Late last month, as the fighting in Yemen continued unabated, Jeff Prescott, the National Security Council's Senior Director for the Middle East said "there is no military solution to the crisis." Saudi Arabia seemingly disagrees and that will reportedly be one topic under discussion at The White House on Friday where President Obama will meet with King Salman to discuss a variety of geopolitical issues.
The Saudi-led intervention into the conflict in Yemen has transformed the country into a battleground for a Saudi-Iran proxy war on the way to exacerbating a worsening humanitarian crisis. Civilian casualties are a regular occurrence, although, between conflicting reports from Riyadh and the Houthis, it’s nearly impossible to determine the exact figures. Just this week, sources on the ground indicated that dozens of civilians were killed when Saudi warplanes bombed a bottling plant.
Meanwhile, operations in Yemen are taking their toll on Saudi Arabia’s increasingly precarious fiscal situation, which has deteriorated rapidly in the face of persistently low crude prices. Coalition partner UAE is in a similar, if slightly more stable, position from a budget perspective.
So while the market nervously eyes the petrodollar reserves of Saudi Arabia and the UAE as the countries juggle domestic expenditures, dollar pegs, and the cost of war, Yemen itself is coming apart at the seams - literally. As WSJ reports, it now looks as though the country may in fact split, as Aden residents have eschewed the red, white and black for the flag of South Yemen, which existed as an independent republic for more than two decades. Here’s the story:
Now that pro-Iranian Houthi militias have been expelled from much of southern Yemen, many here are wondering when President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadiwill return to his homeland from Saudi exile—and, more importantly, under what flag.
Some of the war’s most brutal fighting happened here in Aden, the sprawling port city that served as the capital of the independent republic of South Yemen from 1967-90. In the current conflict, it became the bedrock of resistance against the Houthis, who hail from Yemen’s far north.
The battles of recent months have reopened historic divisions between the country’s two halves. The Houthis were backed by regular Yemeni Army units loyal to Mr. Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, also a northerner. For many Aden residents, the red, white and black flag of united Yemen—which Mr. Hadi, a southerner, claims to lead—has now become a hated symbol of the enemy.
In Aden, that banner is no longer visible anywhere. Instead, the city’s walls and local fighters’ checkpoints fly the flag of the defunct South Yemen republic, a staunch Soviet ally that was formally known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. The colors of the U.A.E. flag can also be seen, and there is also the occasional sighting of Saudi Arabia’s banner.
Graffiti proclaim Aden to be the “Free South” and some fighters have even swapped Yemeni license plates on their cars for makeshift black plates of “South Arabia,” the name that southern Yemen had under British rule in the 1960s.
Mr. Hadi, a graduate of the Moscow military academy who once served as a general in the South Yemen republic’s army, backed the north when southern Yemen tried to secede in 1994. Apart from a few recently raised roadside billboards with his portrait, there is little outward sign of support for Mr. Hadi among the resistance fighters.
Mohammed Ali Maram, the head of Mr. Hadi’s office in Aden and the president’s special secretary, said the country’s government would return as soon as adequate facilities could be established in the embattled city, which Mr. Hadi has proclaimed a temporary capital.
Mr. Maram also said he doesn’t see any problem with the anti-Houthi fighters in Aden flying the South Yemen flag instead of the Yemeni national banner.
“It’s history. They have a flag, and we are not looking at that as something wrong. But we have a lot of people,” he said. The very same youths with the separatist banners are eager to join the new Yemeni national army and police units that the government is rebuilding with U.A.E. funding, he added.
“If they go to work, they will forget about that.”
Perhaps. Or perhaps not. It could very well be that when Hadi does finally depart the safe confines of Riyadh and return to Yemen that those who ostensibly fought to restore his government will no longer want anything to do with him.
And while it's unclear precisely who the ragtag militia would support, it's worth noting that, as WSJ goes on to point out, the anti-Houthi fighters are "a motley group that spans the spectrum from southern secessionists to ultraconservative Salafi Islamists to supporters of al Qaeda." In other words, it doesn't seem all that far-fetched to suggest that should restoring Hadi ultimately prove to be impossible, an independent South Yemen could end up falling into the hands of extremists, which would be ironic not only for the fact that it would represent the latest example of US foreign policy gone horribly awry, but also because according to at least one source, the Saleh government - whose fighters are now allied with the Houthis - for years worked with AQP while accepting US anti-terror funding. Notably, were Yemen to split in two, it would also effectively create a permanent Iranian colony on Saudi Arabia's southern border.
Perhaps the best way to sum up the situation would be to apply the assessment an unnamed Pentagon official offered to CBS when asked about Syria last month: "It's a friggin' mess."
And lest anyone should forget, this is the same country that the White House called a counterterrorism "success story" exactly one year ago next Thursday.