Death of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh dashes hopes for a negotiated settlement.
Last Monday, former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed by Houthi forces, rendering the already-unlikely prospect of a peaceful resolution to the country’s civil war even more distant. Prior to his death, Saleh had entered into an uneasy alliance with the Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, against the Saudi-backed government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.
The attack that killed him came in response to statements that he made denouncing the Houthis, along with the expectation that he was changing sides in the conflict, aligning himself with Saudi Arabia against his former allies.
Known as both a shrewd politician and a repressive strongman, Saleh led the General People’s Party, having persisted in political life despite being pushed out of office in early 2012. Given his history as an opportunist and his willingness to disregard human rights abuses, it should come as no surprise that he sought to use the present state of instability in Yemen to retake power. Although he found common cause with the Houthis, neither he nor they every really seemed to trust each other. Being familiar with his reputation for political artifice, his Houthi allies likely expected that he might reevaluate his allegiances when it became beneficial to do so.
The civil war in Yemen has killed thousands and displaced many more, while blockades on supplies entering the country have put much more at risk of starvation and disease. Even with potential cooperation between the Saudi government and Saleh’s forces, the odds of a peaceful resolution to the conflict appeared slim. With Saleh dead and his loyalists now in conflict with the Houthis, who are themselves still actively fighting against Saudi-backed forces, such an outcome seems next to impossible in the near term.
While the immediate causes of the Yemeni civil war are local, the conflict is part of an ongoing cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, each of whom has used proxies in Yemen in an attempt to contain the influence of the other. The influence of Iran and Saudi Arabia has prolonged and intensified the conflict, as neither seems willing to give ground, or allow its proxies to give ground, so long as regional power is at stake. Saleh’s death has so far mainly introduced more uncertainty into the situation by pitting more internal actors against each other.
In the context of the proxy conflict, his assassination has strengthened Iran, breaking ties between the Saudi government and a member of the Houthi coalition. A continuation of the chaotic equilibrium that the conflict has entered thus far will undoubtedly lead to more suffering for Yemeni civilians, but in the narrow interest of the Iranian state, a resolution brokered between Saleh and the Saudi government would be an unequivocal failure, while continued uncertainty leaves the possibility of a more favorable outcome.
In this sort of situation, given the persistent climate of instability and the overlapping set of regional interests involved in the conflict, it is tempting to assert that the United States should keep a safe distance from the Yemeni civil war. Us foreign policy, however, has already become entangled in the conflict, given that the United States had heavily supported Saudi Arabia, with weapons and logistical support, facilitating the air campaign and the blockade that have so heavily victimized the civilian population.