Last Thursday, Ansarullah lost one of its key leaders, Supreme Political Council (SPC) president Saleh al-Sammad, in an Arab Coalition air strike. Al-Sammad (known to many Yemenis as the president of the republic) was killed along with six other high-profile members of the Houthi movement when their vehicle was struck by a coalition missile. Al-Sammad’s death was a significant military success for the Arab Coalition and a shock to the Houthis. But while some international observers see the loss of al-Sammad, whom they believed to be an influential moderate, as a blow to any negotiated peace deal, his death is unlikely to affect Ansarullah’s political or military strategy in the short term.
Video of the strike was released this week on social media. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Khaled bin Salman, verified the strike via a statement confirming that the “[Royal Saudi Air Force] had targeted the second most senior Iranian-backed Houthi commander.” The elimination of al-Sammad—whose whereabouts were known only to a handful of Houthi cadres—suggests that coalition intelligence has successfully penetrated the upper echelons of Ansarullah. It also implies that three years of war has improved the coalition’s aerial tracking and targeting capabilities.
In addition, the strike sends a clear message to the Houthis that the Arab Coalition does not recognize any separation between Ansarullah’s military and political wings. Lieutenant Colonel Turki al-Malki, a spokesperson for the coalition, described al-Sammad—and by extension other Houthi “political” leaders—“as a terrorist no different from al-Qaeda and [ISIS].” Indeed, the line between Houthi politicians and Houthi militants is blurred. Al-Sammad, despite serving as president of the SPC, the Houthis’ key administrative body, is a well-known military commander who fought in six wars against the regime of former president Ali Abdallah Saleh.
Some international observers pointed to al-Sammad as a “moderate” who might bring the Houthis to the negotiating table, misunderstanding the SPC president’s politics as well as his role within the organization. Far from moderate, al-Sammad recently threatened to cut international shipping lanes and ominously promised to make 2018 “a year of ballistic missiles”—a threat that the Houthis have made good on by launching tens of Iranian-made projectiles at Saudi cities. Although he acted as the friendly face of the Houthi movement, al-Sammad only pushed policies dictated by Ansarullah’s hard-line leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi. Despite his seeming significance, Al-Sammad, like other Ansarullah leaders, did not possess the power to significantly influence Houthi military and political policies.
As adherents of the Hashemite school of Zaidi political thought, the Houthis believe that absolute temporal and spiritual authority is vested in the near-infallible “al-Sayyid” (honorific for a descendant of Prophet Muhammad), a leadership position currently filled by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi. Ansarullah believes that, as a Hashemite descendant of Prophet Muhammad, al-Houthi derives his power from God; in this, his unimpeachable station is reminiscent of that held by Iran’s supreme leader. Although those surrounding Yemen’s own “supreme leader” may advise, administrate, or advocate, al-Houthi alone dictates his organization’s military and political policies. In this context, al-Sammad was little more than the avenue through which al-Houthi addressed his own followers and the world.
Accordingly, the death of al-Sammad is unlikely to yield significant changes to the Houthis’ immediate political and military strategies. Al-Sammad has already been replaced by Mahdi al-Mashat, another hard-liner close to Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, albeit one lacking al-Sammad’s charisma and eloquence. In a televised speech honoring al-Sammad’s martyrdom, al-Houthi sounded a defiant note and promised retaliation. “This crime, which targeted a national symbol … will not break the will of our people,” he said. “This crime won’t go unanswered.” Shortly after his remarks, the Houthis launched two ballistic missiles at an Aramco facility in Jizan that were intercepted by the kingdom’s air defenses.
Despite al-Houthi’s speech, rumors began circulating almost immediately after the disclosure of al-Sammad’s killing that the Arab Coalition only succeeded in eliminating the SPC head because al-Houthi, wary of al-Sammad’s growing popularity, willed it. The rationale behind the rumors is that the coalition’s targeted killing of al-Sammad eliminated an internal threat to al-Houthi while allowing al-Sayyid to maintain deniability and galvanize his supporters to seek revenge against the coalition.
It is implausible that there is truth to this rumor, both because al-Houthi has uncontested authority and because al-Sammad was incapable of leading the Houthi movement; as a non-Hashemite, the SPC president derived all of his legitimacy from his connection to al-Houthi. The rumor’s perpetuation does, however, suggest that at least some members of the Houthi leadership (who have remained largely beyond the coalition’s reach up to this point) are unsettled by the strike and eager to downplay the coalition’s success. Meanwhile, an increasing sense of vulnerability may drive the Houthi leadership further underground. It may also make them more paranoid and mistrustful and could engender divisions within the group, a development that would weaken the Houthis militarily and politically.
Ultimately, then, the air strike’s success sows doubt and mistrust within the entire Houthi leadership, a strategy consistent with statements attributed to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Just last month, the crown prince reportedly told the New York Times that the Arab Coalition was working to “divide the Houthis and maintain military pressure on them.”
All things considered, one successful strike will not bring the Houthis to the negotiating table. Only al-Houthi, in consultation with his chief patron, Iran, can choose peace. And despite the recent dispatch of an emissary to Muscat, neither al-Sayyid nor Iran’s supreme leader have given any indication that they are serious about finding a diplomatic solution. However, should the coalition successfully eliminate more high-profile Ansarullah targets while continuing its slow but steady reconquest of Yemeni territory, al-Houthi may ultimately decide he is better served by negotiation than by waiting for the next missile to drop.