The Beginning of the End for Yemen's Rebel Alliance

4 MINS READDec 2, 2017 | 15:33 GMT
Houthi fighters under fire from forces loyal to Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh during clashes in Sanaa, Dec. 2.
(STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

Houthi fighters under fire from forces loyal to Yemen's former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, during clashes in Sanaa, Dec. 2. Relations between the feuding rebel allies broke down Dec. 1, following months of increasing discord.

The rebel alliance in Sanaa looks to be on its last legs. Clashes between supporters of Abdul-Malek al-Houthi and former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the General People's Congress (GPC) party have reached a new level of intensity. Meanwhile, Saleh issued a statement that called on the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) coalition to lift its blockade and promised a willingness to "turn the page." Saleh's statement prompted a positive reaction from the GCC coalition, which on Dec. 2 said it was sure Saleh and his GPC party loyalists would "return to the Arab fold," and rid Yemen of Iranian influence, according to the Saudi Arabian Press Agency.

The rebel alliance has always been tenuous. During his decadeslong tenure as Yemen's president, before he was ousted in 2011, Saleh fought rebellions by the Houthis, which led to enduring bad blood between the two sides of the rebel alliance. But when the Houthis took advantage of Yemen's fractured political landscape in late 2014 to advance on Sanaa, Saleh loyalists wanted to use the Houthis' hard power to help them retain political relevance. Holding the capital has helped them prove they are forces to contend with. The Houthis, in turn, benefited from their alliance with Saleh because he brought to the alliance the Republican Guard and heavy weaponry, including artillery and missiles. It always has been more likely that the GCC would consider GPC loyalists as potential political allies rather than Houthi forces, whom Saudi Arabia views as a direct vector of Iranian influence.

This week has been a particularly bloody one between forces loyal to the different rebel leaders. On Dec. 28, Houthi forces clashed with GPC-affiliated fighters for control over a mosque, a GPC political headquarters and Saleh family residences. Skirmishes continued to spark throughout the week. As of Dec. 2, at least 40 fighters have been killed as Saleh forces battled Houthi forces for control of key Sanaa territory. Saleh's forces reportedly have claimed from Houthi control the Saudi Arabian, United Arab Emirates and Sudan embassies, the Saleh presidential compound, the Ministry of Defense and national security-affiliated buildings, and the Central Bank and Ministry of Finance. The swift reclamation of key infrastructure puts Saleh forces on higher ground vis-a-vis their Houthi counterparts in the city.

In the past when clashes have broken out between Saleh and Houthi supporters, their leadership has stepped in to try to quell the violence. In August, for instance, leaders on each side pushed talks to mediate violent clashes between the allied rebel forces and volleys back and forth between GPC and Houthi-affiliated media stations. Today, however, Houthi leadership has accused Saleh of moving to initiate a coup, and Saleh has publicly reached out to the GCC coalition. Earlier in the week, Saleh-affiliated media distanced itself from Houthi media, which was celebrating its latest missile launch toward Saudi Arabia. The divergent media reports and the rhetoric from the leadership indicate the rebel alliance has reached a certain point of no return.

Saleh is positioning himself and his GPC loyalists for an optimal position in political negotiations, and it appears he is so far successful.

It is unlikely that Saleh would make a statement about being willing to work with the coalition without having discussed the possibility with Saudi Arabia beforehand, either directly or indirectly. Although the GCC-backed and internationally recognized president of Yemen, Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi, has yet to comment, a notable statement from Riyadh-installed Yemeni Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar approving of Saleh's statement helps underline Saudi acquiescence. Saleh is positioning himself and his GPC loyalists for an optimal position in political negotiations, and it appears he is so far successful. This could nudge stagnant political negotiations forward and tilt the war further in the GCC-led coalition's favor.

For the war, the breakup of the Houthi-Saleh alliance will be detrimental to the Houthis' capabilities to continue fighting. Without Saleh and his fighters, the Houthis will struggle to hold the line against the GCC-led forces. They likely will begin to lose key positions in central Yemen and will be gradually driven northward, to their core highland territory. If Saleh's forces were to outright join forces with the GCC-led coalition, this process would only accelerate.

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