RIYADH (Reuters) - When Saudi Arabian jets struck Houthi positions in Yemen on Thursday they also hit forces loyal to a key figure who many Yemenis believe has orchestrated the present crisis from the shadows: former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Army units loyal to Saleh have fought alongside the Shi’te Houthi militiamen, often in civilian dress, as they swept southwards through Yemen’s highlands in recent weeks to advance on the port of Aden, where President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is based.
Saleh’s continuing ability to deploy forces and take a seat at any negotiating table will prove pivotal to Yemen’s future given the former president’s wide support base in the army and bureaucracy.
However, the coming weeks may determine the fate of Yemen’s arch survivor, who once likened ruling his country to “dancing on the heads of snakes” and who outlasted numerous enemies by repeatedly proving the least-worst option for foreign powers.
Despite being forced to step down in 2012 under a Gulf-brokered transition plan following mass protests against his decades of rule, Saleh won immunity in the deal and has remained a powerful political player operating behind the scenes.
The decision to let him stay in Yemen three years ago now looks like a massive miscalculation by the very Gulf states now bombing his troops, and who along with Western countries now accuse Saleh of systematically undermining the transition.
“Since the strikes hit bases that were in the hands of Saleh’s loyalists this is more of a blow to him and he’ll take it as a clear message that the Saudis are very displeased with him,” said Farea al-Muslimi, a researcher at Carnegie Middle East Institute.
Analysts say he has backed the Houthis for months, helping to stop any serious army resistance when they seized the capital Sanaa in September and using his party’s continued dominance in parliament to weaken Hadi’s government.
They believe his ultimate aim is to help the Houthis defeat their common enemies, and then use his extensive political base to build a role as powerbroker before turning on the rebel group and installing his son Ahmed Ali Saleh as president.
In a conflict dripping with historical ironies, Saleh waged six wars against the Houthis from 2002-09 and was for many years an ally of convenience for Riyadh. Hadi served two decades as Saleh’s vice president and was a general in his army during Yemen’s last civil war in 1994.
Those big switches of loyalty, which have come to define Yemen’s complex and constantly shifting political landscape, were set in train by the very 2011 Arab spring protests that ultimately led to Saleh’s fall from the presidency.
The decades-old coalition of northern tribes that once supported Saleh was ruptured in the unrest and Saleh turned to his old foes the Houthis to make common cause against shared enemies, say analysts.
Hadi attempted to loosen Saleh’s grip on main parts of the armed forces, including crack Republican Guard units, with a military reorganization in 2013, but the former president retains the loyalty of around a third of the army, analysts say.
Those units, some of which have backed the Houthis in battles around Taiz and Marib, are better equipped than other parts of the army.
However, the tactical alliance between Saleh and the Houthis remains highly fragile. They remain intensely suspicious of each other’s ultimate motives and share little ideological ground.
“Right now there’s a crisis uniting Saleh and the Houthis, and that is President Hadi. As long as there is one coherent target for the two of them, the relationship will stay somewhat strong,” said Fernando Carvajal of Exeter University.
In November the United Nations Security Council imposed targeted sanctions on Saleh, alongside two senior Houthi leaders, accusing him of being “behind the attempts to cause chaos throughout Yemen” and of backing the Houthi rebellion.
Saleh has denied those charges, saying they stem from an attempt to blame the failures of Hadi’s transitional government on his decades of rule, and denying he seeks a return to power.
Unlike past political comebacks, Saleh has this time burnt so many bridges with important domestic groups and key foreign allies in Riyadh and Washington that a return to the presidency may prove even beyond his talents.
Attention has instead moved to his son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, the former head of the Republican Guard and now Yemen’s ambassador in the United Arab Emirates, whom he has long tried to position as his political successor.
Asked by Reuters in an interview last summer if he thought his son should run for president, Saleh replied: “I would not stop him, but I wouldn’t recommend at this time that he become a candidate when the state is in disarray.”
Saleh appears to hope that he is the only person able to hold together the country’s political, regional and religious factions and will thus prove indispensable for foreign countries worried about al Qaeda, which has a branch in Yemen.
Meanwhile his supporters are using the Saudi-led strikes to rally Yemenis around the flag.
“The heroes of the armed forces, along with all the Yemeni people, will resist this aggression,” the website of the Defense Ministry, run by Saleh loyalists, said on Thursday.
Additional reporting by Noah Browning; Editing by William Maclean and Giles Elgood