The Civil War Rages on in Yemen
When Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen’s civil war in March 2015, they hoped to quickly defeat the Houthis, an Iranian-backed group that had swept down from the northern highlands to seize the capital, Sana’a. The bloody civil war has been raging for 5 years now, and the Houthis are still in control, while the Saudis cannot even corral their own allies. O-man…
Saudi Arabia’s cabinet has urged the Southern Transitional Council (STC), Yemen’s main separatist group, which has declared self-rule in the south on April 25, to abide by an agreement to end a previous standoff with the Saudi-backed government. They are both parts of a military alliance formed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to battle the Shia rebels.
Fighters seized government offices, including the central bank, and drove through the streets waving the flag of South Yemen – a sovereign state until 1990. Yet, the governors of a few nearby provinces, including the largest in the south, Hadramawt, rejected the idea of renewed autonomy. The STC’s declaration is likely to spark more infighting among partners of yore.
As a result of a rebellion, South Yemen won its independence in 1967 and became the Arab world’s only formally communist state. Unification with the north in 1990 brought nothing but grievance. The government in Sana’a was highly opposed by the southerners for its corruption and perceived bias. Money and power flowed north while Aden – the former capital of the south – was neglected. Nonetheless, they aligned themselves with the Saudi-led coalition, as the Houthis enjoyed little support in the south. They are perceived as intruders from a different religious and tribal background.
The United Arab Emirates, which was funding the separatist fighters, last summer withdrew most of its troops. The STC took advantage of the vacuum to seize Aden, then controlled by Yemen’s internationally recognized government. Saudi Arabia’s airstrikes in Yemen have often “missed” their mark, causing hundreds of civilian casualties. However, there was no mistake when they started bombing their own allies. The Saudis tried ending the rift by brokering a peace deal in November, called the Riyadh Agreement, and it nominally put the southern forces under the command of Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi – the exiled president.
Peter Salisbury – Yemen expert at the Crisis International Group, a Brussels-based think-tank – said the agreement could solve two short-term problems if implemented successfully. Firstly, it could prevent a war-within-a-war between the southern separatists and Hadi’s government. Secondly, it could provide more credibility to future government negotiations with the Houthis. However, like most Yemeni peace accords, the deal was more about symbolism, than substance.
The STC is complaining about not having been paid for months and that supplies of weapons and food are scarce on the front lines. The coalition assembled by the KSA is truly only a patchwork of local armed groups, who compete against each other regarding their own agendas. In Taiz, which has been besieged by the Houthis, more than 20 different armed groups have fought for the coalition. Most members of the alliance readily admit that they dislike the government for its corruption and ineffectiveness. The fighters’ loyalty can be bought at an auction – the highest bidder takes it all.
The war has devastated Yemen’s infrastructure and killed more than 100 000 people. But on April 8, the KSA alliance promised to lay down their arms for two weeks. According to a Saudi official, the reason was “to alleviate the suffering of the brotherly Yemeni people and maintain their health and safety”. Cynics doubt Saudi Arabia is motivated by compassion after bombing hospitals, homes, and schools. Instead, the war is turning and the Saudis are losing heart.
Now the kingdom’s goal is to stop Houthi missile strikes on its own territory. “The Saudis want a way out and are using the coronavirus as a fig leaf,” says Abdulghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni analyst.
Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who sought to flex his muscles in the face of rival Iran, is now looking at a quagmire that is diverting resources at a time of plummeting oil revenues. Houthi attacks on the kingdom threaten its reputation for stability. Oil pipelines were the main targets by Houthi missiles and the capital Riyadh. The KSA does not want anything to upset its hosting of the G20 summit in November, therefore MBS hopes to disengage and lock the Houthis inside Yemen.
Hanging over all of this is the threat of COVID-19. The war has knocked out half of Yemen’s clinics and hospitals. An outbreak of cholera last year was one of the world’s worst. Around 80% of the population, 24 million people, rely on humanitarian aid and 10 million are at risk of starvation. An outbreak of COVID-19 could be even deadlier, with the war-torn country having already reported multiple cases.
Officially, Saudi Arabia still wants a united Yemen led by Mr. Hadi. Although some Saudis wonder if southern secession would be acceptable, given local hostility towards the Houthis. The southern provinces hold Yemen’s modest oil reserves, its Arabian Sea coastline, and much of its arable land. As a result of secession, the northern part would be the ham in a Sunni-sandwich. Northern Yemen would gain another reason for hostility towards the kingdom, and a new, bloodier chapter could start in the Middle Eastern Cold War’s story.
The author of this article was Szebasztián Simic, an undergraduate student at the University of Szeged studying for an International Relations and a Political Sciences degree.