August 13, 2019
IntelBrief: Proxy Conflict in Yemen and the Battle for Aden
The situation in Yemen continues to devolve into anarchy, with Emirati-trained forces battling troops from the Saudi-supported, internationally recognized government, headed by exiled President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The civil war has wreaked havoc in what was already one of the world’s poorest and most unstable countries. A military stalemate has taken hold, with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in control of the capital, Sana, and much of the country’s north. Saudi- and Emirati-trained forces, fighting to reinstall the Hadi government, previously held control of the southern port city of Aden. That was until August 11, when the coalition split amid several days of fierce fighting and forces from the Southern Transitional Council (STC) seized military bases and government installations in Aden, overrunning pro-Hadi forces. The STC is directly supported by the U.A.E., while Saudi Arabia primarily supports the internationally-recognized pro-Hadi government.
The splintering of the coalition reflects a broader divergence of interests in Yemen between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, although Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) met on Monday in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to discuss the situation in Aden and Yemen more broadly. In mid-July, the U.A.E. withdrew its troops from Yemen, leaving the bulk of managing this conflict to Saudi Arabia. Even as erstwhile allies among the proxy groups engage in internecine warfare, Saudi warplanes continue to bomb civilian targets in the north using U.S.-provided weapons. Meanwhile, Iran has accelerated its support for the Houthi rebels who have attacked Saudi Arabia with missiles and drones; Tehran shows few signs of altering its regional posture. At every level, the war in Yemen is a catastrophe, especially given the devastation that it has brought to the Yemeni people.
Exiled Yemeni President Hadi remains in Riyadh, clinging to the hope that the proxies fighting in his name can prevail so that he might return to reclaim power. The Yemeni foreign ministry in exile acknowledged the STC victory, calling it a 'coup.’ After several days of silence, Riyadh called for an immediate ceasefire; Saudi King Salman met with Hadi in the Saudi capital to discuss the worsening crisis, but a clear path forward seems more elusive than at any point since the conflict began. The STC is well-equipped and is focused on creating an independent southern Yemen, a nightmare scenario for Saudi Arabia. The combined efforts of the STC and the Hadi forces had previously been successful in pushing the Houthi rebels out of key southern areas, but they have been unable to secure an advantage in other parts of the country. The breakdown of the coalition likely signals a further stalemate.
The Houthis took note of their adversaries infighting, applauding the expulsion of 'the government of the hotels,’ a reference to the fact the internationally-recognized government doesn’t control the capital and now no longer controls its offices and hotel suites in Aden. The Saudi air campaign has done little to blunt the Houthis’ ability to strike Riyadh. With the coalition’s collapse and defeat in Aden, the war is poised to enter another devastating phase, with no side able to escalate to a meaningful advantage. For years, the international community has pushed for a negotiated settlement in Yemen without success. MBZ has publicly backed a recent Saudi peace initiative in Aden, joining calls to 'prioritize dialogue and reason in the interest of Yemen and its people,' but it is important to note that Emirati-supported secessionists possess critical leverage, as they currently occupy key military bases and the presidential palace.
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