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Yemen: What will change after Saleh's death?

December 5, 2017

The killing of Ali Abdullah Saleh has opened a complicated new chapter in the ongoing war in Yemen. But will the former president's death have any impact on efforts to reach a peaceful solution to the brutal conflict?

The war in Yemen
Image: Getty Images/AFP

At the outset of the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia fought on the side of ousted President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his allied Sunni tribal militias. The US-backed, Saudi-led military coalition launched a campaign to fight Houthi rebels, who were suspected of being supported by Iran. Back then, the Houthis were allied with the troops of Yemen's longtime ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh. On Monday, Saleh was killed by Houthi fighters after he broke ties with the rebel group last week and expressed an openness for talks with Riyadh.

The world's worst humanitarian crisis

The devastating war Saudi Arabia is waging in Yemen has taken a confusing new turn, but it is unlikely to change the circumstances of the country's suffering civilian population. "In some neighborhoods people cannot even leave their houses. There are fighter jets all over," said Abdo Al-Mikhlafy, a DW journalist who comes from Yemen and whose wife remains in Sanaa. "There is no way to get out right now."

Two out of every three Yemenis are now dependent upon foreign aid for survival. The United Nations has called the situation the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Every 10 minutes, another child dies of starvation or some other form of preventable death in the country. Yet, the Saudi-led coalition continues to block any and all air and sea corridors that would allow food and medicine into Yemen.

Houthi fighters take security measures to set up checkpoints in Sanaa after Saleh's death
Houthi fighters took security measures to set up checkpoints in Sanaa after Saleh's deathImage: picture alliance/dpa/abaca/A. Homran

Storming Sanaa?

Optimists might be tempted to hope the situation will improve in the wake of Saleh's demise. Marie-Christine Heinze, a Yemen expert and chairwoman of the Bonn-based Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO), said that at this point the heavy fighting between Saleh supporters and Houthi rebels has died down. But, she warned: "In the longterm, that fact will not lead to a more peaceful situation in Yemen, instead it will more likely lead to further conflicts and more chaos. The fronts are no longer as easily discernible as they were."

Combatants must now realign themselves, as Heinze put it. Until now the Houthis have been able to maintain the upper hand, she explained, but it is quite conceivable that some tribes loyal to Saleh may now also switch sides to join the Saudis. Moreover, Saleh's son Ahmed Ali has returned to Yemen to lead his father's troops. It is possible that he will in turn attempt to wrest control of Sanaa from the Houthis, with the support of Saudi Arabia.

Malnourished child in Yemen
Nearly half a million children in war-torn Yemen are malnourishedImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Hyder

UN calls for a ceasefire

"Saudi Arabia and the UAE absolutely want to destroy the Houthis," said DW's Al-Mikhlafy. "But that will take a long time because the Houthis still have enough troops and arms to continue the fight." The conflict could therefore drag on for years if the Saudi-led coalition refrains from sending in ground troops, he added.

Despite Saleh's death, Al-Mikhlafy believes a peaceful solution to the conflict is still nowhere in sight. On Tuesday, UN Humanitarian Coordinator Jamie McGoldrick made renewed calls for all sides to commit to a temporary ceasefire so that the injured could be taken to hospitals for treatment. Yet, it remains certain that on Tuesday night, once again, the streets of Sanaa will be filled with the sound of relentless gunfire and the skies filled with the screams of fighter jets.

Yemen's chaos deepens after death of ex-president – Q&A with Jamie McGoldrick, UN Humanitarian Coordinator

Peter Hille Bonn 0051
Peter Hille Peter Hille is a multimedia reporter with a strong background in African affairs@peterhille