10.12.2017 Author: Alexander Orlov

As the War in Yemen Spins Out of Control, Tehran Finds Itself Deprived of a Say


At the beginning of the month, highly influential former President of Yemen Abdullah Saleh was assassinated at one of his residences. It is reported that his body was displayed to the public to show them that the “traitor” was killed, while making “an attempt to escape.” It is believed that this longtime Yemeni strongman was shot by a Houthi sniper.

Anyone who’s familiar with the Houthi resistance movement would be quick to point out that this murder doesn’t fall into the pattern of typical steps that this group has made. As a matter of fact, such an approach to taking down a target is typical for professional hitmen, hired by an external power to “handle tricky affairs” in a particular fashion. It’s no secret that this latest murder will prove to be highly beneficial for at least two external players – Saudi Arabia and Israel who have dreaded the Houthi resistance as a source of Tehran’s power in the south of the Arabian Peninsula for some time now. These two states have long been seeking for a pretext to launch strikes against Iranian forces in Syria, along with nuclear facilities deep within the territory of Iran. All that Riyadh and Tel-Aviv have been waiting on was a pretext, and now they have one exactly to their liking

All through last month, various media source across the region would report an extensive amount of meetings between Saudi and Israeli secret services taking place, aimed at establishing a common position on the ongoing stand-off with Iran. Apparently, an emergence of such a position resulted in the Saudi-led coalition bombing of the Yemeni presidential palace and a number of government buildings that have been left untouched through the years of Saudi aggression against Yemen. Apparently, Saudi leadership wanted to make a point with those air strikes, demonstrating that the old Yemen is not to be found anywhere now, while the new Yemen has nothing but war ahead of it. Saudi Arabia has been in desperate need to find a state-level scapegoat to redirect the outrage of the international community provoked by its own role in Yemen’s mounting civilian death toll, and now the Houthis are going to be forced into playing such a role.

Now pretty much everyone tries to predict the future of the Yemeni conflict after the murder of Abdullah Saleh. But to make such a prediction one must examine the reasons behind the Yemeni war and establish the degree of interference that states like Saudi Arabia and Iran have shown so far..

The problem of Yemen’s crisis is critical, as there’s a massive gap between the industrial south that serves as home to some 20% of the total population of Yemen and the archaic north. The gap has never been overcome. Moreover, the so-called “Arab Spring” caught the country while it was still in a transitional period triggering a number of serious conflicts within Yemeni society. It is not that difficult to understand how the “Arab Spring” in Yemen has almost immediately transformed from a stage of urban populations demanding their rights, into a bitter inter-tribal feud. Under these circumstances, Yemen regressed into a national divide, with the industrialized South opposing the tribal North. Abdullah Saleh was adept at steering the country through this storm by striking a deal with the Houthis, thus obtaining a means to control the most archaic power of Yemen. Frankly speaking, if Saudi Arabia hadn’t launched its invasion, the longtime strongman would most certainly have achieved power once again, since there has been no other leader in Yemen who could have contested him.

The murder of Saleh is mysterious in every sense. There is no logic behind the alleged narrative, since the Houthis have no chance to survive both politically and physically without Saleh’s support. Unable to survive the political fallout from Saleh’s death, only amid continued conflict can the Houthis hope to survive.

If the Houthis were indeed behind the murder of the former President of Yemen, they have indeed achieved a small tactical victory but at the same time made themselves political outcasts. With Saleh, they had a chance for a political settlement, alone they will likely be crushed regardless of their fierce resistance, as every single other tribe will be forced to fight them.

There’s no scenario under which Tehran could assassinate Saleh, since his death created a long list of challenges that can hardly be seen as beneficial. Qatar, for example, has never been pardoned for stagging the assassination of Muammar Gaddafi. This former Libyan leader was eccentric and it was almost impossible to reason with him, but he was a sheikh of the highest nobility, and therefore someone had to be held responsible for his murder. The then Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani had to abandon his post solely due to this murder. Saleh at the Middle East table of power was standing even higher than Gaddafi, so the people of the region will find the one responsible sooner or later and will force him to answer for his actions.

Now that all of Yemen’s tribes are going to be forced to unite against the Houthis, Yemen will be closed from Iranian influence, as any ties with Tehran are going to be punished. Saudi Arabia and the Arab League have established a pretext to push all pro-Iranian forces out of Yemen. At this point Riyadh will ultimately achieved its goal, if Iran is pushed out of Yemen and the Houthis destroyed, and the fact that weapons to the latter were supplied by the Saleh clan is only making the matter worse for them. The Houthis would still be able to fight with weapons they capture, but they won’t last for long. The only thing that the Saudi-led coalition will have to do to finish them off is by introducing a naval blockade of northern Yemen. This will not be easy, but the Royal Saudi Navy is quite capable and the purely symbolic Houthi fleet is no match for this force. Then, after finishing the Houthis off, Yemen’s elite will return to inter-tribal feuding, but with Saudi Arabia as sole arbiter.

There are reports that the son of the former President Ahmed Saleh has already sent a number of the Republican Guard units to the north of the country, who are now approaching Marib. Apparently, the army and the guards are going to act together for the first time since 2011, when General Ali Mohsen raised a rebellion against the now deceased former president. What we are witnessing is a reunion of former opponents – the Marib and Saleh clans.

After the collapse of the coalition between the Houthis and Abdullah Saleh, all the existing maps depicting zones of control over Yemeni territory have shifted. The south with the center in Aden is still going to be controlled by the forces of exiled President Mansour Hadi, the north with the center in Sadah is still the territory of the Al-Houthi clan, while the center and the east of the country are now the zone disputed by the Saleh and Al-Houthi clans. In fact, Yemen from a country traditionally divided between two capitals – southern Aden and northern Sana’a – is becoming a country of three capitals, with Sadah being added to the list. It is possible that Sadah will be the subject of controversy in the future, but it’s still too early to tell as the main battles are yet to come.

Alexander Orlov, Political Scientist and Expert Orientalist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

Please select digest to download: