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The Killing of Former President Saleh Could Worsen Yemen’s War
The Killing of Former President Saleh Could Worsen Yemen’s War
Houthi militants stand in the house of Houthi leader Yahya Aiydh, after Saudi-led air strikes destroyed it in Yemen's capital Sanaa, 8 September 2015. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
Report 167 / Middle East & North Africa

Yemen: Is Peace Possible?

Yemen's outlook is bleak. It is crucial that the opposing blocs and their regional allies commit to a political process to resolve the conflict, but there is no end in sight. The immediate priority should be an agreement on humanitarian aid and commercial goods for areas where civilians are under siege.

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Executive Summary

Nearly a year on, there is no end in sight to Yemen’s war. The conflict pits Ansar Allah (Huthi) rebels and military units allied with ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh against a diverse mix of opponents, including what remains of the government of President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, backed by a Saudi-led coalition supported by the U.S., the UK and France. Ending the war requires negotiations leading to an interim settlement that must include security arrangements providing for militia withdrawal from cities, a return to the political process pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 2216 and agreement on a transitional leadership. While these are matters for Yemeni parties to decide during UN-sponsored negotiations, Saudi Arabia’s buy-in will be essential, spooked as the kingdom is by what it perceives as an Iranian hand behind the Huthis and their attacks on Saudi territory. Reaching agreement will take time, a luxury Yemenis do not have. The immediate priority thus should be to secure agreement on delivering humanitarian aid and commercial goods to war-torn, besieged areas.

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The descent into civil war has its roots in a post-2011 political transition that was overtaken by old-regime elite infighting, high-level corruption and inability of the National Dialogue Conference (a cornerstone of the 2011 transition roadmap) to produce consensus on power sharing and state structure, especially the status of south Yemen, where desire for independence is strong. The Huthis, a Zaydi (Shia) revivalist movement turned militia, thrived by framing itself as an uncorrupted outsider. They struck an opportunistic alliance with their old enemy, Saleh, against common domestic foes, including the Sunni Islamist party, Islah, the powerful Ahmar family and General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no relation to the family), all of whom had turned against Saleh during the 2011 uprising. When the Huthis captured Sanaa, on a wave of popular resentment against the Hadi government in September 2014, a majority of Yemenis were already disillusioned with the transition. Yet, the Huthis overstretched: trying to forcibly expand their writ over the entire country, they alienated new supporters and confirmed critics’ worst fears.

In March 2015, the internal power struggle was eclipsed and reshaped by a Saudi-led military intervention. Saudi Arabia views the Huthis as part of an expanding Iranian threat in the region. Under the leadership of King Salman and his son Mohammed bin Salman, the defence minister and deputy crown prince, it decided to attempt to reverse Iran’s perceived gains by pushing back the Huthis and reinstating the Hadi government. It rallied a coalition of nine mostly Sunni Arab states, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) prime among these. The U.S., UK and France have lent support to the war effort, even as they harbour reservations regarding the conflict’s necessity and are concerned about its possible duration and unintended consequences, particularly the near-catastrophic humanitarian crisis (bordering on famine) and uncontrolled spread of violent jihadi groups such as the Yemeni franchises of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS).

The intervention has layered a multidimensional, thus more intractable, regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran onto an already complex civil war, significantly complicating prospects for peace. It has also solidified opposing domestic fronts that have little in common save for their position on the Saudi-led military campaign. On one side, the Huthis and Saleh have wrought a tactical alliance, despite their mutual distrust, against what they view as an existential threat. On the other, the anti-Huthi bloc is even more diverse, bringing together a range of Sunni Islamists, (mostly secular) southern separatists and tribally/regionally based fighters who reject Huthi/Saleh dominance but have radically different visions for the future of Yemen.

After nearly a year of combat, no side is close to a decisive military victory. Huthi/Saleh fighters are ensconced in the Zaydi northern highlands, while the Saudi-led coalition and its Yemeni allies are strongest in Shafei (Sunni) areas in the south and east. As the latter have pushed the Huthi/Saleh front out of southern territories, where they were largely viewed as northern invaders, a range of armed groups, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and southern separatists, have moved in to take their place. If the Saudi-led coalition succeeds in capturing additional territory in the north, which it appears determined to do, the result is likely to be a protracted, bloody battle producing additional chaos and fragmentation. For its part, the Huthi/Saleh bloc is significantly complicating peace prospects by increasing cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia, a move that makes it more difficult for the kingdom to halt the conflict when it cannot boast a clear military victory.

Each side’s commitment to UN-led peace talks is lukewarm. Neither is defeated or exhausted; both believe they can make additional military gains; and neither has been willing to make the compromises required to end the violence. The structure of talks, too, is problematic, with Saudi Arabia, a core belligerent, conspicuously absent. Prospects for a ceasefire and productive Yemeni talks would be helped by direct high-level consultations between the Huthi/Saleh bloc and Saudi Arabia over sensitive issues such as the border and the Huthis’ relationship with Iran. Moreover, to succeed, UN-led negotiations must be made more inclusive, expanding as soon as possible beyond the Yemeni government and Huthi/Saleh delegations to incorporate other Yemeni stakeholders.

The immediate future looks bleak. The war has devastated an already weak infrastructure, opened vast opportunities for AQAP and IS to expand and widened intra-Yemeni political, regional and confessional divides. The UN estimates that at least 6,000 people have been killed, including over 2,800 civilians, the majority by Saudi-led airstrikes. Even if the UN can broker an agreement to end major combat, the road to lasting peace will be long and difficult. The country is broken to a degree that requires significant time, resources and new political agreements to overcome. Without a breakthrough, it will continue descent into state disintegration, territorial fragmentation and sectarian violence. That trajectory would have calamitous consequences for Yemen’s population and severely undermine Gulf security, particularly Saudi Arabia’s, by fomenting a new refugee crisis and feeding radicalisation in the region to the benefit of violent jihadi groups.

Recommendations

To achieve a general ceasefire and return to a Yemeni political process

To all belligerents: 

  1. Abide by the law of war, refrain from media campaigns that label opponents in sectarian terms or as agents of foreign states and express support for and actively work toward a ceasefire and negotiations leading to a durable settlement. 

To Saudi Arabia, the Huthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress Party (GPC):

  1. Open immediate high-level consultations on priority issues, such as de-escalating tensions on the border and the Huthis’ relationship with Iran, that could facilitate a UN-brokered ceasefire and meaningful intra-Yemeni talks. 

To the government of Yemen, the Huthis and Saleh’s GPC:

  1. Participate without delay or preconditions in the next round of UN-brokered negotiations on an agenda specified by the UN special envoy.

To the Saudi-led coalition, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE):

  1. Encourage government support for the UN special envoy’s negotiating agenda, including implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 and compromises needed to implement it and revive the Yemeni political process.

To the UN Security Council permanent members, especially the U.S., UK and France:

  1. Back the UN special envoy, including by supporting a follow-up Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire by all sides and an inclusive political compromise. 
     
  2. Condition the supply of weapon systems and ammunition to Saudi-led coalition members on their support for an immediate ceasefire and inclusive political negotiations. 
     
  3. Encourage high-level, direct consultations between Saudi Arabia and the Huthi/Saleh bloc.

To improve the chances of a durable political settlement

To the UN special envoy:

  1. Improve the negotiating framework by:
     
    1. Integrating regional security concerns and economic reconstruction into negotiations by supporting high-level official consultations and unofficial Track II discussions between Saudi Arabia and Yemeni stakeholders, particularly the Huthis and Saleh’s GPC, that are separate from but inform the intra-Yemeni negotiations. 
       
    2. Expanding negotiations to include, as soon as possible, additional Yemeni stakeholders, among them the Sunni Islamist party Islah, Salafi groups and the Southern Resistance, so as to ensure a durable ceasefire; to be followed by inclusion of civil-society groups, political parties and women’s organisations, to help resolve outstanding political challenges; and
       
    3. Prioritising three political challenges: i) agreement on a broadly acceptable executive leadership and more inclusive government until elections; ii) a mechanism for resolving the future status of the south and other regions seeking greater devolution; and iii) accountability and national reconciliation.

To Ansar Allah (the Huthis): 

  1. De-escalate the conflict and build confidence by: releasing political prisoners; allowing unhindered humanitarian and commercial access to civilians in Taiz; and suspending hostilities on the Saudi border for a specified period to show capacity to do so and goodwill ahead of UN talks. 

To Saleh and the GPC: 

  1. Work with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemeni stakeholders to agree on the former president’s departure from Yemen for a set period of time as part of the larger political settlement, ideally along with General Ali Mohsen and President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi. 

To President Hadi and the Yemeni government:

  1. De-escalate the conflict and support compromise by: refraining from calling for the military “liberation” of Sanaa and other cities; facilitating unhindered humanitarian and commercial access to all parts of Yemen, including Huthi-controlled areas; and recognising publicly the need for political reconciliation and a revived Yemeni political process. 

To Yemeni parties and organisations currently left out of the UN negotiating framework, except groups that reject politics:

  1. Lobby for inclusion in the negotiations and accept an invitation, if offered, to participate in them, as well as in Track II discussions, without preconditions.
     
  2. Select representatives for negotiations and prepare proposals for elements of a political settlement, especially on sensitive issues such as state structure, national power sharing and militia disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR). 

To the kingdom of Saudi Arabia:

  1. Communicate specific security requirements and political concerns, especially regarding the border, disarmament issues, and the Huthis’ relationship with Iran, directly to all Yemeni stakeholders involved in negotiations and the UN special envoy.
     
  2. Participate, if requested by the UN special envoy, in official consultations and unofficial Track II discussions supporting Yemeni negotiations; make specific proposals for reconstruction, including in the north, and work toward incorporating Yemen into the Gulf Cooperation Council.
     
  3. Suspend military action in the capital, Sanaa, for a specified period of time to show goodwill ahead of UN negotiations.

To the UAE:

  1. Assist in political resolution of the southern issue by helping the Southern Resistance select its representation for future talks.

To the Islamic Republic of Iran:

  1. Approach the Yemen crisis as a low-cost, high-value opportunity to reduce tensions with Saudi Arabia by: 
     
    1. Ending inflammatory rhetoric that stokes fears of Iranian intent to use Yemen to threaten the security of Saudi Arabia;
       
    2. Encouraging the Huthis to participate constructively in both UN negotiations and direct discussions with Saudi Arabia on resolving the conflict; and
       
    3. Discussing directly with Saudi Arabia ways of de-escalating tensions in the region, including through actions in Yemen that could start with ending any existing military support to the Huthis.

Brussels, 9 February 2016

Huthi rebel fighters inspect the damage after a reported air strike carried out by the Saudi-led coalition targeted the presidential palace in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, on 5 December 2017. Mohammed Huwais/AFP

The Killing of Former President Saleh Could Worsen Yemen’s War

The dramatic collapse of the Huthi-Saleh alliance is likely to prolong Yemen’s war and the suffering of its people. After killing former President Saleh, the Huthis, viewed by their enemies in Riyadh as Iranian proxies, are firmly in control of the capital. Neither they, nor the Saudis, are in a mood for compromise.

What exactly happened and what led up to this sudden twist in Yemen's devastating war?

On 4 December, Huthi fighters killed Yemen’s former president and their erstwhile ally, Ali Abdullah Saleh. His violent death and the military defeat of his loyalists in Sanaa were the culmination of months of growing tensions between Saleh’s General People’s Congress party (GPC) and the Huthis. Before coming to blows, the Huthi-Saleh alliance had fought the Saudi-led coalition, which is backing the internationally recognised government of Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to a stalemate. After nearly three years of war, including a punishing air campaign and a policy of economic strangulation, they still controlled the north, where the majority of Yemen’s population lives. It came at a high human cost: Yemen is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world with seven million on the brink of famine, over three million internally displaced and an expected one million cases of cholera by the end of the year.

The Huthis and Saleh had a history of distrust and violence, fighting six rounds of conflict between 2004 and 2009. As partners against the Saudi-led coalition, they fought over positions in the government, accused each other of corruption and engaged in an off-and-on again war of words in the media. Overtime, the Huthis consolidated control over the military-security apparatus, but the exact balance of power in the tribes and loyalties within some military units were unclear. By August 2017, when Saleh staged a rally in Sanaa to celebrate the GPC’s 35th anniversary, the Huthis suspected he was planning to turn against them with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). To his followers’ disappointment, Saleh failed to act, but four months later he did, a decision that would cost him his life and confirm the Huthis’ military superiority.

The trigger for the violence was a 29 November clash between Saleh fighters and Huthi loyalists over control of the Saleh Mosque, a major landmark in the capital that was built and opened by Saleh a decade ago. Local mediation failed to cool tensions and on 2 December, Saleh lit a match by calling his followers to take up arms against the Huthis. He also announced his willingness to “turn a new page” with the Saudi-led coalition, a statement that confirmed his treachery to the Huthis and played poorly with some of his base, who oppose the Huthis but Saudi military actions in Yemen even more.

For a brief moment, it looked like Saleh could win. The GPC and Saudi-led coalition media outlets reported victories in Sanaa, saying that Saleh’s Republican Guard forces had taken over the airport, strategic military bases and government buildings. But their euphoria was short-lived. On 3 December, the Huthis responded militarily and by 4 December a short, bloody battle on the streets of the capital had turned the tables on Saleh’s forces. Critically, the tribes around Sanaa failed to come to Saleh’s defense. Most remained neutral, allowing Huthi reinforcements to enter the city. While Saleh and his party enjoyed a great deal of popular support and sympathy, this did not translate into a hard-power advantage.

What has been local players’ reaction to his death?

The most common reaction is shock. Saleh has been part of Yemen’s ruling structure since he became president in 1978. He was known as a wily political survivor, hated by some and loved by others. Many had been calling on him to leave political life since the political uprising against him in 2011, but his violent death and the lack of any clear leadership for his party will likely complicate the conflict.

For the GPC, Saleh’s death and his forces’ military defeat in Sanaa are devastating political and military blows. Saleh’s son and former Republican Guard Commander Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh is in exile. His nephew and former Special Forces Commander Tareq Saleh was also killed in Sanaa. The party had already suffered a series of defections in the popular uprising against his rule in 2011, and it is very possible that it will fragment even further. During the current war, some prominent members supported the Hadi government, although most stayed with Saleh. With Saleh gone, some may join Hadi’s side, while many in Sanaa will support the Huthis, mainly from a mix of fear, lack of better options and common hostility to the Saudi air campaign.

For the Huthis, his death is viewed as a victory. Many in the group had long wanted revenge for the death of their leader, Hussein Badr al-Deen al-Huthi, at the hands of President Saleh’s forces in 2004. Equally important, they see it as a justified response to Saleh’s about-face against them.

Does this alter Yemen’s local balance of power?

For the moment, the Huthis are the winners and it is possible that they will continue to consolidate military and political control of the north. They have defeated their only real competitor on the ground and in doing so have intimidated those who may want to oppose them in the future. But there also are important risks for them. Killing Saleh, his family members and high-ranking party members, plus continued Huthi raids on homes and detention of GPC officials suspected of taking up arms against them, is feeding future cycles of revenge.

The Huthis are aware of the political risks of alienating the GPC even further and are publicly making a distinction between Saleh supporters who took up arms against them and the rest of the party, whom they say they will not hold responsible for recent events and still consider brothers. But statements cannot undo actions. The majority of the GPC is afraid and deeply resentful, creating a situation in which the Huthis may increasingly have to rely on force and intimidation to maintain control.

There is a chance that the military balance in the north could still shift – albeit a small one. Some are pinning their hopes on Saleh’s son Ahmed who vowed revenge for this father’s death. The UAE kept him under “soft” house arrest in Abu Dhabi during the war to have him available as back-up, a kind of wild card, for a moment like this. While he is influential within the old Republican Guard, the most recent events demonstrated these forces’ weakness and disarray. Opposing the Huthis militarily would require some reconstitution of these troops, support from the tribes around Sanaa and cooperation between Ahmed Ali and his bitter enemy, Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the vice president under Hadi, who commands forces in Marib.

Thus far, and despite media bluster from Hadi calling for troops to march on Sanaa or for Yemenis to rise up against the Huthis, there is little indication that troops are prepared for such action. Instead, the coalition has intensified its air campaign in Sanaa, something that will not dislodge the Huthis and works to their advantage by increasing anti-Saudi sentiment.

How does the splintering of the Huthi-Saleh alliance affect the regional actors engaged in the war and the prospects for peace?

It is difficult to see how this result plays to the advantage of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Their policy of trying to split the Huthi-Saleh alliance has backfired dramatically, resulting in a Huthi military victory. As Crisis Group warned in a September 2017 briefing, the result of a clash between the two sides would be unlikely to redound in Saudi’s favor. More likely, it would produce a Huthi win or a protracted fight in the north.

If Saudi Arabia wanted to support a negotiated end to the war, the prospects for doing so now have become bleaker. The Huthis have said they are ready to talk, but their substantive demands will no doubt be even more out of line with what Saudi Arabia and their Yemeni allies are willing to accept. It is difficult to see Saudi Arabia encouraging compromise and negotiation at this stage now that the Huthis are clearly in charge.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE may try to find a silver lining in recent events. From their perspective, without the cover of Saleh’s GPC and the veneer of nationalism that came with it, the Huthis will be exposed as the narrow, sectarian Iranian project that the coalition and their Yemeni allies accuse them of being. To some extent, they are right that the GPC provided important political cover and the appearance of political inclusion. But the narrowing of political support for the Huthis will not necessarily trigger the popular uprising that the coalition hopes to incite.

In fact, absent a clear military advantage for the anti-Huthi side or an end to the war and a return to politics, populations in the north are now far less likely to oppose the Huthis, lest they face the same fate as Saleh. Over time, opposition to the Huthis may well rise, especially if they fail to govern adequately, but this does not guarantee revolt. Also, the split with Saleh’s GPC does not erase widespread and deep popular resentment toward the Hadi government and the coalition for a brutal air campaign and economic blockade that are killing the country. As long as these policies continue, the Huthis will have the opportunity to stand behind the banner of nationalism and defending Yemen.

Iran once again stands to gain. While the Huthi-Saleh fighting was an internal power struggle not of Iran’s making, Tehran will benefit if the Huthis succeed in consolidating their control of the north, including the capital. Politically isolated, the Huthis are allies but not puppets of Iran. There is increasing evidence of Iranian military support to the Huthis, including for their missile program. The 4 November rocket attack on Riyadh’s international airport shows the significance of this capability. The Huthis have threatened the UAE as well, claiming to have launched missiles in its direction.  Iran’s relatively low-cost investment is paying off in spades, bogging Saudi Arabia down in a war that is unwinnable, costly and damaging to its reputation.

What can be done to advance the cause of peace in Yemen now?

At the moment, the prospects for peace are slim to none. That said, the need for a political solution is ever more urgent. Yemen is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, but following the 4 November missile strike on Riyadh, the situation deteriorated dramatically as the Saudi-led coalition shut off all access points to Huthi-controlled areas. Then, just as they started easing up on the blockade, fighting broke out in Sanaa between Saleh and the Huthis, and this once again curbed even humanitarian flights into the country.

Regardless of the course of the war, all ports of entry should be fully opened to humanitarian and commercial goods, including Hodeida port and Sanaa airport, which has been closed to commercial fights since August 2016. Saudi Arabia already had signalled that doing so will require additional security checks, but will be even more insistent now to address the coalition’s concerns about weapons shipments to the Huthis.

At the political level, recent developments should confirm that the current military approach toward the Huthis is failing and that new thinking is needed. Attempting to shift the military dynamics against them would require significant ground troops and cohesiveness on the anti-Huthi side that has been absent thus far. Most importantly, if attempted, it would come at an extraordinary human cost.

Yemen’s war is going from bad to worse. Instead of watching the next chapter unfold, the UN Security Council should pass a resolution calling on all sides to agree to a ceasefire and political negotiations. This will require compromises from all sides. While this may be unappealing to the coalition and the anti-Huthi bloc, a return to politics, not a continuation of the war, is arguably the best way to counter-balance the Huthis. It is certainly the only way to avoid famine, the spread of cholera and further economic devastation – and the long-term instability that these will cause.