The Assassination of Saleh Al-Sammad: Consequences for the Yemen Conflict
The Houthi leader Saleh Al-Sammad was killed on April 19, 2018, when the Arab Coalition targeted his convoy in the city of Al-Hudaydah. Al-Sammad was the president of both the political council of the Houthi movement and Yemen’s Supreme Political Council, with equivalent status to the president of the republic; therefore, what consequences will his assassination have on the Houthis and the trajectory of the Yemeni conflict as a whole? And will the appointment of Mahdi Al-Mashat serve as adequate compensation for his absence?
Al-Sammad’s assassination: confusion and concerns
Al-Sammad’s death comes as a shock, and represents a significant moral defeat for the Houthis at the domestic and grassroots levels. It has also caused confusion among their ranks, given that he is the highest-ranking Houthi leader to be killed and their most prominent political figurehead. Despite the best efforts of Abdel Malik Al-Houthi to appear defiant and calm during his televised speech on April 23, his face betrayed the shock. Signs of despair and defeat were also evident among various Houthi supporters and media outlets.
That the Houthis delayed the announcement of Al-Sammad’s death speaks to the air of confusion it caused. They claimed this period of silence was to allow arrangements to appoint a successor – an example of the improvisation that characterizes the Houthis’ political performance in general. It appears that no plans had been made, nor any successor appointed for this eventuality.
As a non-Hashemite Houthi leader, Al-Sammad was an icon for tribal Houthis aspiring to leadership, and his death will curtail the ability of other non-Hashemites to compete for senior positions in the group.
His death has spread fear among the Houthi leadership, as it demonstrates the improved intelligence, operational and targeting capabilities of the Arab coalition, and suggests that further precision attacks against senior individuals may be imminent.
He was targeted while mobilizing for a clash with the Arab Coalition at Al-Hudaydah – representing a swift and uncompromising response to his “March of Guns” call to arms.
The remaining Houthi leadership was notably absent from the March on April 26, which had taken weeks of preparation. The head of the revolutionary committee, Mohammad Ali Al-Houthi, chose to address the participants by telephone from an undisclosed location. Meanwhile, security arrangements in Sanaa have been strengthened, particularly around leaders’ residences.
Al-Sammad’s death is expected to ignite suspicions of infiltration and a subsequent tightening of security within the group. It will also likely limit the movements and activities of Houthi leaders, and the military leadership in particular, which will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the front lines.
Further afield, the killing of Al-Sammad will have come as unwelcome news to the Houthis’ allies in Tehran and the “Dahieh” in Beirut – a southern suburb and Hezbollah heartland – who may now need to increase their technical and material assistance to protect the remaining Houthi leadership.
The appointment of Al-Mashat: A triumph of extremism over politics
Moderation exists only in a relative sense within the Houthi group, in that its leaders are distinguished by the extent of their extremism. Al-Sammad was thought to be the least extreme. Therefore, the appointment of Mahdi Al-Mashat as the President of the Supreme Political Council brings more effective control for the hardline faction over the group and the state institutions under its control.
Al-Mashat and Abdel Malik Al-Houthi are close friends who grew up together. Al-Mashat is not a Hashemite; he belongs to the Khowlan tribe from the western part of Sa’dah governorate. He is well known for his extreme loyalty, as well as his impulsiveness and lack of flexibility. Al-Mashat has enjoyed a level of authority that has sometimes surpassed even that of Saleh Al-Sammad himself. Some high-ranking leaders in the group do not feel at ease with Al-Mashat and consider him unbalanced and unfit for politics. Therefore, it is expected that Al-Mashat’s appointment would mark a departure from Al-Sammad’s relatively tolerant approach toward some of their political opponents.
The circumstances of its creation, as well as its religious and militaristic characteristics, have ensured that the Houthi group’s political capabilities remain weak. This weakness has been exacerbated by the loss of some pro-group political thinkers, academics and opinion leaders who have been assassinated in recent years, such as Ahmed Sharaf Aldeen, Muhammad Abd Al-Malik Al-Mutawakkil, Abdul-Kareem Jadban and Abdel Karim Al-Khaiwani.
The death of Al-Sammad will also add to this weakness, as he was known for his communication skills and his ability to both build relations and win loyalties among the Yemeni people. The group has also lost the accumulated political experience he had developed over the years.
It is expected that the appointment of the more hardline Mahdi Al-Mashat as President of the Supreme Political Council will further complicate the group’s political and popular positions by aggravating internal disputes, triggering new ones, and limiting the Houthis’ ability to connect with other political and social entities.
This cannot be attributed only to Al-Mashat’s hardline politics and lack of experience, but also to his confrontational approach, as witnessed in his previous dealings with the likes of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, Dr. Abdul Karim Al-Aryani, and other Yemeni political leaders.
Between military escalation and political settlement
Some political observers argue that the desire for vengeance generated by Al-Sammad’s death may divert the Houthis from the route to peace – as indicated in the calls for retaliation made when his death was announced. Moreover, as the hardline element tightens its grip on power, it may aggravate the ongoing military conflict in the country. Failure to avenge the death of its leader may tarnish the Houthis’ image and undermine the morale of its leaders, fighters and supporters.
In truth, what matters more than the threats is the ability to act on them. The Houthis are today in a defensive posture and are struggling to maintain their grip on the regions they control. The group appears to have little option but to continue fighting, mobilizing forces on all fronts and launching ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia. At most, it may expand its current target list; however, unconfirmed reports suggest that it does not have a sufficient arsenal of medium- and long-range ballistic missiles to strike targets deep inside Saudi Arabia. This is quite plausible, given that ten days after Al-Sammad’s death the group has only succeeded in intensifying its short-range missile attacks against Saudi border provinces such as Najran and Jazan.
Others argue that Al-Sammad’s death may force Houthi leaders to enter serious peace talks, owing to concerns for their own safety. This seems plausible, given that they welcomed the first briefing of the new UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, and expressed their willingness to cooperate with him on the Yemeni issue. Al-Sammad himself had reiterated this position before he was killed in Al-Hudaydah, and some observers put this down to mounting military pressure and the increasingly heavy casualties among the groups ranks and leadership.
Despite all these facts, peace remains a difficult option for the Houthis because it is perceived as tantamount to defeat. It would also deprive them of the arms that enabled them to come to power, which in turn would render them vulnerable to retaliation and the loss of all the gains they have made so far. While they may still believe they can win, they are evidently counting on international pressure to end the war. Almost everyone agrees that achieving peace in Yemen will largely depend either on the Houthis’ political maturity, or their defeat – or near-defeat – militarily.
It is most likely that the status quo will prevail; namely, a continuation of front-line fighting, force mobilization on multiple fronts, and short–medium range missile attacks on Saudi Arabia. It is unlikely that the Houthis would be able to do anything more without further military support from their external allies.