The killing of Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh will escalate fighting but could also present opportunities for the United States and its regional allies to resolve the 3-year-old civil war, analysts say.
It is not clear who killed Saleh, but initial reports indicate that he was the victim of Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Saleh’s death came amid growing tensions between the 75-year-old former president and the Houthis, who had been uneasy allies in the conflict.
The Houthis announced Saleh’s death Monday and a video of his body with a gruesome head wound circulated on the Internet. He was reportedly killed as he attempted to flee Sanaa, Yemen’s capital.
“This is a pivotal point in Yemen’s civil war,” said Katherine Zimmerman, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s an opportunity for the U.S. to shape the outcome.”
Some analysts say the U.S. should bolster diplomatic and other efforts to keep Saleh’s opposition alive in an effort to weaken the Houthis and Iran’s influence in the region. “We should do what we can to continue the split, to fracture the Houthi movement further,” she said.
Saleh came over to the Houthi side with a large chunk of Yemen’s military and was a powerful political figure with a large following in the country.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have been backing a policy of trying to woo Saleh away from the Houthis, Zimmerman said.
The conflict has grown into a deadly proxy war pitting Iranian-backed Houthis against Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations. The United States has provided some support to Saudi Arabia.
Thousands of people have been killed in the war and a Saudi-led blockade has led to shortages of food and the spread of disease, including an outbreak of cholera.
In recent weeks there were signs that Saleh was distancing himself from the Houthis and their Iranian backers, indicating he would change sides. The Houthis reinforced the split by removing Saleh loyalists from their joint government in Sanaa.
Analysts expect a renewal of violence following Saleh’s death as the sides jockey for military advantage.
“What this means in the short term for the civil war is an escalation of fighting,” said Sterling Jensen, an assistant professor at the United Arab Emirates’ National Defense College in Abu Dhabi.
If Saleh had not been killed and had turned on the Houthis it would have given the Saudi-led coalition a key opportunity and marked a setback for Iran.
But the loss of Saleh’s leadership will mean it will be difficult to rally opposition to the Houthis, giving the Iranians an opportunity to expand their influence in the civil war.
“The Iranians will likely advise the Houthis to consolidate as much military power as possible in the absence of Saleh,” Jensen said. “Saleh was the only Yemeni leader able to unify the country in the last 50 years.”
Reports from Yemen suggested that some fighters loyal to Saleh were already turning themselves over to Houthi forces in Sanaa.
Before the civil war, Saleh was president of the country for 33 years and a key ally of the United States and Saudi Arabia. His U.S.-backed forces battled the Houthis and al-Qaeda.
Saleh was ousted from power in 2012 and replaced by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Saleh joined forces with the Houthis in opposing the Hadi government, and the country was soon mired in civil war.
Some analysts said the killing presents an opportunity for the United States and the Saudi-coalition to push for broader representation in the internationally recognized Hadi government in its battle against the Houthis.
“The silver lining in his death could be reorganization of the U.N.-recognized Hadi government and the eventual emergence of a new Yemeni leader that can unite the different factions,” Jensen said. “No new leader was going to emerge with Saleh still alive.”
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