Yemen was not short of setbacks and human suffering when a new warring front opened last week among supposed allies in south Yemen where the legitimate, internationally recognised government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi is based.
While the situation in Aden was never fully stable since President Hadi established his interim government five years ago, the latest round of fighting in the southern capital opened the door wide for many extremely dangerous scenarios.
The Iran-backed Houthi rebels who control the capital Sanaa since 2014 were, unsurprisingly, the first party to celebrate the news on fighting in Aden between forces loyal to President Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) who have been demanding the separation of southern Yemen for many years.
Chaos in Aden will certainly put on hold efforts by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to defeat the Houthis and restore control of Sanaa.
Infighting in Aden also opens the door to further Iranian interference in Yemen’s affairs. After a visit by a senior Houthi delegation to Tehran late last week, the Houthis announced Monday that they will have their own “ambassador” to Iran.
While no country recognises the Houthis’ control over Sanaa, such a step would have been unlikely had the recent fighting in Aden not taken place.
However, the most dangerous aspect of the new front of conflict is that it seriously renews fears over dividing Yemen. Experts on the impoverished and war-torn country fear that if Hadi’s government collapses, Yemen will not just be divided into north and south — as the situation had been for decades before the two unified in 1990 — but perhaps into three or four Yemens.
This week, the refusal of Yemeni southern separatists to hand back control of Aden port has delayed a summit in Saudi Arabia that was due to discuss means to strengthen Hadi’s government to include the separatists and end the stand-off.
Yemen’s most influential neighbour, Saudi Arabia, which rightly considers stability there a matter of national security, especially with increasing numbers of attacks by Houthi rebels against civilian targets and oil installations, had called for the meeting after the separatist forces on 10 August seized military camps and other state institutions in the southern port city.
All sides are now exhausted by the enormous material and human costs war incurred since the 2011 popular revolt succeeded in removing Yemen’s former president and strongman, the late Ali Abdullah Saleh. The largest number of victims are civilians, whose immense suffering grows by the day.
As the fighting drags on and all sides look for a way out, the prospects for a settlement seem to be more distant than ever, given the multiple divisions between local actors and the broader regional struggle taking place in Yemen.
Currently, there are multiple, rival authorities in different regions, and the individuals in power disagree whether there should be one state, two states, or multiple states.
They also disagree whether the future state or states should be independent or linked through a federal or confederal system. Profound questions remain unanswered, and before negotiations can move forward, the parties will likely need to address the elephant in the room: the future structure of Yemen as a state.
While the international community has never fell short of issuing statements calling for an end of the massive humanitarian crisis in Yemen, what’s actually needed is to support Saudi and Emirati efforts to form a new government, led by President Hadi, that includes the STC and other parties committed to restoring Yemen as a unified nation.
So far, the southern forces have refused to quit military camps or the presidential palace, while vacating other state institutions such as the Central Bank, as they believe it would weaken their hand. In response, Hadi’s government insists it will not attend any talks until the STC “coup” ends.
Uniting ranks and improving the government’s performance is crucial to revive any hope that Yemen will restore its unity and end the suffering of millions of Yemenis.
Tens of thousands have already been killed since chaos prevailed in the country over the past eight years, and dire economic conditions pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.
The recent fighting in Aden has only made the situation much worse, and has also further complicated United Nations efforts to pave the way for political talks on a transitional governing body.
Agreement among Yemenis on how they want to shape their future state is the first and most urgent step needed to end the war in the country, and thereby bring relief to a people who have suffered beyond measure.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The future of the Yemeni state