Saleh and the War in Yemen

By Anthony Cordesman

Few are likely to mourn the assassination of Yemen's former dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh. His rule over Yemen presided over decades of failure to deal with his country's desperate levels of poverty and its steadily growing problems with overpopulation, a lack of water, and a dependence on Qat—a drug so unrewarding that the only country that would import it was the even poorer nation of Somalia.

The UN warned as early as 2002 that Yemen was one of several Arab states whose population growth and economic problems were critical. Its population had already increased from 4.8 million in 1950 to 23.9 million in 2011. It is 28 million today and will rise to 46 million by 2050. Saleh did nothing meaningful to address this population growth or its impacts. Long before the war, Yemen was critically dependent on food imports and foreign remittances. It was rapidly depleting its fossil water, was underfunding education and medical services, had critical unemployment problems, and had one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world.

Moreover, Saleh's failures to govern left Yemen vulnerable to Al Qaida and ISIS, led to serious tension and some fighting between his government and the Yemenis who were part of the former separate state of South Yemen, and laid the ground work for much of the misery in Yemen.

As for Saleh, he already was largely a spent force when he was killed. He had given up power in 2011, and then tried to recover it by shifting from an alliance with the Saudis to one with the Iranian-backed Houthi. He was outmaneuvered by the Houthi, however, and they steadily gained power relative to Saleh and the remnants of Yemen's military forces who remained loyal to him. A man who had once kept power by the kind of political maneuvering that he described as "dancing on the head of snakes," now found the snakes dancing on him.

The end result was that Saleh's alliance with the Houthi collapsed. The Saleh faction and Houthis began to fight, and Saleh turned back to the Saudis and UAE. This seemed to offer some hope that the civil war in Yemen could be resolved, but it was the Houthis that were winning, and the Houthis that killed him. Unless his surviving supporters are much stronger than now seems likely, the end result has left the Houthis without any strong internal challenges in the region they control and locked into the same grinding war of attrition with the Saudis and UAE that they have been fighting for months.

If there is any tragedy in Saleh's death, it is that it will make it even harder to put an end to the conflict and negotiate a meaningful settlement. This is a remarkably brutal war, and one where both sides have had a major impact in putting civilians at risk.

There has been a tendency to blame Saudi Arabia and the UAE—the backers of the Hadi government recognized by the UN and most outside states except Iran—for Yemen's current level of suffering. Some of this blame is legitimate. Saudi Arabia and the UAE did launch an air and land campaign that made far too optimistic assumptions about the effectiveness of air power and the limited use of Saudi and UAE land forces. This campaign did score some initial victories, but for months, the result has been a stalemate on the land.

As a result, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have focused on the use of air power. However, their air attacks have not yet dramatically altered the course of the fighting. What they have produced is serious civilian casualties and collateral damage, and Saudi and UAE efforts to seal off the few major ports open to the Houthis—who control key portions of the most populated areas of the country—have made things worse. A lack of food, medicine, and other critical supplies has sharply increased civilian suffering and disease.

At the same time, these impacts must be kept in perspective. Saleh's death makes it even more important to properly assign the blame and put pressure on both sides to resolve the conflict. Yemen was an economic basket case before the air campaign and embargo with extreme poverty, poor medical and education facilities, and serious malnutrition problems. The Hadi government was at least nominally elected—albeit in a one-candidate election—and had broad international recognition.

The Houthis have done much to divide Yemen along sectarian and regional lines, have been closely linked to Iran, and have done little to either show they can govern effectively or make any coherent efforts to negotiate. They have been all too willing to keep fighting regardless of the human consequences. They have not shown they have any plans or capabilities to govern in ways than can help Yemen develop or break out of its grind cycle of growing poverty, or that they offer Yemen any credible future if they win.

It also makes little sense to blame the Saudis and the UAE for the bulk of the casualties in fighting when there are no credible sources of such casualty estimates, and some estimates only attempt to guess at the casualties coming from the air (without seriously trying to estimate the impact of the fighting on the ground).

War is inherently brutal, and stalemates and embargoes do immense damage to the civilian economy over time. But, this is a two-sided war, and putting excessive blame on one side seems more likely to extend the conflict by reducing the incentive to negotiate. Far too much reporting on the air war seems to ignore the actual ways in which the Saudis and UAE actually manage the air war.

A visit to the Saudi command center in Riyadh is almost like visiting the U.S. Combined Air Command Center in Qatar. The Saudis, UAE, and other Arab air forces use virtually the same targeting tactics and rules of engagement to limit civilian casualties from air strikes as the U.S. and its allies use in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The Saudi command also uses the same advanced command and control displays to warn where civilians are present, to limit strikes on civilian facilities, and to place the same emphasis on precision strikes and the careful review of strike plans—as well as damage assessment.

The key difference between the wars is that the Saudis and UAE are far more dependent on airpower, while the U.S. could rely on Iraqi and Afghan ground forces for a major part of the fighting. This does mean that Saudi and UAE air attacks inflict a larger portion of the total civilian casualties and collateral damage.

Yet, the Houthi unwillingness to negotiate and determination to prolong the war is equally destructive. Any valid analysis of the air war also needs to address the fact that the Houthis use tactics that rely heavily on human shields, and use exaggerated claims of civil casualties as a key propaganda weapons. It needs to take a hard look at how the Houthis deal with governance, the management of their resources, and allocation of aid. And, it needs to take a hard look at the role of Iran as it seeks influence over Yemen, in providing missiles and arms, and supporting another war that does so much human damage.

Most important, Saleh's death is a warning that both sides can keep fighting indefinitely. In this war, it is unclear that either side can hope to quickly win by defeating the other. Unless both sides can be persuaded to negotiate, what is clear is that the losers will be the Yemeni people.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy