Have the Houthis lost Yemen?
The past few days have seen an escalation of fighting in Sanaa, Yemen. It seems that at last former President Ali Abdullah Salih has turned on the Houthis, with whom he made an alliance over three years ago to regain power. It was an odd-couple political deal from the start. For many observers it was only a matter of time before there was a parting. The inability of the Houthis to form any kind of viable government and their increasingly belligerent attitude towards Salih’s forces have hastened their decline.
Reports coming out of Yemen in the past three days show Houthi militia in Sanaa being beaten by citizens and their hate-filled slogans being torn down. Without Salih’s support, they are doomed. The tide of public opinion is turning toward Salih, perhaps less out of love for him than despair at the damage caused by the Houthis. The continued onslaught of the Saudi-led bombing campaign coupled with the crippling blockade of even basic supplies makes the status quo untenable. While there is little likelihood that Saudi and Emirati mercenaries on the ground could actually enter Sanaa on their own, internal fighting is likely to end the Houthi insurgency. Salih has rallied support from most of the tribes surrounding Sanaa and his forces and allies now control most of the entrances and exits of the city.
Salih has reached out to both the Saudis and Emiratis, asking them to lift their blockade so that there can be reconciliation. This must come as a relief to the young Crown Prince Bin Salman, whose careless war has cost billions of dollars with no end in sight. Defeating the Houthis, even if it is Salih who does the deed, allows him to save face and argue that he has dealt a blow to the Iranians. Iran is not about to come to the rescue of the Houthis, who never had a coherent strategy for governing Yemen.
As conniving and untrustworthy as Salih has proven to be, over and over again, he may be the only person capable of beginning to restore security to Yemen’s north. It is obvious that the extent of the humanitarian crisis has dealt a death blow to the Houthi cause, making them an easy scapegoat for Salih to exploit. It will not be easy for Yemenis to forget the callous damage from the Saudi campaign, but anything that brings an end to the bombing, opens up the ports and airfields, and signals the influx of massive amounts of development aid is better than backing a losing cause.
Assuming that Salih does strike a deal with the Saudis, it will be interesting to see how this impacts the rebellion in the south, where Salih will never be forgiven for the way he damaged the region after unification. Nor will the southern secessionists welcome Hadi, the sidelined “legitimate” president who nobody respects. If Salih cuts a deal with the Saudis, it is likely that there will be a de facto split of Yemen with Salih in the north and the south under the sway of the Emiratis. Events are unfolding too fast to make predictions, but perhaps this is the start of a peace process that so far has never had a chance.