Analysis. Killed for ‘treason’ by Houthi rebels, the former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh met a chillingly similar end as Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Now the merciless Saudi offensive will almost certainly get worse.

With Saleh’s death, escalation in Yemen is a given

The lifeless body of Ali Abdullah Saleh, with eyes half closed, and the chaos surrounding the corpse: these are the highlights of an amateur video picked up Monday by newspapers around the world, recalling the images that confirmed the death of Colonel Gaddafi.

It is an established pattern now: the delayed end of a dictator, six years after the “Arab Spring,” a term dear to the West, which washed over Yemen without leading to a democratic transition.

He was in power for 33 years, first as the president of North Yemen and then of the united Yemen, accumulating wealth at the expense of the population (according to the U.N., between 32 and 60 billion dollars in three decades). A skilled tactician capable of holding together the different Yemeni tribes — again on the Gaddafi model, with favors and patronage networks — he was finally forced to resign in 2012, after street protests and the brutal repression he ordered.

Abandoned by his historical allies, first and foremost Saudi Arabia, which uses Yemen as its corridor for the transit of crude oil to Europe, he had chosen to ally himself with the Houthi to revive his fortunes: the rebellious military force supported him in exchange for Saleh’s political influence on the tribes in the north of the country. It was an alliance of mere convenience, after decades of his presiding over discrimination against the Shiite minority, and which finally came to an end Monday, after days of clashes and more than 120 deaths.

The Houthi leadership gave the news of his killing Monday, for “treason.” Shortly afterwards, his party, the General People’s Congress, confirmed it: Saleh didn’t die at his home in an explosion, as they had originally claimed, but was executed.

While fleeing from the village of Sanhan (a stronghold of the Hashid tribe, to which Saleh belonged) to Marib, his convoy was intercepted by the Houthi. After a shootout, the former president was dragged out of the car and killed on the spot with machine guns.

Important leaders of the General People’s Congress were also among the victims, while one of his sons, Khaled, was taken prisoner. There was an immediate reaction by the Sunni coalition led by the Saudis, which intensified the bombing runs against the capital, already devastating in recent days.

The raids come together with the new counter-offensive by the forces loyal to President Hadi (vice-president to Saleh since 1994, and the one who replaced him in 2012), with the evocative name “Arab Sana’a,” and with the support of the Republican Guard that was loyal to the former dictator.

The renewed support came because of the latest moves by Saleh, an echo of an internal feud that erupted in August: in the past months, the former president had been negotiating with Saudi Arabia in secret, aiming to agree on a political transition that would once again exclude the Houthi minority.

Just four months ago, direct clashes broke out between Houthis and Saleh loyalists, which ended with a weak attempt to cover up the fact that the alliance was in tatters. On Wednesday night, Saleh’s attempts to get back on top with the help of Riyadh had re-emerged into the spotlight: for four days, dozens of bombs rained down on the capital, trapping civilians in their homes without food or water. There were 125 dead and 238 wounded, according to the estimates of the Red Cross, killed by both the air raids and the street battles between the two former allies, who since September 2014 had been “sharing” the capital they had wrested from the control of the government.

On Saturday, on TV, Saleh ended the marriage of convenience: “The Houthis are the main cause of the suffering of the Yemeni people. It is necessary to turn over a new leaf in the dialogue with the neighboring countries.” Which is to say, with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, puppeteers of the Yemeni civil war, under whose wing Saleh had run for cover to rid himself of the Houthi resistance.

It had all started almost a year ago in Abu Dhabi: the United Arab Emirates, internal sources say, were the ones to convince the heir to the Saudi throne, Mohammed bin Salman, to shift his support from Hadi to Saleh. The first informal meeting between General al-Asiri, the spokesman for the anti-Houthi coalition, and Saleh’s son Ahmed, who was living in self-exile in Abu Dhabi since 2012, is said to have taken place in June.

The former president had found interested listeners: the Saudis, exhausted (like Riyadh’s coffers) by nearly three years of uninterrupted and unwinnable war. What should have been a proxy war against Iran, a means to drag Tehran into a parallel war to the Syrian conflict, has turned into a quagmire with no way out.

Now, escalation is a given: the collapse of their alliance with the North could weaken the Houthis and give momentum to the Saudi offensive. Civilians will be the ones to pay the price, starting with the inhabitants of Sana’a.

Many are trying to flee the capital, after Hadi’s call to rise up against the Houthis and the warning coming from Riyadh: stay at least 500 meters away from the positions of the rebels. It’s hard to do that in a city where the rebels control every street.

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