Collapse of the Houthi-Saleh Alliance and the Future of Yemen’s War
Collapse of the Houthi-Saleh Alliance and the Future of Yemen’s War
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 17 minutes

Collapse of the Houthi-Saleh Alliance and the Future of Yemen’s War

On December 4, Houthi fighters killed Yemen’s former president and their erstwhile ally, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Prior to their violent divorce, Saleh’s General People’s Congress party (GPC) and the Houthis (a Zaydi/Shia rebel movement) were partners against the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and its allies, including the United States, who are fighting on behalf of the internationally recognized government of Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Despite nearly three years of a punishing air campaign and strategy of economic strangulation by the coalition, the Houthi-Saleh alliance remained firmly ensconced in the northern Zaydi highlands. They also controlled most of the Red Sea coastal province of Hodeidah and parts of the southern uplands (a predominantly Shafi/Sunni area in north Yemen), including Ibb and limited parts of Taiz.

But Houthi-GPC cooperation was fraught and fragile, with both groups keeping one eye on external enemies and the other on their partner. Ultimately their differences coupled with Saudi-led coalition efforts to drive a wedge between them, cracked the partnership. What happens next is unclear. The academic literature offers few insights on how rebel alliance dynamics shape civil war outcomes.[fn]Sean M. Zieglar, “In the Shadow of Rivalry: Rebel Alliances and Civil War”, PhD Dissertation, Department of Political Science Duke University, 2013. Zieglar identifies a gap in the literature in bringing together studies of alliance formation with studies of intrastate conflict. He then argues that competitive rebel alliances can be both a source of strength and instability. Somewhat counterintuitively, competitive alliances between rebels may allow them to overcome traditional collective action problems like free riding, ultimately making them more successful against governments in civil wars. However, intra-alliance competition and the security dilemma within the coalition, may also lead to increased risks of relapse into violence once a civil war ends.Hide Footnote Yemen’s case highlights the importance of this lacuna, particularly in understanding under what conditions coalition collapse encourages negotiation or war entrenchment. This paper will explore the origins, evolution and breakdown of the Houthi-Saleh partnership with an eye towards understanding how they could shape the course of war and the prospects for peace. While difficult to predict, it is likely the violent breakdown of the alliance will deepen and prolong Yemen’s regionalized civil war to the detriment of Yemen’s people and regional security.

The origins of Houthi-Saleh cooperation

From its inception, the Houthi-Saleh alliance was in many ways a negative coalition, united by what they oppose, not in their prescriptive aims.[fn]See Dix, Robert H. “Why Revolutions Succeed & Fail,” Polity 16, no. 3 (Spring 1984) ; and Beissinger, Mark. “The Semblance of Democratic Revolution: Coalitions in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution,” American Political Science Review. Vol. 107, Issue 3 (Aug. 2013).Hide Footnote The foundation of their cooperation was in opposition to common domestic and regional enemies. Prior to the Arab Spring, the Houthis fought six rounds of conflict with the Saleh regime, which killed their leader Hussein Badr al-Deen al-Houthi in 2004 and laid waste to much of their home governorate, Saada.[fn]For additional reading on the Houthis movement, including its origins, history of conflict with the Saleh regime, its component parts, and its post-2011 evolution see: Shelagh Weir, “A clash of fundamentalisms: Wahhabism in Yemen,” MERIP 204 Vol. 27, no. 3, 1997; Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86,Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb, 27 May 2009; Barak A. Salmoni, Bryce Loidolt and Madeleine Wells, Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen: The Houthi Phenomenon, RAND, 2010; Crisis Group Middle East Report N°154, The Houthis from Saada to Sanaa, 10 June 2014; Marike Brandt, Tribes and Politics in Yemen: A History of the Houthi Conflict, (London: 2014).Hide Footnote The Houthis took part in the 2011 uprising against Saleh, remaining in the protest squares even after he agreed to step down as part of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative that transferred power to his vice-president, Hadi; they argued that the deal did not go far enough in removing the old regime. In support of further change, the Houthis participated in a national dialogue conference (NDC), the cornerstone of a UN-sponsored transition that grew out of the GCC initiative, which gave new political constituencies like them voice, but arguably too little binding decision making authority. Throughout the transition, the Houthis kept one foot solidly outside of the political process, retaining their weapons, honing their military strength and expanding their territorial control.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°154, The Houthis: From Saada to Sanaa, 10 June 2014.Hide Footnote

From the start, both the Houthis and Saleh’s GPC viewed the transition sceptically and became increasingly alienated from it over time.[fn]For the purpose of this paper, Saleh’s GPC refers to the part of the GPC that did not defect to join the 2011 uprising and remained loyal to him when he entered the alliance with the Houthis, first tacitly in 2013/2014 and later formally during the war. Established in 1982, the GPC has always been an umbrella organization that contains supporters from different regions, religious backgrounds and political persuasions. Under Saleh, it was an important source of patronage distribution. In 2011, many members defected, some returning to parties more suited to their political or religious orientation, like the Yemeni Socialist party, others forming new groups, like the Justice and Build Party, and still others more closely associating with regional movements, like the Hiraak. When Saleh joined forces with the Houthis, a group of prominent GPC members, many of them technocrats, sheikhs and tribesmen who strongly opposed the Houthis and/or had close ties to Saudi Arabia, supported the Hadi government, while maintaining their GPC affiliation. Others tried not to take sides; many of them reside in Cairo.Hide Footnote In particular, they shared a common resentment toward the apparent beneficiaries, the Sunni Islamist party Islah and its allies. These included Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (a powerful decision maker in the Saleh regime for 33 years, who led the war against the Houthis, but defected to join the 2011 uprising), prominent members of the Ahmar family (no relation to Ali Mohsen) and Salafi groups.[fn]For additional information of the variety of Salafi movements in Yemen see: Laurent Bonnefoy, Salafism in Yemen: Transnational and Religious Identity, (London 2011).Hide Footnote By 2013, as urban elites and international stakeholders were focused on the NDC, the Houthis began to upend the balance of power in the north, first by defeating Salafi fighters in Saada governorate in January 2014 and then by defeating a loose alliance of Salafi, Islah, Ali Mohsen and al-Ahmar combatants in Amran and other northern governorates prior entering the capital in September 2014.[fn]Widespread clashes broke out between Houthi and Salafi fighters in October 2013 around the Salafi religious institute, Dar al-Hadith in Dammaj, Saada. Dar al-Hadith had long been a point of tension in Saada and was rejected by the Houthis as a foreign implant bent on spreading Saudi-supported Salafism in a culturally Zaydi area. After enduring a punishing blockade imposed by the Houthis, the Salafis and their families were evacuated from Dar al-Hadith in January 2014 and relocated to Sanaa. That same month, the Houthis also won a battle against Salafis in Kitaf, Saada on the border with Saudi Arabia. For a chronology of battles in Saada and surrounding governorates see, Crisis Group Middle East Report N°154, The Houthis: From Saada to Sanaa, 10 June 2014.Hide Footnote In these battles, disgruntled GPC members and tribesmen, many of whom were motivated by longstanding frustration with the al-Ahmar family or by animosity towards Islah, began to tacitly cooperate with the Houthis, turning the military tide against their common enemies.

The Houthi-Saleh alliance was in many ways a negative coalition, united by what they oppose, not in their prescriptive aims.

The Houthi-Saleh alliance was not inevitable. Yemeni politics were fluid during 2012 to 2014, as established power centers like Saleh’s GPC sought to regain their footing and groups like the Houthis and the southern movement (Hiraak), which is dedicated to the independence of southern Yemen, tried to assert their own agendas.[fn]For background on the southern movement see: Susanne Dahlgren, “The Snake with a Thousand Heads: The Southern Cause in Yemen”, Middle East Report, Vol. 40, no. 256 (2010); Stephen Day, “updating Yemeni National Unity: Could Lingering Regional Divisions Bring Down the Regime?”, Middle East Journal, Vol. 62, no. 3 (Summer 2008); Crisis Group Middle East Report N° 114, Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question, 20 October 2011.Hide Footnote During the national dialogue, the Houthis flirted with a possible alliance with Hiraak, which like the Houthis complained of economic and political marginalization as well as direct state repression under the Saleh regime. Parts of the GPC leadership, mostly technocrats but also some sheikhs, considered adopting Hadi as its patron before the latter distanced himself, suspicious of anyone with close ties to the former president.[fn]Author interviews, GPC members in Sanaa, February, March and April 2012.Hide Footnote

When the Houthis invaded Sanaa in September 2014 on a wave of popular frustration with the Hadi government, they did so with the help of Saleh’s GPC and affiliated army units. Yet not all GPC-Saleh supporters were pleased; many were critical of the Houthis’ subsequent February 2015 announcement to replace the Hadi government with a “revolutionary committee.” Relations between the two soured and soon turned violent, as they clashed over control of the Saleh-aligned Republican Guard base in Raymat al-Humayd in March 2015.

But the Saudi-led military intervention that same month pre-empted a potential breakup. Saudi Arabia wanted to push back against the Houthis, whom they claim are an Iranian proxy, and reinstate the Hadi government. The Saudi-led military campaign targeted both Houthi and Saleh forces, arguably doing more damage to the Saleh-aligned army, which presented easily identifiable targets compared to Houthi fighters. This strengthened the Saleh-Houthi alliance in opposition to what is commonly viewed in the highlands as an existential national struggle against Saudi Arabia, rather than as a civil war, as it is viewed elsewhere in Yemen.

Yemeni critics of the Houthi-Saleh alliance contend that the nature of the partnership ran deeper. Some say that it was a highland coalition to ensure the Zaydis’ historic dominance over other parts of Yemen.[fn]Author interviews, Yemeni businessman from Taiz, March 2015; Hadi advisor, October 2015; Yemeni activist from Ibb, November 2015; Hadi government member, September 2017.Hide Footnote Southerners often saw it as additionally, if not primarily, an attempt by northerners to prevent the independence of southern Yemen.[fn]Author interviews, Adeni politicians, June 2015.Hide Footnote The Houthis, and to a lesser extent Saleh’s GPC, indeed do derive their core military strength from the Zaydi highlands, and both are staunch advocates of Yemen’s territorial unity. Yet the jump to a Zaydi versus Shafai distinction breaks down in practice especially in regards to Saleh’s GPC, which includes many loyalists and sympathizers from Shafai areas.

For both Saleh’s GPC and the Houthi movement, scepticism of federalism is connected to economic as much as identify considerations. Both were supportive of federalism in the national dialogue but their commitment is questionable and their actions give reason for concern. Saleh obstructed genuine decentralization during his 33 years of rule, preferring to centralize resources and power in Sanaa, where he could dispense benefits to patrons. The Houthis resorted to violence in 2015 in part because they opposed a six-part federal division schema, which would have turned the highlands into a resource-poor, landlocked region.[fn]The majority of Hiraak supporters also rejected six part federalism, instead preferring a path to southern independence or a minimum two-part (north-south) federalism.Hide Footnote The Houthis, along with Saleh-aligned military units, then marched southward on Aden, ostensibly to fight al-Qaeda, but effectively to consolidate political control. In doing so they stoked intra-Yemeni regional resentment and sparked a civil war.

Houthi-Saleh partnership: its components, evolution and breakdown

Until December 2017, Saleh’s GPC and the Houthis were partners in both war and governance, but their relative contribution to each was uneven. During the course of the conflict, the military-security balance increasingly favored the Houthis, as they appointed their loyalists in the military-security apparatus and worked to build tribal and military loyalties through a combination of financial inducements, fear, and personal relationship building. Saleh and his loyalists retained influence in the security services and tribal structure but were ultimately outmaneuvered by the Houthis. The Republican Guard, the army’s most qualified and well-trained component before the uprising, previously led by Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, today is a shadow of its former self. The GPC tried to rebuild and strengthen the Republican Guard under its leadership; but the Houthis resisted this effort, denying the GPC leadership of the organization.

In governance, the GPC was far more experienced and its relative contribution seemingly more important. In August 2016, the two sides formed a ten-person “supreme political council,” split evenly between them, which functioned as the executive authority. Two months later, they formed a “national salvation government,” dividing ministerial posts. Both sides chafed under the partnership, fighting over positions from the vice-minister level down. The GPC criticized the Houthis for not disbanding the “revolutionary committee,” which continued to act as a shadow government, overseeing decision making within the ministries and thus exercising real power.

The issue of resource allocation also divided them. Following its corrupt rule, the GPC accused the Houthis of misusing limited resources flowing into the north. In turn, the Houthis accused the GPC of continued corruption as well as engaging in a political smear campaign against them at a time when the focus of both should have been on supporting the war effort. The Houthis appeared particularly offended by the GPC’s accusations, since they were suffering the brunt of war casualties.

Until December 2017, Saleh’s General People’s Congress party and the Houthis were partners in both war and governance, but their relative contribution to each was uneven.

Prior to the collapse of the coalition, the political leaderships of both sides maintained that what bound them together – opposition to “Saudi aggression” and defense of the homeland – superseded what divided them. Some even suggested that post-war political partnership should be possible, although it was unclear what the division of power would look like.[fn]Author interviews, two GPC leaders and a Houthi representative, Sanaa, April 2017; GPC leader and Houthi representative, September 2017.Hide Footnote But the rank-and-file and hardliners on both sides were far less sanguine. Some argued for dissolving the political partnership and said they were ready to fight if necessary.[fn]Author interviews, GPC member and Houthi supporters, Sanaa, April 2017.Hide Footnote From the GPC perspective, the Houthis are intolerant, religiously based zealots, with little experience in governance, who want to grab power and return Yemen to the discriminatory rule of the Zadyi Imams.[fn]Zaydi Imams ruled north Yemen for a millennium before the 1962 republican revolution ousted them. All Zadyi Imams were hashimites, decedents of the Prophet Mohammed.Hide Footnote For the Houthis, the GPC is a corrupt party of the past, whose leadership cannot be trusted and should be held accountable for crimes.[fn]Author interviews, GPC members, Sanaa, November 2014; GPC member, Sanaa, February 2015; GPC member, September 2015; GPC members, Sanaa, April 2017; Houthi supporters, Sanaa, February 2015, Houthi supporter, Sanaa, April 2017.Hide Footnote

In August 2017, tensions between the two sides reached a tipping point when the GPC staged a massive rally in Sanaa to celebrate its 35th anniversary. It brought together GPC supporters as well as Saleh critics opposed to the Houthis. Many hoped that Saleh would use his show of strength to turn the capital away from the Houthis through sit-ins by armed groups and, if need be, limited battles, or at least announce the alliance’s breakup.[fn]Author interviews, GPC, Islah and Hiraak supporters, August 2017.Hide Footnote Ultimately Saleh disappointed them by taking a conciliatory approach. He praised the GPC and called up more fighters, a move that Yemenis across the political spectrum saw as a sign of his inability to oppose the Houthis.[fn]Author interviews, three Hadi government supporters, tribal sheikh, Houthi supporter, Houthi leader, political independent, two GPC members, September 2017.Hide Footnote

In retrospect, the damage to the relationship had been done. The Houthis suspected the GPC of conspiring with their enemies, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to remove them from power. In late November, a skirmish over control of the Saleh mosque in Sanaa ignited battles between the two in the capital. On December 2, Saleh, the consummate political opportunist, did an about face, calling for turning over a new page with the Saudi coalition and for his loyalists to fight the Houthis. Initially, it looked like he could win. But by December 3, his forces were surrounded. On December 4, Houthi fighters killed him, subsequently arresting GPC supporters suspected of helping with the internal coup.

What comes next?

Saudi Arabia and its allies, including at times the U.S., worked hard to drive a wedge between the Houthis and Saleh to weaken them militarily and improve the Hadi government (and by extension Saudi Arabia’s) bargaining position.[fn]This had taken a variety of forms. At the beginning of the war, Saudi Arabia gave financial and political support to GPC members who defected from Saleh’s camp and fled to Riyadh to support the Hadi government. By supporting a Saudi-aligned GPC outside Yemen they appeared to be trying to cannibalize the part of the GPC aligned with the Houthis, while at the same time marginalizing Saleh, whom the Saudis distrusted and blamed for brining the Houthis to Sanaa in the first place. This ultimately proved unsuccessful as the core of the GPC either remained with Saleh or refused to support either camp. As the war progressed, there were also several rumored attempts by the United States and Saudi Arabia to cut a deal directly with Saleh that would ensure a future for his party (and possibly his exit from the country), in return for the GPC’s willingness to turn against the Houthis politically and/or militarily. Speculation around this track peaked in August 2017 and many Yemenis and analysts suspected that Saleh had struck a deal with Saudi Arabia or the UAE to that effect.Hide Footnote These efforts have arguably backfired, producing, at least for now, a clear Houthi military victory in Sanaa. Looking ahead, the collapse of the Houthi-Saleh coalition is unlikely to provide a clear win for Saudi Arabia or its allies and instead is more likely to prolong and deepen the war in the north, an area that has thus far been spared the ravages of ground fighting.

A mediated settlement is a distant prospect at the moment. Before they came to blows, Houthi-Saleh competition offered a chance for Riyadh and its allies to offer a reasonable settlement, outside of the narrow parameters of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 of 2015, which essentially calls for the Houthi-Saleh surrender to the Hadi government. Given the GPC’s desire to return to a political process in which its governing experience and relative political popularity would have given it an advantage, it would have likely accepted a proposal. This would have put pressure on Houthi hardliners and given would-be dealmakers within their ranks a chance to negotiate an exit. But that opportunity has been lost.

Now that the Houthis are in control, Riyadh will be less likely to accept a compromise with a group that it considers an Iranian proxy. In fact, Saudi Arabia has already hardened its stance, increasing aerial bombardments and announcing plans to support Yemenis in retaking the north from the Houthis. Riyadh is framing events as providing a military opportunity, arguing that without the cover of the GPC, the Houthis are isolated and exposed as a sectarian, Iranian project. They hope that troops loyal to Saleh will defect from the Houthis and join with anti-Houthi fighters, shifting the battle in the coalition’s favor. Eager to push a military advantage, UAE-backed Yemeni forces have made some gains, most notably along the Red Sea coast, a relatively flat and hospitable terrain where the Houthis have limited popular support and pro-Saleh troops were an important part of the fight. They captured Khawkha, a city between Houthi-controlled Hodeidah to the north and UAE-controlled Mokha to the south, a victory that may have been helped by Saleh-aligned forces leaving the battlefield. The coalition is threatening to capture Hodeidah city, the north’s most important port, and Yemen’s third largest city, Taiz, and even Sanaa.

The collapse of the Houthi-Saleh coalition appears set to deepen the conflict and to complicate the prospects of a durable peace.

Threats aside, the coalition may once again be miscalculating. While Houthi-Saleh split does expose the Houthis to new vulnerabilities, especially regarding popular support as they will likely rely more and more on repression to retain control, but these do not translate neatly into Saudi-led coalition military victories and are instead likely to expand the war in the north and increase the suffering of the population there. Some GPC fighters and political figures will defect to join the Saudi-led coalition, others will stay at home, and still others will remain with the Houthis, out of fear, resentment to the coalition bombings, and/or lack of alternatives. The Houthis remain the strongest military force on the ground, and they retain considerable popular support in the northern highlands, in no small part the result of hatred directed against the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign and blockade.

While coalition military gains are possible, especially in places like Hodeidah province and Taiz, this would require ground troops and a political cohesiveness on the part of anti-Houthi fighters that has thus far been lacking. Any assault on Houthi controlled territories, particularly if it is directed at Hodeidah, a vital port, will have devastating humanitarian consequences in a country already on the cusp of famine. As in the past, Houthi fighters will be the last to suffer and may even gain from further economic strangulation as they control the limited resources that make their way into the north. Moreover, the Houthis will likely continue to retaliate with missile strikes into Saudi Arabia and against coalition assets in the Red Sea, actions that raise the spectre of regional escalation beyond Yemen.

For their part, the Houthis are at the same time embattled and emboldened by their victory. On one hand, they have moved quickly to consolidate full control over Sanaa, cracking down on GPC supporters and suspected enemies, through targeted raids and detention. They claim that the internal purge will only make them stronger against external enemies. At the same time, they are sensitive to the political dangers of alienating the GPC writ large and have used conciliatory language, saying that their crackdown is directed only against those who took up arms against them. They are trying to forge a new alliance with what is left of the GPC in Sanaa, although if they do, few will believe that the GPC there has any free will. The Houthi political leadership has also said they are ready to renew political talks to end the war, possibly an indication that they believe they are at a high water mark and would do well to negotiate from a position of strength. But it is far from clear what their bargaining positions are and not unreasonable to assume their demands have increased, making compromise more difficult.

In short, the collapse of the Houthi-Saleh coalition appears set to deepen the conflict and to complicate the prospects of a durable peace. In their actions, the Houthis are becoming more insular and oppressive; in doing so they are fuelling cycles of violence against them and alienating potential and former allies. For their part, Saudi Arabia and its allies continue to underestimate the Houthis’ military capabilities and their support base in the context of a war that is viewed by many northerners as an existential threat from both Saudi Arabia and domestic enemies. While the Houthis may ultimately not need the alliance with Saleh to continue the war, the political implications are important. Without Saleh’s GPC, the Houthis are more easily labelled by their opponents as a sectarian group aligned with Iran, but more importantly from a Yemeni domestic perspective, bent on implementing an oppressive theocracy based on the rule of Zaydi Imams. These perceptions and stereotypes are reinforcing zero sum politics and making future reconciliation more difficult.

This memo was drafted for POMEPS Studies 29,“Politics, Governance, and Reconstruction in Yemen.”

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