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What’s happening in Yemen? A guide to Saleh’s shifting loyalties and what his death means

EXPLAINER

What's happening in Yemen? A guide to Saleh's shifting loyalties and what his death means

The killing of Yemen's former president, known for switching sides between world powers in his decades-long career, has raised the stakes in the impoverished country's civil war. Here's how, and why

Feb. 20, 2011: Yemen’s then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh gestures during a gathering of supporters in Sanaa. Mr. Saleh, who ruled Yemen for more than three decades until 2012, was killed by Houthi rebels earlier this week.

The basics

About Ali Abdullah Saleh:

  • On Monday, Yemen’s Houthi rebels announced that they had killed Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country’s former president and a onetime ally of theirs who recently switched sides to the Saudi-led coalition opposing them.
  • A video circulated online showed Mr. Saleh’s bloodied body with a gaping head wound as he was carried in a blanket by rebel fighters chanting “God is great!” as they dumped it into a pickup truck. The images recalled the death of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, another Arab leader slain in the midst of his country’s uprising.
  • While Mr. Saleh’s death was confirmed by Mr. Saleh’s associates and a Yemeni government official, much remains unclear about the exact circumstances of the killing. The Houthis said their fighters killed him as he tried to flee the capital for his nearby hometown of Sanhan.
  • Mr. Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali Saleh, a former commander of the elite Republican Guards who now lives under house arrest in the United Arab Emirates, said his father died at his house while carrying his weapon.

About Yemen's civil war:

  • Since 2014, Yemen has been torn apart by a civil war between President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government and the Houthis, a Shia political movement.
  • The two sides are wrestling for control of Sanaa, the capital, with the Houthis gaining the upper hand there in intense fighting over the past week.

AREAS OF CONTROL

As of Nov. 27

Yemeni government and forces

backed by Saudi-led coalition

SAUDI ARABIA

Iran-aligned Houthi movement

Al-Qaeda and tribal allies

YEMEN

Marib

Sanaa

Gulf of Aden

Border between North and South

Yemen before unification in 1990

DJIBOUTI

0

100

KM

SOMALIA

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

AREAS OF CONTROL

As of Nov. 27

SAUDI ARABIA

Yemeni government and forces

backed by Saudi-led coalition

Iran-aligned Houthi movement

Al-Qaeda and tribal allies

YEMEN

Marib

Sanaa

Gulf of Aden

Border between North and South

Yemen before unification in 1990

DJIBOUTI

0

100

SOMALIA

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

AREAS OF CONTROL

As of Nov. 27

Yemeni government and forces

backed by Saudi-led coalition

SAUDI ARABIA

Iran-aligned Houthi movement

Al-Qaeda and tribal allies

OMAN

YEMEN

Marib

Sanaa

Gulf of Aden

Border between North and South

Yemen before unification in 1990

DJIBOUTI

0

100

KM

SOMALIA

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS


About Yemen's humanitarian disaster:

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  • Yemen’s civil war is only the latest of many conflicts that have made it the Arab world’s poorest country.
  • Yemenis are grappling with widespread famine, with more than half of the country’s 28 million people lacking access to food; shortages of clean water; and a cholera crisis (made worse by the lack of water) that has killed more than 2,100 people this year.

About the Middle East's regional war:

  • Yemen is now home to one of the mostly hotly contested proxy wars between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, though it has gained less international attention than the conflicts involving Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
  • The Saudis support Mr. Hadi, a Sunni, while Tehran supports the Shia Houthi uprising.
  • The Saudis, a major U.S. ally in the Middle East, have devoted huge sums of money and resources to the deadly conflict against the Houthis in Yemen, including the use of Canadian-made light-armoured vehicles, which has raised questions in Canada about a $15-billion arms deal with Riyadh.

June 15, 1989: Ali Abdullah Saleh, right, then president of North Yemen, is shown in Alexandria, Egypt, with three other Arab leaders he would ultimately outlast: Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, late Jordanian King Hussein and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Whose side was Saleh on? A history

During his rule, Mr. Saleh was known as the man who "dances on the heads of snakes" for his ability to manipulate friends and enemies alike, using patronage, family bonds and brute force. Here's a timeline of his life and career, with the global superpowers who backed him at the time noted in bold.

Rise to power: Mr. Saleh came to prominence when Yemen was divided into two nations, north and south. He was born in the 1940s (Yemenis don't agree on exactly when) into a small tribe allied with one of the country's mightiest clans, al-Ahmar. Entering into the armed forces, he had a reputation for ambition and soon caught the eye of North Yemen's president, Ahmed bin Hussein al-Ghashmi, who appointed him military chief in the city of Taiz, south of Sanaa. Mr. Saleh's moment came after a bomb in a briefcase killed al-Ghashmi in June, 1978. Within a month, Mr. Saleh was North Yemen's president, backed by Saudi Arabia.

An undated file picture shows a younger Ali Abdullah Saleh, right, with former Yemeni Parliament speaker Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Cold War player: In the early years of his rule, Mr. Saleh knew how to play Cold War politics. Marxist South Yemen was a Soviet client state, so he reached out to Western leaders to leverage aid for North Yemen. In 1990, with the Soviet Union unraveling, Mr. Saleh negotiated unity with the south, ensuring his place as the president. His powerful nexus of the military and tribes made him virtually untouchable, but he also sought to harness a dangerous new force in the country: Arab militants who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s needed a new home, and the deal apparently offered by Mr. Saleh was sanctuary in exchange for respecting his authority.

A mercurial U.S. ally: Mr. Saleh's alliance with the Arab fighters came back to haunt him in 2000, when the American Navy destroyer USS Cole was bombed in Aden harbour, killing 17 American sailors. Mr. Saleh came under pressure from Washington to crack down on suspected Islamist militants. His anti-extremist efforts were widely criticized as spotty and ineffective, but the Americans saw little choice but to partner with him in combatting al-Qaeda's branch in his country.

October, 2000: The port side of the destroyer USS Cole is damaged after a suspected terrorist bomb exploded during a refueling operation in the port of Aden in Yemen.

May 2, 2007: Ali Abdullah Saleh, left, prepares to shake hands with then U.S. president George W. Bush in the Oval Office.

Arab Spring survivor: When the Arab Spring began in 2011, he was the leader of the Arab world's most impoverished country, and his tribal allies and Yemenis were getting impatient. He tried to stave off unrest by raising army salaries, reducing income taxes and tuition fees and, in 2011, backing away from plans to extend his presidential term. Deadly protests erupted against his rule anyway, but neither anti- nor pro-Saleh forces could easily get the upper hand. Mr. Saleh survived an attempted assassination and fled to Saudi Arabia, which helped facilitate his return to Yemen and broker the deal that ended his rule there. In 2012, Mr. Saleh finally agreed to a transition plan, backed by the United States, that gave him immunity from prosecution and let him stay in the country. This helped him to avoid the fate of fellow Arab leaders who were killed (Libya's Moammar Gadhafi), exiled (Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali) or jailed (Egypt's Hosni Mubarak) by their own people in the Arab Spring.

Feb. 22, 2011: Yemeni anti-government demonstrators react after setting on fire a vehicle belonging to supporters of Ali Abdullah Saleh during clashes in Sanaa.

Feb. 27, 2012: Ali Abdullah Saleh, right, hands over power to the country’s then newly elected president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi during a ceremony at the presidential palace in Sanaa.

Iranian ally: In 2014, the Yemeni government would regret their leniency when Mr. Saleh emerged as the shadow leader of a takeover plan by the Houthis, a political movement of the Zaidi Shia sect to which Mr. Saleh belongs. Mr. Saleh hoped the Houthis, whom the Saudis claim are backed by Iran, would oust his successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and return him to power some day. The Houthis did succeed in causing Mr. Hadi to flee, and his government moved to the southern city of Aden and Saudi Arabia and its allies launched a coalition air campaign in early 2015. Then in recent months, Mr. Saleh's alliance with the Houthis fell apart as the rebels moved to weaken him.

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The final Saudi gambit: Mr. Saleh's falling-out with the Houthis led him back to his original Middle Eastern patron, Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-led coalition threw its backing behind Mr. Saleh in the weeks before his death, hitting Houthi positions with air strikes, hoping that having Mr. Saleh on its side could provide a foothold in the capital. But then the Houthis gained the upper hand in the battle for Sanaa and killed their onetime ally.

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Iran vs. Saudi Arabia: A primer

The civil war in Yemen is one of the most violent fronts in the proxy conflict between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Here's a primer on which of Yemen's neighbours are on whose side in that conflict.

The Saudi-led coalition had been counting on Mr. Saleh's decision to switch sides to tip the balance of a war that had been stalemated on the battlefield. The coalition will either have to continue waging a grinding war, possibly trying big offensives against Houthi-held areas at the risk of high civilian casualties, or offer compromises to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table.

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What both sides say about Saleh's death

Houthis: In a televised speech, the Houthis' top leader, Abdul-Malek al-Houthi, called Saleh's killing a "dark day for the forces of the coalition." He said he had known Saleh was communicating with the coalition and had warned him to stop.

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Hadi: The Yemeni President gave a televised speech from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, where he has been in self-imposed exile for most of the war. He tried to rally Mr. Saleh's allies to keep up the fight against the Houthis. "Let's put our hands together to end this nightmare," Hadi said.

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Dec. 5, 2017: A building stands damaged after a reported air strike carried out by the Saudi-led coalition targeted the presidential palace in Yemen’s Houthi-held capital Sanaa.

What happens now?

The late Mr. Saleh's supporters may still be able to have some impact on the war, but much will depend on whose side they take and who else intervenes to help.

A key figure to watch is Mr. Saleh's son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, who lives under house arrest in the United Arab Emirates, where he once served as ambassador before it joined ally Saudi Arabia to make war on the Houthis. Ahmed Ali appeared to have been groomed to succeed his father and he may be the family's last chance to win back influence. After his father's death, he called for revenge against the Houthis, urging his father's backers to rise up against them and their Iranian masters:

I will lead the battle until the last Houthi is thrown out of Yemen ... the blood of my father will be hell ringing in the ears of Iran.

Another of Mr. Saleh's sons, Salah Saleh, posted a call on his Facebook page for his allies to take up the fight against the rebels, and urged the UAE to let Ahmed Ali, who headed the elite Republican Guard under his father's rule, to return to Yemen and lead forces against the Houthis:

Revenge for my father and for every Yemeni. Fight them wherever you find them. God bless you, my father.

The prospect of escalating violence is bad news for Sanaa's residents, who have suffered greatly during the recent fighting. Many Sanaa residents remained hunkered down in their homes, fearing the rebels and the Saudi air strikes, they said, speaking to Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fears for their safety. Witnesses said the bodies of slain civilians and fighters littered the streets as no ambulances were able to reach the area.

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