Ali Abdullah Saleh and the conflict in Yemen
The lure of power

During the Arab Spring President Saleh faced widespread armed protests and was forced to leave office. Thanks to some unscrupulous wheeling and dealing, however, Saleh may yet pull off his bid to return to power. By Neville Teller

In Yemen – as in much of the Middle East – Islam is at war with itself. As Saudi Arabia′s Sunni fundamentalist ruling family and Iran′s equally uncompromising Shia-based Islamic Revolution play out their deadly rivalry, the fault-line between the Shia and the Sunni traditions of Islam defines the conflict, as on so many of the region′s battlefields.

But in Yemen the picture is particularly complicated. Here it is far from a clear case of two opposing forces slogging it out between themselves. No less than six main combatants are engaged in the conflict and the separate motives of each create a tangle of competing ambitions and a criss-crossing of Sunni-Shia boundaries.

To list the six antagonists: first, the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels; then the lawful president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi; next, AQAP (al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsular); followed by IS (Islamic State); then, Saudi Arabia; and finally – most surprising of all, perhaps –Yemen′s previous long-serving president, Ali Abdullah Saleh who, forced from office in 2012 as a casualty of the so-called Arab Spring, still aspires to play a leading role in his country′s affairs.

Marriage of convenience

Adding even more complication to a desperately complex situation is the astonishing alliance between Saleh, backed by the Yemeni security forces that have remained loyal to him and the Houthis, whose chronic grievances led to their uprising and the splitting of the nation. This Saleh-Houthi liaison is certainly a marriage of convenience, for it was against the Saleh regime that the Houthis, consistently complaining of discrimination, fought no less than six wars between 2004 and the uprisings in 2011 that led to Saleh′s loss of power. Yet here we have a working alliance between them which, as far as Saleh is concerned, could reasonably be interpreted as a renewed bid for supreme power.

Saleh′s sights are clearly set on ousting his one-time deputy, President Hadi and the government he has led from February 2012. During the Arab Spring President Saleh faced widespread armed protests. Finally, unable to restore stability, he was induced with great reluctance to leave office and transfer the powers of the presidency to his deputy, Hadi. The new president took over a country in a state of chaos. When in September 2014 the Houthis captured the country′s capital, Sanaa and installed an interim government, Hadi fled to Aden and from there, on March 26, 2015 to Saudi Arabia.

Yemen′s president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi (photo: Getty Images/S. Gallup)
Politically sidelined: the Houthis chased incumbent Yemeni president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi out of Sanaa and remain loyal to Yemen′s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. According to UN reports, more than 6,600, most of them civilians, have died in this recent conflict since Saudi Arabia and its allies launched their military intervention in March 2015

He arrived just about the time of the first Saudi air-strike against the Houthis. The Saudis, exasperated by Iran′s continued support for the Houthi rebels and fearful of a Shia takeover on their southern border, had decided to come to the aid of Yemen′s beleaguered president. A subsequent Arab League summit endorsed the Saudi intervention and no less than ten Middle East states agreed to unite behind Saudi Arabia to form a fighting force dedicated to defeating the Houthis and restoring President Hadi to office.

Factions in Yemen′s civil war

What of the other combatants?

AQAP (Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsular), led by Nasser al-Wuhayshi, a Yemeni former aide to Osama Bin Laden, was formed in January 2009. Although a totally Sunni organisation, its long-term objective is to topple both the Saudi monarchy and the Yemeni government and to establish an Islamic caliphate on jihadist lines in the Arabian peninsula. So AQAP opposes both the Shia Houthis and Sunni President Hadi.

The recently established Yemenite affiliate of Islamic State is just as Sunni-adherent and fundamentalist as AQAP, but it seeks to eclipse the al-Qaida presence. Intent on extending the reach of its parent organisation into the Arabian peninsula, it therefore opposes not only the Shia Houthis, but also the anti-Houthi Sunni alliance led by Saudi Arabia, the Sunni AQAP and Sunni President Hadi.

Yemen conflict infographic (photo: DW)
A nation divided: the Houthi rebels ruled northern Yemen from 1918 - 1962. Since 2004 they have been fighting the Yemeni government and al-Qaida groups. In September 2014 they took the capital Sanaa. Al-Qaida groups have been active in Yemen since 2009. The al-Qaida affiliated group Ansar al-Sharia, which now controls the regions Abyan and Shabwa, emerged during the mass protests against the former president, Saleh, during the Arab Spring in 2011

And the Houthis, to whose struggle for control of the country Saleh has now allied himself, what of them? They are a fundamentalist Shia group which takes its name from Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a revolutionary leader who launched an uprising against the government in 2004 and was killed by the Yemeni army later that year. The organisation′s philosophy is summarised with blinding clarity by their flag, which consists of five statements in Arabic, the first and the last in green, the middle three in red. They read:

 ″“God is Great,

Death to America,

Death to Israel,

Curse on the Jews,

Victory to Islam″.

The Houthis have been supported for years with weapons and other military hardware by the elite Quds force of Iran′s Revolutionary Guards. This has enabled them to overrun large areas of the country, including the capital, Sanaa, which remains in their hands despite nearly two years of military effort by the Saudi-backed coalition to oust them.

Cosying up to Moscow

The ferocity of the Saudi-led campaign, which has seen more than 9,000 people killed and 2.8 million driven from their homes, has alienated large sections of the population. It has incidentally provided Saleh with a political advantage which he is busily exploiting.

On 21 August 2016, during an interview on the state-run Russia24 TV channel, Saleh announced that ″the new government″ was ready to allow Russia access to all of Yemen′s military bases. His ″new government″, the result of a formal liaison between the Houthis′ Revolutionary Committee and Saleh′s General People′s Congress party, was a reference to a joint 10-member Supreme Political Council, launched on 6 August.

Anti-Houthi rebels in the vicinity of Aden (photo: Reuters)
In the grip of rival powers: Yemen has been in the grip of civil war for about two years. Houthi rebels from the north have overrun large swathes of the country. The port of Abden is controlled by government-affiliated forces. Despite this regular attacks are staged by the al-Qaida network or the rival IS militia. The USA is also involved in the Yemen conflict, running numerous drone strikes. The civil war has killed more than 6,600 individuals since March 2015

″We are ready to provide all facilities to the Russian Federation,″ he said. ″We extend our hand to Russia to co-operate in the field of combating terrorism.″

This was a bold play at power politics. He was cocking a snook at the US-supported Saudi coalition and providing Russian President Vladimir Putin with the opportunity of strengthening Russia′s dominant position in the Middle East following its active involvement in the Syrian civil war.

Saleh has also gone on TV to rile against the Saudi-led military effort. In doing so he has caught the public mood. Recent indiscriminate, or poorly targeted, bombing operations have struck hospitals, schools and markets. As a result the US military is distancing itself from the war and the French charity Medecins Sans Frontieres has withdrawn from six hospitals after one was bombed resulting in the death of 19 people.

Thoroughly disillusioned with the Saudi-led coalition, in mid-August the public joined in mass demonstrations in support of the new Houthi-Saleh governing council. Meanwhile the latest US-led peace initiative envisages a national unity government including Houthi representation. Saleh may yet pull off his bid for a return to power.

Neville Teller

© MPC Journal 2016

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