The former president’s death makes diplomatic engagement all the more difficult, but also underlines the folly of leaving Yemen on the backburner.
The photos were as shocking as the sudden turn of events. Mere days ago, supporters of Ali Abdullah Saleh were rejoicing in the streets of Sanaa after forcing the Houthi rebels—their erstwhile allies of convenience in Yemen’s ongoing civil war—to withdraw from key parts of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. Around midday Monday, a graphic video of the former president dying of a gaping headwound shook Yemeni social media.
Since rising to power in 1977, presiding over Yemen’s 1990 unification, and consolidating power in the hands of his allies after their victory in the country’s 1994 Civil War, Saleh has effectively built the modern Yemeni state. In the past decade and a half he continued to weather political storms, including the rise of the Iran-aligned Houthi insurgency and the emergence of the secessionist Southern Movement. Saleh even appeared to survive the Arab Spring, remaining the head of his General People’s Congress (GPC) party despite ostensibly handing power to his longtime deputy, Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi in late 2011.
Regardless of their recent behavior, cooperation with the Houthis remains vital for peace
But despite appearances, it was clear that his strength was slipping. Saleh’s finances were increasingly under stress, and his military network was weakened by defections and the decision by many key figures to sit out the conflict. All the while, the Houthis grew in power, gaining experience and new financial networks, removing the need for Saleh’s support. And while the two sides attempted to present a united front, tensions boiled beneath the surface.Saleh later re-affirmed his political dexterity, forming an unlikely alliance with his former adversaries, the Houthis, to push back against the Muslim Brotherhood and others who had gained power in post-Arab Spring Yemen. With their help he forced Hadi into exile in March 2015, effectively re-taking power. Even after the launch of a Saudi-led military offensive against Saleh and the Houthis, he managed to hold on, if anything gaining an odd popularity in much of the country.
These tensions erupted in the former president’s dramatic final days, as Saleh switched allegiances yet again, announcing that he was willing to "turn the page" and make peace with the Saudi-led coalition. Saleh’s forces turned on the Houthis in Sanaa, but despite Saudi air support, their victory was short-lived. Within a day of Saleh’s forces’ gains, the Houthis pushed them back, and Saleh himself was killed by the Houthis.
The question now is what is next. Particularly in light of the past few days, predicting the future would be a fool’s errand. But a few trends can be established.
Key among them is that peace - already a distant prospect - has receded further still. In addition to aiming to consolidate power, the resurgent Houthis are out for revenge: as far as they are concerned, they have been the victims of a dramatic betrayal. Many spokesmen have openly called for purges of Saleh allies and insufficiently loyal members of the alliance.
Simultaneously, international actors have been caught off guard. The entire roadmap of the peace process will likely have to change: after all, the Houthi-Saleh alliance, which was a cornerstone of internationally backed peace efforts, no longer exists.
Simultaneously, the humanitarian costs of the conflict are only likely to worsen, making life for the average Yemeni all the more painful. The Houthis unquestioned control is likely to pave the way for the justification of even harsher Saudi blockades on trade and aid into Yemen, particularly considering the likelihood of increasing Iranian influence over the group.
That doesn’t mean that the Houthis should be written off. Regardless of their recent behavior, backchannels remain crucial and something that Europe, being one of the few parties able to talk to all sides, may well be able to provide.
Over the past years many have warned against leaving the conflict festering, noting that, as time passed, Yemen’s mosaic of conflicts were only likely to intensify. These warnings have been emphatically vindicated by recent events. The resulting complication of the conflict makes diplomatic engagement all the more difficult. But it also serves to underline the folly of leaving Yemen on the backburner and the need to restart a serious peace process now.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.