Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Dissecting the Saleh-Houthi alliance

The break-up of Saleh’s alliance with the Houthis is speeding up change in war-torn Yemen. Hossam Radman in Sanaa explores the landscape of interests and tensions that characterised the Houthi-Saleh alliance in Yemen


Dissecting the Saleh-Houthi alliance

اقرأ باللغة العربية

In the discourse of the Saudi-backed internationally-recognised Yemeni government, commonly referred to in media as the “legitimacy camp”, the fate of Sanaa is more a matter for crystal ball readers than a final objective of Operation Storm of Resolve waged by the Arab coalition to reinstate that government. We see this in the camp’s frequent predictions of the immanent liberation of the capital, whereas the battle has long remained suspended between two immovable fronts: Nihm and Marib. We also see it in prophecies of the impending implosion of the alliance between the Houthi Movement and supporters of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, referred to in “legitimacy camp” literature as the “coup alliance”.

Dissecting the Saleh-Houthi alliance

This may not necessarily be military propaganda. Most probably it is the product of ambiguities that envelope the complex relationship between the Houthis and Saleh forces. Perhaps this is why most Yemeni and Arab political circles tended to restrict their treatment of the rift in Sanaa to its destructive impact on the Houthi-Saleh alliance and its sustainability, rather than taking their analyses further towards a vision for exploiting such internal contradictions in a manner that can be incorporated into political and military strategies.

The fact is that it is difficult to understand the dynamics of the internal conflict in the Sanaa alliance if one approaches it from the perspective of Operation Storm of Resolve and its repercussions, as these have only enabled us to see the tip of the iceberg. To obtain a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between the Houthis and Saleh (and the factors that determine the dynamics in their relationship) we need to probe more closely into the two sides’ organisational structures, their ideological and political backgrounds, and their political and strategic approaches to the Yemeni Civil War.

Dissecting the Saleh-Houthi alliance


FROM ADVERSARIES TO COMRADES: “The dispute between us and the Houthis was an administrative one,” assassinated former president Ali Abdullah Saleh once said by way of explaining conflicts in the past between the former allying parties in Sanaa for three years. It was an uneasy alliance, hostilities between the two persisted through six years of war. Saleh was the first to lash out against the Houthi movement’s theocratic and political drive to revive the Zeidiya imamate, as president declaring war against the movement. The war, which lasted from 2004 to 2010, has much in common with Erdogan’s war against the Kurds in Turkey.

Many have held that Saleh exploited this war to accomplish various other ends. One was to sap the energies of his adversaries in the previous regime (the Muslim Brotherhood, the Al-Ahmar family and General Ali Mohsen) who were more enthusiastic supporters of the war for their own ideological and political reasons. He was also accused of using the war to blackmail Riyadh, which was suffering from Houthi pressures on its borders and eventually driven to intervene in an aerial offensive in 2010.

Dissecting the Saleh-Houthi alliance

So far, no facts have emerged to sustain such allegations against the late Yemeni president apart from his well-known genius for manipulating political contradictions. Ultimately what happened was that the Zeidiya revivalist drive contributed to diminishing the presence of the Wahhabi Salafism in the far north of Yemen and altering the balance of powers in a manner that would be detrimental to Saleh’s adversaries.

The animosity between the Houthis and the Saleh regime persisted through Yemen’s Arab Spring Revolution in 2011. The Houthis were among the main forces that sustained the popular uprising in Sanaa while, taking advantage of the weakest moment of the central government, Houthi militias seized control over strategic locations in Saada and allied with Muslim Brotherhood forces to oust the Yemeni military from important locations in Al-Jawf and Amran.

The Gulf Initiative, which excluded the Houthis from its power distribution calculations, kept alive that animosity against the regime. At the same time, since the Congregation of Reform Party (Islah), the political facade of the Yemeni chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, was the counterbalance in the power equations, the geopolitical conflict between power alliances acquired a heavy ideological/sectarian layer on top of the geopolitical one.

A change would come with Saleh’s removal from power, the effect of which was to neutralise him with respect to his adversaries. This opened the way for a new relationship between him and the Houthis based on a form of truce that would enable Saleh and his General People’s Congress (GPC) to retain positions of influence while the Houthis acquired greater manoeuvrability. If Saleh’s neutralisation worked well for the Houthis, the same cannot be said for the Islah Party and its forces which would be gradually driven out of their recently acquired positions, a process that would culminate in the Houthi march on and seizure of control of Sanaa in September 2014, in the course of which they eliminated Islahist militia bases in the capital.

The Peace and Partnership Agreement that was concluded in the wake of the Houthi takeover of Sanaa was meant to serve as a consensual arrangement that would sustain the rules of the game while preventing military skirmishes from escalating to more dangerous levels. It did not, therefore, greatly affect the Houthi-Saleh relationship which continued in the same “truce” mode until January 2015 when the Houthis placed President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi under house arrest and issued a constitutional declaration dissolving the largely pro-Saleh parliament.

Sparks began to fly again. The Houthis had just succeeded in doing what the Arab Spring youth had failed to do, namely to debilitate both Islah Party power centres and the pro-Saleh political institutions. However, a new development would work not only to sustain the “truce” but propel towards “rapprochement”. President Hadi’s flight from Sanaa to Aden would precipitate a convergence between “old forces” (Saleh) and emergent ones (the Houthis). While the former merely likened Hadi’s flight to the flight of the “Separatists of ‘94” (referring to the Southern secessionist movement), Abdel-Malek Al-Houthi declared a general mobilisation to fight “terrorism”. This paved the way to the Houthi invasion of southern Yemen in March 2015 which, in turn, triggered the Saudi-led “Storm of Resolve”.

While the operation set the Houthis in its crosshairs, Saleh appealed to the coalition to halt the operations, stating that neither he nor any of his relatives intended to run for the presidency. He still believed, in theory, that his place was secure in the “moderate” axis led by the Saudi kingdom and that he had a role to play in the future after the “lightning” operation was over.

As the war began to drag on, Saleh continued to avoid taking a final position in the war. But after the coalition bombed his home in May 2015 he shifted to the Houthi side. The arrangement was based on military cooperation. The Houthis retained their positions as a de facto governing authority over an area that was shrinking dramatically due to military defeats that led to the loss of the southern and eastern provinces.

Over the course of the following year, signs of friction between Saleh and the Houthis began to emerge. But suddenly, they took the bold step to forge a clearly defined political alliance that was crowned, in July 2016, with the creation of the Supreme Political Council. Positioning itself as the alternative to Hadi’s government, which by this time had returned to Aden as its temporary capital, the Supreme Political Council based its legitimacy on support of the Yemeni parliament, revived after being dissolved the previous year. With this development, the Houthi-Saleh relationship was established on a new footing: “legitimacy in exchange for partnership.”

For the Houthis, this step was more in the nature of a tactical manoeuvre rather than a long-range strategic shift. Its purpose was to eliminate, if partially, the taint of “coup-makers” and to compel their alliance partners to bear more responsibility (especially since the central bank had moved to Aden). As the months passed, tensions between the two sides began to seethe and before long surfaced into the open. Exchanges of recriminations in the press culminated in pro-Saleh demonstrations and pro-Houthi counter-demonstrations in Sanaa in August this year. At one point, the tensions erupted into armed skirmishes, during which Colonel Khaled Al-Rida, a key figure in Saleh’s General People’s Congress, was killed.

Just as it appeared that the alliance was on the verge of rupture, Abdel-Malek Al-Houthi and Saleh met in September in order to lay out new rules of engagement. The relationship within the Sanaa alliance now hovered between sources of conflict and the exigencies of partnership, a precarious situation that gave rise to the political fortune-telling we see among Yemeni and Arab public opinion circles today.


INCENTIVES TO CONFLICT: The foregoing historical overview brings us to two important questions. Firstly, do the two sides of this alliance have the ability to shape their relationship and formulate their priorities in a manner that serves their mutual needs while checking tendencies to recklessness that could set them on a collision course? At the military/operational level, do they have sufficient resolve to keep military cooperation above political tensions? Otherwise put, do they have the ability to keep their diverse ideological outlooks and political ends from prevailing over the need to prioritise their shared fate in ongoing battles against common adversaries?

The Houthi-Saleh alliance has been riddled with causes for rift and rupture since its inception. Some of these causes are to be found in structural differences between the General People’s Congress (GPC) and the Houthi Movement. The GPC is a political party with a national frame-of-reference that seeks to rule in government and to expand its influence within the frameworks of the state. Although the tribe is a basic source of the strength and influence of the party, it remains a predominantly civil organisation with a grassroots base. The Houthi Movement, by contrast, was formed by an insular religious group that eventually chose to pursue its agenda through armed force. It created a militia organisation that identified the state and its military instruments as an enemy. Accordingly, it sought to supplant the state and establish its own parallel governmental structures.

The structural contradiction in the Saleh-Houthi alliance is aggravated by a legacy of bloodshed that generated a deep-seated mistrust that inhibited development of a solid political alliance. In addition, each side represents different socioeconomic groups and strata. The GPC represents the government bureaucracy, the petty bourgeoisie, senior officials and centres of tribal and social influence all of which stood to lose in protracted war. The Houthis represent the revolutionary and people’s committees, the mujahideen and the supervisory groups that are deployed in the streets and alleys to manage public affairs and collect taxes. These sectors largely stood to gain from the perpetuation of war and the policies of Houthi leaders. Naturally, the differences between the two sides’ social bases inevitably affected their perceptions concerning how to manage the war, on the one hand, and how to manage domestic affairs in areas under alliance control, on the other.

At another level, the two sides diverge in their perceptions of the nature of the civil war domestically and regionally. To the Houthis, the war presented an opportunity to impose themselves as the most important player in the field. After eliminating adversaries beneath the banner of “revolution”, they sought to neutralise their allies beneath the banner of “partnership”. These actions throw into relief a central aim of the Houthi Movement, domestically: the acquisition of power and its military and financial instruments.

Regionally, the Houthis see their battle as part of the conflict between the Saudi and Iranian regional power axes. In 2016, when regional efforts attempted to promote rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, in the framework of Washington’s strategy, at the time, of striking a balance between these two regional power axes, the Houthis did not hesitate to engage in direct dialogue with Riyadh. However, the new US administration’s confrontationist approach towards Iran led the Houthis to position themselves as part of the Iranian network in the region, turning the Houthis from “neighbour” to “chief enemy” in the words of the Saudi crown prince.

The Saleh camp’s approach to the regional dimension of the Yemeni conflict is to regard it as an essentially “Yemeni-Saudi” problem. Saleh refused to enter into talks on his own with the Saudis and adhered to the position that any Saudi-Yemeni dialogue must be supervised by the UN. In recent speeches, he enumerated what he maintained are three historical roots of the Yemeni-Saudi conflict:

1- Saudi support for the southern Yemeni secessionists in the 1994 civil war,

2- The creation of the Republican Guards forces which, from his point of view, was a professional army that could jeopardise Saudi national security, and

3- Personal animosity between him and Prince Mohamed bin Nayef (which acquired credence thanks to the mutual courtship between Saleh and Mohamed bin Salman since the latter assumed control in Riyadh).

On the domestic level, Saleh was intent on turning the clock back to the pre-2011 era. He refused to recognise the legitimacy of President Hadi and continued to press for Yemeni-Saudi dialogue. Secondly, he backed out of his commitment to the results of the Yemeni national dialogue, seeking another dialogue on the fringes of the battlefield. The most salient action taken was to reconstitute the Yemeni parliament, which helped Saleh recuperate his old political clout. The GPC’s current drive of internal reform is also working in this direction.

In addition to the foregoing structural sources of conflict between the Houthis and Saleh, there are circumstantial factors that fuel tensions between the two sides:

1- One effect of the current political/military status quo was to build up a surplus of unused force ready to be tapped on both sides. The accumulated problems that they have been unable to resolve through dialogue or recently created political institutions have the potential to render that surplus force particularly volatile.

2- The distortion of the balance of powers in Sanaa in favour of the Houthis induced them to take firmer steps towards Saleh at time when he appeared at one of his weakest moments militarily, rendering him vulnerable to Houthi power ploys.


ESCALATION AND FUTURE SCENARIOS: The components of the Sanaa alliance have locked horns not so much to resolve their conflict but as to manage it with an eye to attaining a number of (offensive and defensive) objectives, each according to their position in prevailing equations.

The Houthis hope to clip Saleh’s wings in three fields:

- The army and security apparatuses: Houthis now occupy most of the key military posts while the security agencies in Sanaa are almost totally under their control. On top of this, they have existing militias, including the People’s Committees.

- Civil government executive and judicial agencies: through a series of decrees eliminating GPC or independent figures from government posts, the Houthis have gradually succeeded in bringing their own people into these agencies. At the same time, the “Revolutionary Council” continued to act as parallel government agencies. It performs some government functions, including the intake of remaining revenues that reach the government in Sanaa. The Houthis’ refusal to dissolve of this council was their most significant violation of the terms of the “Partnership for legitimacy” agreement they reached with Saleh. Now, Mohamed Ali Al-Houthi has a level of power and influence, in his capacity as the chairman of that council, that exceeds that of the president and some members of the Supreme Political Council.

- The tribe and the party: Abdel-Malek Al-Houthi, the movement’s leader, has recently intensified his efforts to win over tribal forces that formed the primary social support base for the Saleh regime. His efforts have often run up against obstacles, not least being the Houthis’ own kinship networks for which reason most of Saleh’s tribal supporters find their interests better looked after in the GPC. To overcome this, Abdel-Malek Al-Houthi has, firstly, begun to supply the tribes with arms in order to “bolster the fronts” and, secondly, he has tried to win their allegiance by giving them seats in the “Wise Men of Yemen” assembly, which the Houthis intend to promote as an alternative to the parliament should conflict between them and Saleh reach a point of no return.

Saleh, for his part, seeks to accomplish a number of defensive objectives. Above all, he wants, firstly, to alter the rules of political engagement in a manner that compels the Houthi ally to abide by its commitments under the partnership arrangement. Secondly, he hopes to alter the military balance of powers in order to stifle any adventurist spirit within either side. Towards these two ends, he has taken the following courses of action:

- Mass demonstrations: the huge rally that took place on 24 August 2017 to mark the anniversary of the founding of the GPC served to demonstrate the actual size and influence of the party in non-militaristic terms. The step succeeded in strengthening the party’s mass solidarity, eventually forcing Houthi leaders to sit with Saleh in order to iron out alliance problems.

- Mobilise at the battle fronts: it is believed that Saleh managed to obtain financial support for training fighters loyal to him that he could contribute to the war effort. His nephew, Tarek Abdullah Saleh, oversaw training at Al-Malsi Camp, for example. The step annoyed the Houthis who voiced an objection to “party militias”, but they could do little. Saleh, meanwhile, put paid to the Houthis’ argument that they, alone, were putting their lives at risk in the war.

Saleh thus succeeded in tipping the scales towards parity. The decline of military sparring in the capital testifies to this.

Naturally, the fluidity of the Yemeni condition as a whole applies to daily interactions between the two sides. However, on the whole it appears that the capital of the “coup-makers” remains governed by rational rules for the management of their differences. Accordingly, we can say that Houthi-Saleh/GPC tensions will continue to be fuelled by the structural and circumstantial factors mentioned, but they will express themselves primarily through mutual recriminations in the media, political manoeuvring and attempts to shore up and attract support. Simultaneously, both sides will work to ensure that such phenomena do not affect their military collaboration, the most fundamental rule governing their relationship.

If the newly-founded political institutions in Sanaa are unable to contain internal contradictions within the alliance, the two sides will not allow surges in tensions to spiral out of control. Outside pressures compel them to reach understandings and formulate decisions at the leadership levels. In the end, the two sides’ different agendas, structures, resources, calculations and other such factors will continue to push tensions between them towards the brink. However, it would take new external factors to push them over the precipice.

This means that the ball is in the court of the Arab coalition, which has the ability to create those new external factors. This could take the form of a debilitating military defeat that might compel one of the two Sanaa partners to readjust its thinking. Or, perhaps, more realistically, it could involve a proposal that would entice one of two sides to redraw the map of Yemeni alliances. But it would take more than media overtures and secret meetings to bring this about. In fact, it would require the willingness of the Arab coalition to formulate a new solution that would end the status quo and lay the foundations for a lasting political solution.

Unfortunately, this possibility seems remote. The coalition has been unable to formulate a clear strategy for the war and seems even less capable of finding one to end it.

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