Thinking Aloud: Yemen’s Turning Point That Wasn’t

July 28, 2015 by Darius 

Last week, Saudi-backed forces ostensibly loyal to Yemen’s last president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, seized most of the southern city of Aden from Houthi fighters and soldiers loyal to Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh.  It was the first major victory on the ground for Hadi’s side of the war, and the fall of Aden was widely hailed as a turning point in the war.  Except it really wasn’t.

It was always a long shot, at best, that the Houthis would be able to (or even want to) hold on to Aden The Houthis’ powerbase is in Saada (around the city of Sadah on the map below) very far geographically and culturally from Aden, the southern port that served as the former capital of the People’s Republic of South Yemen.

yemen map

Although Yemen was reunited as a single country in 1990, the differences between south and north Yemen are longstanding and deep; the idea that a group from the farthest north of the country could contain the effective capital of the south was one that few intelligent observers gave credence to.

Now, the Houthis have been pushed out of Aden.  But by whom?  Unfortunately for the backers of ex-president Hadi, it wasn’t an outpouring of popular support for Hadi that expelled the Houthis.  Instead, the Houthis’ opponents on the ground are an eclectic mix of secular southern separatists, armed tribesmen who don’t want the Houthis treading on their turf, and militant Islamists linked to al-Qaeda.  Wrapped up in all this are some military units loyal to Hadi.  However, while the fall of Aden is a defeat for the Houthis, it is not necessarily a victory for Hadi.  Many of the Houthis’ opponents will not want to see Hadi returned to his position as the head of a central government, either.  Furthermore, the coalition that pushed the Houthis out of Aden is highly local in nature.  It will encounter as many problems if it tries to push north as the Houthis did pushing south.  There has been fighting around Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city (and the place where a friend of mine was teaching until this current mess broke out), but the Houthis remain in control there, as well as in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.  That won’t change any time soon.

Meanwhile, Oxfam estimates that 6 million Yemenis are in danger of starvation.  It’s time for the United States and Saudi-led coalition to stop talking about Yemen’s government in exile and recognize the situation in Yemen for what it is: a complete and utter clusterf*ck, to use the military term, and one that will only be improved if the participants stop shooting at one another.

If the Saudis and their allies demand the removal of the Houthis from all cities and the restoration of Hadi as a precondition for a negotiated settlement, the fighting will continue indefinitely.  The fall of Aden is not and cannot be a military turning point.  But maybe, just maybe, it can make the various sides see that none of them can control all of Yemen.  And then perhaps they might give peace negotiations a chance.


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