Saudi Arabia’s offensive to restore a friendly government in neighbouring Yemen is facing new turmoil, as two forces which have fought on the kingdom’s side turn their guns on each other.
The clashes in the southern city of Aden, where the pro-Saudi elected government of Yemen is based, threaten to weaken the coalition built by Riyadh in its proxy conflict with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. About 36 people have been killed and 185 wounded in two days of fighting, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The secessionist Southern Transitional Council had supported the Saudi campaign, but a week ago it demanded Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi dismiss his administration, which it accuses of corruption, or have it toppled. When Hadi refused to comply, the separatists orchestrated anti-government rallies and fighting broke out.
Yemen’s battlefield is heavily fractured and loyalties often shift. But the council has been backed by the United Arab Emirates, a key Saudi ally, and the fighting in Aden could signify growing tensions in the coalition as it appears no nearer to winning the war, said Noha Aboueldahab, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.
The Saudi-led coalition warned it would take all necessary measures to restore order and called for an immediate end to clashes, according to a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency. Coalition war planes flew over the presidential palace in the city to stop the advance of separatist forces, the Aden-based Alghad newspaper reported.
"Almost three years on, it would not be surprising to see a weakening of the coalition,” Aboueldahab said in an email. If the UAE comes under pressure to rethink it’s support, southern resistance groups that played an important role in driving the Houthis from Aden could permanently split away, she said.
Aden was the capital of a separate state of South Yemen before unification with the north in 1990, and separatist sentiments there have been fanned by the widespread sense that the region has been dominated and repressed.
The Saudi-led coalition has been unable to exert its authority over the entire country since intervening in March 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government of Hadi.
Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of arming the Houthis in one of their multiple confrontations in the region, and poured billions of dollars into the conflict. Missiles fired at Saudi Arabia’s international airport and royal palace in the capital, Riyadh, in recent months have raised fears of a direct military confrontation. Tehran denies that its support for the Houthi rebels amounts to direct military assistance.
If another front is opening in the strategically placed port city, it’s likely to bring more misery for the millions of Yemenis facing hunger and daily violence. Persistent fighting would make it more difficult to distribute desperately needed humanitarian supplies. The Arab world’s poorest country has weathered a cholera epidemic and now faces famine.
Tensions in Aden indicate that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have failed to develop a clear political and military strategy for the south, according to Yezid Sayigh, senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
"The Emiratis and the Saudis have been operating in very different ways on the ground inside Yemen,” Sayigh said. "And they’ve ended up supporting different kinds of fighting groups.”
--With assistance from Glen Carey