Krishnadev Calamur writes: Ali Abdullah Saleh once described ruling Yemen as “dancing over the heads of snakes.” The former president’s reported death Monday, at the hands of Houthi rebels who were his allies just a few days ago, shows not only the perils of that balancing act, but also the political shifts in a country wracked by civil war since 2015. More importantly, perhaps, is that it shows how difficult it will be to resolve the civil war—and the proxy fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran that helps fuel it—in the most impoverished country in the Arab world.
Saleh’s apparent death, six years after Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was killed and his body paraded on the streets of his hometown of Sirte, will send a signal to strongmen around the world, most notably Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Assad is more firmly in control of Syria than at any point since the civil war began in March 2011. But his rule, despite military and diplomatic support from Russia and Iran, is fragile. Syria’s Arab neighbors and Turkey all want him gone—as does the United States. As long as he remains in power, instability will almost certainly remain a feature of Syrian politics and life. But the fate of Saleh and Qaddafi before him is a powerful example of what dictators most fear—not just losing their power, but losing their lives. Assad could thus cling closer to his political benefactors in order to ensure he doesn’t meet the same fate.
After Saddam Hussein, who was hanged in Iraq in 2006, and Qaddafi, Saleh is the third former Arab dictator to be killed following a regime change in the region. Other longtime Arab leaders, from Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, were also ousted in the Arab uprisings of 2011, but survived. Where leaders clung on to power in the face of protests, such as in Syria and Bahrain, civil war and political unrest, respectively, have become the norm. And the fates of Hussein and Qaddafi, in particular, are believed to preoccupy another incumbent dictator outside the Middle East: Regional experts say Kim Jong Un accelerated his nuclear and missile programs in part because both leaders, after giving up such programs, saw their regimes and their lives ended. They say he sees these weapons as an insurance policy against ending up like them. [Continue reading…]