Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed Monday near Sana’a, the country’s capital, by Houthi rebels, a group he was allied with until last week when he switched sides in Yemen’s civil war.
Saleh, described as “Yemen’s wiliest politician” was the country’s president for over three decades until he was forced from power in 2012, following a popular uprising. He was replaced by his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. In 2014, with the help of Saleh and his supporters, the Houthi rebels, made up of Yemen’s Zaidi Shia minority, took control of Sana’a, and forced Hadi into exile. In 2015, a Saudi-led military coalition began a relentless bombing campaign to roll back the Houthis’ gains and to reinstall Hadi as president.
But recently, Saleh’s supporters and the Houthis began turning on each other. Finally, on Saturday, Saleh said he “was ready for a ‘new page’ in relations with the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen if it stopped attacks on his country,” Reuters reported. The Houthis saw this as a total betrayal and, less than three days later, Saleh was killed.
His death comes as his country faces a humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions. The war has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced millions more. Currently, it’s estimated that 7 million people are facing famine.
On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Saleh’s death would most likely worsen “the situation for the innocent people there…in the short term.”
To better understand what his death might mean for Yemen’s civilians and the war more broadly, Just Security turned to a number of Yemen experts for their analysis.
Adam Baron, a writer and political analyst who is currently a visiting fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations:
I initially described the past day’s—or days’—events as the end of an era, but it increasingly feels like the eradication of one. After three years of collaboration and cooperation, the bulk of the key figures in Saleh’s network are either dead or out of the country. The few that remain are in hiding.
What does this mean? In one sense it’s a demonstration of the Houthis’ vicious school of politics, one no doubt framed by the punishing wars Saleh and his allies waged against them in Saada in the first half of the 21st century. But it’s also an alarming glimpse into potentially even more violence in Yemen’s future. Yemen’s long-suffering people need peace, and its neighbors need a return to comparative stability as well. But the latest events only seem to portend a deepening cycle of violence, one that pushes any de-escalation—let alone peace—even further away.
Waleed Alhariri, head of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies’ New York office and a fellow-in-residence at Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute:
One of Saleh’s motivations over the course of the war was to create a space for his son Ahmed in any future political arrangement that came as a result of a negotiated end of the conflict. After Saleh’s death, this cause is unlikely to be championed by any of the remaining actors in the conflict. The recent event in Sana’a, that turned the tables against Saleh and his General People’s Congress (GPC) party, probably signal the end of the Saleh dynasty and the evisceration of the GPC, which Saleh had been cultivating for over 30 years.
Kristine Beckerle, the Yemen and Kuwait researcher at Human Rights Watch:
Saleh has a grim legacy, marred not only by the violent repression of protesters and other uprisings during his decades-long rule, but by the chaos of the current conflict he leaves behind, a war likely to become much worse. When allied, Saleh’s forces and the Houthis were implicated in repeated laws-of-war violations, from laying landmines to indiscriminately shelling Yemen’s cities. When fighting each other in Sana’a, hundreds were apparently wounded and killed, including civilians. Saleh used the coalition’s blockade as a rallying call. After the Houthis’ victory, the coalition continued to block essential supplies like desperately needed fuel from reaching key ports, needed to power Yemen’s hospitals and pump its clean water, in violation of international law. While Saleh’s death has added another layer of complexity to an already complicated war, one thing is already clear: the warring parties seem determined to continue to willfully ignore the impact their decisions have on Yemeni civilians, ensuring that the humanitarian and human rights catastrophe with which Yemeni civilians have already been grappling for too long continues.
Saleh symbolized the pitfalls of granting blanket immunities to those implicated in war crimes. On the day he died, the UN finally announced appointments to a group of experts set to investigate atrocities in Yemen. Saleh’s countless victims were never given the opportunity to challenge him directly, to see him tried in a court of law, but governments still have time to ensure that at least some justice is delivered to Yemenis, and should push the warring parties to cooperate with the UN expert group.
Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a nonresident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington:
Salem’s death will leave Yemen’s future grim as uncertain. With Saleh’s death, Houthis will now move fast to solidify their grip on the North. They have already started executing top GPC leaders and rounding up hundreds of it’s leaders and key members. With Houthis in control prospects for peace are slim to nonexistence which means Yemen’s war will escalate.Their tendency to use excessive force against their opponents, perceived or real, and lack of appreciation to political negotiations and compromise will mean that a political settlement at this point is far fetched.
The Saudi-led coalition might support Hadi’s forces to push into Sanaa by force. Under such scenario, about 3 million residents of the city will be affected. Houthis will fight to the last man. Airstrikes and street fights will destroy the heavily dense city and result in many civilian casualties. Either ways, every possible scenario now indicate that there will be a substantial escalation of violence, this time in Sanaa, the city that had not witnessed any war since the mid 1960s and is the home of Yemenis from all over including hundreds of thousands of IDPs.
Nabeel Khoury, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East:
Saleh’s death leaves what used to be the governing party, the GPC, in disarray. President Hadi has not been able to fill the vacuum left bey Saleh since 2012 and likely won’t be able to now. This leaves the Houthis in exclusive control of Sana’a and everything north. Between their ideological bent and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s preference to finish this war militarily, the prospects for peace in Yemen are not good in the near future.
Alex Moorehead, Lecturer-in-Law at Columbia Law School and the director of the Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute:
When it hardly seemed possible, events in Yemen have made the situation even more desperate for the millions of civilians who bear the brunt of this brutal war. The warring parties have shown a callous disregard for the lives of civilians. Yet the likes of the U.S., the UK, and others continue to arm and support the Saudi-led coalition in the face of what an independent UN Security Council appointed panel of experts already labeled “widespread” violations of international law by all parties to the conflict.
The worsening of the situation in Sana’a following the Houthi-Saleh split and the anticipated deepening of the crisis in the wake of the death of President Saleh makes more pressing the need for the U.S. and other countries to stop arming and supporting the Saudi-led coalition, pressure must be brought to bear on the parties to ensure a ceasefire, and the Saudi blockade must be ended to allow urgent humanitarian assistance to pass. Genuine accountability for abuses is also needed more urgently than ever, and it is to be hoped that the new Group of Experts appointed by the UN to investigate the situation in Yemen can help to deliver on this in the coming months.