The Birth of Modern Yemen - Chapter 13

An e-book by Brian Whitaker exploring the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990, and its aftermath

13. The Democratic Republic of Yemen

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FOLLOWING their failure to arouse a northern rebellion and the destruction of their battalions at Amran and Dhamar in the opening stages of the 1994 war, the Socialists fell back on contingency plans as the president’s forces moved south. They succeeded for a while in checking this advance near the old border but eventually the northern forces broke through to besiege al-Anad, the south’s largest military base, only 26 miles from Aden.

The south’s position was therefore extremely serious but by no means hopeless. In order to salvage the situation it needed a ceasefire which would initially buy time for the southern forces to strengthen their defences and eventually force the president to negotiate. The north, meanwhile, also had a problem. Though physically close to their goal, its forces had now reached the most difficult and politically dangerous stage of the war: capturing Aden. There were two options: either to attempt to take the city by storm or to besiege it until the southern leaders surrendered. Storming the city was militarily difficult and likely to cause enormous casualties on both sides; it was also likely to bring severe international condemnation upon the north and, if it did not succeed quickly, would increase pressure for a ceasefire if not direct foreign intervention. The north therefore opted for a siege of the city, accompanied by regular shelling aimed mainly at military and economic targets but often resulting in civilian casualties. But this strategy, too, had drawbacks – the main one being that sieges take time to have effect. That in turn created an opportunity for the southern leaders to rally diplomatic support in the hope of achieving a ceasefire, and the longer the north took to force a surrender, the more likely it became that the south’s diplomatic efforts would succeed.

The cornerstone of the southern diplomatic offensive was the proclamation, on May 21 (the eve of the fourth anniversary of unification), of the Democratic Republic of Yemen. Disregarding, for a moment, its internal political consequences, the proclamation was essentially an attempt to internationalise the conflict. Hitherto the north had maintained, with considerable justification, that the war was a purely internal Yemeni affair and consequently not an issue that should involve the United Nations or the international community in general. By proclaiming its own state the south was seeking to turn the conflict into a war between two countries, in effect making the northern forces “invaders”. Obviously the success or failure of this ploy would depend less on the legal technicalities than on the degree to which other countries accepted the south’s interpretation of the conflict and were prepared to recognise the new state. Formal proclamation of the state, however, was an essential first step.

In the early stages of the war, the YSP had held back from declaring secession for fear of alienating those supporters who, while fully prepared to fight to bring down the Salih government, balked at the prospect of a partitioning the country. Consequently, most of the 1,800-word proclamation document was devoted to justifying secession. It began with a long preamble which blamed the president and his supporters for “burning the bonds of brotherhood and resisting unity and in reality deciding upon separation” and catalogued the Socialist party’s grievances in mundane detail, including complaints about inflation and the budget deficit. Beyond the problems of the past, it offered no broad, hopeful vision of the future, no words of encouragement to those engaged in the struggle. Nor was there any trace of the literary elegance that had characterised the Palestinian declaration of independence, for example, nor indeed any sense that this was an important moment in a nation’s history.

The preamble was followed by 16 short points outlining constitutional arrangements and the state’s adherence to the charters of the Arab League, the United Nations, etc. One final paragraph revealed the main purpose of the declaration: to elicit support from outside. “The Democratic Republic of Yemen,” it said, “calls upon all brotherly and friendly states to recognise its state, in accordance with international legislation.”

On the exact nature of the secession the document was significantly ambivalent. Item 2, for example, stated that “Yemeni unity remains a basic objective” and Item 6 referred to building “the state of democratic Yemen” rather than “the Democratic Republic of Yemen” which would have been a more obvious phrase to use. Nowhere in the document were the state’s boundaries specified, but the choice of Aden as capital and the fact that members of the provisional parliament were to be drawn from “the southern and eastern provinces” of Yemen implied that the new state was essentially a revival of the old People’s Democratic Republic. Indeed, the new name was identical apart from the omission of “People’s” (presumably intended to suggest a free-market rather than socialist state, though the missing possessive also invited wry questions about who the new state really belonged to, if not to the people). 

Thus what the document appeared to proclaim was secession for the purposes of international law but something slightly less drastic for the purposes of the YSP’s domestic relations. There was a clear intention to provide just enough ambiguity for the document to be interpreted – by those who wished to do so – not as announcing the partition of Yemen but as creating, in a less territorial way, an alternative state: “democratic” Yemen as opposed to “undemocratic” Yemen.

Al-Baid elaborated on this idea shortly afterwards at a press conference in Mukalla: “We found ourselves compelled in overwhelming circumstances to announce the formation of our new system of the Democratic Republic of Yemen, which we consider to be a nucleus for a unified Yemen, because it was erected on the firm foundations of the Document of Pledge and Accord, this being a document of national consensus.”

Describing the secession as “the reconstruction of the state in part of Yemen’s territory”, he added: “We are not afraid of being called secessionists or unionists because it will be history which will describe us as individuals seeking to bring about realistic circumstances for the performance of democratic, unionist and peaceful actions for the future of the entire Yemeni people.” [1]

These gestures towards Yemeni unity were not sufficient, however, to preserve unity in the YSP; in the weeks that followed the party tore itself apart. Initially, there was some rejoicing at the proclamation. Reuter’s correspondent in Aden reported: “Hundreds of Aden’s 350,000 residents took to the streets to celebrate, some of them firing rifles into the air in jubilation.” [2] For the south’s largest city – and the Socialists’ main stronghold – “hundreds” suggests a very subdued welcome for the secession. Observers commented that the proclamation document had been signed by al-Baid but – most unusually – was not issued in the name of the YSP’s Politburo or Central Committee [3]. Sana’a radio, quoting unconfirmed reports, claimed that following the announcement some members of the YSP’s Politburo and Central Committee had been placed under house arrest. It also noted that among the congratulatory messages broadcast by Aden radio, there were none from several YSP bodies to which al-Baid was affiliated, nor from Haytham Qasim, the former defence minister. Instead, the radio read out a letter from Haytham to officers and soldiers to mark ‘Id al-Adha. This was interpreted as evidence of a rift between the two men [4].

On May 24 three members of the YSP Central Committee, Abd al-Bari Tahir, Abdullah Hamid al-Ulufi and Abdullah Baydar, issued a statement, broadcast on Sana’a radio, condemning the secession:

We, along with our people, were surprised by the declaration of secession made by the secessionist elements in the YSP leadership. We, along with our people, realise that the YSP’s elements, cadres and many of its leaders reject, absolutely and in principle, this declaration, which does not express our party’s spirit, principles and lengthy struggle designed to effect both the September and October Yemeni revolutions and Yemeni unification on the great 22nd May (1990).

The declaration of secession is a retreat from our people’s greatest and most important options of unity, democracy and party and political pluralism. We, as leading elements in the YSP and its Central Committee, condemn the declaration of secession. We also believe that abiding by the constitution and a return to dialogue are the only possible means to end the impasse facing our people as a result of the declaration of secession. As leading elements in the YSP, we will hold further consultations with our party colleagues in order to take a final and decisive position on our relationship with the YSP. [5]

Almost immediately after the proclamation a five-man Presidential Council was announced, comprising Ali Salim al-Baid (who became president), Abd al-Rahman Ali al-Jifri (secretary-general of the League of the Sons of Yemen, who became vice-president), Salim Salih Muhammad, Abd al-Qawi Hassan Makkawi and Sulayman Nasir Mas’ud [6].

Jifri, in his fifties, came from a prominent Shabwa family. A graduate of Cairo military college, he had also studied computing and business administration in Britain. As an opponent of the Socialists, he had spent much of the previous 25 years in exile in Saudi Arabia, where he had acquired a Saudi passport. Shortly before unification President Salih had invited him back to Sana’a, where he became chairman of the League of the Sons of Yemen (previously known as the League of the Sons of the South) [7]. In the 1993 elections the organisation had contested more than 200 seats but failed to win any. Jifri’s inclusion in the Presidential Council may have been intended to show that the new state had broad support beyond the YSP; however there were also suggestions that he was placed there at the behest of the Saudis who felt the war had hitherto been mismanaged by al-Baid. 
Salim Salih Muhammad was al-Baid’s deputy in the YSP and a somewhat ambivalent figure. In 1990 he had opposed full unification with the north, favouring confederation instead, but had been over-ruled. Later, he had adopted a more conciliatory and less blatantly separatist position than al-Baid; after his election to the Presidential Council in 1993, for example, he had gone to Sana’a to take the constitutional oath even though al-Baid refused to do so. During the early part of the war he had spent some time in London, possibly on party business but probably also in the hope of maintaining a low profile. On the outbreak of war, unlike al-Baid, he had not been dismissed from the Presidential Council of the unified state. His inclusion in the Presidential Council of the new Democratic Republic placed him in the unique (and constitutionally very odd) position of representing the collective presidency on both sides.

Little is known about the two remaining members of the council or why they were chosen. Abd al-Qawi Hassan Makkawi was an opposition figure resident in Cairo and Sulayman Nasir Mas’ud a supporter of the former Southern president, Ali Nasir Muhammad [8]. Their absence from Aden led to jibes in Sana’a that the new Presidential Council would never be able to hold a meeting [9].

A 30-member government was announced on June 2 [10]. It included eight of the nine Socialists who had served in the united government before the war, and all were assigned their previous portfolios. The omission was Jarallah Umar, the northern Socialist, who later fled the country and went into hiding, claiming his life had been threatened during a meeting with al-Baid. It was not clear whether all those named had assented to their appointments. One knowledgeable southern Yemeni living in London commented that the list of names suggested there had been difficulty finding people of suitable calibre to fill all the posts. The appointment of al-Attas in the dual role of Prime Minister and Finance Minister tended to support this. At various stages in the war a number of prominent Socialists developed an urgent need to seek medical care abroad. In the case of Yasin Said Nu’man, a former prime minister of South Yemen, who went to Abu Dhabi for heart treatment, it was probably genuine. In several other cases it was almost certainly not [11].

Almost immediately after announcing the secession, al-Baid left Aden for Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt province, where he remained for most of the time until the end of the war – occasionally contacted by journalists on a mobile telephone which gave no clue as to his whereabouts. As the days passed it became increasingly obvious that al-Jifri, the Saudi passport-holder who remained in Aden, had effectively taken charge; it was he who made the official statements and took the decisions. According to one report in mid-June, only two senior figures remained in the city: al-Jifri and “defence minister” Haytham Qasim Tahir. The rest, including the “oil minister” and the “foreign minister” were either in Mukalla or abroad [12].

Speculation that something was wrong became rife towards the end of June when the DRY’s “defence minister” claimed that al-Baid had returned to Aden – an announcement which other officials promptly denied. An attempt by Aden television to portray al-Baid as actively rallying support in Mukalla only fuelled the suspicions: the “news” report showed him meeting tribal leaders at a gathering which had been reported in the press a week earlier. Meanwhile Tehran radio and Radio Monte Carlo claimed that al-Baid had gone abroad for hospital treatment after being wounded. At this, al-Jifri intervened on his behalf and claimed: “I was with Mr Baid on the telephone all night and I assure you this is just another lie. He is fine and well.” [13] There was, of course, one very simple way to end the speculation: for al-Baid to appear in person and confirm that all was well. For whatever reason, he chose not to do so. 

There were a number of competing theories as to what had happened. The YSP’s explanation that he had gone to Mukalla to organise provincial and international support had some plausibility: the war had made communications between Aden and the east difficult, so it was logical to place some of the leaders in both areas. Also, Mukalla had become the main reception point for supplies of weapons. However, this did not explain why al-Baid’s deputy was now making almost all the official statements. Furthermore, the leadership could not have failed to be aware of the effect al-Baid and the other absentees were having on morale in Aden where residents had begun to suggest they had left the city for safety reasons [14].

An alternative explanation from Egyptian sources was that al-Baid had quarrelled with the Saudis who were angry at his apparently incompetent handling of the war while he in turn was angry at their failure to fulfil promises of support. The implication of this was that he had effectively been ousted by al-Jifri, the Saudis’ favoured leader, but retained as a silent figurehead to avoid making the dispute public. In addition, of course, he had quarrelled with some – perhaps many – of his party colleagues as a result of the secession declaration.

Privately, northern leaders hinted that al-Baid had “a psychological problem” – though whether they meant to imply by this a nervous breakdown or similar clinical condition was not clear [15]. Other observers pointed to the strong similarities between his withdrawal from Aden and his earlier withdrawals from Sana’a, suggesting that this was entirely in character: his usual response to difficulties or pressures. Even after the war the mystery continued. He took up residence in Oman, where he had apparently fled shortly before the fall of Mukalla, and was reported to be suffering from high blood pressure. He announced his retirement from politics and, declined to join most of the other exiled southern leaders on forming the National Opposition Front, though he was said to be supporting them in spirit.

War by diplomacy

WITH THE proclamation of the Democratic Republic of Yemen, the war entered a new phase in which international aspects came to the fore. By then, President Salih’s forces were established close to Aden and it was clear that nothing short of foreign intervention would drive them back. Eventually, if left to their own devices, the separatists would be defeated. Their only hope of survival was a ceasefire, internationally monitored, which would provide a breathing space to consolidate their resources. Thus, viewed from Sana’a, calls for a ceasefire amounted to support for the south and the government adopted a strategy aimed at frustrating efforts to stop the war. The danger in this course was that if Sana’a was perceived to be blatantly obstructing a ceasefire, countries sympathetic to the south would resort to more drastic measures – such as recognising the separatist state – which would allow them to provide support more openly.

In the United States and Europe generally, Yemen was regarded as a problem, but not one requiring a great deal of attention. Internationally, the war in Yemen was overshadowed by the tribal conflict in Rwanda where massacres on a horrific scale and floods of refugees to neighbouring countries commanded the attention of the western media. Concern was strongest in the Arab world, especially among Yemen’s peninsular neighbours (for the reasons outlined in Chapter 7). Even so, they were in no haste to recognise the Democratic Republic – possibly because they already saw the weakness of its military position. In fact, the south’s plea for recognition was heeded only by Somaliland (itself a recently-declared state unrecognised by the rest of the world). 

As northern forces advanced on Aden, Saudi Arabia together with Bahrain, Oman, the UAE and Egypt demanded a meeting of the UN Security Council. At a press conference the day before the council met, Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, the northern planning minister, outlined Sana’a’s objections. Firstly, he said, the south had shown bad faith during a 72-hour ceasefire to mark ’Id al-Adha, since it had led to the declaration of secession. Secondly, any ceasefire must be backed up by guarantees that would maintain unity and constitutional legitimacy. Finally, he elaborated on the northern claim that the conflict was an internal matter, not an international one, because unification have been achieved voluntarily in 1990:

What is new about this crisis is that it has become a topic of interest to amateurs in international law. Some say: No unity is imposed by force. I ask: How was Yemeni unity achieved? Did it take place four years ago through mutual consent or by force? Two days ago, al-Baid acknowledged that the unity took place through mutual consent. Now it is said that we are going to impose unity by force …

In 1973, the north wanted to impose unity on the south. In the 1979 war, it was the opposite; the south wanted to impose unity by force on the north. Then, every state had the right to oppose imposing unity by force. But unity now has been achieved and approved by the Yemeni people. The constitution of the new state has been approved through a referendum. Legislative elections were held and the world testified to their fairness. Yet, we are asked not to impose unity by force … To say that Sana’a wants to impose unity by force calls for amazement. 

The demand for new unity formulas is a foreign rather than a Yemeni demand. The secessionists themselves have declared secession. So, why the talk about a new unity formula? They demand a new unity formula, while the secessionists have already declared secession. [16]

It followed from this that the issue should not be raised at the Security Council, because Article 2 of the United Nations Charter prevented UN intervention in a state’s domestic affairs. However, Iryani said he had heard that the move was based on Article 34, which gives the Security Council the right to “identify” conflicts which might lead to an international dispute. “Thus, the Security Council has the right to identify, but not to debate and decide. It must determine whether what is going on in Yemen is a source of threat to international peace and security.”

Despite these objections, the Security Council met on June 1 and – citing the words of Article 34, “that the continuance of the situation could endanger peace and security in the region” – unanimously adopted Resolution 924, calling for an immediate ceasefire [17]. Significantly, the resolution (which Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, was reported to have played an important role in drafting) avoided any direct endorsement of Yemeni unity [18]. Sana’a had hoped for specific references to Yemeni unity, territorial integrity and the legitimacy of the unionist government and was under the impression that France had persuaded Security Council members to include these phrases. But in the final text the only affirmation of Yemeni unity was a mention in the preamble of “the Republic of Yemen”. Placing the most optimistic interpretation on this, however, a northern official commented: “ ‘Republic of Yemen’ – that’s enough … There’s nothing dangerous in the resolution, nothing that endangers legitimacy and the unity of Yemen.” [19]

A few days later, however, foreign ministers of the Gulf Co-operation Council met in the Saudi town of Abha and issued a statement which implicitly recognised the separatist state. The six – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – referred to the “Democratic Republic of Yemen” by name, describing its creation as a fait accompli and calling for a return to the situation before 1990. The ministers also warned that continued hostilities would force the GCC states to adopt measures against “the party that does not abide by the ceasefire” [20]. Unusually, Qatar dissented and later issued a statement which criticised the GCC for failing to mention the legitimate name of the Yemeni Republic and for failing to note the importance of Yemeni unity, which had been established by consent and a public referendum [21].

While Saudi Arabia maintained that its only concern was to prevent the destabilisation of the region, many observers argued that the YSP leadership, given the smaller military forces under its command, would not have declared independence unless it had received assurances of support from its powerful neighbour. The government in Sana’a condemned the GCC statement and Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, the Minister of Planning, maintained that they had clear evidence that arms purchased with Saudi funds were being supplied to the south. 

By mid-June, five ceasefires had been called under various auspices but none had lasted more than a few hours. A United Nations envoy, al-Akhdar al-Ibrahimi [22] (a former foreign minister of Algeria), met northern and southern officials separately in Cairo but failed to find the means for enforcing a truce [23]. Both sides appeared to be making what, to the other, were impossible demands. The south called for United Nations monitoring and a withdrawal to positions before unification (i.e. re-establishment of the old frontier) [24] while the north proposed enforcement of a ceasefire by reviving the joint military commission that had failed to prevent the outbreak of war. The two sides were also at odds over the basis of any direct talks, with the southerners arguing that meetings should be considered as discussions between two governments while the north insisted on treating them as talks between parties in the pre-war coalition [25].

By this stage, Aden was facing regular artillery attacks from northern forces. Despite separatist claims of military success elsewhere, shorthand terms like “north-south conflict”, which might have been appropriate at the start, were no longer accurate. Territorially, the war had become little more than a rebellion, albeit a serious one, centred on Aden and the Hadrami port of Mukalla, 400 miles further east. Each turn in the diplomatic machinations, however, tended to intensify the conflict rather than ameliorate it. Although the south was plainly facing defeat, the continuing prospect of foreign support made it more determined to cling on, while the north sought to press home its advantage prior to each meeting. This created a spiral effect as by each flare-up in the conflict fuelled new diplomatic efforts, and vice versa. On June 24, as northern and southern ministers prepared for their first face-to-face meeting at the UN, northern forces launched their heaviest bombardment of Aden since the war began. This resulted in a stern warning from the American State Department. “We view these attacks as a clear violation of UN Security Council resolution 924,” a statement said. “Northern forces should cease their bombardment of Aden immediately, avoid ground action against the city and pull back their rocket launchers and artillery. Further military operations will require urgent Security Council consideration.” it added. Significantly, however, there was no indication, either in the written statement or in the subsequent press conference, of what kind of action the US was contemplating if the attacks continued [26].

Conditions in Aden had become especially grim. In the heat of summer, with piped water supplies virtually crippled by fighting, only intermittent electricity, and the population swollen by those taking refuge from surrounding areas, there were fears that rioting, caused by the fierce competition for scarce resources, could break out at any time. Although the heart of old city, set in a volcanic crater jutting out into the sea was considered virtually impregnable to attacking forces, the modern suburbs – as well as the oil refinery, airport and power station – sprawled beyond it over flat, relatively exposed land. The main sources of water lay many kilometres away, brought to the city via pipes and pumping stations which were almost impossible to protect. “Without outside help, the city could last until tomorrow or it could last three weeks. There are too many uncertainties to make an accurate judgement,” one businessman commented. “On the other hand, with outside intervention the city will survive.” [27]

Security checkpoints inside the city proliferated and there were reports of up to 300 suspected Islamist militants being placed in detention. Reported disturbances were relatively few, and those that did occur were attributed (rightly or wrongly) to Islamists rather than disaffected civilians or the undercover forces the north claimed to be using in the city. Early in June, men said to belong to the Islah party had fired machine guns in the air in the Shaykh ’Uthman suburb and fought a brief skirmish with soldiers who accused them of attempting an uprising. A few days later, a car bomb exploded in the central Ma’alla area – again followed by a brief battle with security forces [28].

As the Security Council prepared its second resolution on the war, both sides met at the UN in New York. Differences centred on the composition and nature of an international monitoring force. The south was seeking a team of 150 observers and, according al-Attas, its representative at the talks, “came nearly to an agreement” on the inclusion of a number of Arab, African and Asian countries, while Iryani, for the north, proposed the United States and France. The south insisted that they should go to Yemen under the United Nations flag but the north, which was prepared to accept a smaller observer force, did not want it to be under direct UN control – a view which the Americans, for their own reasons, appeared to support [29]. In this, the north’s hand was strengthened by the difficulty of imposing an observer force on Yemen. President Salih pointed out: “Neither the [UN] Charter nor the law allow the presence of observation without the consent of all parties. In Yemen, we, the Yemeni people, are the main party.” [30]

For some time the United States had been playing a quiet but pivotal role in the diplomatic activity surrounding the war, and ultimately this proved decisive. Since the start of the political crisis it had pursued what it saw as a balanced policy, seeking first to avert war and then to end it as quickly as possible. This, coupled with its reluctance to do anything that might harm its relationship with its principal regional ally, Saudi Arabia, had been interpreted at times as support for the south and may even have given the separatists some encouragement. Towards the end of the war, however, the United States swung firmly behind Yemeni unity.

This was not simply a case of the US hedging its bets until it knew which side was winning. Assuming that the Americans saw their primary interest as maintaining regional stability, then their policy was consistent throughout: at different times and in different ways they were seeking to minimise the international effects of the Yemeni conflict. If so, the prevalent view in the YSP, that the Americans initially favoured the south and separation was nothing more than an unfortunate misinterpretation. In 1990, the US clearly supported unification and, as Katz has pointed out, “Washington has taken a rather poor view of secession attempts ever since the American civil war” [31]. At the start of the war, American policy proceeded on the assumption (wrong, as it turned out) that fighting would inevitably produce a stalemate – hence the pressure for an immediate ceasefire. By late June, however, with the south facing military defeat, the swiftest and cleanest way of ending the war was to let it take its course, not to prolong it by intervening or recognising the south. A senior American official was quoted as saying, “We cautioned others on recognition, saying it wouldn’t be helpful in getting a resolution of the situation.” According to diplomatic sources, the United States and Britain warned Saudi Arabia and Gulf states that there would be no further Security Council action unless they postponed recognition of the south [32]. The Damascus Declaration states (Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Egypt and Syria) had been widely expected to move towards recognition at their next meeting on June 27-29. But the day before it was due to start, the meeting was suddenly postponed until early July, ostensibly “because Egyptian officials had scheduling problems”, though there was little doubt that the real reason was western pressure to avoid pre-empting Security Council action [33].

Security Council Resolution 931, passed unanimously on June 29, condemned the failure to halt the shelling of Aden but otherwise reiterated the main points of the previous resolution, though in stronger terms. It asked the Secretary-General to continue talks on a “mechanism”, preferably involving countries of the region, to monitor violations of a possible ceasefire but – crucially – provided neither the physical means nor the financial resources for monitoring it. The reason given by Madeleine Albright, the American ambassador at the UN, was the potential cost of monitoring [34], though there were probably other reasons, too. At the time, the United States was in the process of extricating itself from an unsuccessful peacekeeping operation in Somalia and was also under pressure to intervene in Rwanda. Intervention in Yemen would have made it more difficult to avoid similar action in Rwanda, where the risks of failure were considered extremely high.

There were also suggestions that the US had been angered by southern attacks on the American Hunt oil company’s installations at Ma’rib – allegedly in breach of a tacit agreement that neither side would target foreign investments [35]. There had been three attacks on Ma’rib. In the first, on June 6, two southern aircraft bombed a gas production field without damaging it but causing its temporary closure [36]. On June 21, four bombs were dropped near Asad al-Kamil, in the Ma’rib block, causing minor damage but, again, no casualties [37]. The third attack, on the day the Security Council met, was far more serious. It wrecked two water coolers at the central processing unit through which all Ma’rib oil had to pass – causing a shutdown of the entire field. The cost of the damage was estimated at $1 million [38]. It has been suggested (a) that the south hoped these attacks on American property would provoke the US into imposing a ceasefire and (b) that they had the reverse effect by angering the US to the extent that it finally decided to support unity. However, there is no firm evidence that they did either. The first two attacks on Ma’rib were relatively insignificant, and by the time of the third, Security Council Resolution 931 was already substantially drafted.

By far the most important consequence of Resolution 931 was that the UN washed its hands of the Yemeni war. It also sent a powerful signal from Washington to the GCC/Damascus Declaration states that the matter was now in their hands. “We look to these nations, and others, who might be interested,” Ambassador Albright said, “to offer on a voluntary basis the resources needed to implement a mechanism that would supervise a ceasefire in Yemen.” [39] Translated from diplomatic language, that amounted to telling the Gulf states to “put up or shut up”. It challenged them either to recognise the south and carry the risks of intervention themselves, or let the war take its course.

In referring the issue to the UN originally, the Gulf states had been seeking non-Arab support which would have helped to base intervention on humanitarian grounds rather than their own long-standing dislike of the Salih regime. For this reason they had tried to mobilise western and especially American support – only to have the issue thrown back to them, since the Americans rightly calculated that if left to their own devices the Gulf states would do nothing. The GCC was dominated by Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent, Kuwait. In general, where the Saudis led the others followed (with the exception, in this case, of Qatar). Both the Saudis and Kuwaitis were susceptible to American pressure because of the help they had received during the war with Iraq. Also, while they were prepared to give diplomatic and financial encouragement to the Yemeni separatists, they had no desire to become involved militarily (and by the end of June the position of the south was so dire than almost nothing short of military intervention, on a massive scale and over a long period, would have been needed to create a viable state). 

The Saudis were also unclear as to their real objectives. They had nothing in common with the YSP, which they had supported for purely tactical reasons in order to damage Yemen, and were now surprised by the turn the war had taken. Ideally, they would have liked the removal of President Salih or, failing that, partition. Since neither was in prospect, Salih had secretly proposed a settlement of the 60-year border dispute between the two countries in exchange for recognition of Yemeni unity – an offer the Saudis were said to be considering [40]. Meanwhile perceptions of the conflict’s effect on regional stability were changing. Originally the YSP had presented itself as a bastion of resistance to Islamic extremism – an argument which had been particularly well received in Egypt. Since then, Sana’a had begun to play the same card just as effectively. In private discussions northern leaders presented a scenario in which, if Yemen remained divided, Salih would be overthrown by fundamentalists who would then form an “Islamic axis” with Iran and Sudan [41].

Such considerations became increasingly relevant as the Damascus Declaration states prepared for what promised to be a crucial meeting on July 5. Developments in southern Yemen suggested this would be the last opportunity for action to save the separatist state which by then consisted of little more than the two ports of Aden and Mukalla, 400 miles apart. With Aden’s water and electricity cut off, Northern forces established inside the city boundary and reportedly in control of the airport, and the self-appointed “president” nowhere to be seen, by early July the Democratic Republic showed every sign of being on the brink of collapse. Nothing better illustrated the sorry state of the Southern leadership than its formation of a committee on 27 June to supervise the conversion of Aden’s brewery from the manufacture of beer to soft drinks. Given the intensity of the surrounding battle and the fact that the brewery had ceased to function two weeks earlier through lack of water, the move gave every appearance of fiddling while Rome burned [42].

On July 4, Sana’a television announced that Mukalla had fallen to government forces. Since the claim was emphatically denied by the southern leadership in Aden and came only a day before the Damascus Declaration states were due to meet, it was at first thought to be a northern propaganda ploy to confuse the meeting or further demoralise the people of Aden. In fact it was not. On July 2-3, a battle lasting more than 14 hours at Buroum, west of Mukalla, had left the city exposed. Residents, fearing destruction if resistance were offered, had persuaded the separatist leaders that their position was untenable and asked them to leave – which they did, taking tanks and Scud missiles with them along the road towards Oman [43]. Thus, Mukalla itself was taken without a fight and government forces moved east to Rayan airport, where they captured a number of southern military aircraft. 

This hastened the end of the war in several ways: it gave Sana’a control of the skies, also driving the remaining Scud missiles outside their useful range; it deprived the Democratic Republic of its main entry point for weapons and of potential oil revenue (since Mukalla was the main export terminal); it put paid to any idea of creating a state based around Hadramawt in the event that Aden succumbed to the siege; and it spread “fear, panic and confusion” in Aden [44]. Meanwhile, government forces entering the suburbs of Aden were followed by trucks carrying bread, water and qat for the population. Separatist troops pulled back from the city’s outer defences into the central Crater district, a natural citadel of volcanic rock. Witnesses described them filling sandbags at the road junction leading to Crater, while loudspeaker cars toured the almost deserted streets with the message: “Your city depends on you. Head to the positions of honour.” [45]

Meeting in Kuwait, the foreign ministers of the Damascus Declaration states seemed uncertain as to their response. As one diplomat put it, “The positions of the member states seem not to be fully crystallised” [46]. After the first day’s talks, the Kuwaiti foreign ministry under-secretary Suleiman al-Shaheen, said: “It is not possible in any way to hasten towards a recognition [of the Democratic Republic] now”, though he added that they might change their stance if fighting continued [47]. Another Arab diplomat was more emphatic: “Recognition of south Yemen is further away now than it was at the start of the meeting,” he said. In fact, recognition was not even discussed formally because Syria and Qatar had indicated that they opposed it. Instead, the ministers agreed on what were described as “broad issues” linked to two UN Security Council resolutions passed earlier in the war demanding an immediate ceasefire [48].

With the last hope of recognition gone, southern political sources disclosed that the United States was helping in negotiations to allow a peaceful surrender of Aden and safe passage abroad for the separatist leaders [49]. Despite Washington’s denial of involvement, on the night of July 6, al-Jifri and the rump of the Democratic Republic’s government left Aden under cover of darkness, by boat for Djibouti. A sure sign that the war had ended came next morning when the northern telephone system, which had been restricted for security reasons from the first day of the conflict, suddenly returned to normal [50]. The Saudis meanwhile, unable to believe that it was all over, held an emergency cabinet meeting in Jeddah, chaired by King Fahd, which denounced what it described as “the continued fighting” and called – yet again – for a ceasefire [51].

© Copyright Brian Whitaker 2009