December 04, 2017
President Saleh is Dead. What's Next for Yemen?
The death of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh is a turning point for Yemen’s civil war. It will certainly lead to the fragmentation of the alliance between Saleh's network and the Iranian-backed al Houthi movement. It will likely generate additional fracturing in Yemen's already-kaleidoscopic civil war. It requires a deep reexamination of U.S., Saudi, and Emirati policies in Yemen.
Saleh was one of the most powerful figures in Yemen, and his influence permeated Yemeni institutions, security forces, and the economy. The United States and others had sought to break his pragmatic partnership with the al Houthis in hopes that splitting that partnership would drive negotiations for a political resolution to the civil war in earnest. This hope was founded on the assumption that Saleh would remain alive and able to command his network. The al Houthis evidently foresaw that danger to themselves and have tried to foreclose it by killing him. They may have succeeded in that aim. They have certainly transformed the situation in Yemen, likely not in a good way for the U.S. and its partners.
The al Houthi-Saleh partnership had been tense since its start in the 2014 lead-up to Yemen’s civil war, since Saleh and the al Houthis had fought each other in a series of six wars from 2004-2010. A shared short-term objective of securing power after Arab Spring revolts drove Saleh from power created the odd pairing, but simmering tensions escalated in late summer 2017. The al Houthi movement began to consolidate power and control of Yemeni government ministries over the course of 2017, moving away from the 2016 power-sharing agreement with Saleh. Saleh, for his part, had been privately courting a political resolution to secure his own interests since the start of the war and stepped up his efforts in spring 2017. The al Houthi movement accused Saleh of treason for this action in August 2017, at which point Saleh began publicly pushing back on the al Houthis. Saleh’s rhetorical and political attacks failed, and the al Houthis moved forward with consolidating their power in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital.
The tensions came to a head at the end of November 2017. Saleh distanced himself from the ballistic missile campaign against Saudi Arabia on November 28, noting he had not been one of the decision-makers. Al Houthi forces attacked Saleh-affiliated forces in Sana’a on November 29. Saleh and his General People’s Congress (GPC) party issued a call for his followers to mobilize against the al Houthi movement across Yemen early in the morning on December 2. Saudi-led coalition air strikes in Sana’a targeted al Houthi positions in support of Saleh. The al Houthi movement pushed back, seizing Saleh-affiliated media outlets, killing prominent tribal and political leaders aligned with Saleh, and pinning Saleh’s elite Republican Guard forces in a district in Sana’a by the end of December 3. The al Houthi movement announced Saleh’s death on December 4. Al Houthi forces carried the body of Saleh through the streets on a blanket chanting they had finally avenged the founder of the al Houthi movement, killed by Saleh’s forces over a decade ago.
Saleh’s death has created a power vacuum at the top of a large patronage network and opens space within the Yemeni political scene. Yemeni political elite like Ali Mohsen al Ahmar and others who had served as counterweights to Saleh may now seek to dominate the political scene. The al Houthi movement is already working to dismantle the top of Saleh’s network, which could neutralize further resistance to the al Houthi government in Sana’a. Tribes and forces loyal to Saleh will have to decide where their loyalties now lie, decisions with major implications for the outcome of the Yemeni civil war. Regional states and members of the Saudi-led coalition involved militarily in Yemen, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, will need to decide how to engage with Saleh’s political party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and the remnants of Saleh’s network.
Saleh’s death is also an opportunity for the United States to re-engage in Yemen to shift the momentum in such a way as to begin securing U.S. interests. Yemeni political reshuffling creates an opening to re-engage diplomatically to facilitate a negotiated political resolution to Yemen’s civil war. Both Iran and al Qaeda benefited from the war, which not only created conditions in Yemen for each to expand their influence but also consumed the attention and resources of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Gulf States may attempt to have Ahmed Saleh take his father's place, but this approach is very likely to fail.America needs to stop defining Yemen purely as counterterrorism and anti-Iranian missions and engage fully in driving toward a political resolution to the underlying conflict.
Al Houthi-Saleh Bloc. The al Houthi-Saleh bloc will most likely remain united in some form against a greater enemy in the Saudi-led coalition and the internationally recognized Yemeni government in the immediate future. The al Houthi movement will continue consolidating power in Sana’a. Saleh loyalists, including members of his party, the GPC, and tribes, will continue holding terrain in the name of the al Houthi Sana’a-based government. The outward unity of Saleh’s former patronage network restrains the al Houthi movement’s expansion. The tribes that have not participated directly in the clashes between the al Houthi and Saleh forces remain bystanders.
The al Houthi-Saleh bloc will likely fracture in the short-to-medium term, however, due to infighting within Saleh’s patronage network. The al Houthi movement will lose control of central Yemen, which had been secured under Saleh’s former network, but will rapidly consolidate control over remaining Yemeni state institutions in Sana’a. The GPC will fracture permanently, and GPC factions will revert to infighting over the direction and alignment of the party. Tribes that had been loyal to Saleh will throw their support behind different factions within the GPC, which expands the conflict in northern Yemen. The destabilization of northern Yemen will create an opportunity for the al Houthi movement to expand further.
Iran. Iranian influence over the al Houthi-Saleh bloc will very likely increase with the removal of Saleh, who likely helped block acceptance of some of the Iranian overtures.
Hadi-Aligned Yemeni Coalition. Forces aligned with the internationally recognized Yemeni government of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi will attempt to advance on multiple fronts of the civil war to exploit confusion in Sana’a in the immediate future. The coalition will remain largely unified against the al Houthi-Saleh bloc and will continue to take steps to contain internal friction among its own factions. Yemeni troops under the command of Vice President Ali Mohsen al Ahmar will continue their advance on Sana’a to seize control of the capital city. Hadi-aligned forces will continue to fight for control of Mokha district and Taiz city in southwestern Yemen. Southern militias remain deployed against the al Houthi-Saleh bloc, though political tensions in the south and the east continue to rise, driving insecurity. Yemen’s Islamist al Islah (Reform) party, which has representatives at high levels of Hadi’s government, continues to support the Hadi-aligned coalitions efforts against the al Houthi movement.
Divergent long-term objectives will fracture the Hadi-aligned coalition in the medium term, if not before, however. Hadi’s vice president, Field Marshall Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, could break from under Hadi’s government (with or without Saudi Arabia’s support) to consolidate his positions in northern Yemen. Ali Mohsen wields very high influence among northern Yemeni tribes and might seek to guarantee his own continued influence in Yemen. The contest within the Hadi-aligned forces fighting in might flare as the al Houthi movement weakens in south-central Yemen. An intra-southern Yemen contest will further destabilize the south and possibly pull southern militias into armed conflict. Rumors that the Islah party has sought a political settlement with the al Houthi movement might prove true, with Islah breaking its support for the Hadi government and beginning to back the al Houthi Sana’a-based government.
Saudi-led Coalition. The Saudi-led coalition will seize the opportunity to weaken the al Houthi movement. It will intensify airstrikes against al Houthi positions in Sana’a and beyond. The arrival of Ahmed Saleh, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s son, in Riyadh may signal an attempt by the coalition to negotiate a settlement that would cleave Saleh’s former network from the al Houthis and guarantee Ahmed Saleh a role in a future Yemeni government. The Emirati-led counterterrorism operation in southern Yemen will continue, along with Emirati support to various southern factions.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Islamic State, and other Salafi-jihadi groups in Yemen. AQAP will exploit the weakening of the al Houthi-Saleh bloc to advance the frontlines of Yemen’s civil war, particularly in al Bayda in central Yemen and Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city. It will continue attacks against Emirati-backed Yemeni forces in southern and eastern Yemen, though Emirati-led counterterrorism operations will continue to weaken the group militarily. ISIS will retain a small footprint.
The further destabilization of Yemen as intra-factional fighting escalates will enable AQAP to re-emerge in parts of southern and eastern Yemen as a stabilizing presence.
 April Longley Alley and Joost Hiltermann, “The Houthis Are Not Hezbollah,” International Crisis Group, February 27, 2017, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/yemen/houthis-are-not-hezbollah.
 Theodore Karasik and Giorgio Cafiero, “Russia and the UAE: Friends with Benefits,” Atlantic Council, April 25, 2017, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/russia-and-the-uae-friends-with-benefits.
 “An official source in the Congress and its allies in the political council: Decisions yesterday and earlier were issued without consensus,” al Motamar, September 10, 2017, http://www.almotamar.net/news/139372.htm; and “An extraordinary meeting of the General Committee and representatives of the Conference and its political, government and parliamentary representatives,” al Motamar, September 11, 2017, http://www.almotamar.net/news/139390.htm.
 For more, see Maher Farrukh, “Yemen Crisis Situation Report,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, September 21, 2017, https://www.criticalthreats.org/briefs/yemen-situation-report/2017-yemen-crisis-situation-report-september-21.
 Peter Salisbury reported that Ali Abdullah Saleh had brokered a deal with the Saudis that would have secured his or his son’s position in Yemen contingent on Saleh publicly announcing his split from the al Houthis. Peter Salisbury, “Yemen's future looks grim after Saleh's killing,” BBC, December 4, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-42228221#; and “Revealed a dangerous document, Saleh calls on the allies of the Saudi aggression to withdraw immediately,” al Motamar, November 28, 2017, http://almotamar.net/news/140796.htm.
 Noah Browning, “Clashes kill four in Yemen capital as anti-Saudi alliance frays,” Reuters, November 29, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security/clashes-kill-four-in-yemen-capital-as-anti-saudi-alliance-frays-idUSKBN1DT1ZS.
 “Leader Saleh sends a speech to the masses of our Yemeni people,” al Motamar, December 2, 2017, http://www.almotamar.net/news/140859.htm; Ali Abdullah Saleh, Facebook, December 3, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/Leader.Afash.Yemen/photos/a.682593908549871.1073741828.133018130174121/1022796641196261/?type=3&theater; “An important statement of the Yemeni people issued by the General People's Congress and its allies.,” al Motamar, December 2, 2017, http://www.almotamar.net/news/140854.htm; and “A statement from an official source at the General People's Congress, the National Alliance parties and all national forces,” al Motamar, December 2, 2017, http://www.almotamar.net/news/140853.htm.
 “Saudi-led air strikes support Yemen's Saleh as he shifts against Houthis,” Reuters, December 3, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security/saudi-led-air-strikes-support-yemens-saleh-as-he-shifts-against-houthis-idUSKBN1DX07O.
 “Conference: Houthis are trying to force the media 'Yemen today' to broadcast positions against the conference,” al Motamar, December 3, 2017, http://www.almotamar.net/news/140866.htm; Brecht Jonkers, “In pictures: Houthis shut down Saleh’s Yemen Today TV channel,” al Masdar News, December 3, 2017, https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/pictures-houthis-shut-salehs-yemen-today-tv-channel/; Saleh-affiliated Khabar News temporarily shut down, December 3, 2017, source available upon request; “Doubts about the killing of Yasser al – Awadi,” Barakish, December 4, 2017, http://www.barakish.net/news02.aspx?cat=12&sub=23&id=507872; Ammar Aulaqi, Twitter, December 3, 2017, https://twitter.com/ammar82/status/937343541386403840; and Ahmed al-Haj, “Saudi warplanes unleash massive bombing campaign in Yemen's capital,” Business Insider, December 3, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/saudi-warplanes-unleash-massive-bombing-campaign-in-yemens-capital-2017-12.
 “Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's former leader, killed in Sanaa fighting,” BBC, December 4, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-42225574; Ali Mahmood Mohamed, “Yemen crisis: Saleh's party confirms his death,” The National, December 4, 2017, https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/yemen-crisis-saleh-s-party-confirms-his-death-1.681252; and Ali Abdullah Saleh, Facebook, December 4, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/Leader.Afash.Yemen/photos/a.682593908549871.1073741828.133018130174121/1023402817802310/?type=3&theater.
 Jamal Badr, Twitter, December 4, 2017, https://twitter.com/JamalBadr/status/937657320020070400.
 Nadwa Dawsari, Twitter, December 4, 2017, https://twitter.com/Ndawsari/status/937716068235300865.
 David Hearst, “For Saudi Arabia, it's been Operation Shoot Yourself In The Foot,” Middle East Eye, November 25, 2017, http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/operation-shoot-yourself-foot-1469375052.
 Al Mnatiq, Twitter, December 4, 2017, https://twitter.com/AlMnatiq/status/937696107341275136.