The three-year war in Yemen has escalated to new heights with the Southern Transitional Council (STC), also referred to as the Southern Separatists, capturing most of the port city of Aden last week. Aden has acted as the Yemeni government’s headquarters after the Houthi rebels captured the capital city of Sanaa in 2015. The Arab Coalition and the international community are both disappointed by the escalation in fighting and are attempting to broker negotiations between the separatists and the Yemeni government. The new development in the Yemeni war emphasizes the complexity of the internal power struggles and the difficulty of ending what the UN has deemed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
To gain a broader understanding of how the conflict came to be, it is important to focus on the impact of the 2011 Arab Uprisings in Yemen. The Yemeni Uprising grew from an attempt by both Sunnis (65% of the population) and Shias (35% of the population) to overthrow the Shia-Zaydi ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was President of Shia North Yemen and later united Yemen since 1978. Saleh’s rule was characterized by high unemployment, poor economic conditions, and wide-spread corruption. Saleh fell victim to the Arab Spring when the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) brokered an international deal to replace Saleh with his Shafi’i Sunni Vice-President, Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi, in 2012. Hadi’s presidency was initially welcomed by the Yemenis and the Shia- Zaydi rebel opposition group, the Houthis. However, Hadi’s presidency was undermined by an on-going power struggle between the military, tribes, and Islamists, resulting in a weak government. Although the Yemeni Uprising accomplished its goal of removing Saleh, the Yemen people were unable to collectively agree on what the country should look like moving forward, straining sectarian tensions and resulting in a civil war. By 2014, popular support for Hadi began to decline due to accusations of corruption and government mismanagement, which enabled the Houthis, whose forces were once again loyal to the former President Saleh, to extend their influence throughout Yemen and finally take control over the capital, Sanaa, in 2015. The rebels seized control of political institutions and successfully drove Hadi and his cabinet out of the country and into Saudi Arabia.
The war created an opportunity for al-Qaeda and ISIS, comprised mostly of Sunnis, to join the fight in support of the pro-Hadi Yemenis. The lack of strong governmental institutions allowed al-Qaeda and ISIS to grow and recruit disheartened Sunni youths to intervene on the pro-Hadi side, furthering sectarian divisions. al-Qaeda and ISIS also gained footholds for their other international terrorist activities by how eruption of sectarian violence enabled their terrorist organizations to grow without government interference. Finally, 17 million people have been made food insecure and another 7 million were left starving due to the civil war that broke out after the uprisings.
Today, the conflict continues to proliferate with the Separatists taking control of Aden after days of fighting with the government forces. The Separatists seized most the military bases and surrounded the President’s Palace, where Prime Minister Ahmen bin Daghr, who is backed by the Saudi government, and his cabinet were working in Aden at the time of the takeover. The clashes occurred due to the government failing to abide by the STC’s set deadline to reshuffle the government cabinet, specifically removing Mr. Bin Daghar from office. According to the BBC, the STC believes that the current government consists of rampant corruption and has allowed an unprecedented deterioration in economic, social, and security needs in the South. The Separatists also desire that South Yemen become its own independent state once again, which it was until 1990 when North and South Yemen united under ex-President Saleh. The Separatists have taken bin Daghr and his cabinet hostage in the President’s Palace, hoping to use him as a negotiation tool. So far, more than 30 people have been killed and another 185 wounded during the clashes.
The Hadi government, which continues to function out of Saudi Arabia and holds international recognition as the Yemen’s legitimate leadership, denounced the Separatist’s actions as a coup against the state. In a recent press statement, Hadi stated that the violence in Aden is a “warning bell for the Arab Coalition and the Yemeni people,” and that “the country is working to remove the causes of the recent upheaval,” highlighting that Yemen has a lot of work ahead of itself before the state can return to peace. Hadi and his supporters, both domestic and international, desire the freedom of bin Daghr, return of the military bases, and the Separatists out of Aden. Similarly, the Saudi-led Coalition is looking to negotiate a cease-fire between the government forces and the Separatists emphasizing that “the coalition will take all the measure deemed necessary to restore stability and security to Aden.” Western governments and the UN are equally as frustrated. Britain has spent millions of pounds and engaged in enormous diplomatic efforts to bring the Yemeni war to close, but the clash in Aden has erased all its efforts. Boris Johnson, the UK Foreign Secretary, has held four meetings in Oman, France, and Saudi Arabia last week to discuss the violence in Yemen to conclude that the Saud’s have the right to engage in the attack to protect themselves from the potential of violence spilling over their borders. For now, the international community must wait until the Separatists and the Yemeni government are willing to engage in negotiations before any outside action can take place.
The Separatists takeover of Aden represents a new era in the Yemeni conflict. All the active armed groups – the Houthis, STC, the government, ISIS, al-Qaeda—are all fighting for power and territory in Yemen, which makes it extremely difficult to stabilize the situation. The STC has taken over Aden to free themselves from the North in hopes that their desire for an independent Southern Yemen is one step closer. International actors, especially Saudi Arabia, continue to support and fuel the conflict, perpetuating the fighting even longer. The capture of Aden has increased the hostilities between the armed groups, deepening Yemen’s security and humanitarian crisis.