By Manuel Almeida
4 June 2015
A few weeks ago, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen made an unusual TV appearance. With the wreckage of his house in the capital Sanaa in the background, Saleh condemned the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes on his residence as an “act of cowardice” and defied the coalition to come and face his forces on the battlefield. “Like the Joker from a Batman movie,” joked a Yemeni on Twitter.
Saleh also announced, for the first time since the Houthis took over Sanaa in September last year, the existence of a formal alliance between his forces and the rebels led by the young Abdul-Malik Badreddin al-Houthi. “You should continue carrying your arms, ready to sacrifice your lives in defence against these belligerent attacks,” Saleh urged the Houthis.
How long this bizarre association between the Saleh camp and the Houthis would last has remained one of the key equations in the current crisis. It often looked more like a circumstantial alignment of interests, a temporary marriage of convenience, rather than a permanent re-configuration of alliances among northern Zaydis.
After all, the Houthis have always complained about being consistently discriminated against by the Saleh regime, with plenty of evidence to back their case. Between 2004 and the uprisings in 2011, the Houthis fought six wars against the regime’s forces, with terrible humanitarian consequences in the Houthis northern stronghold of Saada.
With the diplomatic contacts by the various parties aiming to reach a political solution to the current war intensifying, the durability of the Saleh-Houthi alliance is coming under growing scrutiny.
In a recent interview with Lebanese pro-“resistance” TV channel Al-Mayadeen, Saleh claimed he had rejected an offer of "millions of dollars" from Saudi Arabia to shift sides and confront the Houthis. "We will not let go of the Houthis," he said.
His story is unconvincing. The Saudis, who rightly blame Saleh for helping the Houthis to overthrow the Yemeni government and spreading a senseless war across the country, have taken a clear position on his future: he must leave.
Only a day after the Saudi-led air strikes begun, Saleh made an offer to negotiate a political settlement between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia that fell on deaf ears. Plus, a couple of months ago he sent his son Ahmed Ali Saleh (former commander in the Republican Guard and former ambassador to the UAE) to Riyadh to propose a deal. In exchange of a few guarantees including his father’s immunity, Saleh would turn his forces against the Houthis. The Saudis refused.
After months of war, it has become clear that the Houthi-Saleh alliance has massively overreached. The maximum it can aim for is a stalemate, which would allow no one to effectively govern Yemen and would be too costly for all parties and certainly for the average Yemeni citizen. Winning the war, given the level of armed opposition they have encountered across much of the country and the pressure from the coalition’s airstrikes, is beyond their reach. The same goes for their chances to gain full control and hold key cities and provinces such as Aden, Taez or Marib.
Talks in the Omani capital of Muscat, involving Houthi representatives and brokered by U.N. officials, have prepared the ground for negotiations in Geneva and have also secured the release of one of the American hostages held by the rebels. Earlier this week, Yemeni government spokesman Rajeh Badi revealed that the U.N. envoy to Yemen, the Mauritanian Ismail Oul Cheikh Ahmed, had made substantial progress in the goal of bringing the Yemeni government in exile and the Houthis to the U.N.-sponsored talks.
The U.N. envoy himself revealed there is an agreement on “the date, agenda and framework for the Geneva talks and the parties that attend the meeting”, and that a formal announcement is expected any hour now. According to Foreign Minister of Yemen Riyadh Yassin, the government has proposed June 14 as the start date for the talks.
Reportedly, among the terms of the agreement that will take the Houthis and the Yemeni government currently led by President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi and Vice-President Khaled Bahah to Geneva is a ceasefire longer than the previous five-day truce.
Paving the Way
The hope is that the Geneva talks start paving the way for an end to the conflict, the full delivery of humanitarian aid, the return of the exiled government, and the resumption of the political dialogue.
According to recent reports, the agreement also involves the departure of Saleh to another country and a Houthi compromise to eventually abide by most of the provisions ofU.N. Security Council resolution 2216, including a withdrawal from the cities they have seized. There is, however, a clear divergence over when that withdrawal should take place, with the Houthis refusing to do so before the U.N.-sponsored negotiations.
In this context, Saleh can hardly afford to abandon the Houthis under the price of seeing his position become even more vulnerable. But for the Houthis, the opposite scenario seems to be gaining ground: distancing themselves from Saleh is increasingly looking like a necessary step to gain more credibility during the coming peace talks, which are likely to take some time to bear fruit. The issue then, from the perspective of the Houthi leadership, might come down to the timing of that decision.
Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.