North Yemen tightens the noose on Aden

North Yemen tightens the noose on Aden

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International,24 June 1994

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 hairdressers.

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.