Yemen: Rivals Turn to Fight Themselves

3 MINS READMay 3, 2017 | 21:23 GMT

Yemen's rebel alliance is steadily weakening. Recently, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is leader of the General People's Congress, made public overtures to Saudi Arabia distancing himself from his Houthi allies. Though Saudi Arabia considers Saleh an enemy, it considers him less of a threat than the Houthi rebels, who were a problem for Saudi Arabia far before they struck a loose alignment with Saleh's GPC party in 2015.

Saleh's moves against the Houthis stretch beyond words. He has reportedly refused to authorize the resupply of some Houthi arms. And GPC officials and Houthi officials have also clashed over the optimal structure of the Supreme Political Council, set up to govern Houthi-controlled areas in northern Yemen. When Houthi-appointed Prime Minister Aziz bin Habtoor resigned in April after only six months, reportedly at the GPC's nudging, it was just another sign of how tenuous the alliance in Sanaa is. However, because the two sides need each other militarily, the alliance will likely hold until a political solution to Yemen's conflict is found.

Meanwhile, the government in southern Yemen is just as divided. Internationally backed Yemeni President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi recently replaced two UAE-aligned officials — Commander Hani bin Braik and Aden Governor Aiderous al-Zubaidi — in a controversial move likely prompted by Saudi Arabia. In doing so, Hadi stoked resistance to his leadership and stirred up support for the Southern Resistance Movement, which wants more autonomy in southern Yemen than Saudi Arabia is willing to allow post-conflict and which both Braik and al-Zubaidi supported. In firing the two leaders, Hadi also angered the United Arab Emirates, an important Saudi ally in the fight against the pro-Saleh forces in the north and against jihadist groups in central and eastern Yemen, especially al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Some southern resistance fighters along the western coast fighting for the GCC coalition as it slowly advances northward are reportedly on their way to Aden to participate in protests scheduled for May 4, which could turn violent. Aside from causing general instability in Aden and straining the UAE-Saudi relationship, increased support for the Southern Separatist sentiment could also undermine Gulf Cooperation Council coalition efforts to reclaim al-Hudaydah port from Houthi control.

As alliances weaken, the possibility of finding a solution to the conflict is becoming simultaneously more necessary to avoid escalation and more improbable. U.S. officials are discussing the importance of finding a political solution to the conflict, even as they weigh the merits of increasing military support to the GCC coalition. The challenge is that any political solution supported by Saudi Arabia will probably be unacceptable for the Houthis. Moreover, as long as Saudi Arabia is concerned about Iranian influence in Yemen, it is unlikely to give up its military campaign in the country. There is the possibility that Saudi Arabia would consider a federalist solution — similar to that presented in 2013 before the outbreak of war. But, considering that the Houthis rejected that plan before, they are unlikely to acquiesce this go around without significant changes to the 2013 and 2014 plans. So for now, fighting continues, both between rivals and among alliances.

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