Anti-Saudi alliance in Yemen splitting as ex-President Saleh makes overtures to Riyadh
The alliance between the Houthi rebels and former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh seems to be on the verge of a split. Together these groups have been fighting against the Saudi-backed forces of ousted President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi since 2015.
Saleh on Saturday said he was ready to turn a “new page” in relations with the Saudi-led coalition, which had intervened to place his successor back in power. He said his offer would require Riyadh to stop attacks on Yemen. “I call upon the brothers in neighboring states and the alliance to stop their aggression, lift the siege, open the airports and allow food aid and the saving of the wounded and we will turn a new page by virtue of our neighborliness,” Saleh said in a televised speech.
The address came as forces loyal to Saleh were engaged in battle with the troops of Ansar Allah, or the Houthi rebels, in the capital Sanaa. Hostilities between the two sides broke out on Wednesday.
More than 100 people were killed in clashes between Houthis and forces loyal to ex-President Saleh on Saturday, Sky News Arabia reported, citing military and medical sources. The majority of those killed were Houthi fighters, the Abu Dhabi-based broadcaster added.
Saleh was forced to surrender his office in 2012 amid a wave of mass protests in the country, abandoning the presidency to his Vice-President Hadi. Hadi ran uncontested, won a landslide victory and was expected to resign two years later, but failed to do so amid increasing pressure from the Houthi rebels. In 2015 he fled to Saudi Arabia, which used its military force in a bid to place him back in power in Yemen. The coalition is supported by some Western nations, including the US and the UK, which provide intelligence, refueling and weapons for the war effort. The Houthi allied themselves with the forces loyal to Saleh and have fought a devastating war against forces loyal to Hadi and his foreign backers.
Saleh’s statements were welcomed by the Saudi coalition, which said it was “confident of the will of the leaders and sons” of Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party to return to the Arab fold. The former president’s alliance with the Shiite rebels, who are presumed in Riyadh to be a proxy force of Iran, was perceived in the Arab kingdom as a betrayal of Sunni Islam.
The Houthi rebels denounced what they described as “sedition,” meaning Saleh’s behaviour towards the Saudi coalition. “Saleh’s speech is a coup against our alliance and partnership… and exposed the deception of those who claim to stand against aggression,” a spokesman for the group said in a statement carried by the rebels’ Al Masirah TV. Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, the leader of the rebels, called on Saleh to “show more wisdom and maturity” in a separate statement.
Saleh may be a noticeable player in the Yemeni conflict, but one should not overestimate the role he plays, Sergey Balmasov, senior analyst at the Centre for Crisis Society Studies, told RT. His support has dwindled over the past two years, so his potential decision to break up with the Houthis would not result in a quick end to the war. “The escalation of violence is overarching there. There is a patchwork of forces, including Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, Hezbollah, whatever ragtag troops Saudi Arabia brought in like Senegal units. There is in fact no Yemen as a country: It has been torn apart.”
He added that some speculators claim that Saleh’s statements are actually a proposition by Saudi Arabia to roll down the hostilities in a manner which would save face. “Riyadh is facing serious financial difficulties. The reserves they accumulated during the fat years are melting like a snowball in the sun,” he explained.
The war in Yemen, the poorest country of the Arab world, is one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of our times. It has claimed over 10,000 lives, left millions with scant access to food, fresh water and medicine and caused the largest outbreak of cholera in modern history. The civilian suffering was exacerbated by the Saudi naval and air blockade of Yemen, human rights groups say. The coalition has also been accused of committing war crimes through indiscriminate attacks on residential areas in cities controlled by the rebel forces.