It wasn’t headline news for long, but on Monday, one of the most important geopolitical events of the year took place.
On December 4, 2017, Yemen’s former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was executed by the Houthi rebels currently vying for power in the war-stricken nation.
Before he was ousted from power in 2012, Saleh enjoyed a cozy relationship with the United States. Under the Obama administration, Saleh allowed Obama to run rampant with his drone strike assassination program, which killed untold numbers of Yemeni civilians and empowered al-Qaeda. When a Yemeni journalist who exposed these crimes was locked away in Yemen, Obama gave Saleh a phone call to ensure that the journalist was not allowed to be released, even though he was set to be pardoned by Saleh himself.
After Saleh’s departure, as the infamous Houthis grew and unseated Saleh’s predecessor, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, Saleh made clear his alliance with the Houthi rebels in a vain attempt to regain power in the country (even after fighting against them as president six times between 2004 and 2010). The Houthis were successful in part because Saleh retained much of the loyalty of Yemen’s armed forces. This continued to be the case for some time, up until days ago when Saleh appeared to change tack and switched loyalty to the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition, who were counting on him to give them the edge over the Houthis.
Saleh ruled Yemen from 1978 until 2012 and was heavily influential in Yemen’s so-called civil war up until the end. Yet the Houthis still killed him. In so doing, the Houthis sent a very strong message not only to other players in Yemen, but to all of the countries taking part in the brutal onslaught of Yemen: no one is off limits, and their ability to silence their enemies is frighteningly real.
The photographs of Saleh’s dead body being paraded on Monday were reminiscent of those of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011. However, unlike Libya, Yemen represents a broader power struggle between the regional powers such as Iran, as well as the United States and the United Kingdom.
The Saudi-led coalition has been bombing Yemen for over two years, yet even while fighting against Saleh, they seemed incapable of doing anything to mitigate his influence. Within days of changing loyalty, the Houthis brought about his death almost instantly.
This entire scenario was adequately predicted by journalist Jeremy Scahill in January 2015, who wrote:
“Saleh and the Houthis ‘are in love,’ said Asham, a student at Sanaa University, who asked that his last name not be used because of the political situation. ‘But their marriage will end in divorce. They can’t live together forever because they both want the same thing–power.’”
Saudi Arabia’s only real hope for turning the tide against the Houthis was through Saleh, and the Houthis killed him.
In truth, Saudi Arabia has no idea what it is doing in Yemen. From a New York Times article entitled “Saudi Arabia Has No Idea How to Deal With Iran”:
“Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, on behalf of the government forces fighting against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels has been costly and inconclusive, even after more than two and a half years. In fact, it could lead to the very outcome that Riyadh most wanted to prevent: the transformation of the Houthi movement into something akin to Lebanon’s Hezbollah – except much closer to Saudi borders. Indeed, unless the war in Yemen comes to an end soon, those well-armed, Iran-backed militias will soon sit atop a shattered and a starved society.”
Since Saleh’s death, Saudi-led airstrikes have already intensified, even targeting the presidential palace in Yemen’s capital. This isn’t Saudi Arabia demonstrating its military might. Rather, it is a demonstration that there is nothing else the Kingdom can do. Right now, Saudi Arabia retains a monopoly on violence in Yemen with its American-supplied billion dollar war machines. But sooner or later, Saudi Arabia’s rulers will have to accept that they cannot force Yemen’s political climate to evolve the way they want it to – and they will have to leave (or face a quagmire with no end in sight).
The Saudis “may want to escalate, which would be a terrible mistake as they have already shown they do not have a viable military solution to this conflict,” said Joost Hiltermann, program director, Middle East and North Africa, at the International Crisis Group as quoted by Bloomberg. “I don’t see a military way out of this for them. At the same time the war has been incredibly costly for them so they desperately need an exit strategy, but they don’t have one.”
Maybe this is why Donald Trump himself has called for the immediate end of the blockade currently strangling Yemen half to death. Maybe the war in Yemen has met its inevitable dead-end, though the more cautious of us won’t be celebrating any time soon.