yemeni version of the Arab Spring

But he managed to make a comeback and later forged an alliance with the Houthis.

They had taken over Sana'a, where he stayed during an increasingly vicious civil war with militia representing the government of his successor Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, based in Aden. Hadi himself had fled to Riyadh.

The civilians will pay the price.

Yemen after the death of Saleh

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant complicated the situation, with AQAP controlling large stretches of coastal  and inland territory.

Saudi intervention

In 2015, Saudi Arabia launched a massive military intervention, named “Decisive Storm”, into Yemen.

It had recruited 20 countries to take part.

The United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Morocco were the main attacking force, with the US, UK, China and other countries supplying billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry. France and Djibouti provide logistical support.

According to the UN and humanitarian organisations, the Yemen war has cost the lives to more than 10,000 people, while three million have been driven from their homes.

The escalating violence as a result of Saleh’s death “could not come at a worse time” says UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres in a statement on 4 December.

The conflict has already resulted in “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis”, he said, calling for a “humanitarian pause” to allow relief organisations to do their work.

“The civilians will pay the price because the infrastructure and the governance structure was still in place as they still had the technocrats when the [Saleh’s majority party] General People’s Congress was in power,” says London-based Yemeni human rights researcher Baraa Shiban.

“But now, many of them will be prosecuted for the latest switch of alliance by Saleh himself. The Houthis will take revenge on many of their followers, so I think we will witness a lot of purges happening in the Northern provinces,” he adds.

Unstable alliance

Meanwhile, Iran, which backs the Houthis, have condemned the killing of Saleh, and its official Mehr News Agency even blamed the Emirati airforce for killing him, despite the Houthis own claim that they had done so.

“The coalition that the Ansar Allah [official name for the Houthi] and Saleh had, from the very beginning, was not based on trust,” Mohammad Marandi, a political scientist with the University of Tehran, explains.

They were united by having a common enemy in the Saudis.

“Saleh’s big mistake was to suddenly turn against Ansar Allah but also to be in coordination with the Saudis and the Emiratis who were basically bombing and starving the people and different tribes in Yemen for almost three years now,” Marandi says.

The current situation has become extremely volatile, with the Saudis saying that they want to have all Iranian-backed militias out of Yemen.

What next?

The big question is what is going to happen now.

“Yemen is about tribal alliances, about the major tribes siding with whom,” says Riad Kahwaji, the director of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Analysis. “Saleh belonged to the Hashed Tribe, which is one of the major ones, and they will likely call for revenge, they are coming together to avenge his killing.

“[Saleh] was a very great personality and a leader of this tribe. All eyes are now at his son Ahmad, the former Commander of the Republican Guard, who is in Abu Dhabi."

Kahwaji expects that Ahmad Saleh will succeed his father as the head of the majority party that the former leader ruled.

"But we have to see whether he is going to get the pledge of allegiance from the other tribes,” he warns.

Others are doubtful. “His son, if he does enter the fray, definitely does not have the capability or the charisma of his father, so I don’t see him being able to effectively replace his father,” says Marandi. "But obviously he would have some sort of impact."

Whatever the result of the power struggle that is likely to ensue, peace is clearly a long way off in Yemen.

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