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Will the killing of a former leader be a turning point in the Yemen crisis?

The civil war in Yemen has claimed the life of a man who had been central to Yemen's recent history. Ali Abdullah Saleh spent more than 30 years as the country's president, was ousted in 2012, then joined the Houthi rebels in 2014 before switching sides last week in order to turn “a new page” with Saudi allies. Miles O’Brien talks to former State Department official Jon Alterman.

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  • Miles O’Brien:

    But first, the civil war in Yemen has claimed thousands of lives since it began in 2014. The country has spiraled to the brink of famine.

    One of history’s worst cholera epidemics will have sickened one million by year’s end. And, today, at least one more life ended amid the conflict, a man central to Yemen’s recent modern history.

    Ali Abdullah Saleh spent more than 30 years as Yemen’s president. He was forced from office amid Yemen’s Arab Spring in 2012. A wily navigator of Yemen’s often-shifting loyalties and intrigue, he once said governing his country was like dancing on the heads of serpents.

    In 2014, he joined forces with Houthi rebels who opposed the government that replaced him. That government is backed by a Saudi-led coalition getting U.S. support.

    Last week, he switched sides, abandoning the Houthis, and claiming he wanted to turn a new page with the Saudi-led coalition.

    This morning, he was killed after an explosion at his family compound in the capital of Sana’a.

    For more on this, I’m joined by Jon Alterman, a former senior State Department Middle East official. He’s now a senior vice president and directs the Middle East Program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.

    Jon, good to have you with us.

  • Jon Alterman:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Saleh’s death, his shifting allegiances, a lot to unpack in a short period of time, but, just, first of all, who was this man?

  • Jon Alterman:

    He was a former military officer who became president in 1978, in many ways engineered where the country went. He unified North and South Yemen.

    He was constantly making deals with everybody. And one of the reasons why people thought that his switching sides might be good is because he was so unprincipled that he might be able to make a deal between the people attacking Yemen, the Houthis fighting for a certain vision of Yemen, and he might be able to bring this together.

    In the end, he didn’t have a chance.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    As president, he aligned himself with the Saudis. And as not president, he aligned himself with rebels who ultimately are aligned with the Iranians.

    Was that just a marriage of convenience, an opportunistic thing for him to regain power, or was there something more afoot?

  • Jon Alterman:

    Everything about Ali Abdullah Saleh was opportunistic.

    He aligned himself with the United States and then he sold arms from the United States to Iraqis fighting the United States, and then said to the Americans- I need more weapons for counterterrorism.

    I think what he was trying to do was find a way to advance his interests in Yemen. And if he wasn’t going to get it from the Saudis and the Emiratis, then he was going to get it from the people fighting the Saudis and the Emiratis, and then would make a deal with them.

    He fought the Houthis, and he was fighting with the Houthis. There was never a principle. But if you have this grinding war, somebody who is willing to negotiate over everything is a potential tool.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    So we had a situation which was described as kind of this bloody equilibrium almost.

    Now that he is removed from the picture, is there any opportunity to change the equation to try to solve this problem?

  • Jon Alterman:

    I think the U.S. government needs to test the proposition that this creates an opportunity for a new kind of diplomacy.

    What you have with chaos in Yemen is, it creates opportunities for the Iranians, at very low cost, to help their folks. It creates opportunities for the Islamic State and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to grow.

    I think the U.S. does have a keen interest in trying to settle things down in Yemen. The Houthis may feel much more isolated, weaker than they felt before. It’s unclear what will happen to the forces that used to be aligned with Saleh.

    The Saudis and the Emiratis have been looking for the door to get out of this crisis for some time. I think this is really a time for the United States to explore whether we can put this conflict behind us, or at least get on the road to a resolution.

  • Miles O’Brien:

     And, meanwhile, what we have is a horrible humanitarian crisis, the worst humanitarian crisis right now in the world, complete with a blockade for supplies.

    What can be done in the short term to help these people who are suffering?

  • Jon Alterman:

    Look, the Saudis say they are doing a lot. But the fact is, we have the largest cholera epidemic, and I understand it, in global history.

    We have diphtheria breaking out. You have 20 million people who are food-insecure. I think the U.S. needs to work with the Saudis and the Emiratis and others to get urgent medical services in, to get food in, to understand there simply isn’t a military solution to this. You can’t starve the Houthis out. You are going to have to have a political deal. And we should be looking for that deal.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    A failed state in Yemen, that is a national security concern for the United States and the rest of the world, isn’t it?

  • Jon Alterman:

    It is a national security concern, not only because of Bab-el-Mandeb. Yemen is at the gateway to the Red Sea, leading up to the Suez Canal, but also because the problems in Yemen have metastasized.

    There have been plots against the United States that originated in Yemen. As long as Yemen is in turmoil, as long as it’s totally ungoverned space, I think there will be persistent threats against the United States, against Saudi Arabia and all of our friends.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    All right, so, just to button it up, this latest development, do you expect it will make matters worse, or is there potentially an opportunity?

  • Jon Alterman:

    I think, in the near term, there are going to be a lot of people looking for revenge.

    It’s unclear exactly what happened. It will take a little while for the dust to settle. But I think it’s imperative that we and the Saudis and the Emiratis and others look to see if we can seize on this incident to change the dynamics, to change the equation, and move this stalemate toward resolution.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Jon Alterman, thank you very much.

  • Jon Alterman:

    Thank you very much.

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