Arab fall: Houthis kill former Yemen president and ally

Question: How many times can you switch sides in a brutal civil war? Answer: One fewer than Ali Abdullah Saleh attempted. After recently betraying his Houthi allies — again — the Iranian-backed rebels assassinated the former president of Yemen, ending what might have been an opening to ending the years-long conflict:

Yemen’s steely former president of 33 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, lost his last political gamble Monday, meeting his death at the hands of the Houthi movement — his erstwhile allies in the country’s multisided civil war.

Officials in his General People’s Congress party (GPC) confirmed to Reuters that the 75-year-old Saleh had been killed outside the capital, Sanaa, in what Houthi sources said was a rocket-propelled grenade and gun attack. …

Saleh waged six wars against the Houthis from 2002 to 2009 before he made an impromptu alliance with the group that seized Sanaa in 2014 and eventually turned on him.

The two sides feuded for years for supremacy over territory they ran together. The Houthis probably never forgave his forces for killing their founder and father of the current leader.

Saleh attempted his latest about-face over the weekend, attempting to distance himself from the Houthis and offering the Saudi coalition peace talks to resolve the fighting. Unfortunately, Saleh’s move backfired not just on him but also on the Yemenis caught between the various forces as fighting intensified:

His death comes two days after Saleh announced he was parting ways with his former Houthi allies, and that he wanted to “turn the page” on relations with the Saudi-led coalition that launched a military intervention in Yemen in 2015. The coalition welcomed the move and granted Saleh’s forces air support in fierce battles that later transpired. …

The former Yemeni president’s defection seemed to signal a breakthrough in the more than two-year war, potentially breaking a stalemate that has sustained the fighting.

But it triggered major upheaval in Sanaa, where Saleh lives. Residents of the Yemeni capital, home to some 5 million people, say that the last 24 hours marked the deadliest of Yemen’s war. Incessant street battles and explosions extended across the city, according to residents, as schools and hospitals shut their doors.

Saleh and the Saudis hoped that his influence on all sides could be leveraged for a pause in the fighting, but those days were long past. Saleh ruled Yemen for decades by playing all sides against each other, but lost power in the 2011 Arab Spring revolt when his base of support crumbled. He resigned under pressure from the US despite his cooperation in the fight against al-Qaeda, at first fleeing to Saudi Arabia and then returning to oppose them. The US-backed government in Sana’a managed to barely hang on until 2015, when then-President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi escaped from the clutches of Saleh’s Houthi then-allies and fled with the remnant of his government to the open sea from Aden, where he had been operating with Saudi support.

At that point, the Obama administration stopped calling Yemen a foreign-policy success and closed the US embassy in Sana’a. Other Western nations quicky followed suit. That came on the heels of another US embassy taking to the sea in ships from Tripoli. The Western response to the Arab Spring has been a string of unmitigated disasters, and Yemen now looks poised for a longer spell as a failed nation-state where warlords and terrorists will fester, this time with Iranian influence expanding in an encirclement strategy around Saudi Arabia.

Saleh’s double-dealing finally caught up to him. The consequences of the Western follies of the Arab Spring will unfortunately remain with us for a generation or more in Yemen, Libya, and Syria.