When members of the Ansar Allah Group, commonly referred to as the Houthis, assassinated former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in December of 2017, it was seen by many as a transformative moment in the Yemen conflict. Saleh’s alliance with the Houthis was always something of a pragmatic alliance rather than an alliance of conscience. Saleh, who found himself out of power after having been President of North Yemen sine 1978 and later a united Yemen since 1990, sought a return to the Presidency that in his heart, he never truly gave up.
For the Houthis, the Resistance group needed to associate itself with a strong, well-known political veteran in order to be taken seriously beyond the confines of its ideological movement and the alliance with Saleh provided just such an opportunity.
Things began to deteriorate when in late 2017, Saleh appeared to have spoken with Saudi and UAE officials behind the back of Abdul-Malik Badreddin al-Houthi and other Ansar Allah officials. When Saleh then spoke of reconciliation with Saudi “brothers” in an attempt to bring some sort of settlement to the conflict, a Rubicon had been crossed. Saleh was executed shortly thereafter.
At the time, many feared the outbreak of a new ‘North Yemen Civil War’ between Houthi fighters and the armed supporters of Saleh’s General People’s Council(GPC). While there were localised clashes, many GPC members remained loyal to their Houthi partners. Among the GPC members who refused to continue cooperating after the assassination of their leader, many were held captive, although yesterday, 650 of them were released, with the remainder set to be released in the very near future.
This clearly means that any protracted struggle between the Houthis and the GPC is over. Those GPC members loyal to the Houthis will continue their struggle against the Saudi Arabia led war on Yemen and others seem to have been politically neutralised to the point that the Houthis no longer view them as a threat.
While many predicted a total collapse of the post-Saleh Houthi/GPC alliance in Sana’a, in reality the functionality of the Sana’a government has continued unabated in spite of the assassination of Saleh. The Saudis are clearly flabbergasted at the fact that they were not able to exploit the instability which arose in the days after Saleh’s assassination and as a result, Saudi actors may well be behind the drive-by shooting style assassination of prominent Houthi leader Raji Hameed al Deen, on the eve of the prisoner release. But while some initial reports blamed Saleh loyalists, the consensus on the ground in Sana’a is that the drive by shooting was in fact organised by Riyadh in order to disrupt the Houthi/GPC reconciliation arrangement that is implicit in the freeing of GPC prisoners.
In any case, the assassination of al-Deen has not effected the general political stability in Sana’a. The Houthi government is something of an anomaly in that it continues to function in spite of having no access to the outside world due to the Saudi Naval blockade and having no political support outside of Iran and parts of Lebanon, as well as some well-wishers in Syria. Therefore one sees a conflict that is increasingly frozen because the Houthis have not and likely will not succumb to defeat due to isolation and frequent Saudi aerial bombardment, but at the same time, no political solution is forthcoming due to the fact that international support for the Houthis is negligible in practical terms.
Perhaps somewhat ironically, just as many expected the Saudi/UAE alliance to pounce, the UAE and Saudi are themselves rowing over who controls the de-facto reestablished state of South Yemen. Recent days have seen the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and its paramilitary arm the Southern Resistance Movement demand the dismissal of President Hadi’s government with many openly stating that they seek STC leaders to replace an increasingly fatigued Hadi. Their aim, which is generally shared by the UAE, is to abandon Saudi led attempts to pacify the de-facto reestablished Houthi controlled state of North Yemen and instead focus on formally re-establishing an internationally recognised state of South Yemen.
Ultimately, the only reasonable solution for Yemen is to at least temporarily re-divide the country between a UAE dominated South Yemen and a North Yemen controlled by the Houthi/GPC alliance. However, the biggest stumbling bloc to an otherwise pragmatic solution would be the fact that Saudi would almost certainly continue to blockade a new North Yemen, for fear of creating a would-be Iranian ally on its borders. Unless a wider international effort could be made to diplomatically break the Saudi blockade of the North, one could easily envisage North Yemen becoming a kind ofTransnistria on the Red Sea–an entity cut off from all potential allies.
Ultimately, so long as Saudi Arabia is not willing to live with the fact that Sana’a is controlled by the Houthi resistance, the conflict in Yemen will continue to rage, even through the prism of a stalemate. However, if the UAE/Saudi spat over Aden does in fact widen, all bets are off. One could possibly see the UAE take Aden while Saudi focuses its own efforts on the building of a ‘post-Houthi’ puppet state in Sana’a. For Yemen there will be no relief from the conflict any time soon.
The recent peaceful release of pro-Saleh prisoners in the North speaks to the fact that two parallel states are in effect functioning side by side, in spite of the North facing what seemed like insurmountable odds, all the while the Saudi/UAE partnership is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, much to the embarassment of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and Yemen War chief Muhammad bin Salman.