What war in Yemen looks like after Saleh

What war in Yemen looks like after Saleh
While Yemen's Houthi rebels feel jubilant to have killed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the long-term consequences will be grave and disastrous.
5 min read
05 Dec, 2017
Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was shot dead en route to his Sanaa hometown [AFP]
Yemen now is no longer the same as Yemen last week.

A veteran leader - sometimes called a long-standing dictator - was killed yesterday. With this man gone, the scene is different and perplexing, and the country has embarked on a new phase of strife and complexity.

Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was shot dead yesterday while on the way to his home suburb in Sanaa along with some of his aides. After his death, armed clashes in the streets of Sanaa died down. Presently, the city and the entire country await an unknown fate.

Days earlier, Saleh had announced the breakup of his alliance with the Houthis. This came in the wake of a war of words, armed clashes and disputes over money and power-sharing with his three-year Houthi ally. Saleh's decision to split the alliance was shocking and appeared to be a revolution against the dominance of the Houthi.

His last televised speech urged the people to confront the Houthi group, defend their revolution, republic and unity. He blamed the group for the deteriorating living situation of the people, offering to open a new page with the Saudi-led Arab coalition. However, the Houthis, the de facto authority in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, were fast to annihilate him for being "treasonous".
Saleh was killed by Houthi rebels on Monday [Twitter/TNA]

Saleh is dead now, and one single force is dominating the capital: the Houthis.

The people seem powerless nowadays and Saleh was the last one to openly say "no" to the Houthi group from within Sanaa.

The astonishing death of this seasoned politician has left his millions of supporters in horror, his family and tribe in grief. Even his political adversaries in the Saudi-backed Yemen government showed sympathy towards his murder and called for an alliance with his party against the Iran-allied Houthis.

The departure of Saleh has significant weight in Yemen. Politically, he ruled over Yemen for more than three decades and had been the head of the most popular political party in Yemen, the General People's Congress. Tribally, Saleh descended from Hashid tribe, one of the strongest - if not the strongest - tribe in Yemen.

Therefore, the thirst for revenge for his murder will be insurmountable, which means Yemen will continue breeding wars.

Saleh's son, Ahmed, under house arrest in UAE and the commander of Republican Guards, has vowed to avenge his father's death.

"I will lead the battle until the last Houthi is thrown out of Yemen... the blood of my father will be hell ringing in the ears of Iran," Saleh's son was quoted as saying.

When the corpse of Saleh was thrown on a Houthi truck after his killing, a Houthi militant said in the footage, "Hussein's [death] would not be in vain."

The militant addressed Saleh's corpse, reminding him of the killing of Hussein Badr al-Deen al-Houthi, the founder of the Houthi group. Al-Houthi was killed by Saleh's regime in September 2004.

Saleh's death: Timeline of three years of Yemen conflict 

Republicans versus Houthis

It no longer matters whether Saleh's 33-year reign was bad or good. What counts is how the post-Saleh war will look in Yemen.

Some Yemenis contend that the man was a hero, and he died defending the republic. Others say he was responsible for assisting the Houthis to invade Sanaa - and his death was his reward.

Saleh joined with the Houthis in 2014, leading to their takeover of Sanaa and the banishment of political opponents including the Islah Party and the Saudi-backed Yemen government.

Three years have since gone by, and the bitter honeymoon has ended just this week in Saleh's brutal death. However, his murder is not a prologue to peace. Instead, it is an introduction to war between two camps: Republican Yemenis and the Houthis.

Imamate rule lasted more than 1000 years in Yemen's north. The north emerged a republican country in September of 1962 after a bloody revolution with the imamate dynasty. When Yemenis remember the bleak past, they fear its return in the shape of Houthi rule. 

The future war will therefore be between those believing in the Republic of Yemen and the Houthis. The anti-Houthi fighting forces in Yemen are diverse. They could be called resistance fighters or the Republican Guards or the pro-legitimacy army or whatever - yet they all agree on one thing: Yemen is a republic.

On the other, the Houthis stand only with a few loyal tribes in the north. They do not believe in democracy or the republic. Their ideology argues that democracy is an imported concept from the West and it should not emulated.

This disparity of thinking will dictate a war that could take years to end. The word "republic" unifies millions of Yemenis, and will propel thousands of fighters to combat the Houthis even until doomsday.

The heavy price

While it is true the Houthis feel jubilant that they have killed former president Saleh, the long-term consequences will be grave and disastrous.

They have created enemies for themselves from within, in addition to their external foes such as the Saudi-led coalition. Consequently, they will pay the price dearly, and their losses will inevitably be tremendous - either now or in the coming months and years.

Saleh and his political party provided a fig-leaf of dignity for the Houthi group over the past three years. This camouflage has enabled them to tighten their grip, gaining a firm upper hand in Yemen's north. Now the group has no political partner; they stand alone on the battlefield. 

Just hours following the confirmation of Saleh's death, the Saudi-led Arab coalition poured countless airstrikes onto the capital Sanaa. President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi delivered a speech on Monday from Riyadh, calling for "a joining of the hands" to end the control of "the Houthi gang". He also ordered military units to advance on Houthi-controlled Sanaa.

Some fighters loyal to former president Saleh remain in Sanaa, and they will use their weapons at the appropriate time. The Houthis have killed Saleh, only to wreak havoc on themselves and Yemen.

Dealing politically with the Houthis will lead nowhere, and one sure thing is that the political solution does not seem possible with them. This puts the country - especially the north - in peril of further wars and more desperate humanitarian tragedies.

The author is a Yemeni journalist whose identity we are protecting for their safety.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.