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Middle East

Fighting intensifies in Sanaa after ex-president Saleh's offer to Saudis

© Mohammed Huwais, AFP | Former president Ali Abdallah Saleh ended his alliance with the Houthi rebels on December 2

Text by Ségolène ALLEMANDOU

Latest update : 2017-12-04

In the wake of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s weekend overture to the Saudi-led coalition, fighting has escalated in the capital, Sanaa.

Saleh said on Saturday he was ready to “turn a new page” in relations with the Saudi-led coalition. The offer came just days after fighting erupted between the Iranian-allied Shiite rebels and forces loyal to Saleh, unraveling the fragile alliance they had formed in the face of the internationally-recognised government and the Saudi-led coalition.

The coalition has since stepped up its bombing of Houthi positions, in support of Saleh's forces. The Houthis dominate the northern part of the city, while Saleh's forces hold the southern part. Much of the fighting is concentrated around the central Political District, home to ministries and foreign embassies. The Houthis appeared to be targeting the homes of Saleh's family, political allies and commanders.

Why did Saleh break his alliance with the Houthi rebels?

The rift between former president Saleh and the Houthis has been brewing for months. The crisis came to a head over the weekend when forces from each camp broke into guerilla warfare in the streets of Sanaa.

Splits emerged on August 23 when the Houthis called Saleh a "traitor" after he gave a speech dismissing the Iran-backed group as a "militia". In a major show of support the next day, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis attended a rally marking 35 years since the founding of Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC). Tensions between the allies soon erupted into clashes in which a colonel loyal to Saleh and two rebels were killed. This weekend, violence erupted anew. And when Saleh reached out to the Saudi-led coalition, the Houthis accused him of staging a "coup against our alliance."

“This alliance was purely pragmatic. They shared the same objectives: to take control of Sanaa and to push out President Hadi,” explained Franck Mermier, CNRS research director.

The Saleh loyalists and the Houthi rebels made uneasy bedfellows. The Shiite Houthi movement and Mr. Saleh’s political party (Sunni) have never shared the same ideological motivations. The Houthi rebels have been in an on-and-off conflict with Yemen’s central government since 2004 the same government that Saleh controlled until 2011, when an Arab-spring-inspired uprising ended his 33-year rule. The Houthis were not happy with Saleh’s replacement, the Saudi-backed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. They took control of the capital of Sanaa and forced Hadi to flee in 2014. When a Saudi-led coalition joined the conflict in 2015 in an attempt to restore Hadi to power, Saleh sided with the Houthis.

Mermier said the move was purely strategic with Saleh "hoping to cut his losses" knowing that "the war has been catastrophic".

“After three years of conflict, he wants to hedge his bets. He wants a seat at the table when negotiations eventually begin,” he added.

Is this the end of the war?

Saudi journalist Afrah Nasser said that this is “clearly a defining moment [in the Yemeni conflict] but this is not the end of the war". Mermier predicts that if Saleh switches sides and the Houthi militia are completely isolated, they’ll become “a negligible force".

Since taking power in March of 2015, the Shiite group has controlled a large part of the army’s arsenal and has expanded its territory considerably. But the rift in the rebel camp has changed the balance of power. For the first time, on the night of Saturday, December 2 and Sunday, December 3, the Saudi coalition came to the aid of Saleh’s forces, who had been battling pro-Iran militias in Sanaa.

After three years of fighting, this rift favours Riyadh. The Saudis are “wasting millions of dollars in arms deals to fight a war that is impossible to win,” said Nasser. This development gives them an out, a reason to end the fighting without losing face.

Saleh called upon the coalition to end the blockade that began on November 6 after Saudi Arabia intercepted a missile fired from Yemen towards Riyadh. The month-long blockade has exacerbated what the UN was already calling “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”

The World Health Organisation estimated that the conflict has left 8,750 dead and more than 50,000 injured, including large numbers of civilians. The conflict has also triggered a cholera epidemic and pushed the country to the verge of famine.

This is an adaptation of an article that originally appeared in French.

Date created : 2017-12-04

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