In Stratfor's 2017 Fourth-Quarter Forecast, we said that there was "no end in sight to the protracted conflict, [and that] the cracks within the country's northern and southern alliances" were spreading. On Dec. 2, the rebel alliance broke at last, which reinforced our forecast. Now, however, the head of the General People's Congress, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is reportedly dead, which could push the Yemeni conflict into a new level of severity and violence in the short term.
With the death of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a major chapter in the history of Yemen — and the Yemeni civil war — has come to a close. On Dec. 4, two days after Saleh announced that his people were "revolting against Houthi aggression" and that he was willing to leave the rebel alliance in favor of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) coalition, Houthi forces killed the former president, likely as he was en route to his home village in Sanhan. Saleh's Dec. 2 announcement had further intensified the fighting between Saleh's supporters and those loyal to rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi in Yemen's capital city of Sanaa. And while loyalist forces had initially taken over several key pieces of infrastructure in Sanaa, over the weekend, Houthi forces were able to reclaim significant territory after launching a strong counter-offensive.
Saleh's death comes as a result of a serious miscalculation on the part of the ex-president. He seems to have anticipated that, just like during the many intra-Yemeni conflicts he navigated over the past 40 years, he would be able to marshal strong tribal support against the Houthis after his Dec. 2 announcement. It appears that this time, however, the seven major tribes around Sanaa were unwilling to immediately side firmly with Saleh, instead watching and waiting to see which way the tides turned before sealing their fates. Houthi forces also targeted and blew up the homes of tribal sheikhs who had expressed support for Saleh, likely limiting the tribes' willingness to support the former president further.
One of the big questions in Yemen now is where the region's various power players will go from here. Loyalists may defect to join the Houthis, go into hiding or try to join the GCC coalition as Saleh had indicated he was intending to do. Meanwhile, despite their unwillingness to provide backup for Saleh and his General People's Congress party, local tribes probably won't immediately kowtow to the Houthis either — especially given that many of them have insisted on remaining neutral during the last few years of the tenuous Houthi-Saleh alliance. Another group to watch is the secessionist Southern Transitional Council. Its leaders have traditionally been adversarial to both Saleh and the Houthis, and as they have amassed more and more local support in the south of Yemen, they could try to take advantage of the current power vacuum and advance their cause.
In the aftermath of Saleh's death, Sanaa may well be facing another round of intense fighting, especially if the GCC coalition intends to work harder than ever to take back the city from the Houthis. This would likely include military reinforcements as well as courting the support of the crucial surrounding tribes, perhaps by utilizing the clout of Yemeni Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who is allied with Saudi Arabia and has links to Yemen's northern tribes. At this point, the GCC coalition is surely scrambling to sort out their options for managing the conflict in Yemen. Saleh's turn toward the coalition had given the coalition a strong tool to use against the Houthis, but just as quickly as they gained that tool, they lost it. Now, a new chapter is opening in Yemen, and it will likely be a violent one.