What's next in Yemen after the assassination of former president Saleh?

Key Points
  • The assassination of Ali Abdullah Saleh has changed the dynamics in the country's ongoing civil war, according to Middle East experts
  • Saleh's death on Monday came as he tried to flee the Yemeni capital Sana'a after he had broken an alliance with Iran-aligned Houthi rebels at the weekend
  • Yemen's civil war is effectively a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran
Huthi rebel fighters inspect the damage after a reported air strike carried out by the Saudi-led coalition targeted the presidential palace in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on December 5, 2017.
Mohammad Huwais | AFP | Getty Images

The assassination of Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh has changed the dynamics in the country's ongoing civil war, which is effectively a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, according to Middle East experts.

Saleh's death on Monday came as he tried to flee the Yemeni capital Sana'a after he had broken an alliance with Iran-aligned Houthi rebels at the weekend, blaming the group for "recklessness" in Yemen.

Before his death, Saleh had appeared to switch sides in the ongoing civil war to side with Saudi Arabia, which has led a coalition conducting airstrikes on Houthi rebels.

Marcus Chevenix, Middle East and North Africa (MENA) analyst at TS Lombard, told CNBC that with Saleh dead, Iran was likely to be able to consolidate its influence in Yemen and that the war was not likely to end any time soon.

"It's generally bad news for Yemen and probably good news for Iran," he said Tuesday. "I think we'll see the step-up of Iranian involvement in Yemen now and it will become very intense."

First revenge

Yemen has experienced a complicated civil war since 2015, with Saudi Arabia and Iran backing different sides in what is seen as a proxy war for regional and religious influence.

Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and the West back Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who became head of state after an uprising against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh that started in 2011.

Shia-majority Iran, on the other hand, is widely believed to have given financial and military support to Houthi rebels, a predominantly Shia group that has taken control of Sana'a and government ministries, pushing the Hadi government into exile.

The rebels had also been allies, until last weekend, with forces loyal to Saleh in their battle against the restoration of Hadi's government.

The war took a dramatic turn Monday with Saleh's assassination, which happened during a rapid escalation of violence in Sana'a after Saleh announced Saturday an end to a three-year alliance with the Houthis.

Saleh then appeared to switch sides, allying himself with his former foes Saudi Arabia and President Hadi, saying that he wanted to "turn a page" and blaming the Houthis for Yemen's disaster.

"Yemeni citizens have tried to tolerate the recklessness of the Houthis over the last 2.5 years but cannot anymore," Saleh said during a televised address, according to media reports.

Then on Monday, Saleh was killed by the Houthis as he tried to flee Sana'a during intense street fighting between the rebels and forces loyal to Saleh. The Houthi rebel group said that Saleh had been killed for "treason."

Now what?

After Saleh's death, speculation is mounting over what will happen next in Yemen. By assassinating Saleh, Houthis have effectively created an enemy on two fronts — both in forces loyal to Saleh and those loyal to Hadi.

TS Lombard's Chevenix said that Saudi Arabia could step up its bombing campaign against the Houthis but that Saleh's death, ultimately, had helped Iran because it simplified "the anti-Hadi cause" represented by Houthi rebels, taking away the forces loyal to Saleh.

Huthi rebel fighters are seen riding an armoured vehicle in front of the residence of Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa on December 4, 2017.
Mohammed Huwais | AFP | Getty Images

"Now that Saleh is temporarily out of the picture, unless we see his son try to come back (as Saleh's successor), the Iranian proxy is now the only opposition to Hadi. They are the sole patron to the anti-Hadi government," Chevenix said.

"Saleh's death now pushes Houthi rebels into needing more Iranian support too," he added.

Ayham Kamel, head of risk consultancy Eurasia Group's Middle East and North Africa practice, told CNBC on Tuesday that the Houthis might only see a temporary boost following Saleh's death.

"Houthi rebels get a short-term win because they were able to get rid of someone that opposed them, but the assassination of Saleh also delegitimizes the Houthi rebellion and it undermines its support base so Houthi rebels could also now grow weaker," he said.

"They'll need more support from Iran, but they might also become a greater liability. There is a risk that Houthi rebels will be losing hearts and minds in Yemen."

No end to the conflict

The ongoing conflict in Yemen has caused widespread destruction and killed thousands of people, with the United Nations saying the death toll had reached 10,000 in mid- 2017.

Yemeni civilians are bearing the brunt of the war, famine and disease. One U.K. charity, Save the Children, has estimated that 50,000 children could have died in Yemen by the end of the year due to starvation and cholera.

The crisis has been exacerbated by an almost constant blockade, enforced by Saudi Arabia and its allies, on rebel-held parts of the country that has prevented access to food, aid and medicines.

Children sit amidst the rubble of a house hit by Saudi-led coalition air strikes two days earlier on the outskirts of the Yemeni capital Sanaa on November 14, 2016.

Despite the humanitarian crisis, the UN's calls for an immediate end to hostilities in Sana'a have fallen on deaf ears; the civil war now looks set to enter an uncertain phase.

Middle East experts Chevenix and Kamel didn't believe that the Yemeni civil war was anywhere near to ending soon.

Chevenix said the war was likely to continue, warning that "this (conflict) isn't going anywhere." Kamel agreed, saying it was likely that the war could intensify and that the country would remain a proxy battleground.

"Saudi Arabia and Iran aren't closer to conflict because of this, but the two sides remain very interested in establishing their strategic interests in Yemen. Yemen will remain a proxy conflict," Kamel said, adding that "there is definitely no resolution anytime soon."

Chevenix agreed, saying: "I don't think this means us necessarily moving towards the ever-distant hot war scenario between Saudi Arabia and Iran but it does escalate the war in Yemen."