Former Leader Assassinated As Yemen Proxy War Intensifies

  • Samuel Siskind
  • Dec 7, 2017 12:00PM

Earlier this week, in the most dramatic turn of events in the Yemen civil war, Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh was assassinated by his Houthi fighters south of the capital of Sana’a.

Saleh was the head of state in Yemen for over three decades before stepping down from power in 2012 in the wake of the Arab Spring. Leadership was transferred to his Saudi Arabia backed deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

The commencement of the current civil war in 2015 saw Saleh reemerge. Saleh originally sided with the Iran-backed Houthi’s, a mostly Shiite political party, a group that Saleh had fought against during his years as leader of Yemen.

The unlikely alliance, in the beginning, benefited both sides. The Houthis gave Saleh a fighting force to overthrow the power structure that had usurped him three years prior, while the Houthis gained from the network of intelligence and other resources Saleh had at his command. Saleh as it turns out had a network of support from elements within the government that had remained loyal to him following his ouster.

Only a few days before his death, Saleh formally announced in a televised speech, that he had decided to break his ties with the Houthis and was open to dialogue with the Saudi led coalition.

The betrayed Houthis wasted little time.

In what seems to have been a highly organized attack, Saleh was ambushed by a unit of Houthi fighters and killed in a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and small arms.

Saleh’s death is a significant gain for the Houthi side. Whereas earlier, the Houthis had to contend with Saleh loyalists in a co-op that was always fragile, with Saleh’s forces now in disarray, the Houthis will likely emerge as the dominant power in the anti-Hadi faction.   

The question of the hour is how the West, and primarily the United States, will react to this major milestone in the years-long civil war, a conflict that has become one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world.

While the US does not maintain boots on the ground in Yemen (at least officially) American military assets play an important role in the Saudi led effort in the country. Currently, the US supplies mid-air refueling for Saudi war plans, as well as targeting assistance for bombing sorties.

The U.S. faces complicated strategic calculations in Yemen. The United States certainly has an interest in supporting its Saudi Arabian ally. Not only does this directly aid in stymying the success of Iran’s proxy war in Yemen, but helps defend Saudi Arabia itself, a country that maintains substantial US military installations. Persistent missile attacks have demonstrated the Houthis’ ability to launch attacks on Saudi soil.

However, the natural leaning to fully support Saudi Arabia in every aspect of its Yemen strategy is not a simple option. First off, there is a serious moral dilemma deriving from the brutal Saudi airstrikes and restrictions on aid entering into Yemen. These tactics have already made malnutrition and disease a major issue facing the country.

Furthermore, the long-term vision of Saudi Arabia for Yemen is one the US should hesitate to support. For Saudi rulers, the only acceptable resolution for the civil war is a return to the full sovereignty of the Hadi government created following the resignation of Saleh in 2012.

It is clear why this would be in the Saudi’s best interest. Hadi is their loyal ally. Realistically though, this is not a feasible option to maintain stability in Yemen.     

The various factions, from the Iran-backed Houthis to those loyal to Hadi, are incompatible. The persistent eruptions of fighting over the past decades, of which the current civil war is only the latest, has demonstrated this.

In these circumstances, withdrawing support in its current form for the military campaign is the most sensible option for the US. Instead, America should limit its focus to protecting shipping in the area and Saudi cities from Houthi missile attacks. Regarding long-term strategy, the best thing the US can do now is to promote a political solution that takes into account the concerns of all sides. If there is one thing that was learned from America’s years-long venture in Iraq, it is the foolishness of promoting a single political set-up in an attempt to accommodate all relevant parties.  

Diplomatically, the US can take the current opportunity to reassess its involvement in the war and the long-term program it backs. Saleh’s death is only another indication of the intractable nature of the conflict, and how the current aims of all sides are untenable. American policymakers have already been voicing opposition to the country’s current involvement in the war for some time. Hopefully, the United States will be able to use its influence to bring direction and goals for the country, as this seems to be the only prospect of reprieve for the Yemeni people.