Analysis: Yemen’s shifting political alliances

Saudi-led air strikes are complicating the delicate partnership between former president Saleh and Houthi rebels.

Thousands protest Saudi assault
The Houthis have urged their supporters to protest what they call blatant Saudi aggression [AP]

For three nights, Saudi-led “Decisive Storm” air strikes have targeted Saleh-Houthi military bases and administrative compounds in Yemen in an effort to keep Aden from falling into the hands of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthi rebels.

To many observers, the fall of Aden seemed imminent before the start of these unprecedented military strikes in Yemen. But several questions about the air strikes remain unanswered, including their possible duration, political goals, potential impacts on international and regional security, and whether they will end – once and for all – the political crisis that has gripped Yemen since 2011.

Foremost is the question of whether this military operation can break the Saleh-Houthi alliance. The immediate reactions of Houthi leaders to the Saudi-led air strikes have been resolute, expressing a strong determination to continue fighting and to make the neighbouring kingdom pay a heavy price for its actions.

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In a move of political defiance, the Houthis have called to recruit all military personnel who have been laid off in the past, and have also urged their supporters to protest what they call blatant Saudi aggression.

Meanwhile, Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), was quick to distance itself from the Houthis’ military operations – especially those in the south, which triggered the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) military intervention. But several top military officials loyal to Saleh have continued their alliance with the Houthis.

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Although Saleh has not issued a statement denouncing the Saudi-led strikes, which have targeted his personal residence and his loyal military forces, he has issued a proposal calling for an immediate halt to both Houthi and Saudi attacks. This move appears designed to portray Saleh as blameless for the political and military escalation that followed the Houthis’ advances towards Aden.

Saleh, a pragmatic and Machiavellian leader with an exceptional understanding of regional and international political dynamics, has even described Saudi Arabia as a sister nation to Yemen, to convey that he does not view the kingdom as his enemy. Saleh has called for the recommencement of political negotiations outside of Yemen, but it is unclear whether Hadi and Saudi Arabia would accept this proposal.

The kingdom may have burned bridges with the former president, who was once a key ally to whom the Saudis provided tremendous support. And there is the additional question of whether Saleh would be willing to break his alliance with the Houthis in order to maintain relations with the kingdom and survive the ongoing political crisis.

From the very beginning of the ironic Saleh-Houthi alliance, it has been clear to many domestic observers that they are using one other to achieve different and perhaps conflicting political goals.

Saleh’s goal is a return to political power and glory through the rule of his family and cronies. He has intelligently employed the Houthis to eliminate or weaken his political enemies – the Islah, Ali Mohsen and the powerful tribal leader family of al-Ahmar who pushed him to sign the Gulf Initiative and subsequently step down after his successor’s election in February of 2012.

The Houthis, on the other hand, appear inclined to replicate the Iranian model of government in which the movement’s leader, Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, would play a role similar to that of the Supreme Leader.

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The Houthis and Saleh’s GPC political marriage is certainly one of convenience and not love, as Saleh has fought several battles against the Houthis, one resulting in the death of the movement’s founder. However, the unexpected escape of Hadi to Aden brought them much closer through the common goal of eliminating Hadi and gaining control of Aden.

The Decisive Storm offensive is poised to further complicate this alliance, which could continue if Saleh believes there is no way out for him. Unlike the Houthis, who have unwavering Iranian support, Saleh does not currently seem to have any reliable regional backing. Iran is certainly not pleased to see GCC-coordinated military strikes against their allies in Yemen, and has issued a strong call for termination of the Decisive Storm operation, warning the kingdom it would not be invulnerable from the negative ramifications of such attacks. 

For its part, Saudi Arabia has worked shrewdly to secure both regional and international legitimacy for its military operations against the Saleh-Houthi alliance. The newly formed Arab military alliance is the first of its kind in recent years, attempting to restore political stability in an Arab state without any direct Western participation. Saleh is fully aware of this new political reality, and as such may try to adapt accordingly. But it remains to be seen whether the kingdom will forgive him once again.

Source: Al Jazeera