Yemen’s Houthi rebels quickly chose a successor to Salah Al-Sammad, head of the movement’s Supreme Political Council, this week after his death in an air strike by Coalition forces in the coastal city of Al-Hodeida two weeks ago, raising questions about their intentions and the future of the war-torn country.
The movement’s new “president,” as the Houthis like to refer to him, is Mahdi Hussein Al-Mashaat, described as a “hawk” by his rivals and as a man who has been handed a “mission impossible” by his supporters.
The Supreme Political Council is in charge of areas under Houthi control, which make up the majority of what was once known as the Republic of North Yemen and are home to the majority of the country’s 23 million population, according to the UN.
Saudi Arabia, which leads the Arab Coalition in the war in Yemen, accuses the Houthis, who are Yazidi Shiites, of receiving support from Iran, which Tehran denies.
The Arab Coalition has been fighting the Houthis since March 2015 in support of the internationally recognised government of Yemen led by President Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Al-Mashaat, also viewed as a hawk by the West, joined the ranks of the religious group at a young age and married into the family of leader Abdel-Malek Al-Houthi before becoming his chief of staff between 2004 and 2009.
The Houthis went to war six times between 2004 and 2010 against late Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh who was supported by the Gulf countries and the US before he was overthrown by popular protests at the end of 2011.
Once Saleh’s rule ended, Al-Mashaat’s star began to rise as a negotiator for the Houthis with other Yemeni factions before they took control of the capital Sanaa in September 2014.
Although he was involved in the negotiations he never left the battlefield, and he is accused by Sunni rivals, including the Yemeni Reform Party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen and the Salafis, of committing crimes in Dammaj, which the Houthis took from the Salafis.
Salafi leaders say Al-Mashaat led Houthi forces in a raid on the headquarters of Salafi rule in the town when the Houthis defeated their rivals the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in the battles in the north.
While the Gulf countries accuse the Houthis of receiving support from Iran, the Houthis accuse Riyadh and its allies of supporting Yemeni’s Sunni Islamists.
Al-Mashaat returned to politics as a negotiator for the Houthis at meetings in Switzerland and Kuwait. As soon as he was named head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, the pro-Hadi media in Yemen immediately described the move as a mistake because the current situation needs “doves” not hawks, it said.
His rivals also noted that his appointment overlooks several prominent Houthi figures, which could trigger disputes within the movement.
Sultan Al-Atwani, a former adviser to Hadi, said Al-Mashaat’s marriage into the Houthi family was the reason he was appointed, pushing aside other candidates such as Mohamed Abdel-Salam (the main Houthi spokesman), Hamza Al-Houthi, Hussein Al-Ezzi and Abdel-Malek Al-Ajzi.
Others believe that marginalising moderate figures such as Youssef Al-Fishi, who left the Supreme Political Council because of his close ties to Saleh, could anger those who want to end the war.
Mohamed Jemeh, a Yemeni commentator living in the UAE, said there had been serious rifts between Al-Sammad and Mohamed Ali Houthi, chair of the Houthi Supreme Revolutionary Committee, who is accused of trying to seize control of the oil trade, tariffs and territory.
Jemeh said that these disputes could resurface between Houthi and Al-Mashaat. Both accuse the other of corruption, but no independent party has confirmed the claims.
Mohamed Al-Saleel, a former professor at Aden University who now lives in the UK, said that there were no “hawks” or “doves” in Yemen, but there were conditions that help or obstruct the situation.
“In Yemen, there is an existential war, and therefore everyone is a radical. Otherwise, they would have reached a solution during the talks in Kuwait and Switzerland,” Saleel said.
“More importantly, the Houthis believe they are resilient and can threaten neighbouring Saudi Arabia with missiles, most likely Iranian-made, which is a hardline position they must take to make the most gains,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Houthis are battling with forces loyal to their former ally Saleh led by the latter’s nephew Tarek Saleh who is trying to take control of Al-Hodeida, the main port in areas under Houthi control.
Some commentators believe that while there is conflict among the Houthi leaders, this has little impact as the overall situation that puts them at war with everyone else guarantees unity and makes them more hardline against their rivals.
There are also hardliners in Hadi’s camp since many of his supporters believe that compromising with the Houthis would spell defeat. According to Al-Atwani, “legitimacy must return to Sanaa, or at least the Houthis must withdraw” and return to their stronghold in Saada in the north of the country.
Hadi’s government fled the Yemeni capital when Houthi forces overran Sanaa in September 2014, and the Saudi-led Coalition has justified its war by demanding that Hadi be allowed to return to Sanaa.
Strong UAE support for the Southern Transitional Council, the former Southern Movement in South Yemen, could strengthen Hadi’s camp, translating into more hardline positions towards the Houthis.
“We are not relying on inter-Houthi disputes, but instead on popular resistance to them,” Al-Atwani said.
The war in Yemen will not bring peace or even serious negotiations any time soon. There has been a military stalemate since mid-2015 when the Houthis took control of North Yemen and Hadi of South Yemen, and with the despair over a political solution humanitarian conditions continue to deteriorate.
Yemen now has “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world,” according to the UN.
“Everyone wants the war in Yemen to end,” said Hoda Al-Attas, a Yemeni commentator. “It is exhausting and costly for everyone, but we lack the courage to find a way out.”
Civil wars in developing countries rarely end without one side winning, as happened in Biafra in southeast Nigeria in the war from 1967 to 1970, or when both sides believe the war cannot be won militarily, as happened in the former Sudan, where the North and South of the country were at war between 1983 and 2005.
Until both sides believe they cannot eliminate the other, Yemen will continue to suffer a war that has seemingly ended all aspirations for development in the poorest country in the Arab world.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly