Thursday, 7th September 2017

Yemen: Alliances shift, violence is constant

The Yemen conflict, and its complex blend of local and regional alliances, seems to be shifting into a new phase, which does not yet hold out the promise of peace for the tortured country. While the uneasy alliance of Houthi rebels and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh unravels in Sanaa, Saudi Arabia is increasingly taking over the UAE’s leading role in southern Yemen. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State (IS) jihadists are making new tribal alliances that entrench their influence.

Deep internal discord threatens to undermine Houthi/Saleh efforts to confront the Saudi-led coalition. The escalation of tensions in Sanaa accelerated with Houthi statements in August that targeted Saleh and his General People’s Congress (GPC) power base; the Houthis called for the removal of immunity from anyone linked to the Saudi-led coalition soon after making scarcely credible allegations that Saleh was co-operating with Riyadh. Tensions reached a climax with rallies and skirmishes across Sanaa in late August, when it was reported that Abdelmalek Al-Houthi had ordered Saleh and his inner circle to be placed under house arrest. A critical event was the death on 26 August of influential GPC foreign affairs office deputy head Colonel Khalid Al-Radhi, who was killed by Houthi fighters at a blockade in Sanaa while travelling with one of Saleh’s sons. A Houthi reorganisation of the Ministry of Interior that replaced personnel affiliated with Saleh and the GPC raised further ire. Efforts by Iran to affect a reconciliation have achieved only limited results.

There have also been significant developments in southern Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been expanding its activity and the UAE appears to be reducing its involvement. Saudi-backed President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi appears to be a beneficiary; he had been facing a critical loss of power, exacerbated by protests over unpaid security force salaries (eventually met after Russia committed financial assistance).

His relations with supposed allies in the UAE remain strained, but his position is strengthened by the deployment in August of Saudi troops to Aden, where they are working alongside a Sudanese contingent – as the UAE did before (GSN 1,037/1). In tandem comes unconfirmed reports that the UAE has stopped paying the salaries of some local forces it was sponsoring, including the ‘security belt’ forces in Aden, Lahj and Abyan, and the Hadrami Elite Forces that operate in Hadramout.

Emirati and Saudi forces have, at times, competed in southern Yemen. The latest developments suggest Abu Dhabi may be preparing to hand over its influence and authority to Riyadh. The extension of Saudi engagement also raises the possibility of more clashes between Hadi-affiliated partners backed by Riyadh and groups supported by the UAE. One example of the tensions was the destruction of Hadi’s house in the Abyan district.

Beyond Aden and Mukalla, AQAP and IS forces continue to organise and operate against a multitude of opponents. The frequent engagement of United States and UAE forces in joint operations that target the groups has involved casualties. On 11 August, a UAE Blackhawk helicopter crashed killing four of its crew and injuring Sheikh Zayed Bin Hamdan Al-Nahyan. Two weeks later, US Special Forces Command reported a US Blackhawk had crashed off the coast of Yemen, killing one. Saudi Arabia was embroiled in another tragedy when an airstrike on 25 August killed at least 15 civilians; Saudi authorities blamed the incident on a “technical mistake”.

Jihadists may be under pressure but they are far from going away. AQAP has traditionally maintained stronger ties with southern Yemeni tribes than IS, but there are worrying signs of increased co-operation between both groups and their local tribal allies. The Awlaki (part of the late Anwar Awlaki’s tribe – GSN 985/13) have been criticising Emirati-backed troops and advocating greater violence against local security forces. Due to the number of attacks by Emirati forces, AQAP has publically prioritised the UAE as a target, brandishing it an “infidel state” on social media. The UAE has already suffered proportionally far more casualties in the war than Saudi Arabia, reaching a height with the September 2015 Marib attack that killed 45 UAE troops (GSN 1,001/6). Should the UAE continue to sustain losses and come up against greater resistance from Saudi proxies in the South, there is a chance that Abu Dhabi may accelerate its withdrawal from Yemen.

On 24 August, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported: “The war in Yemen is now in its third year, and has resulted in close to 2m displaced people, 84% of whom have been out of their homes for more than 12 months.” The World Health Organisation on 5 September reported a cumulative total of 612,009 suspected cholera cases and 2,047 associated deaths in just over five months. Alliances are shifting once again in Yemen but, pending an unlikely diplomatic breakthrough, violence and societal breakdown will remain a constant.

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