In the second week of August 2019, the city of Aden witnessed armed clashes between government forces loyal to Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the troops of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) supported by the United Arab Emirates. These clashes ended with the rout of government forces and their expulsion from the city, which had been declared the temporary capital of Yemen after Houthi militias took control of Sanaa in September 2014.
Causes and Dimensions of the Conflict
On August 1, 2019, the leader of the STC First Support Brigade, Munir Mahmoud al-Mashali al-Yafi’i—also known as Abu’l-Yamama—was killed by a missile strike on a parade stage at Jala camp west of Aden. Despite the Houthis’ admission of responsibility for the attack, the event sparked armed confrontations between the Presidential Protection Brigades (PPB) loyal to the legitimate government of President Hadi and the council’s Security Belt forces. The STC vice president, Hani bin Bureik, implied during a press conference held on August 6 that Hadi’s government was implicated in the attack, and—without citing any evidence—accused the Islamist Islah Party of responsibility as part of its plan to seize control of Aden. By the end of the press conference it was clear that the STC was intending to expel government forces from Aden. What was interesting was that bin Bureik did not blame the Houthis for the attacks; instead, he stated that the missile that hit the Jala camp was launched from northwestern Aden.
On August 7, the STC duly announced a general mobilization and marched on the presidential palace in Maashiq, the government’s temporary headquarters. Maashiq occupies one side of a narrow peninsula in the Kreiter area of Aden, protected by some six military units loyal to the government; the general mobilization thus accompanied a massing of tribal fighters from Lahj and Dali provinces who had participated in Yafi’i’s funeral procession.
The relationship between the Hadi government and the present leadership of the STC was already on shaky ground before the STC’s creation was officially announced in May 2017. It has only worsened with the council’s attempts to impose itself as an alternative to Hadi’s authority, with Emirati support. This led to armed confrontations between the PPB and Aden Security Administration/Security Zone forces in January 2018 and again in January 2019.
These moments in conflict between the STC and President Hadi mask an intense regional polarization between the governorates of Abyan and Dali rooted in historical grievances and worsened by the 1994 summer war when Abyan, Hadi’s home province, supported the north in blocking an attempt at secession backed by Dali. What is new here, however, is the UAE’s use of these tensions for its own ends: to halt the influence of the Islah Party and the military and tribal forces that supported the Revolution of February 11, 2011, particularly current Vice President Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar. These aims cannot be accomplished without concurrently weakening the legitimacy of President Hadi.
The Scene of the Conflict
The confrontations between the Presidential Protection Brigades and the Security Zone forces have been limited to specific areas of Aden: al-Tawahi, Kreiter, Khour Mikassar, Sheikh Othman, Dar Saad, and to a more limited extent, al-Bureiqa. The PPB were joined by the military police and groups from the Popular Resistance, while the STC was supported by Security Zone troops, counterterrorism and Aden security forces, as well as tribal fighters who had come to participate in Yafi’i’s funeral procession.
Two days after clashes broke out, STC forces succeeded in breaching the Fourth Presidential Protection Brigade’s defenses in Sheikh Othman (the northern entryway into Aden) and penetrating the urban interior along with tribal fighters. From there they were able to reinforce the First Infantry Brigade’s positions in Jabal Hadid against its counterpart, the Third Presidential Protection Brigade, and gain control of Maashiq Palace without any resistance, with more than 200 soldiers allowed to evacuate safely on August 10.
Various factors helped to decide matters in the Security Zone’s favor. In the 48-hour period covering August 9-10, a number of army units announced that they were joining STC forces: the Fourth Military Area Command and the Military Police Command in the Lahj Governorate. Forces subordinate to the Interior Ministry also sided with the STC: the Lahj Governorate Police Administration and the Special Security Forces (formerly Central Intelligence) of Aden, Lahj, and Abyan Governorates. The Security Zone’s timing of the battle to coincide with Eid al-Adha was also important: during the holiday, many soldiers are on leave and absent from their camps. STC forces also gained crucial battlefield experience during the expulsion of the Houthis from Aden in mid-2015 and subsequent battles on the western coast and in Lahj and Dali. Several other factors also contributed to the defeat of the PPB, including the following:
- Emirati military support to the Security Zone militias and other armed assistance;
- the government forces’ adoption of a difficult defensive position that failed to take into consideration their concentration in areas difficult to reinforce by land (their strategic depth was the Gulf of Aden) and the impact this had on the defensive flexibility and effective performance necessary in the absence of advanced military materiel or fortifications; and,
- endemic corruption in the administration and leadership of the government forces, including the Presidential Protection Brigades.
The Arab Coalition’s View of the Conflict
The coalition made no serious and rapid attempt to stop the conflict, limiting itself after four days of armed clashes to the announcement of a ceasefire and the return of both sides’ forces to their status quo ante positions—by which point the STC forces had already won the battle. This was reinforced by a belated Saudi call for “the sides between which conflict has broken out” to hold an emergency meeting in Riyadh, and airstrikes targeting unimportant targets.
The UAE was likewise slow to take a political stance. After STC forces took control of Aden, Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed called for a “serious and responsible dialogue in order to end disagreements,” despite knowing that the matter has not been an issue of disagreements ever since the STC openly began making preparations to establish a state. This coincided with an intense media campaign, led by political figures and academics close to the UAE’s leadership, seeking to promote separatism and defame President Hadi and calling for the expulsion of the government from Aden.
On the ground, Emirati armored personnel carriers helped STC forces to gain control of Aden, and the UAE also provided logistical support. It would have been illogical for Abu Dhabi to stand idly by and expose an ally—one that has fought (and is still fighting on its behalf—to the risk of defeat, thus rendering moot its role in the formation of the STC and its support for its participation in the UN-backed peace process as a major southern force. The UAE had also previously helped to strengthen the STC forces’ position by launching air strikes on Presidential Protection Brigades during the clashes that took place in early 2018.
Developments since the STC Took Control of Aden
With Yafi’i dead and the STC in control of Aden, the UAE is looking to create a military-political alliance between the STC—now a force capable of bringing about serious change on the ground—and the General People’s Congress Party, specifically the wing led by Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh––the late president’s son––who is resident in the UAE. The latter’s forces are led by Ali Abdullah’s cousin, General Tareq Muhammad Abdullah Saleh, who controls the western coast region—to a limited extent and with Emirati support. These forces’ influence is growing. By brokering the alliance, the UAE may hope to gain control over the areas currently subject to Hadi’s government in the Taiz Governorate, in coordination with the battalions of the Salafi leader General Adil Abduh Fari (Abu’l-Abbas), stationed in al-Kadha, forces that also enjoy Emirati support.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is attempting to reconcile its alliance with the UAE with its commitments to the Yemeni government, and as such it is calling for the STC to withdraw from the camps and government buildings that it has overtaken. At the same time, it is continuing the redeployment of its troops throughout al-Arish and Salaheddin to the east and west of Aden, respectively, which began in late July 2019, working to build medium-sized military bases ready for future development. There has been a marked increase in the number of troops on the ground here since Aden fell to the STC, although the Saudi forces already present in Aden by the time clashes began remained entirely neutral. The calls for dialogue and appeals to the STC to withdraw are in practice no more than necessary lip service paid to the government. The STC knows that whoever is in control on the ground will be the ultimate deciding factor.
The hopes of the legitimate government in Aden currently lie with a return to the status quo as of August 7, 2019. The price of this, however, will be a power-sharing arrangement with the STC, which means a gradual move toward secession or the “reestablishment of the independent southern federal state,” according to an STC declaration issued five days after they took control of the city. This gives particular relevance to their insistence that STC candidates be appointed to the defense or interior ministries, guaranteeing that they will be able to hold onto, further develop, and directly manage their existing military forces, as well as giving them access to governorates currently well outside their control. These forces will serve as a tool to realize their political ambitions later. But there are still obstacles to such ambitions, especially the contrary aims and programs in the various governorates. Opening the Pandora’s box of fragmentation does not mean being able to close it whenever and however necessary in the future.
An earlier version of this paper was published on August 19, 2019 by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) in Doha, Qatar.