air strikes in Yemen have often missed their mark, causing hundreds of civilian
casualties. But when the kingdom bombed its own allies on August 11th it was no
mistake. The target was southern separatists, who had seized the city of Aden
from Yemen’s internationally recognised government a day earlier. On paper, at
least, the Saudis, the separatists and the government are all on the same side
in Yemen’s war—members of a fragile alliance battling Iranian-backed Shia
rebels called the Houthis.
It has been
more than four years since the Houthis pushed the government out of Sana’a, the
capital, and captured most of the country. The Saudi-led coalition has since
retaken the south, but it has failed to oust the Houthis from the north (see
map). The fighting has shattered what was already the region’s poorest country.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed. Hunger and cholera stalk the
living. As if Yemen were not miserable enough, the war is growing more chaotic,
making a lasting peace harder to imagine.
coalition assembled by Saudi Arabia and its main international partner, the
United Arab Emirates (UAE), was never very coherent. It is a patchwork of local
armed groups, all with their own, often competing, agendas. In Taiz alone,
which has been besieged by the Houthis since 2015, more than 20 groups have
fought for the coalition. Loyalty is fickle, with fighters drawn to whichever
side pays more. Most coalition members readily admit that they dislike the
government, which is corrupt and ineffective. They snigger at the fact that the
president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has still not returned from his gilded exile
One of the
coalition’s most dangerous fault-lines runs between the normally northern-based
government and southern separatists. Their dispute dates back decades. South
Yemen, then a separate country, fought two wars with the north in the 1970s.
Unification in 1990 did not heal old wounds. Fighting erupted again in 1994,
with the north coming out on top. Since then many in the south, which is less
tribal, have viewed the government with suspicion. “It has prevented the south
from developing, fearing it will secede,” says Saleh Alnoud of the Southern Transitional
Council (stc), which speaks for many of the separatists. They are also divided.
between the government and the stc flared last year, but the latest fighting
looks more serious. It began on August 7th with a funeral procession for dozens
of southern soldiers killed in a Houthi missile strike the week before. As the
mourners passed the presidential palace, chanting anti-government slogans,
bullets were exchanged with the presidential guards. The violence quickly
escalated and, three days later, forces aligned with the stc had taken the
palace and several military barracks. Pressure from the Saudis might lead to a
face-saving deal that allows the government to return in some form, but the stc
will probably remain in control.
at least, the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE are speaking with one voice
about the situation. But their call for talks belies tension in their own
relationship. The UAE has focused on southern Yemen, where it has backed groups
such as the stc in an effort to rout jihadists and Islamists. Some accuse it of
creating a parallel state—on his way out of Aden, the interior minister blamed
the UAE for the fighting. The Saudis, meanwhile, have focused on the north and
restoring the government. They have worked with Islah, Yemen’s main Islamist
group and a part of the administration, as well as others whom the UAE finds
Saudis have stuck mostly to the air, the UAE has led the charge on the ground
and can claim most of the credit for what progress has been made against the
Houthis. But with no end in sight, and as fear of conflict with Iran grows, the
UAE is abandoning the war. Big new offensives by the coalition therefore seem
unlikely. Saudi Arabia has the support of America’s president, Donald Trump,
who has resisted congressional efforts to press the kingdom to end the war.
Still, the prospect of a coalition victory is growing dimmer. And an old
question has returned: can Yemen ever be stitched back together?
Source: The Economist