Yemen’s former president is killed in capital as Saudi kicks up campaign against Houthi rebels

The death of Ali Abdullah Saleh comes amid increased fighting, with the U.N. calling for a humanitarian ceasefire in the country's deepening crisis.

Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks during a ceremony to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the founding of the Popular Conference Party, in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. CREDIT: Hani Mohammed/AP Photo.
Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks during a ceremony to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the founding of the Popular Conference Party, in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. CREDIT: Hani Mohammed/AP Photo.

Intensified fighting in Sanaa, the capitol of war-torn Yemen, has killed at least 125 people in the past two days, including the country’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Reuters reported on Monday.

The release of unverified footage showing fighters carrying Saleh’s corpse in a blanket was followed by Al Arabiya quoting a source saying that Saleh, who ruled Yemen for 33 years before stepping down in 2012, was killed by a sniper bullet.

Although he’d fought several wars against them in the past, Saleh had originally aligned himself with the Houthis, who ultimately killed him. But in a speech that aired on Sunday, he called on the forces loyal to him to side with the Saudis, who have been leading coalition airstrikes in Yemen since October 2015, and fight the Houthis.

The Saudis, though, said Sheila Carapico, professor of political science and international relations at the University of Richmond, needed little encouragement to amplify their attacks on Sanaa. “The Saudis are, you know, vindictive. To some extent, some of their bombing seems to be for the sake of bombing,” Carapico told ThinkProgress.

“And sometimes they hit the same targets over, and over, and over again in wanton fire … They’re destroying antiquities and reservoirs, things that aren’t military targets.”

Carapico said Saleh switched loyalties after strategic and tactical differences led to squabbles between factions loyal to him and the Houthis.

“The other thing is that there must have been negotiations going on, perhaps with the Emirates, and/or the Saudi, probably with both, where they offered him incentives to break with the Houthis,” she said. One rumor, “but kind of a strong one” said Carapico, is the that the Emiratis support Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah al Saleh, as his successor.

Nabeel Khoury, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told ThinkProgress that Saleh’s nephew, Tarek al Saleh, is a more likely choice. But, at this point, it’s unclear who will step in to be president, a position technically held by Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who fled to Riyadh, in 2015. But Hadi is not even a contender in the future of Yemen, said Carapico.

“He’s completely out of the picture. He’s consistently been referred to as ‘the internationally-recognized president’ because he has no domestic following or mandate at all. He only got the position because he was Ali Abdullah al-Saleh’s pick. The Saudis have been pretending that he’s the president,” she said.

Saleh’s death, said Khoury, who worked for 25 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, will make it harder, at least in the short term, to reach a compromise.

“He leaves a bit of a vacuum. He was always a pragmatist, where the Houthis are somewhat ideological. So there’s going to be continued fighting because the people around him are going to continue the fight [against] the Houthis,” said Khoury.

Whatever his incentive, Saleh flipped amid escalated fighting as the Houthis battle to retake Sanaa. And the Houthis, Khoury points out, were in the position to kill Saleh because there are no Saudi boots on the ground there.

“They had no soldiers in the vicinity, where they were bombing, and air action doesn’t change much on the ground,” said Khoury. He added that the Saudi blockade, which has prevented aid agencies for getting food and medicine into the country for weeks, did nothing but “achieve its purpose, which is to practically decimate the Yemeni population. It’s totally inhumane and totally illogical in terms of real military value.”

Saudi Arabia said the goal of the blockade was to prevent Iran from getting weapons to Houthis. However, both Carapico and Khoury downplay the extent of Iran’s support of the Houthis, and say that Saudi Arabia is only using the extent of Iran’s alleged involvement as an excuse to take over in Yemen.

“They [the Saudis] were panicked about 2011 uprisings. They were panicked about Tunisia, they were panicked about Egypt, they were panicked about Syria, but they were really panicked about Yemen, which is the most populous country in the peninsula and is on their doorstep,” said Carapico.

Turning neighborhoods into ‘battlegrounds’

In addition to the 125 killed, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that 238 people have been wounded as the Saudi-led coalition stepped up its campaign against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, striking positions around the city, leaving civilians trapped in their homes, without food and medicine, said an ICRC spokeswoman, noting that the Saudi strikes have prevented the aid group from getting vital supplies to hospitals.

Meanwhile, the United Nations, which has been calling for a humanitarian ceasefire, is trying to evacuate 140 aid workers from Sanaa. But Jamie McGoldrick, U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, said that the streets of the city have turned into a “battleground.”

The Saudi-led campaign, backed by the United States, has killed over 10,000 people so far in the conflict that started in 2015. According to U.N. figures, over half of those killed were civilians, many of them children. The U.N. Human Rights Council agreed earlier this year to investigate Yemen for alleged human rights violations in its killing of children and civilians, targeting schools, clinics and markets in its bid to fight Houthi rebels.

The conflict has also placed the country on the brink of famine and triggered a cholera outbreak that has killed over 2,000 and make thousands of other ill.

The U.S. government — both the Trump administration as well as former President Barack Obama’s administration — have and continue to support the Saudi-led strikes, with weapons sales, logistics, and refueling of jets.

“It’s clear that the U.S. wants to export arms, and the Saudis want to import them, and it’s profitable for the American military industrial complex. And so, profits are being earned in this country from killing brown children in Yemen,” said Carapico.

The Iran factor

Yemen is not an easy place to rule — it is highly tribal, it’s mountainous, it is politically diverse — and Saleh, who Carapico describes as more of a “manipulator” than a “dictator,” never tried to impose central rule there. Iran, Saudi’s regional rival, she added, is not interested in playing a big role there.

“They provided a lot of propaganda … I’ve yet to see hard evidence of [Iran supplying Houthis with missiles] …The U.N. has not found hard evidence, and we’ve never seen a photograph … nobody has ever found a photograph,” said Carapico.

As Carapico points out, if Iran was supporting the Houthis to the extent that the Saudi and the U.S. claim, then they would be stepping up their support now. But there’s no evidence of that. Khoury said that while it’s possible that Iran managed to send some supplies via boats to the Houthis, the fighters have had smuggling routes in place for years and know how to get the small and medium sized weapons they need for ground warfare.

Khoury also said that “Iran was not a big factor” in Yemen, with the Houthis relying on their skills in ground warfare against the Saudi coalition.

“The Saudis aren’t on the ground. There isn’t a single Saudi soldier in Yemen. Saudis do not have an army to fight with. They have a superior air force, obviously, and they’ve bombed the hell out of anything they can see for almost three years, and it hasn’t made much of a difference,” said Khoury.

She said she doesn’t see any “strategic thinking” on behalf of Saudi Arabia’s ruling Prince Mohamed bin Salman. “Clearly, he didn’t know what he was doing when he got into this war and thought that he could bomb them into submission, and so far, that hasn’t worked,” she said, adding, “They’re spending a fortune on a war they can’t win.”

The plan, said Carapico, is to “destroy everything” and then “buy people off” by providing key tribes with subsidies, favoring certain politicians, or just general “patronage” — something at which the Saudis have never excelled.

Still, there is no clear endgame for what Saudi Arabia would do even if it could defeat the Houthis — an unlikely outcome given that such a move would require total control over the country’s restive south, despite the presence of some 2,000 – 3,000 troops from the United Arab Emirates.

“National reconciliation [would be the only option] if the Saudis had any brains in them right now … MBS [Mohammed bin Salman] is a small version of Donald Trump — he’s impulsive, he works on generalities and slogans, and he’s not very good on detail and on strategy … [I]f he was being advised by someone mature, he would stop the war and launch a very strong diplomatic initiative,” said Khoury.

“The chances for this are not good,” he said. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, he added that what lies in Yemen’s future is “more blood, swear, and tears.”