Yemen’s Houthi insurgents have killed Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country’s former president. Saleh and the Houthis conducted a multi-year insurgency against the internationally-recognized government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.
Saleh’s assassination follows increased strain in the opportunistic cooperation of his forces and the Houthis. In the wake of Yemen’s failed Arab Spring uprising, President Saleh was replaced by his deputy Hadi. In Sept. 2014, Saleh teamed up with his former rivals, the Houthi militants, to capture Yemen’s capital Sanaa.
But these rivalries have resurfaced. In mid-November, Saleh’s party called the Houthis “mercenaries.” Saleh then denounced Houthi missile strikes targeting Saudi Arabia. In downtown Sanaa, Saleh’s forces clashed with the Houthis, reportedly killing more than 100 people. On Dec. 3, Saleh formally dissolved his alliance with the Houthis.
Last night, Saudi Arabia began launching air strikes in support of Saleh’s forces. The Saudi approach likely hinges on breaking Saleh’s loyalists from the Houthis. Saleh’s death complicates this, though control of the his fighters may shift to his son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, or his nephew, Tariq. Ahmed reportedly traveled to Riyadh to coordinate military operations following his father’s death.
The late president’s son’s legal status might give the Saudi-coalition cause for concern. The US Treasury sanctioned Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh in Apr. 2015 for “[playing] a key role in facilitating the Houthi military expansion.” His designation could further complicate the Saudi-led coalition’s intention to operate with Saleh’s forces against the Houthis, as US forces refuel Saudi aircrafts in Yemen.
As internecine clashes rage in Sanaa, Yemeni government forces are launching a renewed offensive on the city. Government forces are leveraging their control of Mar’ib, a strategically significant and resource rich city east of Sanaa, to launch a multi-axis offensive on the rebel-held capital. Government forces, supported by Saudi air power, have been progressing towards the city on the northeastern axis for the past few weeks. President Hadi has reportedly instructed his deputy, General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, to attack Sanaa from the south in concert with Saleh’s forces.
Alexandra Gutowski is a military affairs analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.