Is Saleh al-Sammad's death a prologue to Houthi collapse?

Death of Houthi leader may herald ferocious escalation of Yemen war
5 min read
24 April, 2018
In-depth: Saleh al-Sammad's death has come as a major blow to the Houthis who are now preparing for intensifying war, as their opponents push for victory.
Al-Samad is the highest ranking Houthi figure killed by the Saudi-led coalition to date [Getty]
Two presidents have been killed within five months in Yemen. In December, former president Ali Saleh was killed by the Houthis. On Monday, the Houthis declared the death of Houthi President Saleh al-Sammad in a Saudi-led airstrike in Hodeidah while on an official visit to the coastal city.

In Yemen, neither presidents nor citizens are safe. Death is expected at any moment, regardless of one's position.

This is a tough, painful and confusing time for the Houthis. Al-Sammad is the top leader the Houthis have lost since the breakout of war in 2015. He is the second-highest ranking figure in the Houthi movement after Abdulmalek al-Houthi, the chief of the group.

Houthis have admitted the loss, and vowed vengeance against the United States and Saudi Arabia. Such a reaction is an indicator of an impending and ferocious escalation of war in Yemen.

"The sacrifice of the martyr president will be a motive for more sacrifice and steadfastness," said Abdulmalek al-Houthi in a televised speech, a few minutes after the announcement of al-Sammad's death.

The Houthi leader appeared sad, heartbroken and bereft while mourning the death of al-Sammad live on TV. He held what he called the "aggression forces" - the US and Saudi Arabia - responsible for the death of the "president".

Houthis have admitted the loss, and vowed vengeance against the United States and Saudi Arabia. Such a reaction is an indicator of an impending and ferocious escalation of war in Yemen

Now, the Iran-allied Houthis are preparing for more war, as their opponents prepare for victory. This is a sign the pace of violence and bloodshed is likely to intensify in the months to come.

"The aggressors imagine that resistance would stop with the assassination of Yemeni officials, but they would be taught a lesson with ballistic missiles," the Houthi-run Saba news agency said.

Swift replacement

Before his rise as a Houthi political icon, al-Sammad was a school teacher in Saada, where he was born. Over the six years of fighting between the forces of late President Saleh's regime, he was a key supporter of the Houthis. The Houthi-regime war began in 2004 in Saada, the stronghold of the Houthi movement.

When the 2011 uprising broke out against the regime of Saleh, the Houthis capitalised on the turbulence and grew stronger through their engagement in protests. They appointed al-Sammad in 2011 as the head of the Ansar Allah Political Council, their political wing.

During the uprising, the presidential palace of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled Yemen since its unification, was attacked and President Saleh suffered serious burns, retiring from public life while seeking treatment.

Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Saleh's deputy, took over the day-to-day leadership and was officially elected to the presidency in 2012.

When in 2014, the Houthis partnered with Saleh, the now-recovered former president, to seize Sanaa, the Houthi dominance deepened and their power exceeded that of the legitimate government, led by Hadi.

At the time, al-Sammad was appointed an adviser to Saleh, the former president.

In July 2016, the Houthis and Saleh formed the Supreme Political Council to manage areas under their control. Al-Sammad was appointed the head of the council and since then has been called the president of Yemen in Houthi-controlled areas.

With al-Sammad now gone, the Houthis have been swift to nominate a successor. They appointed Mahdi Almashat as the new president. Almashat was previously chief-of-staff to the Houthi chief, running the office of the leadership. The move aims to convey the message that the war will continue unabated - and the loss of a leader will not end with defeat for the group.

Fuelling enthusiasm

The Saudi-backed Yemen government and all anti-Houthi fighters in Yemen see a great victory in al-Sammad's death. They sense they are approaching a triumph over the Houthi forces.

Rajeh Badi, the spokesperson of Yemen's internationally recognised government said the death of al-Sammad was "good news for Yemenis".

Badi said Yemenis had celebrated widely at the death of al-Sammad, who along with other figures "initiated the war in Yemen to serve the Iranian project".

Nowadays, Houthis have more foes than friends in Yemen. Late last year, they killed their military and political ally, former president Saleh. Today, Saleh's nephew, Brigadier Tareq Saleh is leading an army in Yemen's south and is reported to have pushed towards Hodeidah where al-Sammad was killed.

Read more here: Is Tareq Saleh making a comeback to battle Yemen's Houthis with UAE-funded militias?

Anti-Houthi forces are burning with enthusiasm to persist in the fight, as Houthi losses embolden them to intensify their advances in hope of scoring a decisive military win.

Houthi eclipse?

While the Houthis say al-Sammad's death will not lead to changes in favour of their arch-rivals, many political observers say the Houthis are now experiencing difficulties.

"The death of al-Sammad is a severe blow to the Houthis because he is the major political front of the group and he will not be replaced easily," said Maged al-Madhaji, a Yemeni writer and researcher.

The Houthis have been using al-Sammad as an icon for their rising political power, given his communication skills and his ability to win loyalties and resolve conflicts. Other leading Houthi members do not possess such skills

"The Houthis have been using al-Sammad as an icon for their rising political power, given his communication skills and his ability to win loyalties and resolve conflicts. Other leading Houthi members do not possess such skills," Madhaji added.

Ali al-Bukhaiti, a Yemeni politician and former Houthi member, agreed that the Houthis had sustained a serious loss.

"Al-Sammad was the beautiful face of the Houthis. Now, Houthis have only ugly faces. Al-Sammad had played a vital role in resolving many issues," Bukhaiti said.

Deaths of leaders will not bring peace to Yemen, irrespective of their religious and political affiliations.

When former president Saleh was killed late last year, the war raged on. The death of this Houthi leader has been confirmed, but the conflict has yet to grind to a halt.

The writer is a Yemeni journalist, reporting from Yemen, whose identity we are protecting for their security.