A massive rally in the Yemeni city of Aden on Thursday expressed support for the separatists who took over the vital southern port city, the seat of Yemen’s internationally-recognized government ever since it was driven from the capital city of Sanaa by Iran-backed Houthi insurgents in 2014.
The Aden takeover makes the already complex and horrifying situation in Yemen even worse since the separatists are backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) but not the rest of the Saudi-led military coalition attempting to defeat the Houthis and restore President Abd-Rabbu Mansour to power in Sanaa.
Reuters reported on Thursday that a sizable portion of the population wants South Yemen to secede from the rest of the war-torn, terrorist-haunted country, saying:
Demonstrators demanded recognition of southerners’ right to self-rule in Aden, where the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is based after being ousted from power in the capital Sanaa by the Houthis in late 2014.
Many traveled into Aden from other southern provinces on Wednesday, sleeping overnight in the central parade square. One man held up a battered old identity document from former South Yemen and many waved the South Yemen flag.
“We call on the international community and the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to respect the southern people as a key partner in stemming the Persian tide in the region and fighting terrorism to achieve…regional and global stability,” said a statement to mark the rally.
The separatists are a major component of the Western-backed alliance that intervened in Yemen against the Houthis in March 2015, but have a rival agenda to Hadi’s government. The war has revived old strains between north and south Yemen, formerly separate countries that united into a single state in 1990.
The rally statement, issued by civil society groups and unions, accused Hadi’s government of mismanagement, saying it had become “a guillotine at Yemenis’ necks”.
The incident that triggered the separatist action was a missile attack launched by the Houthis against a military parade in Yemen two weeks ago, killing 32 and wounding dozens more. The separatists accused an Islamist party called Islah, a key element of President Hadi’s political coalition, of colluding with the Houthis to carry out the missile strike.
The troops killed in the attack belonged to a force called the “Security Belt” that is loyal to the Southern Transitional Council (STC), the separatist group that took control of Aden. The STC believes Islah has taken over much of Hadi’s government and is willing to connive with the Houthis to eliminate obstacles to its growing power.
“Islah has been at the heart of this,” said STC spokesman Saleh Alnoud on Wednesday. “That would be a very good start if Islah was removed from the whole of the south and allow southerners to govern themselves. We consider the government was infiltrated or controlled by the Islah.”
The UAE sees Islah as an arm of the international Muslim Brotherhood and supports the separatists’ demands to remove Islah members from positions of power. The Saudis accept Islah as a necessary part of Hadi’s power base and believe his government-in-exile would collapse without them, a view the STC strongly rejects.
“The Saudis need to make a decision: do they want to win the war against the Houthis? If they do, then they need to recognize us – STC – to govern and manage the south even in the transition period,” Alnoud said.
Hadi officials angrily denounced the separatist occupation of Aden as a “coup” and said no dialogue would be possible until they fully relinquish control of the city. The separatists on Thursday appeared to pull back from Aden’s military barracks and the presidential palace but insisted they will not give the city back until Islah has been purged. The presidential palace is unoccupied, as President Hadi himself fled to Saudi Arabia years ago.
Houthi leaders expressed support for the separatists and said it was understandable they are rebelling against the corruption of Hadi’s government, their own stated reason for launching the insurgency five years ago.
The Saudis and others critical of the Houthi movement believe the insurgency is actually a proxy war initiated by Iran to take control of vital territory in Yemen. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei enraged Saudi coalition by inviting Houthi leaders to meet with him in Tehran on Tuesday and restating his support for their cause, referring to them as holy warriors.
“Saudi and UAE and their supporters have committed major crimes in Yemen,” Khamenei said after the meeting. “They seek to divide Yemen. This plot should be strongly resisted and a unified, coherent Yemen with sovereign integrity should be endorsed.”
Khamenei accused the Western world of being either indifferent to “the crimes committed in Yemen” or active accomplices, since countries such as the United States sell weapons to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, Emiratis, and Western nations conversely accuse Iran of funneling weapons to the Houthis, including ballistic missiles they have fired at civilian targets in Saudi Arabia.
UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash on Wednesday said the Houthi meeting with Khamenei was “black-and-white” proof the Houthis are a “proxy” of Iran.
Khamenei said he opposed the division of Yemen, a position Egyptian political sociologist Said Sadek told Voice of America News was understandable since the port city of Aden and vital shipping routes are all part of the territory that would be taken by separatists.
Sadek thought the Iranians can no longer provide the Houthis with enough resources to resist the dissolution of Yemen due to U.S. sanctions.
AFP on Wednesday quoted analysts who found all the forces in play balanced against each other: Hadi is not strong enough to fight the separatists but hesitates to legitimize them by making a deal, while the separatists would lose their political legitimacy if the Hadi government collapses, and the STC has limited influence in regions of Southern Yemen other than Aden. The UAE could accept a partition of Yemen much more readily than the Saudis, potentially opening a major fault line in their coalition.
Analyst Peter Salisbury of the International Crisis Group told AFP the separatists will probably make a deal to gain more power in Hadi’s cabinet because they are not quite ready for the secession they demand.
“The STC clearly plans on controlling the south of Yemen in its entirety and eventually declaring independence,” Salisbury said. “But in the short term, they are likely to at least enter into talks with the government.”