Switching sides in a war often carries extreme risk, and former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has paid with his life. Days after Saleh turned his back on an alliance with the Houthi rebels of Yemen, he has been killed at their hands. His death came as Saudi Arabia seemed to be trying to tip Yemen's civil war in his favor by splitting Saleh fighters from the Houthis, and could provoke an escalation of the bombing campaign led by Saudi Arabia. The rebels must regroup with reduced firepower, but they seem far from ready to surrender. The future is likely to have more misery for ordinary Yemenis who are already facing a humanitarian catastrophe.
1. Why the fight could get worse?
Some badysts expect the Saudis to respond to the death of Saleh, and the Houthis react to his betrayal, with a more intense belligerence. One option for the Houthis would be to try to get more support from Iran, which has helped the rebels. "For the Saudis, the gloves will really be out," predicts Peter Salisbury at the Chatham House think tank in London. Saudi warplanes bombed the presidential palace in Sana'a for the  first time in almost three years of war. As things stand, human rights groups have documented repeated cases of civilian targets of coalition bombing led by Saudi Arabia including schools and hospitals. In addition, Saleh's death adds a new layer of revenge to the conflict. The violence could now spread through northern Yemen, which borders Saudi Arabia and where both Saleh and the Houthis have allies among local tribes.
2. What is the war about?
The Houthi rebels took control of the capital Sana & # 39; a in 2014 in opposition to the policies of President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi. It was installed under a transition agreement backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States after a revolt of the Arab Spring forced Saleh to resign in 2012. Yemen had little tradition of Shiite-Sunni sectarianism, but outside powers chose the sides in that line. The Sunni majority in Saudi Arabia has supported Hadi, a Sunni and Shia majority. Iran has helped the Houthis, who are members of the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam. The war has become part of the struggle for regional influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
3. So the Houthis and Saleh were natural allies?
No. In fact, the former president had fought against the rebels during his more than two decades in power. The Houthis were motivated by concerns that their community was being marginalized, an old complaint. The civil war alliance between the Houthis and Saleh loyalists was always tenuous. Many saw it as a marriage of convenience, motivated by Saleh's desire to win back the presidency and by the Houthis for the reinforcement provided by Saleh's supporters.
4. What will the Saleh loyalists do now?
Many could defect to the government side, which costs the rebels a significant labor force. Still, the Houthis retain a core of dedicated stalwarts, and that has been the key to their resistance, according to Adam Baron, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Its power, even without the support of Saleh's fighters and supplies, should not be underestimated, Baron said.
5. Can the Saudis win the war for Hadi?
The intervention led by Saudi Arabia has reduced the territory under the control of the rebels, but has not been able to evict them from the capital and other parts of northern Yemen. The coalition has relied heavily on air attacks, deploying only limited ground forces. Using that strategy, Joost Hiltermann, an badyst at the International Crisis Group, sees little chance of the coalition achieving a military victory.
6. Could the negotiations produce a peace agreement?
So far, intermittent conversations sponsored by the United Nations have not paid off. The Houthis have ruled out restoring Hadi to power, as the Saudis want. It is possible that the dissolution of the alliance of the Houthis with the Saleh fighters softened their position.
7. What about the Saleh family?
A key question is whether someone can take the place of Saleh and join forces, according to Miriam Eps, regional security badyst at risk management consultancy Le Beck International, based in Manama. His son Ahmed, a former commander of the Yemeni Republican Guard, is a possible candidate, he said, but is believed to be out of the country.
8. What is at stake for the people of Yemen?
The war has already produced what the United Nations calls the world's largest humanitarian crisis. At least 14,000 people were killed or injured since the Saudi-led offensive began in March 2015. The UN has called on the coalition to lift the blockade of Yemen's Red Sea ports that has increased the threat of generalized famine; Two out of every three Yemenis struggle to get enough food to survive. Almost 1 million people have contracted cholera, and 3 million, out of a population of 28 million, are internally displaced, according to the UN. Yemen was already the poorest country in the Middle East.
The Reference Shelf
- A newspaper of International Crisis Group "The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa."
- A Bloomberg QuickTake on the Yemen Civil War.
- A Congressional Research Service report "Yemen: Civil war and regional intervention."
- Gregory D. Johnsen book "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda and America War in Arabia."
– With badistance from Lin Noueihed, Zainab Fattah and Ahmed Feteha