Contrary to what international media and various analyses have been arguing since Saleh’s death at the hands of the Houthis, Saleh’s ultimate actions were not orchestrated by the Arab coalition. Nor was this the former president’s first attempt to ditch his pact with the Iranian-backed Zaydi revivalists.
The unravelling of the militia’s improbable and destructive pact with Saleh needed no outside incentives and the only surprise is that it held together so precariously for so long. The North Yemen civil war between republicans and royalists in the 1960s, and especially the various Saada conflicts between the Houthis and Saleh’s forces since 2004, are illustrative of how their agreement defied the laws of physics.
Back in 2016, as noted in a previous column, Saleh approached the Saudi leadership with a proposal to turn on the Houthis in exchange for various concessions. His outreach was snubbed, but the development did not go unnoticed by the Houthi leadership. Also, last year, Saleh had called on the Houthi leaders to accept the UN peace plan, which requires the militia’s withdrawal from the areas seized since the beginning of the conflict.
Deep fractures in this pact go back almost to its establishment. In 2015, only a few months after taking over Sanaa with the implicit invitation of pro-Saleh security forces, which stood aside, the Houthi leadership unilaterally announced the dissolution of Yemen’s parliament and the formation of an interim government. This move was seen as an affront by members of the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC), who were still loyal to Saleh and had long been dominant in parliament.
The unravelling of this improbable and destructive pact needed no outside incentives and the only surprise is that it held together so precariously for so long.
Dr. Manuel Almeida
The formation of a joint government by pro-Saleh GPC members and the Houthis in the summer of 2016 only heightened the tensions between the two groups, as competition for influence, positions and resources intensified.
In August, during the celebrations of the 35th anniversary of the GPC that gathered thousands of supporters in Sanaa’s Al-Sabeen Square, the former president declared his readiness “to provide the vanguard with thousands of fighters, ready to go at a moment.” In retrospect, this was a warning to the Houthis, whose Revolutionary Committees are blamed by the GPC for the mess in Sanaa and the wider north of the country.
The key question now is what will be the impact of Saleh’s demise on the conflict.
The Houthi attempt on November 30 to seize the large Saleh Mosque, named after and inaugurated by the former president, prompted this week’s events. The mosque’s guards, loyal to Saleh, resisted, triggering a fight with the militias that left at least 14 killed on both sides.
The gains obtained by pro-GPC security forces in Sanaa following these incidents seem to have been quickly reversed by the militants. The retributions that ensued will go down as one of the darkest chapters in Yemen’s current conflict, as the Houthis rounded up hundreds of GPC leaders and members, many of whom are now feared dead. Among these are several members of the Saleh family, including Tariq Abdullah Saleh, leader of the elite Republican Guard and nephew of the former president.
Back in 2014, the Houthis employed the same sinister tactic when they cleansed the capital of Al-Islah’s presence, arresting and killing hundreds of its members and forcing some of the movement’s leaders into exile.
The north of Yemen now seems to be bracing for a large-scale offensive by pro-government forces, backed by the Arab coalition. In Marib governorate, just east of Sanaa, pro-GPC forces led by Yemen’s Vice President and former Saleh loyalist General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar are likely to advance toward the capital. In the west, pro-government and tribal forces will try to finally dislodge the Houthis from the embattled city of Taiz and possibly move on to the strategic Red Sea port of Hodeidah.
The Houthi leadership may be in the process of finding out that Saleh’s clout, though diminished in the last couple of years, will outlast the man himself. Not only will they miss Saleh’s financial resources, but his assassination, coupled with the chaos unleashed by the Zaydi militants, could bend the key tribal factor in the north towards the pro-government camp.
Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science