Saleh’s death and its repercussions for Yemen

Moataz Salama
Sunday 31 Dec 2017

The demise of Yemen's former president has clearly changed the situation on the ground. But are the Houthi forces now more exposed or more entrenched than ever?

Will the death of Ali Abdullah Saleh lead to a cooling of Yemen's civil war or launch a new round of conflict? And if the conflict continues, will the coalition forces find themselves closer to achieving military victory?

Finding answers to these questions requires knowledge of the latest developments regarding the Houthis and the balance of power inside Sanaa in recent months.

It is a big mistake to view former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his supporters – both within the Congress Party and the army – as fixed elements, from the seizure of Sanaa in September 2014 until now.

Over that three-year period, the balance of power changed, and Saleh became the weaker party in his relationship with the Houthis. Indeed, he became more of a hostage in the hands of the Houthis, who captured all his sources of power.

Those evaluations that point to the likelihood of a big war between the Houthis and the Congress Party, along with wide-scale tribal confrontations in Sanaa, fail to take into account the whole picture. In particular, they fail to consider how the Houthis finished off Saleh’s power base in the regular army, the special forces and the Republican Guard.

As a pragmatic man, Saleh had no reason to suddenly announce his recent change in goals and loyalties – siding with the Arab coalition and the forces of legitimacy – unless he had already lost most of his power base, becoming a “burned card.”

This situation was a reflection of his serious weakness, along with his desire in the final days of his rule to suggest to the coalition that he was a hard nut to crack.

This point was illustrated by the propaganda accompanying his change of heart, siding with the powers of legitimacy and the coalition, and terminating his alliance with the Houthis.

It is true that Saleh’s move and change of heart would have given a big moral boost to the coalition and powers of legitimacy. It would also have denied the Houthis as an important card, as he had acted as their international and political façade for the previous three years. This, in turn, offered the Houthis certain benefits and shielded them from various dangers they would have faced had they been alone.

Most likely, his move would have contributed to rallying the remnants of his supporters. However, his murder eliminated an important opportunity regarding the rearrangement of the power equation in favour of the coalition.

Prior to his death, many factors played a role in eliminating Saleh’s influence, robbing him of any actual power.

First, he allowed the Houthis to control various institutions and power centres in Sanaa in a way that enabled them to be engaged in the tribal fabric. This engagement allowed the Houthis to acquire experience that permitted them to devise a formula with the tribes, the provinces and the power centres, deepening their involvement in Sanaa society.

In addition, the Houthis seized the former army’s depots of heavy weapons and missiles, some of which they launched at Saudi Arabia. These weapons will be the means by which the Houthis can raise the stakes of the war and add more regional dimensions to it. Some international reports state that the Houthis did not possess missile capabilities before 2011, and others point to Iranian manufacturing marks on the remains of exploded missiles put on display by Saudi Arabia.

Second, three years of war have created a societal mood of retaliation within a tribal society. Some of this has been advantageous to the Houthis and some has worked against their interests. We can say that the war has boosted a kind of political and military doctrine within the country, after the death toll reached 10,000, with around 40,000 injured, combined with catastrophes, disasters, diseases, extreme human anguish and a high human cost.

This situation will ingrain a kind of internal division, perhaps being totally to the Houthis’ advantage and further entrenching the mood of vengeance and war.

While Saleh was preoccupied with endorsing the international façade of his political position and that of the Houthis, the Houthis were engaged in “Houthinising” their political and military doctrine, pulling the rug out from under the feet of Saleh and his supporters and inheriting his influence among civil and military institutions.

Thus, reports point to the fact that there is actually no longer a Republican Guard, with its former members having joined the Houthi army and absorbed its doctrine. These reports enjoy some degree of credibility.

The latest news points to the Houthis’ attempts to transform the army’s military doctrine into a sectarian doctrine that is loyal to them. It seems that the most recent batches of military recruits comply with the Shia creed, which is instilled in the Iranian army and the Revolutionary Guard. One example is a military unit that has been trained in Sanaa named the “Karbala” unit.

The ministry of defence – which is controlled by the Houthi militia – has announced that all military colleges are open for those wishing to enrol for the year 2018, while there are two military batches that have not yet graduated. These colleges serve the army, navy, air force and the air defence battalion.

Through this step, the Houthi militia seeks to create a regular military built along sectarian lines, just like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Generally speaking – in light of the death of Saleh and the control that the Houthi's exert – the north of Yemen is actually closer to being a satellite within the Iranian orbit. The statements issued from Tehran suggest the link between the Houthis and Iran is about to be declared an official alliance. Iranian newspapers welcomed the killing of Saleh and military leaders and political officials have taken the same line.

To some degree, the killing of Saleh created a status of official Iranian rapprochement with the Houthis and strengthened the Iranian feeling of being responsible for them and the organic link between them. Here, the main danger lies in Yemen being transformed into a grand front for Iranian regional expansionism.

It is likely that it will differ quantitatively and qualitatively from Hezbollah’s front in Lebanon. For the Houthi front, a sectarian state is being built under the rule of a political party to the south of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This is in total contrast with the model of Hezbollah, which was absorbed within the political and civil equation in Lebanon. At the same time, the Houthi state will be mobilised against Saudi Arabia through the founding of a purely Shia state in the Arab world for the first time.

The recent coming together of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia was noticeable in relations with Yemen's Al-Islah Party. Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu-Dhabi, and Prince Mohamed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, met with Al-Islah Party leaders in Riyadh.

This indicated that the Arab coalition was seeking to reactivate hitherto ignored Yemeni players, or that there was no consensus on the issue, in light of the Emirates' strategy of refusing to ally with or employ the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood.

It also seems that Saudi Arabia had recently been convinced of the possibility of allying with the followers of Saleh and the possibility of understanding the future role of his son, Ahmed Ali, along with the rest of his supporters in the armed forces.

Certainly, this would give a moral and material boost to the coalition and the forces of legitimacy. However, this will hardly cause an overall change in the military map unless the option of civil disobedience is developed, encouraging and creating the conditions that will incite the spirit of uprising inside Sanaa and popular disobedience to Houthi rule.

It seems that this is what the nations of the coalition are aiming to achieve.

The writer is a senior researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. 

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