The Yemen civil war took a dramatic new turn on Monday when Houthi rebels backed by Iran killed the former president, punishing him for switching sides and seeking peace with Saudi Arabia.
Pictures of the corpse of Ali Abdullah Saleh appeared on Houthi-run television after the militia claimed it had killed him as he fled the capital, Sana’a. He had ruled Yemen for more than 30 years and was forced to resign in 2011 as part of the Arab spring political revolution.
Houthi military officials said Saleh was killed as he and other top party leaders were travelling from Sana’a to his hometown of Sanhan. Houthi fighters followed him in 20 armoured vehicles, then attacked and killed him and almost all those with him. Gruesome video of his blood-spattered body were distributed on social media.
Earlier his house was destroyed in fierce fighting that has erupted in Sana’a in the past two days between Houthi militia and forces loyal to Saleh. Saudi-led coalition warplanes pounded Houthi positions close to the city airport, and the ministry of the interior.
The Saudi bombing was part of a desperate and ultimately doomed bid to prop up Saleh and prevent the Houthis taking complete control of the capital. His death may prompt a furious reaction from Saudi Arabia which is determined to push back Iranian influence in the country.
The violence between the Houthis and Saleh’s forces has led so far to at least 125 civilians deaths and 238 injured in clashes in the last last five days, according to the International Red Cross. The fresh violence comes after the sudden collapse of the political and military alliance between the Houthi rebels and forces loyal to Saleh. The two groups had held Sana’a for the past three years in an uneasy alliance.
The International Red Cross, also warned it was struggling to keep the hospital functioning in Sana’a and access its warehouse of medical supplies.
The distribution of humanitarian aid across the country is already fraught, with 7 million people dependent on aid in what the UN has described as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. The civil war has so far claimed 10,000 lives.
On Saturday, Saleh gave a televised address in effect announcing that he was swapping sides in the civil war, and would be seeking a dialogue with the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led coalition that he had been fighting, alongside the Houthis, since 2015. The Saudis have sought to reinstall the UN-recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and defeat the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in a Middle East-wide power struggle that has the potential to envelop the whole region in a war.
It is widely thought that UAE diplomats persuaded the 75-year-old Saleh to swap sides.
“Yemeni citizens have tried to tolerate the recklessness of the Houthi over the last two-and-a-half years but cannot anymore,” Saleh said in his TV address, and ordered forces loyal to him in the capital to stop taking instructions from the Shia Houthi rebels.
The alliance of convenience between Saleh and the Houthis has been close to collapse for months, with claims that Houthis tried to kill Saleh’s son.
Hadi also ordered forces loyal to him – mainly based in the southern city of Aden – to capitalise on the disarray in the opposition and advance north to Houthi positions. Hadi’s staff also said they will offer an amnesty to anyone that has collaborated with the Houthi regime.
Saleh’s conversion was immediately welcomed by the Saudis and the UAE.
It is widely thought that they had been engineering his conversion for months after they became disillusioned with Hadi’s leadership, and looked for a new way to break the political and military deadlock. Hadi has been living in exile in Riyadh, and there are reports that he now has little independence from Saudi control.
Neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia foresaw that their intervention in Yemen would prove so costly or protracted, so Saleh’s volte face could represent a political breakthrough if his forces did not capitulate to the Houthi militia in Sana’a.
Peter Salisbury, expert on Yemen at the think tank Chatham House said “With Saleh gone, and no one with whom the Saudis can strike a deal, it is very likely the Saudis will take the gloves off, but the precise extent to which they do so depends very much on what Washington allows them to do. It could get very bloody and messy”.
He added “The break-up in the Saleh Houthis alliance was under way for some time. It had become clear to Saleh that the Houthis were consolidating their hold in North West Yemen both militarily and at an institutional level. If he did not strike now, it would be too late in six months, so his calculus was to cut a deal with the Saudis, but it was expected that if he did so he would win wider military and political support than he apparently has. Everyone has been shocked by the speed with which the Houthis seem to gained ground in Sanaa, and it has left the Saudis worse off than they were 72 hours ago.”
UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Yemen Jamie McGoldrick called for a pause in the fighting in Sana’a on Tuesday during daylight hours to allow civilians trapped in their homes to seek food and water.
He said in a statement issued from Geneva: “The streets of Sana’a city have become battlegrounds and people are trapped in their homes, unable to move out in search of safety and medical care and to access basic supplies such as food, fuel and safe water.
“Ambulances and medical teams cannot reach the injured due to the continuing clashes and with reports of some coming under attack. Aid workers remain in lockdown and unable to move impacting many life saving activities.
“Humanitarian organisations are receiving desperate calls for help by families trapped in neighbourhoods engulfed by the fighting.”
Saudi-led coalition planes have been targetting Houthi-held positions in the capital for two days in a bid to force the Houthis back.
Riyadh’s determination to crush the Houthis hardened last month after an Iranian-made missile was fired from Houthi positions at Saudi Arabia’s international airport in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia responded by mounting a three-week long blockade of goods entering Houthi-controlled ports, prompting widespread shortages.