Why a Killing in Yemen Threatens to Escalate War

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Saudi fighter planes bombed the presidential palace in Sana’a for the first time in almost three years of war. 

Photographer: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Switching sides in a war often carries extreme risk, and former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has paid with his life. Days after Saleh turned his back on an alliance with Yemen’s Houthi rebels, he’s been killed at their hands. His death came as Saudi Arabia appeared to be trying to tip Yemen’s civil war in its favor by splitting Saleh’s fighters from the Houthis, and could prompt an escalation of the Saudi-led bombing campaign. The rebels must regroup with reduced firepower, but they appear far from ready to give up. The future probably holds more misery for ordinary Yemenis already facing a humanitarian catastrophe.

1. Why might the fighting worsen?

Some analysts expect the Saudis to respond to Saleh’s killing, and the Houthis to react to his betrayal, with intensified belligerence. One option for the Houthis would be to attempt to get more support from Iran, which has assisted the rebels. “For the Saudis, the gloves will really be off,” predicts Peter Salisbury at London’s Chatham House think tank. Saudi fighter planes bombed the presidential palace in Sana’a for the first time in almost three years of war. As it is, human rights groups have documented repeated cases of the Saudi-led coalition bombing civilian targets, including schools and hospitals. Plus, Saleh’s death adds a new layer of revenge to the conflict. Violence could now spread across north Yemen, which borders Saudi Arabia and where both Saleh and the Houthis have allies among local tribes.

2. What’s the war about?

The Houthi rebels took control of the capital Sana’a in 2014 in opposition to the policies of President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi. He’d been installed under a U.S. and Saudi-backed transition accord after an Arab Spring revolt forced Saleh to step down in 2012. Yemen had little tradition of Shiite-Sunni sectarianism, but outside powers chose sides along those lines. Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia has supported Hadi, a Sunni, and Shiite-majority Iran has aided the Houthis, who are members of the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam. The war has become part of the struggle for regional influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

3. So the Houthis and Saleh were natural allies?

No. In fact, the former president had battled the rebels during his more than two decades in power. The Houthis were motivated by concerns that their community was being marginalized, an old complaint. The civil-war alliance between the Houthis and Saleh loyalists was always tenuous. Many saw it as a marriage of convenience -- motivated on Saleh’s part by a wish to regain the presidency and on the Houthis’ part by the reinforcement provided by Saleh’s loyalists.

4. What will Saleh loyalists do now?

Many could defect to the government’s side, costing the rebels significant manpower. Still, the Houthis retain a core of dedicated stalwarts, and that has been the key to their endurance, according to Adam Baron, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Their power, even without the support of Saleh’s fighters and supplies, shouldn’t be underestimated, Baron said.

5. Can the Saudis win the war for Hadi?

The Saudi-led intervention has reduced the territory under the rebels’ control but has failed to dislodge them from the capital and other parts of northern Yemen. The coalition has largely relied on airstrikes, deploying only limited ground forces. Using that strategy, Joost Hiltermann, an analyst at International Crisis Group, sees little chance of the coalition achieving military victory.

6. Could negotiations produce a peace agreement?

So far, intermittent talks sponsored by the United Nations have not borne fruit. The Houthis have ruled out restoring Hadi to power, as the Saudis wish. It’s possible the dissolution of the Houthis’ alliance with Saleh’s fighters will soften their position.

7. What of the Saleh family?

One key question is can anyone take Saleh’s place and rally his forces, according to Miriam Eps, regional security analyst at Manama-based risk management consultancy Le Beck International. His son Ahmed, a former commander of the Yemeni Republican Guard, is one potential candidate, she said, but is thought to be out of the country.

8. What’s at stake for Yemen’s people?

The war has already produced what the United Nations calls the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis. At least 14,000 people have been killed or wounded since the Saudi-led offensive began in March 2015. The UN has called on the coalition to lift a blockade of Yemen’s Red Sea ports that has raised the threat of widespread famine; two out of three Yemenis struggle to get enough food to survive. Nearly 1 million people have contracted cholera, and 3 million, out of a population of 28 million, are internally displaced, according to the UN. Yemen was already the poorest country in the Middle East.

The Reference Shelf

  • An International Crisis Group paper “The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa.”
  • A Bloomberg QuickTake on the Yemen civil war.
  • A Congressional Research Service report “Yemen: Civil War and Regional Intervention.”
  • Gregory D. Johnsen’s book “The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda and America’s War in Arabia.”


— With assistance by Lin Noueihed, Zainab Fattah, and Ahmed Feteha

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