The protracted conflict in Yemen is growing in complexity and the prospect of the various parties relinquishing their weapons appears a distant possibility. The country has been in a terrible mess since 2015, and it is now getting messier, particularly following the southern separatists’ declaration of self-rule in April.
Since May 11, Yemen’s UN-recognized government forces backed by Saudi Arabia and armed groups of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) backed by the United Arab Emirates have been fiercely fighting as the former has attempted to drive the latter from Zinjibar city of Abyan province to the south of Yemen.
The fighting has claimed a number of lives from both sides on the battlefield and the situation is set to get worse. Both parties continue to mobilize forces and the war of words on social media platforms is in full swing.
It was not expected that forces led by Tareq Saleh would engage in the battle to support the UAE-backed southern separatists.
While fighting between the Yemeni government and southern secessionists was predictable, it was not expected that forces led by Tareq Saleh – nephew of the late former president Ali Saleh – would engage in the battle to support the UAE-backed southern separatists.
Local reports have revealed that Saleh’s forces have been involved in the fighting in support of the secessionists who have been tightening their grip on the Aden, Abyan, Dhale, and Lahj provinces since August 2019. In essence, a third foe of the Yemeni government has just emerged.
Amidst this tide of violence in Abyan province, Saleh, the head of the National Resistance Forces (NRF), showed on which side he stood. Once the clashes between the separatists and the Yemeni government flared up in Abyan, some 35 miles away from Aden, Saleh tweeted: “Aden is in need of aid, relief and medical equipment. It needs medical teams, not forces to storm it or military equipment.”
“Aden is in need of aid, relief and medical equipment. It needs medical teams, not forces to storm it or military equipment.”
Saleh’s statement clearly expresses his resentment of the government’s military activities in the south and reveals that he and the government have conflicting priorities.
Indeed, the leadership of the STC acknowledges its rapprochement with military commander Saleh since both he and the STC are armed and propped up by the UAE. Hani bin Buraik, Deputy Head of the STC, has commended Saleh’s stand on the latest development in Yemen’s south. Bin Buraik posted Saleh’s photo on Twitter, with the message: “Welcome Brigadier Tareq for whom we have due respect. We fought, reconciled, and partnered against the Houthi [group]. We remained faithful to him and he remained faithful to us.”
Saleh has a problematic past. He had partnered with the Houthis to fight the Yemeni government from 2015 to 2017. His alliance with the Houthis ended up in a bloody battle in which former president Ali Saleh was killed. Tareq Saleh, who was the head of the Special Security Forces during his uncle’s reign, lost the battle to the Houthis in December 2017. He escaped the deadly confrontation, leaving Sanaa under Houthi control.
Since his split with the Houthis, Saleh has repeated that his mission is to drive the Houthis out of Sanaa and all provinces.
Since his alliance split with the Houthis, he has repeated that his mission is to drive the Houthis out of Sanaa and all Yemeni provinces while showing no disagreement with the Yemeni government. However, his reaction to the recent escalations in the south marks a new challenge for a beleaguered Saudi-backed government that simultaneously combats the Houthi rebels and southern separatists. In other words, Saleh appears to have manifested his opposition to the government once again and sided with the southern separatists who seek the partition of Yemen.
Nonetheless, Saleh’s forces have denied any connection to the ongoing battle between the southern secessionist fighters and the Yemeni government. The spokesperson of National Resistance Forces (NRF), Sadeq Dewaid, argued that the Saudi-backed Yemeni government is just accustomed to making excuses.
On May 14, Dewaid tweeted: “Some used to justify their failures [citing the role of] late martyred president Saleh. Today, they attempt to cover their failures through the National Resistance and its commander [Tareq] Saleh.”
Saleh’s forces are willing to fight the Houthis, but unwilling to follow the directives of the Saudi-backed Yemeni government.
The fact remains that Saleh’s forces are willing to fight the Houthis, but they are unwilling to follow the directives of the Saudi-backed Yemeni government.
Adel Dashela, a Yemeni researcher and writer, told Inside Arabia: “Saleh’s forces and STC rebels are both militias. The only thing that unites them is their hostility to the Saudi-backed UN-recognized Yemeni government. In my view, if the rebellion in Aden is not ended either by a military operation or through the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, Saleh may rebel against the Yemeni state in the future.”
Dashela added, “Saleh’s militias fight the Houthi group, yet they do not belong to the Ministry [of] Defense of the internationally recognized Yemeni government. Consequently, these armed groups aren’t operating under orders from [the] Yemeni Chief of Staff; they carry out the orders of UAE command.”
In July 2019, the UAE declared its drawdown from Yemen, even as it has continued to seek control of Socotra and arm the southern separatists and Saleh’s forces.
Indeed in 2018, the UAE played a critical role in supporting Saleh to establish the National Resistance Forces on the western coast of Yemen. In July 2019, the UAE declared its drawdown from Yemen, stating that it would prioritize diplomacy to resolve the conflict even as it has continued to seek the control of Socotra and arm both the southern separatists and Saleh’s forces against the Saudi-backed government.
In October 2019, the Emirates handed over its biggest headquarters in the city of Al-Khokha, south of Al-Hodeida province, to Saleh. Such a handover marked a deep Emirati trust in Saleh, and it emphasized the committed cooperation between the two sides. This at the same time as the UAE pursues funding of the STC and its determination to control South Yemen by seeking its independence.
The proliferation of armed groups with connection to foreign powers is a formidable challenge on the road to peace in Yemen.
The proliferation of armed groups with connection to foreign powers is a formidable challenge on the road to peace in Yemen. Saudi Arabia supports the Yemeni government while Iran does its best to assist the Houthis. Moreover, the UAE backs both the southern separatists and Saleh-led forces.
Yemen, with its vital and strategic location and lack of strong and united leadership, continues to be the theater of regional rivalry and proxy wars, with complete disregard for the needs of a worn out and helpless population. This ongoing struggle for hegemony through local militias and political and military elites driven by excessive egos, power thirst, and control rather than peacebuilding and the alleviation of human suffering is what keeps the wheels of destruction going in the war-ravaged and poverty-stricken country.