In Yemen, divisions within Saudi-led coalition jeopardize American interests in the region
By Maher Farrukh
The two states on which the U.S. most relies to contain Iran and al Qaeda in the Middle East are fighting a proxy war with each other. Saudi Arabia leads a coalition in Yemen against the Iranian-backed al Houthi movement and, in principle, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The United Arab Emirates is the next most important member of that coalition. But Emirati-backed secessionist forces attacked the Saudi-backed government, seizing key terrain in Aden. The entire American strategy against Iran and al Qaeda in Yemen, and possibly the Gulf region, is at risk if this conflict between U.S. allies persists. The Trump Administration must make resolving it quickly a top priority.
The Emirati-backed Transitional Political Council for the South (STC) began an armed struggle to seize Aden, the de facto capital, from the internationally recognized Yemeni government. The STC formed in May 2017 in response to the Yemeni president sidelining popular southern governors and the Yemeni government’s inability to provide basic services. Southern Yemeni actors have vied, at times violently, for increased autonomy and independence since the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990. The STC seeks to restore the self-determination of the historic South Yemen, which comprises the majority of the territory nominally controlled by the Yemeni government. The STC formed an independent military and issued an ultimatum on January 21, 2018 to the President of Yemen to dissolve his cabinet in one week or its forces would topple the government. STC-aligned forces began contesting parts of Aden on January 28 and by January 30, STC-aligned forces seized several military bases in Aden and trapped the President’s cabinet in the presidential palace, effectively solidifying their control over the city. The STC may have reached an agreement with the Saudi-led coalition to establish a new southern government with increased autonomy nested under the Yemeni government.
The move sets the stage for the expansion of armed conflict in the south, which could compromise the anti-al Houthi fight. Clashes between STC and Yemeni government forces have largely been contained in Aden, but violence may spread to other regions of southern and eastern Yemen if a political resolution is not reached. The secession crisis may draw both STC-aligned and Yemeni government forces away from active frontlines in the civil war, hindering the Saudi-led coalition’s plan to militarily pressure the al Houthi movement to agree to a political settlement acceptable to the coalition. Southern Yemeni forces may be more reluctant than before to participate in operations beyond the historic South Yemen border if the STC establishes an independent south, though the head of the STC pledged his commitment to the anti-al Houthi fight after seizing Aden. A struggle for control of the south will also reduce pressure on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Some STC-aligned units previously tasked with counterterrorism and security in the south and east are now in Aden, presenting AQAP with the opportunity to recover from recent setbacks.
Competing approaches by the UAE and Saudi Arabia may exacerbate the crisis in southern Yemen and fuel divisions within the anti-al Houthi bloc. The UAE backs the STC and STC-aligned forces in order to expand its influence to the Red Sea and counter the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Yemeni Islah party. The Islah party plays a significant role in the Saudi-backed Yemeni government. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also supporting different actors in northern Yemen against the al Houthi movement, which may generate another competition for power within the coalition.
The U.S. must take a leading role in the region to resolve conflict between America’s allies in order to secure core national security interests in Yemen. Failure to do so will worsen the Yemeni conflict and hinder future political negotiations. Continued Yemeni instability will allow U.S. adversaries such as al Qaeda and Iran to expand their influence in the region and prevent the international community from reversing Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.
Beyond Yemen, additional takeaways from the week
- Southern secessionists seized key government buildings in Aden, challenging the internationally recognized Hadi government. Forces aligned with the Transitional Political Council of the South (STC) consolidated control over the Hadi government’s de facto capital after two days of clashes. The secessionist crisis threatens to draw military forces from the frontlines against the al Houthi movement in Yemen.
- The Iranian regime is preparing to implement greater restrictions to Iranians’ access to cyberspace. Protesters used foreign messaging applications such as Telegram to organize the protests throughout Iran in late December and early January. Many officials have pressured President Hassan Rouhani’s administration to address weaknesses in the government’s blocks on certain websites and to develop domestic alternatives to foreign messaging applications.
- Kenya’s opposition party inaugurated its leader as the “people’s president” in a protest against sitting President Uhuru Kenyatta, inflaming a political crisis that began with contested elections in August 2017. Instability in Kenya, a key regional power, would reverberate throughout East Africa and could set conditions for the expansion of al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate in the region.