Fighters belonging to the Southern Transitional Council (STC), seeking secession from the rest of Yemen, managed to capture most of Aden’s important installations and government buildings last week.
The STC took advantage of the failure of the Yemeni interim government, which is supported by Saudi Arabia.
The conquest of Aden added further complexity to the already intricate Yemen conflict, but the STC didn’t just appear from thin air, as the conflict dates back for more than half-century.
“We do not intend to leave Aden,” said Aidroos Al-Zubaidi, the leader of Yemen’s STC, whose forces have taken over the southern port city.
The STC, founded in 2017 following a dispute with Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, sees capturing Aden as a step toward its goal of setting up an independent state in southern Yemen.
The latest infighting has fractured the Saudi-led military coalition fight against Iran-backed Houthi group, which controls the Yemeni capital Sanaa.
Last Thursday, the STC supporters took to the streets of Aden which has served as the Hadi government’s base since the Houthi rebels took over Sanaa in 2014.
People holding flags of the former South Yemen can be seen all over the city, which were also installed on top of public institutions and hung from multi-storey buildings.
United Yemen? It was never the norm!
Unified Yemen is only 29 years old, the unity came into force in 1990, after more than a century apart, Marxist South Yemen and conservative North Yemen were unified as the Republic of Yemen.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was the president of North Yemen at the time, became the new country’s president, and Ali Salem Al-Beidh, leader of the South Yemeni Socialist Party, became vice president.
The unrest in Yemen is not an individual conflict but a mosaic of multifaceted local, regional, and international power struggles, that are connected to both recent and long-past events.
Even after unity, the cultural rifts between the two regions didn’t cease to exist, accentuated by their divergent histories. Southern Yemen heavily influenced by a century of British influence, since the mid-19th century.
Situated at southern Arabian Peninsula, the country was divided between the British and the Ottoman empires in this period.
During the British occupation, the strategic port of Aden was run directly as a colony. Britain established itself in the port’s hinterlands and other areas of the south through financial and military aid.
To solidify their presence, British occupation struck deals with the heads of the various sultanates, sheikhdoms, and emirates that constituted the Federation of South Arabia and the neighbouring Protectorate of South Arabia.
In 1967, following the establishment of the Arab world’s first and only Marxist state, the People’s Republic of South Yemen, rifts between north and south only deepened.
The call for South Yemen’s split to be an independent country isn’t new. The country’s unification in 1990 was not a smooth transition. Afterwards, the 1991 economic crises in Yemen brought the country to the brink of collapse. It was followed by a small-scale civil war and erupted between southern secessionists and Yemen’s northern-based government in 1994, temporarily dissolving the new union.
Since its founding, the bulk of the south Yemen separatist movement’s more powerful components have coalesced in the STC, a grouping of politicians, tribal leaders, and military figures largely allied to the United Arab Emirates.
The STC has said its forces will hold Aden until the Islamist Al-Islah party, a key component of Hadi’s government, and northerners are removed from power positions in the south.
The UAE regards Al-Islah as part of the Muslim Brotherhood, banned by Egypt and UAE, on the other hand, Saudi Arabia tolerates it because it has helped to prop up Hadi.
In the north, the Houthis emerged out of Yemen’s mountainous areas in 2004 from Believing Youth, a revivalist Zaidi Shi’a movement fuelled by local fears of encroachment by Sunni ideologies.
In their first days, fighting was largely limited to the Houthi strongholds in mountainous areas in Saada, it soon spread to northern areas of Amran and western areas of al-Jawf.
During the 2011 uprising, the Iran-aligned Houthis gained control of Saada province during the unrest in Yemen inspired by the Arab uprisings. In September 2014, they seized Sanaa and swiftly expanded their control south to Ibb province and west to Al-Hudaydah.
Following President Hadi’s forced resignation in January 2015, the Houthis advanced southward to Abyan, Aden, and Lahj. In July and August 2015, they were pushed back by militia fighters supported by the Saudi-led coalition.
Moving back to the south, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has a strong presence in southern Yemen provinces. It has been considered the terrorist group’s most dangerous branch. The Islamic State group has also been active in central and southern Yemen, though its growth was curbed by the strong Al-Qaeda presence.
The US military has been conducting drone strikes over Yemen, targeting AQAP since 2010. But the scale and frequency of attacks have intensified since US President Donald Trump took office in January 2017.
Famine, diseases, and rotting economy
According to the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), Yemen remains the most complex and challenging humanitarian crisis in the world. The four-year conflict has pushed millions of Yemenis to the brink of famine. Some indicators have started to improve in several hard-hit areas as WFP has boosted support for them. The overall situation remains precarious and the humanitarian community cannot slow the pace of assistance now.
According to UN estimates, the conflict has left 13 million Yemeni civilians without food, labelling it as one of the largest man-made famines in history.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Yemen experienced the world’s worst cholera outbreak in 2017, with more than one million suspected cholera cases reported.
The deteriorating humanitarian situation, coupled with the lack of a functioning health system and limited access to safe water and hygiene facilities, has made it difficult to control the spread of the disease systematically. Since February 2019, the number of suspected cholera cases reported each week started to increase, peaking at over 29,500 cases at the beginning of April and stabilising in early July.
“A total of 451,895 suspected cholera cases were reported in the first six months of 2019, compared to 380,000 cases in the whole of 2018. So far this year, 705 deaths associated with cholera have been reported, including 200 children. Under-5 children represented 23.4% of total suspected cases during the first half of 2019,” WHO stated in a July report.
Achim Steiner, UN Development Programme administrator, said last month that Yemen was already the Arab world’s poorest country before the war, now Yemen’s four-year war has set back the country’s economic development by 20 years.
Yemen’s civil war has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with nearly 80% of the population, 24.1 million people, requiring some form of humanitarian assistance and protection.
“People are hungry and suffering as their institutions, schools, and local administrations have collapsed, and for many of them, life as they knew it simply has ceased to exist,” Steiner said.
However, economic analysis firm FocusEconomics said in a July report that the Yemeni economy is expected to return to growth this year for the first time in six years on the back of donor support and greater macroeconomic stability.
FocusEconomics panellists project the economy to expand by 0.7% in 2019, which is unchanged from last month’s forecast, and 6.5% in 2020.