On December 4th, Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels for what they described as treason, in a roadside attack near Sanaa.
Despite the declaration by the Houthis the actual ambush itself was likely conducted by Iranian forces, amid fierce clashes between Saleh forces and the Houthis in Sanaa. Houthi leaders accused Saleh of treachery after he switched to the Saudi-led coalition in the civil war. It is likely the Iranians helped carry out the attack on Saleh given the professional skill involved in the attack.
During the night of the 4th, the Saudi-led coalition carried out airstrikes targeting Houthi rebels in retaliation for killing Saleh, hitting the Houthi-controlled presidential palace in Sanaa.
Ali Abdullah Saleh ruled Yemen for more than three decades before being deposed in 2012. Saleh took over North Yemen in 1978, and became president of the whole country after its two halves were united in 1990. Saleh’s reign ended after he signed a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), after Arab Spring protests in 2011.
Yemen descended into war in September 2014 when Houthi rebels, a group that follows the Zaidi branch of Shi‘ite Islam, allied with Saleh and marched on the capital of Sanaa in order to seize control of the government. The Houthis tried to gain control of the country, forcing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who succeeded Saleh in 2012, to flee to Saudi Arabia.
In 2015, Saudi Arabia created a military alliance of 10 countries to target the Houthis and restore Hadi. The U.S. backed the coalition but did not join in direct military action, providing logistics and intelligence support for the coalition’s air campaign.
Also in 2015, Saleh formally announced an alliance with Houthi fighters for the first time, after the Arab coalition launched two air strikes on his home. Before formally allying with the Houthis, Saleh and his forces helped the Houthis seize control of the capital in 2014.
The Saleh-Houthi alliance was a questionable alliance from the start. When Saleh was still president, he killed Houthi founder Badr-eddin Houthi, in 2004 and in 2011, Houthis participated with other Yemenis in the Arab Spring, demanding the removal of Saleh. During the alliance, both groups were suspicious of each other’s ultimate motives but were united in the fight against the pro-Hadi Saudi-led coalition.
Saleh made a speech on December 2nd, saying his alliance with the Houthis was ending over political differences, and that he was open to dialogue with the Saudi-led coalition. Saleh said he was open to ties with the coalition if it agrees to stop attacks on his country and lifted the siege.
The war between the Iran-aligned Houthis and the Saudi-backed coalition has created a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, with widespread hunger and disease leaving 20.7 million people in need of aid in the past 3 years.
Following the assassination of Saleh, President Hadi has urged Yemenis to rise up against the Houthi rebels. Since killing Saleh, Houthi rebels have gained control of the majority of the country’s capital from Saleh’s forces. Saleh’s death may lead the Saudi-led coalition to further escalate its military operations, as seen by the airstrikes that followed the killing.
The U.S., who has backed the Saudi-led coalition, is unlikely to change its current strategy of defeating terrorism in Yemen militarily.