Saleh’s last sigh

Print edition : January 05, 2018

Supporters of Houthi rebels attend a rally in Sana’a on December 5. Photo: Hani Mohammed /AP

The Republican Palace, which was destroyed by Saudi-led air strikes in Sana’a on December 6. Photo: Hani Mohammed/AP

Ali Abdullah Saleh. Photo: KHALED ABDULLAH/REUTERS

The Houthi militia kills the former Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh after he showed willingness to hold talks with Saudi Arabia, whose military campaign against Yemen has claimed thousands of lives.

The violent death of the former preSident Ali Abdullah Saleh, 75, in the first week of December closes an interesting and turbulent chapter in the history of Yemen. Saleh was killed as he was fleeing from the capital, Sana’a, after falling out with his erstwhile Houthi allies. A few days before his death, he had criticised the Houthis and held out an olive branch to the Saudi-led coalition, which has been relentlessly bombing the country for the past three years. Houthi rebels, who control the capital and most of northern Yemen, were aware of the machinations of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to split the resistance forces.

Saleh’s actions in the past few months raised suspicions among his allies, who were bravely facing the Saudi-led onslaught on their country. Saleh described the Houthis as a mere militia force. His eldest son, Ahmed, who was under house arrest in Abu Dhabi, made statements in favour of the Saudi-led coalition. Ahmed headed the country’s elite Republican Guards when Saleh was in power and was appointed the country’s Ambassador to the UAE during his father’s last days as President. Saleh groomed him as his successor. His Gulf patrons have now started projecting him as their point man in Yemen.

The contours of the agreement between Saleh and Saudi Arabia soon became clear. He was assured that he would once again be given a pre-eminent role in the affairs of Yemen. On December 2, Saleh publicly stated that he was willing to open talks with Saudi Arabia even as there was a blockade against the country and essential supplies and medicines had been stopped. The Houthi leadership said that Saleh’s actions amounted to treason and “a coup against our alliance and partnership... and exposed the deception of those who claim to stand up against aggression”. Saleh met his end on December 4 when he and his close aides came under a fusillade of bullets when they reportedly attempted to escape from the capital in a bullet-proof vehicle.

Saleh reluctantly gave up power in 2011 following massive street demonstrations in the wake of the Arab Spring that shook Sana’a and other cities. Despite the use of brutal force, Saleh could not suppress street protests. The Houthis in the northern territory had already raised the banner of revolt. A separatist movement was gaining momentum in the southern region. Large tracts of territory came under the sway of Al Qaeda and other Salafist forces. The Daesh (Islamic State) also entered cities such as Aden. An assassination attempt was made on Saleh in 2011. The mosque in his presidential compound was bombed heavily as he and some of his close aides were attending Friday prayers. A few months later, Saleh demitted office under pressure from his Gulf allies.

Saleh was succeeded by his Vice President, the ineffectual Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The Saudi government had a big role in his elevation. Unlike other Arab leaders who were deposed, Saleh preferred to stay on in Yemen and nurse his grudges. As the country slid deeper into civil war, Saleh, to the surprise of many observers, struck up an improbable alliance with the Houthis. During his 33-year-long rule, Saleh had waged wars against the Houthis on more than four occasions. Hussein al Houthi, the father of the current leader of the Houthis, Abdul Mallik al Houthi, was killed in 2004 reportedly on the orders of Saleh. The Houthis were part of the mainly peaceful revolution that overthrew Saleh in 2011.

Houthi anger

The Houthis, a branch of the Zayedi sect of Shias, constitute more than 40 per cent of the country’s population. They were the dominant sect in North Yemen for centuries. Saleh himself was born a Houthi but the party he formed, known as the General People’s Congress (GPC), had antagonistic relations with the Houthis for long periods of time. The Houthis were angry with the growing Salafist influence in the country. They were also upset with Yemen’s close ties with the United States and its growing dependence on Saudi Arabia. Saleh had become close to Washington after the second Gulf War of 2003, when he joined the U.S.-led alliance against Iraq. In the first Gulf War, Saleh was among the few Arab leaders who refused to join the U.S.-led military coalition against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. That action proved costly for the country. The U.S. imposed tough sanctions on Yemen and Saudi Arabia expelled more than a million Yemenis who were working in the kingdom.

The alliance between Saleh and the Houthi movement, which was forged in 2014, was essentially an arrangement to foil the game plan of the Saudi-led alliance to impose their writ on the country. Saleh was unhappy that the Saudis were favouring the Islah Party, the traditional rivals of the GPC. Despite his removal from the presidency, Saleh continued to hold political, military and financial clout. During his long years in power, Saleh had siphoned off billions of dollars from the country’s treasury and oil funds. But unlike many other Arab potentates, he is not known to have saved his fortune in secret Swiss bank accounts or spent it on buying villas in Europe. He used the illicit funds at his disposal to buy off potential enemies and keep influential tribal leaders on his side.

Saleh could have chosen a retired life outside Yemen after his resignation but he chose to make another bid to stay politically relevant. Saleh ran an effective patronage system. Most of the army units swore their allegiance to him even after he lost the presidency. The elite army officers were either from his tribe or were indebted to him in many ways. After his death, the political scenario has changed dramatically. The Houthis are now in total control of Sana’a. Saudi Arabia had hoped to broker a separate peace deal with Saleh and then effect a face-saving withdrawal from the conflict they ignited. Now, Saudi Arabia and its allies, if they want to end the war, will have to initiate a serious dialogue with the Houthis.

Separation again?

Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, never managed to have a lasting respite from violence. In fact, it was only after the appearance of Saleh at the helm of affairs of North Yemen in 1978, that there was a semblance of stability for a short period of time. Saleh had come to power on the back of a military coup. The country at the time was divided into two, with South Yemen coming under Communist rule after the British left the southern part of the country in 1967. North and South Yemen had gone to war in 1972 and 1979 with unification as the ultimate goal.

Saleh had an important role to play in the country’s unification in 1990. Communists in the South had become a fragmented lot because of bitter infighting. The collapse of the Soviet Union contributed to the demise of leftist rule in the South. The South agreed to unite with the more populous North on the basis of the promise of decentralisation of power and democracy. Saleh reneged on his commitments, leaving the southerners disenchanted and alienated. The South made an aborted attempt to secede in 1994, only to be overwhelmed by the superior military force of Saleh’s army and volunteers of the Islah Party, an ally of Saudi Arabia. The Islah is an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Islah fighters had helped the Yemeni army in their previous wars against the Houthis.

Today, the South has virtually seceded. Aden, the major port city of the South, is being run by a new breed of separatists, who are mainly supported by the UAE. The UAE, which is bankrolling the separatists, has a loathing for the Houthis and the Islah as well. With the exit of Saleh from the political scene and the dominance of the Houthis in the North, Yemen could once again be heading for partition. The military situation in the country is now in a stalemate.

Houthis’ fighting prowess

Despite raining “smart bombs” and banned munitions such as “cluster bombs” haphazardly all over the country and arming tribal militias and jehadi elements, the Saudi-led alliance has been unable to dislodge the Houthis from Sana’a or from the large swathe of territory they control in the north of the country. A significant section of the Gulf Cooperation Council members and tribes that were with Saleh have now pledged allegiance to the Houthis. Saudi Arabia continues to maintain that the Houthis are a proxy for Iran. However, even the U.S. has acknowledged that Iran does not exercise “command and control” over the rebels. The Houthis’ fighting prowess has improved since the Saudi military intervention. A missile fired by the rebels landed near Riyadh airport and could not be intercepted by the U.S.-supplied AWACS (Airborne Early Warning and Control) system.

There seems to have been some serious international pressure on Saudi Arabia to end its inhumane campaign. Even U.S. President Donald Trump, who is plying the coalition with “beautiful weapons”, has urged Saudi Arabia to end the blockade on Yemen. Trump told the media that Saudi Arabia was directed to “completely allow food, fuel, water and medicine to reach the Yemeni people who desperately need it. This must be done for humanitarian reasons immediately,” Trump said. The Saudi-led military campaign has been targeting schools, hospitals, markets and mosques in Yemen.

For instance, it had declared the entire city of Saada, which has a population of more than 50,000, as a military target. At least 10,000 people have died so far in the Saudi-led war, including hundreds of civilians in Sana’a. The country is devastated by widespread malnutrition and the spread of diseases such as cholera. The electricity grid and water supply systems have been destroyed. The United Nations has been trying to broker peace talks, but Saudi Arabia continues to insist that a ceasefire is possible only after the Houthis withdraw from the capital and other areas they have occupied and lay down their arms. U.N. resolutions have made demands on the Houthis, but Saudi Arabia and its proxies have been given a free run.