A joint Saudi-Emirati delegation arrived in Aden on Thursday, August 15 to meet with southern separatists who seized control of the de facto Yemeni capital earlier this week amidst the country’s wider civil war with Houthi rebels in the north.
Members of the Southern Transitional Council captured Aden’s presidential palace on Sunday after four days of fighting against forces loyal to Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who currently lives in exile in Riyadh.
The fighting last week left at least 40 people dead and 260 wounded, the United Nations said on Sunday.
In response to the seizure, Saudi Arabia launched an airstrike on separatist positions in the city of Aden on Sunday.
The STC, which is primarily supported by the United Arab Emirates, had been an integral part of the Saudi-led coalition supporting Hadi’s government against the Houthi movement that has seized control of most of the country’s north since the start of Yemen’s civil war in 2015.
The Yemeni government said on Wednesday it would not negotiate with the southern separatists until they withdraw from Aden. But earlier on Wednesday, the STC said it would not pull back until members of the Islah (Reform) movement, an Islamist faction that supports Hadi’s government, are removed from power in the south.
The STC accused Islah of complicity in a Houthi missile attack on an STC military base on August 1 that killed a number of fighters and a commander. The STC threatened to overthrow the Hadi government in response to the attack.
With the Saudi-led coalition’s stalemated campaign against the Houthis grinding to a close, the alliance of Yemen’s pro-government factions may be ready to unravel.
The dispute has exposed long-tense fissure within the Saudi-led alliance which reflects the overlapping but differing interests of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, according to Hannah Porter, a Washington-based researcher and expert on Yemen.
A previous joint Saudi-Emirati delegation arrived in Aden after the southern secessionists seized parts of the city in January 2018, but attempts at mediation have never adequately addressed the STC’s underlying grievances.
The STC’s demands for a seat in future peace talks have largely been sidelined, and now in control of the capital, are calling for southern secession.
“These fractures have existed for a long time – Saudi, the UAE, and the Hadi government – but no one’s really paid attention to them. Now they’re coming to the surface,” Porter said.
“I think the STC is in a much stronger position,” said Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Pembroke College, Oxford, and an expert on Yemen.
“They’ve managed to exert themselves with very little tangible pushback so far,” she said.
Still, there are no signs of talks to end the war. Last year’s U.N.-brokered ceasefire agreement averted a final battle for the port city of Hodeidah, but is unlikely to be a sufficient model for wider negotiations – and the STC was not included.
“The way a legitimate government looks is going to have to change substantially once this conflict comes to an end,” Porter said.
Even if the Saudi government pushes Hadi to negotiate with the STC, the Yemeni president’s influence is in decline.
“The power lies with the members of the Coalition. The big question is how are the UAE and Saudi Arabia going to square this circle when they have very different interests in Yemen yet they are nominally on the same side,” Porter said.
The UAE has been drawing down its military presence in Yemen for months, saying the time for negotiated settlement to the conflict with the Houthis is drawing near.
But the UAE claims it has trained some 90,000 local fighters in the country, including the STC and its Security Belt forces around Aden. The Emiratis’ long-term interests appears in maintaining influence around the southern Yemen’s port cities.
And the UAE has never articulated its stance on southern secessionist ambitions, likely catching the attention of Riyadh.
The Saudi government does not want the coalition to collapse, but it also has a vested interest in preventing southern secession, Kendall suggested, because that could enable the Houthis to form a Shia state on their southern border.
And while the Saudi-led coalition has tolerated Yemen’s Islah movement’s support for the Hadi government, the STC accuses them of being agents of the Muslim Brotherhood — a charge the UAE supports.
“I would say the primary enemy for the UAE is not the Houthis in Yemen, but Islah,” Porter said.
The UAE is “not just interested in” a move against Islah in Yemen, “that is one of their primary goals,” Porter said.
‘The Houthis are the ones that benefit from this’
If not resolved, the divergence has the potential to spiral into what International Crisis Group has dubbed “a civil war within a civil war.”
“If the STC, the Security Belt forces and the elite forces start to move to take control, let’s say, places in the east, such as al-Mahrah,” where Saudi Arabia has a military presence, “then I think there will have to be some kind of [Saudi] military force retaliation,” Kendall explained.
“That could spark a war,” Kendall said.
Thousands of people took to the streets in Aden on Thursday waving flags of the STC and calling for southern secession.
But the STC has far less popular support outside of Aden, and any attempt to portray itself as the vanguard of southern Yemen’s wider secession movements will likely falter, Porter said.
Yemen’s south is a patchwork of tribal allegiances and groups, some of them separatists, but not necessarily loyal to the STC.
“Others are nominally allied with Hadi or have federal representation and don’t necessarily want full secession,” Porter said. The governor of al-Mahrah reaffirmed loyalty to the Hadi government earlier this week.
“Ultimately the Houthis are the ones that benefit from this. They can just relax, because they’re enemies are fighting each other,” she said.
The Emirati draw down and signs of the Saudi government’s exhaustion with the war against the Houthis “really does indicate that some kind of negotiated settlement must be the way forward now,” Kendall said.
“And that Saudi can’t just bomb its way to victory at this point.”