Looking beyond Aden
After recapturing Aden on July 17th in their first ground victory, fighters loyal to exiled President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi are expanding their territorial advance in the south and centre of Yemen, hoping to push back Houthi rebels and loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The Saudi-led coalition has been providing training, sophisticated weapons, intelligence and air support for pro-Hadi forces in an attempt to alter the balance of power on the ground. The fight for Aden and the south featured an odd alliance among Hadi’s forces, armed tribes, southern secessionists (al-Hirak), Islamist groups and al-Qaeda in the Arab peninsula (AQAP). Their only common interest is a shared hatred of the Houthis.
Phase two of the operation is under way to secure Aden and capture surrounding governorates. Yet, multiple challenges await Hadi’s government. Pushing Houthis and Saleh loyalists back to the north will not be easy and controlling key areas in the south will put Hadi’s forces in a defensive position and leave them vulnerable to insurgency.
Weapons caches held by southern militias, such as the Popular Resistance, might become an obstacle to stability, as could the ambitions of southern secessionists, some of whom share with the Houthis a common disdain for Hadi’s regime.
The attempt to restore Yemen’s exiled and weak government beyond parts of the south has been an elusive, long-term goal for which Yemenis are paying a high price.
More than 4,300 Yemenis, half of them civilians, have been killed. The coalition has imposed a near-blockade on Yemen, cutting off trade in food and fuel. More than 21 million people — 80% of Yemen’s population — are in need of aid; 13 million face food shortages and more than 9 million struggle to get access to water.
AQAP has expanded its influence in Hadramawt governorate, in particular its capital, Mukalla, a tourist city of almost 500,000 with access to the Indian Ocean. Now the Islamic State (ISIS) is challenging the control of al- Qaeda in these areas, while both groups have been launching attacks on Houthi targets in Sana’a and across Yemen.
The United States is stepping up drone strikes on key AQAP leaders, signalling that al-Qaeda’s threat is still a top US priority in Yemen.
The most recent drone strike, August 12th, targeted five al-Qaeda fighters in Mukalla.
Once Hadi’s government secures control of the south, it will neighbour Hadramawt, where AQAP is solidifying its gains and connections to local tribes.
Brigadier-General Ahmed Asiri, the spokesman of the Saudi-led coalition, told the New York Times in June that there is no rush in Yemen, likening it to US and NATO efforts in Afghanistan, which took “a decade”.
Since March, Saudi Arabia’s role has evolved in Yemen from that of powerbroker to interventionist. While failing so far to establish a sustainable regional balance of power with Iran, Saudi Arabia is facing frequent attacks on its southern border and is alienating Yemenis in Sana’a and beyond.
The Saudi intervention came as a reaction to the Houthis’ reckless decision to overrun the military barracks of Sana’a and put the government under siege. Even though they might have had legitimate demands, Houthis sought to turn the table.
When the Yemeni revolution in 2011 threatened Saleh’s rule, regional actors intervened to give him an easy way out: a transfer of power to Hadi in return for immunity.
The short-lived co-existence between Hadi and the Muslim Brotherhood not only proved fruitless but further marginalised the Houthis and inspired them to forge an alliance with Saleh.
Instead of using their leverage to push for a deal that gives them a voice in the central government, the Houthis continue to target civilians, use coercion against tribes, intentionally interrupt basic public services, and feed a civil war that further estranges them from potential partners in the country.
As battle lines are drawn, the crisis in Yemen seems to have moved beyond the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative.
The idea of federalism, under a loose central government, is gaining traction, suggesting that the north would go for the Houthis and the south for al-Hirak, while Hadramawt and beyond are already an autonomous region with al-Qaeda influence. With no end in sight of the war, what at stakes now is the unity of the country.
A possible way out of this scenario is an internationally backed third-party mediator, working parallel to UN efforts. Oman could open doors to the Houthis but is not strong enough to carry the burden alone.
A more serious and engaged approach is needed by the international community.
In most, if not all, attempts at reconciliation in Yemen since 2011, major actors were excluded from the process, which made it fragile and prone to collapse. To have any chance of success, any diplomatic effort to resolve the crisis in Yemen must be comprehensive and inclusive.