It’s hard to imagine the situation in Yemen getting worse, but it appears that’s exactly what has happened. Reports this week that the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had been killed by Houthi rebels have now been confirmed, which means Yemen is poised to spiral further into chaos.
It all started last week, when fighting erupted on the streets of the capital city, Sana, between the Houthi rebels and those loyal to Saleh, two factions that until recently had been allies in Yemen’s protracted civil war. After five days of fighting, much of it concentrated in the southern district where Saleh’s relatives reside, 230 people are dead and the brittle alliance between the two groups has collapsed.
How We Got Here
To properly understand the situation and how it led to Saleh’s death requires a dive into the complicated and tumultuous recent history of Yemen. Saleh was president for more than 30 years. While presiding over an impoverished country, he was a brutal leader. Saleh claimed he was able to remain in power, outwitting his opponents, because he was to “dance on the heads of snakes.”
Robert F. Worth describes how Saleh ruled Yemen in his recent book on the Arab Spring, “A Rage for Order”:
Most Arab dictators have been corrupt and manipulative, but Yemen’s ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, brought these traits to a whole new level of cynicism and mastery. In the Arab world’s poorest country…he managed to rake off tens of billions of dollars in public funds for himself and his family, becoming richer than Egypt’s latter-day pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak. Saleh elevated blackmail into a tool of the state, redefining his country’s worst afflictions as ‘investments’ that could be used to bilk anxious donors like the United States and Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda was his greatest success: it put his country on the map and brought him hundreds of millions in military aid and cash. But Saleh’s real currency was power, not money. His greatest talent was for corrupting other people… He made sure that every potential opponent had dirty money or blood on his hands, or both.
When the Arab Spring began six years ago, it was no surprise that it eventually came to Yemen, and the people, bolstered by pressure from the Obama administration, demanded that Saleh leave office amid protests that grew violent. Elections were finally held in 2012, and Saleh’s vice president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi (incidentally, the only person running for president in the election), won, and Saleh stepped down. Foreign leaders embraced Hadi and praised the peaceful transition of power and successful dodging of a civil war.
But peace was not to last. In 2014, Shiite Houthi rebels from the north of the country took control of the capital, Sana, and forced Hadi to flee in 2015, taking refuge in Saudi Arabia. Saleh, a man whose wiliness had allowed him to retain power for more than three decades, supported the Hothis with millions of dollars that he had stolen while in power, and returned to Sana claiming a right to the presidency.
Cue Yemen’s Civil War
Since then, the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists have been at war against the internationally recognized government of Hadi. Each faction has powerful foreign backers. Saudi Arabia actively supports the Hadi government and has launched airstrikes that have killed civilians. Iran supports the Houthis and has been arming them with powerful weapons, some of which have been used to fire missiles at Saudi Arabia itself and U.S. naval vessels.
To date, more than 10,000 people have been killed in the civil war, and millions have been displaced. The country has been ravaged by disease and is on the verge of a massive famine. Saudi Arabia’s blockade of Yemeni ports continues, at least partially, worsening the situation. To complicate matters, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has a strong foothold in the country.
Earlier this year, cracks in the Houthi-Saleh alliance began to appear. Then, last week, fighting broke out on the streets of Sana, with both Houthi and Saleh loyalists fighting for control of the city.
In the midst of that fighting, Saleh committed a fatal move. He announced on Saturday that he was open to a dialogue with the Saudi coalition and the Hadi government-in-exile, and wanted to turn a “new page” and find some kind of peaceful negotiation to end the war—if the Saudis would end their blockade and stop their airstrikes. The Houthis saw this as a betrayal and no doubt used it as a convenient pretext to murder their one-time ally on Monday.
Now, in addition to fighting between the Houthis and the Hadi government, a new front has opened between the Houthis and Saleh loyalists. Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, vowed Tuesday to lead the fight against the Houthi movement to avenge his father, but it’s not entirely clear whether he and the other Saleh loyalists will be fighting for themselves or ally with the Saudi-backed government of Hadi.
Saleh junior said in a statement that he would “confront the enemies of the homeland and humanity, who are trying to obliterate its identity and its gains and to humiliate Yemen and Yemenis.” It’s anyone’s guess at this point who that includes in a war in which no side seems to be clearly in the right. Making matters worse, there is no clear negotiating partner to end what appears now to be a three-way war (not counting al Qaeda and the Islamic State).
Yemen desperately needed a way out of this conflict, which is brutalizing the people of Yemen. On Saturday, Saleh indicated that he would be the one to tip the scales toward the Hadi government. Now, that hope has dissipated and the country is worse off than ever. But of course, the war was never really on the cusp of ending, because neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran wants to capitulate to the other in what amounts, ultimately, to a proxy war that continues to ravage an already ravaged country.