What Does Saleh’s Killing Mean for Yemen?
Yemen’s longtime ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh has been killed by his former allies, the Houthi rebels. Sheila Carapico of University of Richmond says the devastating Yemen war could now expand to even more fronts
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Yemen’s long time ex president, Ali Abdullah Saleh has been killed by his former allies, the Houthi rebels. Unconfirmed video shows militants loading Saleh’s dead body onto the back of a pickup truck. Saleh was killed after breaking ties with the Houthis and calling for talks with the Saudi led coalition that has fought the Houthis in Yemen for more than two years. What does Saleh’s death mean for Yemen’s war? Well, earlier I spoke to Dr. Sheila Carapico, a professor at the University of Richmond, and a specialist in Yemen. Dr. Carapico, welcome. Before we get into what Saleh’s death means, can you talk about who he is and the important background that people should know about him?
SHEILA CARAPICO: Well, I mean he came into power in the late ’70’s after two of his predecessors were assassinated and proceeded to kind of craft the style of leadership, cooperation and manipulation. One of the high points was when he unified Yemen in 1990, then that went awry four years later in 1994 when the south, former People’s Democratic Republic attempted to secede. And since then he’s been more and more Machiavellian in his way of ruling until finally in 2011 the vast majority of young people in the country rose up to demand his removal from office.
AARON MATÉ: Right, and that’s when he handed off power to his vice president, right? And then ended up switching sides and allying himself with the Houthis who ended up fighting his vice president Hadi, but now it looks as if the Houthis have just killed Saleh. So what happened here?
SHEILA CARAPICO: Well it had been in the works apparently for a while that the Houthis and Saleh’s people were not seeing eye to eye on a number of things and then what tipped it over, and then of course he had also been negotiating with Saudi Arabia and with the United Arab Emirates, who were leading the coalition that’s trying to reinstate Hadi into power and then on Saturday he gave a televised interview format, but basically a speech declaring that he was separating from the Houthis and willing to make peace with Saudi Arabia, which amounted to saying that he was switching sides and I think he thought that was a very clever power move that would allow him to consolidate power against the Houthis as well as probably other rivals including Hadi but then as we learned this morning the Houthis managed to assassinate him.
AARON MATÉ: Right, can you tell us what happened there? A quite striking video of Saleh’s dead body after he was killed.
SHEILA CARAPICO: You know, I’ve seen more than one account, but what I believe happened is that he left his compound with a convoy of 20 or 30 vehicles attempting I guess to leave town for reasons that are not clear to me and they were ambushed. And a rocket propelled grenade apparently stopped his vehicle and then he was shot at close range.
AARON MATÉ: And what does this mean for the Saudi led war on Yemen? I imagine a big part of their strategy was getting Saleh on side in the hopes that that would help them crush their rivals the Houthis. Houthis have retaliated by killing Saleh, so what’s next for them?
SHEILA CARAPICO: You know, what it seems like is that they’re just gonna keep bombing. You know, it’s gonna play out very differently in different parts of the country. In Sana’a they appear to have escalated strikes on what they consider to be Houthi sites. It’s less clear what’s happening in…for instance, which is nominally under Houthi control and so said to be under Houthi control but where there’s like no sympathizers with the Houthis among the general population, situation is different in the third major city in the north, Taiz where the Houthis and Saleh faced very fierce resistance all along, and then in Aden in the south it’s different again. So in Sana’a, which is the only place we’re really getting any, that I’m getting any news from today, this morning, it appears that the Saudis are renewing air strikes, I guess in order to intimidate people.
AARON MATÉ: And so what does all this pertain for the conflict? We already have the UN warning that seven million people are at risk of famine. Saudi Arabia recently intensified the blockade, which already was very intense. There’s huge constant talk of Iran backing the Houthis even though there’s not very much proof if any proof that Iran has supplied any heavy weaponry to the Houthis. What is gonna happen now that Saleh is dead?
SHEILA CARAPICO: Well I mean, I don’t really have a crystal ball but I could make a couple of comments: one is that if the Iranians were really backing the Houthis, this would certainly be time for them to show it because the evidence as you suggest has been very thin. But if in fact it’s an Iranian backed militia that’s about to be crushed, then you would expect Iran to do something. I don’t particularly expect that they will because I think the extent of their alliance with the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, has been grossly exaggerated from the beginning.
In terms of the future of the war, again it’s extremely to predict at this point, but I think what we tend to see happening is again the kind of localization or regionalization of the war, so that it would become even harder than it has been in the past year or two or three to speak of one war, we’re probably going to be seeing a number of discrete wars in Sana’a, certainly in Taiz, the eastern region Ma’rib, the Red Sea coast around Hudayda looks like there’s going to be different wars. And both the Saudis and Iraqis attempting to buy off local factions in the hopes of having it looks as if they have some domestic support when, in point of fact, Hadi the internationally but not nationally recognized president has very very little domestic support.
AARON MATÉ: Finally, Dr. Carapico, the US role. If the US ended its support for the Saudi led coalition, as it’s been providing from Obama right through President Trump, what kind of a difference could that make?
SHEILA CARAPICO: Well, it wouldn’t make an immediate difference because we’ve already sold them so many weapons but it’s clear that without American weapon, and in particular I mean the most significant American support has, for the most part been in air refueling of American-supplied Saudi fighter jets, which can’t fly very far on a tank of fuel because they’re such profligate consumers of fuel. If the United States ceased that alone, it would downgrade the Saudi offensive capabilities if they stopped sending weapons then over time, again, not this month but over time, that would also mean that the Saudis would need to de-escalate.
AARON MATÉ: Dr. Sheila Carapico, Yemen specialist at the University of Richmond. Thank you.
SHEILA CARAPICO: Thank you very much.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.