The Cracks Begin to Widen in Yemen's Weakened Rebellion

4 MINS READAug 25, 2017 | 09:00 GMT
Forces loyal to Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh (shown on poster) stand guard on Aug. 24 in Sabaeen Square in the capital, Sanaa.

Forces loyal to Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh (shown on poster) stand guard on Aug. 24 in Sabaeen Square in the capital, Sanaa. The rally comes amid reports of splits between Saleh and the country's Houthi rebels, who have been allied against the Saudi-backed government since 2014.

The widening rift between the two major components of Yemen's opposition alliance could jeopardize the long-running rebellion. Strongly worded statements from the restive Houthi camp and from loyalists in the General People's Congress (GPC), headed by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, indicate that relations are at an all-time low. In the capital city of Sanaa, supporters of the GPC took to the streets Aug. 24 in a show of support for Yemen's ousted leader. Houthi-aligned media outlets advised against attending the rally, and there have already been reports of Houthis tearing down Saleh-affiliated signs. After a brief address made by Saleh himself, sporadic gunfire broke out, though the GPC claimed it was celebratory in nature. 
The union between Saleh and the Houthis was on rocky ground from the start. After the takeover of Yemen's capital city by Houthi rebels in late 2014 and emerging cooperation between the rebels and Saleh loyalists in early 2015, many expected the relationship of convenience to fall apart, especially considering that the two sides had fought in previous years. But instead, the combined force made massive territorial gains in the north, using Houthi fighting power and numbers alongside conventional military hardware operated by Saleh loyalists. It was a potent combination that put the democratic fate of Yemen in jeopardy and led to two years of intense fighting.
Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks in Sanaa.

Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh addresses his supporters during a rally at Sabaeen Square in Sanaa on Aug. 24.

The rebel position is increasingly tenuous and each camp has been forced to consider its core interests. This is widening existing fissures as the Houthis and Saleh loyalists work out what they can salvage from the situation. To further complicate matters, forces outside of Yemen — specifically the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — are conspiring to set peace conditions that are favorable to the neighboring Gulf Arab states. This could mean returning a member of the Saleh family to a governing position in Yemen's reconstituted parliament. That move takes on more prominence as the Houthi-GPC alliance becomes flimsier.
When the Houthis and the GPC first aligned, there were clear gains for both. The former benefited greatly from the latter's administrative and political acumen. In addition, a substantial portion of the Yemeni armed forces had deserted and sworn fealty to Saleh, which afforded a conventional war-fighting capability. The GPC in turn benefited from the Houthis' claim to Sanaa along with their sheer numbers. It did not take long for friction points to emerge, however. The Houthis have contributed a far higher number of front-line fighters, and they are conceptually and organizationally different from the Saleh loyalists. The GPC is a political party spanning a broad range of ethnic and sectarian interests, and it retains strong links with the Gulf Cooperation Council-backed government of President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi in Aden. The Houthis take pride in sustaining a highly religious, mountain-tribe warrior ethos, which makes them flexible on the battlefield but less so at the negotiating table.     
Ultimately, any rift in the alliance would be detrimental to both sides, though the Houthis are in the less favorable position. They would be forced to continue fighting without much political recourse and their military capabilities would be significantly reduced. Some of the GPC loyalists are, however, far better placed to negotiate a soft landing as part of a settlement with the transitional government. The Saleh camp, by nature of resisting international pressure to step down and digging in through years of conflict, has proved it is still a force to be reckoned with. The strain that splitting up the alliance would put on the Houthis is one reason why the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) might back a transitional plan that pulls the GPC closer to their camp.
If a plan to return a member of the Saleh family to government emerges, it will be important to look to the former president's son, Ahmed Ali Saleh. Though likely orchestrated by the United Arab Emirates and backed by the GCC, any future leadership council or structure with a Saleh family member in it will be contentious. Throughout Yemen, Saleh still has numerous enemies. Any political figure in Yemen in a leadership role is controversial right now, in some way, shape or form. The primary goal for the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in resolving the conflict is finding a leader to advance negotiations and break the stalemate. That move would enable them to focus more intently on counterterrorism efforts. And they may have just found a way.

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