U.A.E.-Backed Yemeni Separatists Seize Aden, Driving Out Saudi-Backed Hadi Government

In the week of 7 August, the Yemeni separatist group Southern Transitional Council seized Aden, the temporary capital of Yemen. This event occurred following four days of fighting with Yemeni governmental forces, threatening a rift between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, backers of the STC and the Yemeni government respectively. The United Nations reports that the clashes between governmental forces and STC fighters claimed 40 lives and injured well over 200. Neither side has claimed final responsibility for initiating the conflict. Separatists presently retain control of Aden, a powerful strategic prize for them and a sizable loss for the Hadi government, which currently resides in Saudi Arabia. The skirmishes represent not just a possible splintering from the Yemeni government by the STC movement, which has heretofore lain its own ambitions dormant by collaborating with the Yemeni government against Houthi rebels, but also a potential proxy war between the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, subsequently visited Saudi Arabia in a diplomatic gesture following the swift establishment of a ceasefire. The STC has warned that the Hadi government must remove the Islah party, an Islamist coalition associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, from its ranks in order to resolve the quagmire.

Following the fighting, President Aidaroos al-Zubaidi of the STC claimed his group acted in self-defense following a Houthi air strike ostensibly linked to the Islah party, rationalizing, “We were left with two options: defend ourselves or surrender to the eradication of our just cause and souls.” Regardless of the conflict’s origins, the Hadi government has again been vacated from its capital, as it was from the city of Sanaa by the Houthi rebels. Al Jazeera has quoted Osama al-Rawhani of The Sanaa Center For Strategic Studies raising the following concerns: “The government is now in exile – the state institutions are actually based in Aden, there has been a lot of shift after the Houthi coup from Sanaa to Aden – and the question now is who is going to run these institutions? Who is going to provide basic services and who is going to pay the salaries of civil servants?”

This latest infighting amply illustrates how internecine the Yemen crisis has been, the consequences of suppressing or ignoring significant political demographics, and the manner in which governments and military groups can co-opt the concerns of civilians for their own ends. Tensions between southern and northern Yemen have persisted since their reunification in 1990 and civil war over secession in 1994, and the STC may be right to regard their cause as marginalized, but this does not justify an attack on Aden. The possibility of tipping the existing war into greater bedlam, further endangering the Yemen’s population, is too terrible to risk. Nor has Saudi Arabia shown itself to be primarily concerned with the well-being of Yemeni civilians or infrastructure in its support for the Hadi government, considering the past, present, and future deaths from bombings and starvation. The fighting was the result of groups vying for their own interests, rather than pursuing the immediate needs of their purported constituencies.

Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have largely been allied up until now against the Houthi rebels, particularly since the aforementioned seizure of Sanaa in March of 2015. Saudi Arabia has infamously backed the Yemeni government, including with air strike campaigns that frequently hit or target civilian sectors. Death tolls for bombings and starvation, among other factors, frequently rank at least in the tens of thousands, rightfully provoking widespread controversy and condemnation from human rights groups. Civilians deprived of food, water, or shelter number in the millions. During the same time the U.A.E. has been allied with Saudi Arabia, it has also trained and equipped thousands of STC fighters, who momentarily put their movement to rest for much of the civil war. Separatists also fought governmental forces in January of 2018 as well, although that conflict fortunately did not spiral into civil war.

This latest development in the Yemeni civil war, one that will ideally settle down in the coming weeks, demonstrates just how easily violence begets violence and war begets further war. If any of the nations and organizations participating in this war wish to win approval and recognition, they must tie their motivations to the people they claim to represent. Instead, they remain either incognizant or unwilling to consider the human impact of these conflicts. The international community must remain vigilant and attentive to act if the already-present humanitarian crisis escalates further.