Pro-Saudi forces gain momentum in Yemen
DUBAI - The fall of Aden to Yemeni forces loyal to President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi represents a major breakthrough for the Saudi-led Arab alliance fighting Iranian-backed Houthi gunmen. Aden, the capital of Yemen’s south, is the bridgehead that should enable the alliance to supply the forces loyal to Hadi with weapons needed to capture more territory in the south and make their way north.
It is widely expected that the Houthis and their allies loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh will soon lose the provinces of Taez, Lahej and Dale’e that border Aden. The next step for Hadi-aligned forces will be to push their way north along the coastal line to capture the port of Hudaidah and reach the Saudi border.
Once they are able to recapture the provinces of the south and regain control of the Bab el Mandeb strait, they will be faced with three options:
Continue the fight to recapture all of the north and regain control of the country;
Halt the war and agree on a scenario to redivide Yemen into two states, North and South;
Negotiate a settlement with the Houthis to share power over a unified Yemen.
Fighting in the north of Yemen will not be as easy as it was in the south because the Houthis have a larger popular base there and Hadi-aligned forces will be in a hostile environment.
The civil war in Yemen is largely being fought along sectarian and tribal lines, Sunnis against Zaidis (Shias) and northern tribes against southern ones. The Houthis, allied with Saleh’s forces, took over the capital Sana’a last September and then moved on to capture much of the rest of the country and topple Hadi.
Saudi Arabia established an Arab alliance last spring to conduct a military offensive to drive back the Houthis and reinstate Hadi in power.
Members of Hadi’s cabinet who had fled to Riyadh amid the fighting moved to Aden to oversee the affairs of the country. Although Saudi Arabia succeeded in putting together a strong allied air power, it failed to convince its allies to establish a joint ground force to capture Houthi strongholds in the north.
It is widely believed that Saudi Arabia will not try to send its forces alone into Yemen and will attempt first to reach a settlement brokered by the United Nations that would secure the withdrawal of Houthi forces from all the cities and reinstate Hadi as a president with a national unity government that will include all parties.
However, no settlement with the Houthis will be possible without a Saudi-Iranian understanding. The regional cold war between Riyadh and Tehran has weighed on the Yemeni conflict and made a settlement there impossible without the support of the two regional powers.
Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of adopting an expansionist policy to spread its influence in the region through meddling in affairs of Arab countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain.
The Saudi-Iranian struggle has exasperated the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict on many fronts in the volatile Middle East.
If efforts by other nations fail to reconcile Riyadh and Tehran in the near future, then Yemen will most likely be divided once again into two entities: North Yemen and South Yemen.
Yemen was unified in 1990. The Russian-backed South tried to secede in 1994 but was quickly put down by the North under Saleh, who was backed then by the West and Saudi Arabia.
It is not yet clear whether the international community which has thus far called for preserving the unity and the integrity of Yemen will back a two-state solution.
Nevertheless, the mere fact that the Saudi-led alliance has recaptured Aden and is poised to liberate all of the south represents a victory for Riyadh in its ongoing regional showdown with Tehran. It will be the first time Riyadh has managed to thwart via direct use of force an Iranian scheme to expand its sphere of influence via one of its main regional allies, the Houthis. Iran fears that a success for the Saudis in Yemen will embolden them and could encourage Riyadh to intervene militarily in other places such as Syria.
So even though the Saudi intervention has succeeded in tipping the balance of power in favour of Hadi-aligned forces, the fate of a unified Yemen is very much linked to an agreement between Riyadh and Tehran.