A life or death battle for Yemen's Aden

A life or death battle for Yemen's Aden
Fighting between the government and the separatists, seen as a civil war within Yemen's already complex conflict, sparks fears it could break apart unless a peace deal is forged soon.
8 min read
29 August, 2019
Yemeni separatists have regained control of the country's interim capital of Aden [Getty]
Drastic changes are taking place in Aden as deadly fighting rages on for control of the city where the situation remains volatile. 

Aden, a strategic city in Yemen, is considered as the economic capital of the country. The port city overlooks the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea and has one of the most important ports in the region.

Due to its strategic importance, local and regional powers are attempting to keep control of Aden or at least have influence on it.

The fighting between the government and the separatists, seen as a civil war within Yemen's already complex conflict, has sparked fears the country could break apart unless a peace deal is forged soon.

Analysts say the fight for the south is a key test for Saudi Arabia, which hopes to mediate a ceasefire so it can focus on its main mission: battling the Houthi rebels who captured the capital Sanaa in 2014.

Long the Arab world's poorest nation, Yemen is now split along two fronts after years of conflict that has left tens of thousands of people dead and pushed the country to the brink of famine.

On one front, southern forces and the government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, are both battling the Houthis who are aligned with Riyadh's arch foe Iran.

On the other, the so-called Security Belt Forces – dominated by the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) and backed by the United Arab Emirates who are also part of the Saudi-led coalition – are fighting to regain the south's independence. They want to address what they say is a history of exploitation and marginalisation since Yemen's unification.

Once colonised by the British, South Yemen won independence in 1967, with its own institutions and a distinct identity. Just four years after it merged with North Yemen in 1990, resentment over what many saw as a lopsided deal erupted into an armed secession movement. The fighting ended with the south's occupation by northern forces.

STC seized Aden on August 10 following heavy clashes with government troops. The major gain saw them press on to take other strategic areas, before being pushed back.

On August 28, a Yemeni minister said that government forces had reclaimed control of the interim capital Aden, including the presidential palace, but reports a day later suggested that the separatists had regained full control back. 

"The Security Belt force completely controls the city of Aden along with its entrances," Haitham Nezar, a spokesman for the pro-independence Southern Transitional Council, told AFP on Thursday morning.

A government security source confirmed Aden was under the full control of the STC, saying government troops who had entered parts of the city the day before "withdrew from Aden" to the nearby Abyan province.

"It's total chaos here. There was fighting in the city all day yesterday. Things appear to have calmed down a bit this morning, but we expect the hostilities to resume at any point," said MSF programme manager for Yemen Caroline Seguin, who is in Aden. In the space of a few hours, Médecins Sans Frontières said their teams had admitted 51 wounded casualties. Ten were dead on arrival. 

Aden is seen as the backbone of both parties in the ongoing fight between the internationally recognised government and the UAE-backed separatists. If the government loses Aden, it implicitly means that it has lost its legitimacy.

According to the Yemeni government, Aden is now the temporary capital and the capital of all Yemenis, as Yemen’s capital Sanaa is still under the Houthi control.

The southern separatists see Aden as the capital of the southern state which they struggle to establish. If the separatists lose Aden, their popularity will decline and their influence will be wiped out.

Such a reality makes the battle to Aden a matter of life and death for both parties.

So where does this leave Saudi Arabia and the UAE?

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Saudi Arabia and the UAE have lately issued a joint statement, urging peace talks between the government and the separatists.

The two major countries in the Arab coalition have been trying to appear united on Yemen’s developments, but their schism now speaks for itself. At a time when Saudi thinkers and writers on social media platforms slam the southern separatists, Emiratis have shown opposite orientations.

Observers say the break between the government and the separatists reflects a wider rift between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which has trained and supported the separatists despite being part of the coalition.

Matters seem to have escalated further on August 29 when Yemen's government accused the UAE of launching airstrikes against its troops in the southern city of Aden in support of the separatists fighters. Dozens were reported to have been killed. 

"The Yemeni government condemns the Emirati airstrikes against government forces in the interim capital Aden and in Zinjibar, which resulted in civilian and military casualties," Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad al-Hadhrami said in a tweet.

Even the media outlets of both countries have used different terms to describe the events in Yemen. While the Emirati Sky News Arabia called the fighters who recaptured Aden from the separatists as Islah Party fighters, Saudi Al Arabia TV channel described them as the legitimate government army.

Saudi and Emirati leaders seem to try to maintain their differences as covert as possible but the ongoing rift between them has been conspicuous. Yemen’s war has tested their relation and partnership and it has proved that Saudi Arabia and UAE are just friends, but not genuine friends. 

Saudi Arabia's 'new Yemen policy'

The abrupt rise of the internationally recognised government seems to show that Saudi Arabia has ceased ignoring the Emirati agenda in Yemen’s south. Essentially, the Yemeni government's patience with the UAE has run out.

Abdulmalik Al-Mekhalfi, an adviser to internationally recognised Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and a former foreign affairs minister, said such developments have cemented the Yemeni government's trust in Saudi Arabia.

He said the government has restored confidence in view of the latest Saudi decisive stance towards the events in Yemen’s south.

According to political observers, UAE had influenced the strategy of Saudi Arabia and the Arab coalition’s efforts to end the war.

The Emirates has kept its influence in the south through the separatists in a way that contradicts the goals of the Saudi-led Arab coalition which was declared in 2015 to confront the Iran-backed Houthis.

Overnight, the expansion of separatist forces in Abyan and Shabwa has eclipsed while the internationally recognised government's power has grown.

On August 28, in a recorded speech, the interior minister ordered all the security departments in Aden and Abyan to establish operation rooms and maintain control of the security situation.

He called on security forces to prevent any acts of vandalism and ordered the protection of public and individual properties. All these developments would not have happened without the green light from Saudi Arabia.   

The blocking stone removed  

Multitudes of Yemenis believe that the UAE has been a blocking stone in the road to peace in Yemen.

Its support for the separatist forces has destabilised the south and this has kept the north under the control of the Houthis.

The behaviour of the UAE in Yemen has tarnished its reputation and has been viewed as an occupier.

Over the last three days of fighting in Shabwa, Abyan and Aden, the pro-government fighters released video footages in which they appeared to bring down Emirati flags or big pictures of Emirati leaders, placing them under their feet.

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The UAE has run out of rationale justifications for its anti-government and anti-Yemen’s unity behaviour in the south. It has been training and funding the separatist groups in a way that undermines the authority of the Yemeni government.

However, the UAE claims it is fighting the terrorist groups in the south while its southern loyal fighters say they are fighting the Muslim Brotherhood represented by the Yemeni Islah Party.

These claims have now become irrational and invalid because the agenda of dividing Yemen has been crystal clear.

In case Yemen is divided into two states, north and south, the UAE would benefit as the secessionists will pledge allegiance. Also, it does not share any border with the Houthi-controlled north which makes it safe from any Houthi incursions, missiles and drones, unlike neighbouring Saudi Arabia who will bear the consequences.      

With the UAE is gone from Yemen’s south or at least weakened, the position of the Yemeni government will be stronger.

Government officials can return to Aden and exercise their duty from the port city which has been deemed as the temporary capital of Yemen. This can pave the way to serious peace talks with the Houthis to end the political deadlock or well-planned battles to break the military stalemate.

The prime minister said the return of the government to Aden is a “victory for all people.”

He tweeted: “Our hand is outstretched and our hearts are open. We have firmly ordered the protection of the public and individual properties and maintaining security and preventing any form of havoc. The nation accommodates all in line with security, stability and constructive dialogue under the sovereignty of the state and the rule of law.”

Additional reporting from AFP

The writer is a Yemeni journalist, reporting from Yemen, whose identity we are protecting for their security.

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