tightens the noose on Aden
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 24 June
THE CONFLICT in Yemen is increasingly difficult to define.
Shorthand terms like "civil war" and "North versus South", which might
have been appropriate seven weeks ago, are no longer accurate. Territorially, it is now
little more than a rebellion, albeit a serious one, centred on the southern ports of Aden
and Mukalla. But because the rebellion is sustained (and to some extent controlled) from
abroad, its ramifications spread much wider.
On the ground, President Ali Abdullah Salih's forces have
tightened their noose around Aden and have also tentatively attacked Mukalla, the capital
of Hadramawt, 400 miles to the east. As the president's forces cannot advance much further
without huge bloodshed on both sides, they are unlikely to try to enter Aden while the
possibility of a cease-fire remains. Their shelling of the city, which continued as Middle
East International went to press, is intended mainly to keep up the pressure while
cease-fire terms are discussed.
Left to their own devices, the separatists would probably
have surrendered by now, but two factors have prolonged the conflict. One is Aden's hope
that financial, logistic and diplomatic support from outside Yemen will continue or even
increase. The other is the political complexity of the situation internationally. Vile the
president's aim has always been clear - to preserve Yemen's unity at all costs - it is by
no means clear what his opponents want or, indeed, who his opponents really are.
Hitherto, one of the most puzzling aspects has been the
behaviour of the Southern-based Yemen Socialist party (YSP). In the nine months before the
war, they armed themselves and skilfully escalated Yemen's political crisis in a way which
was plainly deliberate. That implies that they had both an objective and a strategy for
achieving it - and yet when war came they appeared to have neither. If, for example, their
objective was a separate state, why did they not declare it at the outset when there was a
better chance of recognition? The explanation offered by a variety of sources is that
although the YSP contained separatist elements, they were a minority. What the leadership
actually wanted, according to these sources, was to take control of a united Yemen by
deposing President Salih. They devised a plan to this effect but it failed
catastrophically when the president's forces made a pre-emptive strike. The Socialists
were thus wrong-footed from the first day of war; their battle-plans had envisaged a siege
of Sana'a rather than Aden.
Details are still sketchy, but it appears that on or about
5 May, undercover forces - some dressed as women - were to enter the presidential palace
and other key buildings in the capital. At the same time, the Socialist-controlled
battalions at Amran and Dhamar would converge on Sana'a, to be joined from the north-east
by the 'Iyal Surayh of the Bakil tribe.
Weapons and disguises for the initial uprising were hidden
close to the intended targets. In the case of the presidential palace, they were in shops
nearby. But unknown to the Socialists, the caches had been under surveillance after
security forces learned of unusually bulky deliveries to small businesses such as
With the seizure of these arms and the destruction of the
battalions at Amran and Dhamar in the opening stages of the war, the Socialists fell back
on contingency plans as the president's men marched south. They succeeded for a while in
checking this advance at the old North-South border and, logistically, that would have
been another good moment to declare independence - but again the leadership failed to
agree on separation. By the time they finally proclaimed the new state on 20 May, the
territory they controlled was too small. Even then, apparently because of disagreements,
the declaration was not issued in the name of the party's politburo or central committee.
The YSP is now seriously fragmented. A number of prominent
members have sat out the war abroad, while others have conspicuously failed to support the
breakaway state. The party leader, Ali Salim al-Bid, has decamped to Mukalla, leaving Aden
in the hands of his "vice-president", Abd al-Rahman al-Jifri, who has never been
a Socialist. Although born in Yemen, al-Jifri lived in Saudi Arabia for 20 years and
actually has Saudi nationality.
The near-collapse of the Socialists means that their
backers must now either stay in the shadows and write off their losses or try to salvage
something by emerging into the open. Reports of Saudi tanks near Yemen's north-west
frontier last week suggest the latter. Certainly the government in Sana'a regards the
Saudis, not the Socialists, as its main adversary.
The problem there is that the Saudis, surprised by the
course the war has taken, seem unable to decide what they want. Ideally, they would have
liked the removal of President Salih or, failing that, the partition of Yemen. Since
neither is in prospect, Salih has offered a settlement of the 60-year border dispute
between the two countries in exchange for recognition of Yemeni unity. The Saudis are
still thinking about it.