A week after a renewed round of fighting began between the forces of the internationally recognised government of Yemen and the forces of the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), neither side has scored significant progress. Both sides also refuse to divulge their losses in lives and materiel, although local sources report escalations in the ongoing exchanges of fire.
“It is still hard for either side to budge from their current positions,” STC Commander Mohamed Abdel-Hadi told Al-Ahram Weekly. He said that government forces were ensconced in the heights of Al-Shaykh Salem and were still unable to break through to Zinjibar, the capital of the governorate of Abyan, which is held by STV forces. “There is probably a line of mines that they’ll have to deal with, too,” he added. STC forces are also fighting to keep government forces from entering the port city of Aden.
The STC has accused the government, which it describes as “an alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda”, of starting to mobilise a military offensive against Aden several weeks ago. Towards this end, they had begun to amass forces in Shoqra, a coastal town northeast of Zinjibar. In response, the STC declared self-rule in southern Yemen, although in practice the autonomy only applies to Aden governorate.
The outbreak of hostilities appears to have angered Riyadh which had brokered a power-sharing agreement between the two sides in November and is now frustrated by the continued escalation. “Neither side of the conflict in the south has the political will to end the military escalation and reactivate the political settlement,” a source close to the government, in Riyadh, told the Weekly.
Tensions between the government and STC grew more heated when the former implied that the STC was fostering terrorist activities. After gunmen in two speedboats attacked a British-flagged tanker off the coast of Hadhramaut in the Gulf of Aden on Sunday, 17 May, the government’s Minister of Information Muammar Al-Aryani said: “The terrorist attack against a ship off the southern coast of Yemen confirms the continuation of terrorist activities targeting international shipping lines in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea and the mounting threat to global trade.” He asked the STC government in Aden to hand control over the coast to government forces, even though the attack occurred over a thousand miles away.
STC Vice President Hani Bin Buraik responded that there was no question of the STC handing over control of the ports in Aden to the government. “From our bitter experience with the government we have learned how handing the coast guard from a Hadhramaut elite to the Defence Ministry of Hadi, Mohsen and Al-Maqdashi has given terrorists free rein off our coasts,” Bin Buraik said, referring to Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Vice President Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar and Minister of Defence Mohamed Ali Al-Maqdashi.
So far, the Saudi-led Arab Coalition has taken no formal position on the developments. However, observers maintain that Riyadh wants to punish the STC for having acted unilaterally and violating the Riyadh Agreement. They also believe that the self-rule government in Aden will not be able to handle two battles simultaneously, one being the military confrontation against Yemeni government forces and the other being the battle against coronavirus which comes on top of other epidemics that have ravaged the southern port city.
“At least four epidemics have been declared in the city and they are claiming dozens of lives by the day,” STC Commander Mohamed Abdel-Hadi said. The health crisis was aggravated by floods that swept the city several weeks ago, cutting off electricity, destroying essential infrastructure and facilitating the spread of disease. The combination of all this has fuelled popular anger “against everything”, Abdel-Hadi said.
Observers doubt that the two sides will return to the Riyadh Agreement that was concluded 5 November 2019. According to a STC source, the dispute settlement committees that had been formed in accordance with that agreement have not met for five months. The source, who had taken part in the negotiations as an observer, told the Weekly, “Only three meetings were held. And these were between the [Yemeni] government committee and the Saudi committee. The Southern Transitional Council committee did not participate.”
The STC source believes that both sides are showing signs of a desire to back out of the agreement which “is not in our interests right now”. “Ultimately, the STC will only get three government portfolios. It will only be an administrative partner with the government while the president will be the central authority and control appointments, including the governors of the southern provinces.”
In this source’s opinion, Riyadh is currently intent on weakening the STC which wants to regain the level of control it had while the UAE was still involved on the ground in Yemen.
“Riyadh probably wants to put that era behind it,” he said. As for the Hadi government, “it got the green light to launch a military offensive to settle scores and pursue the political agendas of its components.” He added that those agendas are at odds with the aims of the STC which ultimately seeks secession.
Other sources in Aden as well as in Riyadh confirmed that the Saudi-led Arab Coalition had given the Yemeni government a green light to go on the offensive. They told the Weekly that the government could not have begun to amass forces, move them towards the coast of Abyan and then escalate fighting without Riyadh’s approval, even if Riyadh publicly called on both sides to show restraint and adhere to the agreement. They believe that Riyadh’s purpose is to promote a new balance of powers on the ground so that it can assert a tighter grip on the south. One source added: “After the current Yemeni government performs its required role towards this end, it too will be put out to pasture while the STC will have been militarily and politically broken.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly