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Yemen: Back into the Arms of President Saleh

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Supporters of Shiite rebels celebrate an agreement reached by Saleh and the Houthis to form a political council in Sanaa, Yemen, 1 August, 2016. Photo Hani Mohammed ©Hollandse Hoogte

“Do not ask us why we in Yemen fight against Saudi Arabia. Rather, ask why you are not fighting Saudi Arabia too,” wrote Yemen-based lawyer and fervent blogger Haykal Bafana on his Facebook page.

That was only days before an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition on 8 October 2016 hit a funeral in the capital Sanaa, killing over a hundred mourners and injuring hundreds more. It is just the latest atrocity in a war that broke out in March 2015.

The attack only fuelled the outrage inside and outside Yemen against the coalition and the Western governments that are backing it. The message of many critics has been clear for months now, and their voices will only become stronger: Western governments must stop their support, both politically and military, of the coalition, which is trying to chase Houthi rebels from Sanaa and reinstate the internationally recognized government of President Abdu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

On 30 August 2016, the United Nations (UN) reported that in 18 months of war, at least 10,000 people have been killed. Of them, 4,000 were civilians. The UN earlier reported that more than half of the civilian casualties died in Saudi-led airstrikes. More than 3 million Yemenis have been internally displaced. So far, however, Western governments have shown little enthusiasm for withdrawing support for what is generally seen as the ‘legitimate government of Yemen’.. It is the position they have taken from the start, and one they now seem to be stuck with, against their better judgment.

This goes back some five years, when the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the West withdrew their support from then President Ali Abdullah Saleh when, in March 2011, Yemen’s uprising turned from relatively peaceful to bloody after Saleh’s troops killed over 50 demonstrators. What followed was nearly a year of attempts to remove Saleh from power, eventually resulting in a half-baked solution in which Saleh was to step down, in return for immunity and the right to stay in Yemen.

Part of the deal was that Abdu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Saleh’s vice-president, would be the only candidate in one-man presidential elections, which he – obviously – won. It was agreed that he would stay in power for two years, while a national dialogue sought a real solution to the country’s many problems.

The dialogue led to nothing, apart from angering the Shiite Houthi rebel movement, which felt excluded from the talks. Furthermore, Hadi and his government overstayed their two-year term in office. He eventually resigned in 2015, after being chased out of the capital by the Houthis, in the meantime allied with Saleh, only to return six months later.

It is thus debatable how legitimate the Hadi government actually is. But the ‘bring Saleh down and Hadi to power’ plan was backed by the West, so they have stuck with it. To this can be added petro-political interests in a workable relationship with Saudi Arabia and no particular sympathy for the allegedly Iran-backed Houthi/Saleh alliance.

Hence, there has been no support from Western powers to calls for international investigations into war crimes in the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Security Council resolution on ending the war also makes unrealistic demands. Just before the attack on the funeral, politicians were still denying that there are good reasons to stop arm deliveries to Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the Yemeni people continue to suffer (ceasefires never hold longer than it takes to say the word) and feel abandoned and betrayed by the international community, especially the US, which is seen as the driving force behind Saudi Arabia.

The consequences are as predictable as they are worrisome. Haykal Bafana again on his Facebook page: “Each Saudi airstrike in Yemen on civilian targets generates a large new wave of willing Houthi recruits [….]. The Saudi’s then scratch their heads in puzzlement, wondering why the Houthis have a never-ending supply of highly motivated Yemeni fighters […].”

This is by no means an exaggeration. Food may be scarce, but motivation is not. Yemenis are resilient people, with a strong tribal sense of honour and the will to fight for their country. Most importantly, they are heavily armed.

It is, therefore, no surprise that the ousted president and Houthi ally Saleh, manages to draw massive crowds to rallies in Sanaa (the south is a different, more complicated, story).It is almost as if he never stopped being president.

And there is another problem for the West. Diplomats on the sidelines of various (so far failed) peace talks consistently, and understandably, insist on free elections as part of a peace deal. Yet if those elections were eventually to materialize, Saleh, or his son Ahmed Ali, would win.

Another consequence of the GCC/Western position is Russia tapping into the void, with political support for the Houthi/Saleh alliance. As in Syria, Putin believes support for the ‘other side’ is the only way to keep stability in the region.

So, in less than six years the country has been thrown back decennia, with possibly another Saleh era to come, along with a new Cold War, both things with which Yemen is historically familiar. It is hardly a result the West, or the GCC, can be hoping for, but it is what this war has led to.

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