Supporters of Shiite Houthi rebels attend a rally in Sanaa, Yemen, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. The killing of Yemen's ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh by the country's Shiite rebels on Monday, as their alliance crumbled, has thrown the nearly three-year civil war into unpredictable new chaos. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)
Supporters of Shia Houthi rebels attend a rally in Sanaa, on Tuesday © AP

A day after Houthi rebels killed Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former Yemeni president, residents of Sana’a emerged cautiously from the homes, grateful for a lull after days of fierce clashes in the capital that claimed more than 200 lives.

“After Saleh’s death, the fighting stopped everywhere in Sana’a and that means the Houthis control everything and no one can oppose them today,” Bilal al-Ansi, who works in a clothes store in the capital, told the Financial Times. “I am not against any side but civilians want to live safely.”

But the pause is likely to be brief as rival sides in an almost three-year war react to Monday’s killing of the strongman who dominated the country for more than three decades. He became a central figure in the conflict after aligning his forces in 2015 with the Iranian-backed Houthis battling the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi — the man who had replaced Mr Saleh three years earlier.

And it was Mr Saleh’s decision to abruptly abandon the Houthis and reach out to the Saudi-led alliance that backs Mr Hadi that triggered the clashes between his forces and his former allies in Sana’a last week.

The Houthis now seem set to assert their control over Sana’a, where rebel supporters staged a rally to celebrate their victory over Mr Saleh.

Tareq Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, the former president’s nephew and a potential successor as leader of his party, the General People’s Congress, was also killed during the clashes, Reuters reported.

Ahmed Ali Saleh, the exiled son of the slain leader, has reportedly vowed revenge for his father’s death.

Mr Saleh’s death had already dealt a blow to the Saudi-led coalition, which had courted the former president in a bid to divide rebel forces and use his influence with tribes to push back against the Houthis. The conflict, which has caused one of the word’s worst humanitarian disasters, has increasingly become a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, its main Gulf ally, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran, their regional rival.

Saudi fighter jets reportedly targeted Houthi positions in the capital as the fighting raged in Sana’a, but the coalition could not save Mr Saleh.

“They [the Saudi coalition] have seen the limits of air power in subduing an adversary, and realised they needed a proxy on the ground,” said Joost Hiltermann from the International Crisis Group. “Hadi’s forces failed. What remained was [the coalition] swallowing deeply and realigning with Saleh. But now this has failed as well.”

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University in the US, said Mr Saleh’s death leaves the coalition “searching for a plan B”. He believes the conflict is likely to become “more chaotic and intense as all the warring parties fight over the spoils of his patronage network”.

“Having worked to split the Houthi-Saleh alliance, the coalition may find it easier to rally international support against the Houthis by portraying them as ever more an Iranian proxy in Yemen,” said Mr Coates Ulrichsen. “But they may have been surprised by the decisive manner in which the Houthis turned on Saleh, signalling that the Houthis are rather stronger as a fighting force than had been anticipated.”

Saudis acknowledge that no Yemeni figure is available to fill the role they envisaged for Mr Saleh, who ruled Yemen with an iron grip for 33 years before being forced to step down after popular uprisings swept across the Middle East in 2011. A ruthless survivor, he had a long record of outmanoeuvring his rivals in the impoverished country where the influence of tribes has remained strong.

A Huthi rebel fighter inspects the damage after a reported air strike carried out by the Saudi-led coalition targeted the presidential palace in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on December 5, 2017. Saudi-led warplanes pounded the rebel-held capital before dawn after the rebels killed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh as he fled the city following the collapse of their uneasy alliance, residents said. / AFP PHOTO/AFP/Getty Images
A Houthi fighter inspects damage after a reported air strike carried out by the Saudi-led coalition targeted the presidential palace in Sana'a on Tuesday © AFP

But Riyadh is clinging to the hope that Mr Saleh’s death might lead to the formation of a more united Yemeni anti-Houthi front.

“He had a huge political legacy and wide experience in dealing with tribes. He had a popular base inside Yemen and important relations outside it,” said Zuhair al-Harthi, head of the foreign relations committee of the Shura Council, an unelected body that advises the Saudi monarch. “His absence now could give a push towards a solution . . . Saleh was part of the problem then tried in the last stage to look for a solution. His last pivot was brief but it could be the spark that changes the face of Yemen.”

Mr Hadi gave a televised speech on Monday from his self-imposed exile in the Saudi capital Riyadh where he urged Mr Saleh’s allies to continue the fight against the Houthis, describing them as “Iranian militias”.

“Yemen is passing through a decisive turning point that needs our unity and steadfastness in the face of these sectarian militias,” Mr Hadi said.

But his government is confined to the south, headquartered in the port of Aden. Despite the military backing of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Mr Hadi’s forces have made little headway against the Houthis’ hold over the capital and the northern highlands.

“I suppose Saleh’s forces will bring along some tribes [to Hadi’s side],” Mr Hiltermann said. “But it’s going to take time for the anti-Houthi forces to regroup and form a cohesive bloc. There could be a succession struggle and, anyway, they are as divided as ever.”

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