December 08, 2017

The assassination of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh outside of Sana'a on Dec. 4 not only led to an increased spasm of violence between Saleh's supporters and the Shi'a Al-Houthi rebel, but has ultimately made ending a seemingly intractable civil war even more difficult. After more than two years of a conflict that has killed roughly 10,000 people, wounded nearly 50,000 others, displaced more than three million, and destroyed much of the county's infrastructure, it has become increasingly apparent that a military solution to ending the war cannot be attained by either side. A mediated settlement was seen as the only viable solution, and with the elimination of Saleh, the opposing sides will likely dig in their heels for a protracted conflict that will further decimate the poorest country in the Arab World. 

The marriage of Saleh and the Al-Houthis was always one of convenience based on their mutual opposition to Yemeni President Abd Rabo Mansour al-Hadi and his Gulf patrons, led by Saudi Arabia. For Saleh, who was ousted from power in 2012, his alliance with the rebels likely stemmed from his desire to either return to power or establish his son, Ahmed, as president and rule through proxy. Following the seizure of Sana'a by the rebels and Saleh supporters in September 2014 and al-Hadi's ultimate departure to Riyadh to escape the rebel offensive, Saudi Arabia cobbled together an alliance to counter the Al-Houthis with the stated goal of restoring al-Hadi to power. However, the underlying Saudi impetus was more to curtail Iranian influence at its southern borders than to reestablish al-Hadi to power - Iran is Saudi Arabia's regional rival and has been accused of providing the rebels with weapons and training.  With superior weaponry, a sophisticated navy, and dominance in the air (the rebels and Saleh lack warplanes), the initial outlook by the Saudi-coalition was that the conflict would be over in a matter of months. However, the war has become a stalemate, with al-Hadi loyalists and the Saudi-led coalition controlling Aden and southern and eastern Yemen and the Al-Houthi/Saleh alliance entrenched in Sana'a and parts of the north. Peace talks, which have occurred on and off, have been suspended since early 2016.

The Al-Houthis and Saleh have historically had a bitter relationship. As president, he oversaw six separate conflicts against the rebel movement. When Saleh and the rebels declared their alliance, it was inevitable that sooner or later it would begin to fray. The first significant cracks in the alliance occurred on Aug. 23, when the rebels threatened Saleh after he referred to them as a "militia" in a public speech. Three days later, supporters of both sides clashed in southern Sana'a, leaving four people dead and dozens injured: the two sides eventually agreed to a truce following mediation efforts.

The events that precipitated Saleh's demise began on Nov. 29 when the rebels tried to install surveillance cameras at several of the minarets at the massive Saleh Mosque in southern Sana'a, which is named after the former president. Guards at the mosque prevented the rebels, leading to a gunfight that spread to numerous districts throughout the capital, including around Sana'a International Airport (SAH). On Dec. 2 in a defiant act, Saleh appeared on Yemeni television to indicate that he was severing his alliance with the rebels and opening a dialogue with the Saudi-led coalition; the rebels called his announcement a "coup". Two days later, as Saleh was traveling southward outside Sana'a in a convoy, he was killed at a rebel checkpoint.

Saleh likely broke free from his relationship with the rebels both as the relationship had begun to sour due to mutual distrust and as a result of the ongoing political opportunism by the former president. By aligning with the Saudi-led coalition, there was the chance that as a major player, Saleh could negotiate an end to the war in return for a deal allowing his son to become president. The prospects of al-Hadi's return have become increasingly dim as the rebels have repeatedly rejected his return to power in previous failed peace talks. 

What will likely occur in Yemen following Saleh's death is a worsening conflict as both sides harden their positions. The rebels no longer have to accommodate Saleh's demands and are free to dictate their terms for any sort of negotiated settlement to end the war, which may include autonomy over more territory than before the conflict began and significant representation in any future government. The rebel goal is to continue to maintain control of Sana'a in order to force a negotiated settlement. For Saudi Arabia, which is reportedly desperate to find a face-saving way to withdraw from Yemen, they will either have to agree to many of the rebel demands, which is unlikely, or continue with the status quo and press on with the military operation – a more likely scenario. The ongoing Saudi-led bombardment and blockade of Yemen will likely worsen an already dire humanitarian crisis that could lead to what the UN warns could be "the largest famine in modern times." Worse still is that with the likes of both Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (IS) establishing themselves in the chaos brought on by the war in Yemen, a large poor and desperate population will make ideal recruits for militants.

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