The assassination of the governor of Aden this morning places a further huge question mark over the Gulf states' strategy in Yemen. Major-General Jaafar Mohammad Saad, who was appointed governor less than two months ago, died along with several others when his car was blown up as he travelled to work.
Saad's death came just a day after motorcycle gunmen killed a military intelligence official and a prominent judge in two separate attacks.
The significance of these killings is that they occurred in Aden – the first city to be "liberated" from the Houthis and forces loyal to ex-president Saleh. Aden is supposed to be the base for re-establishing a national government that can then be extended as the military campaign, led mainly by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, gains control over the rest of Yemen.
However, that is unlikely to happen unless a reasonable level of security can be restored in Aden. The ousted government presided over by Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi returned from exile in September and was briefly re-installed in Aden before fleeing under a renewed attack. Hadi returned again in mid-November.
Reports this morning say the Islamic State – an element unknown in the Yemen conflict until a few months ago – has claimed responsibility for killing Aden's governor. But IS is only one of the problems. Al-Qaeda remains active in the area and there's also the southern separatist movement to reckon with.
Elsewhere, the Saudi-Emirati military effort appears to have become bogged down – as many seasoned observers of Yemen expected it would. The aerial bombing campaign launched in March was supposed to drive the Houthi/Saleh forces into quick submission. It failed in that and its main effect has been to gravely exacerbate what was already a looming humanitarian disaster.
Despite that, media coverage in the Gulf is still hopelessly optimistic, though last week Brigadier Nasser Mushabab al-Otaibi, the Emirati officer leading the combined land force, seemed to be trying to lower expectations when he said it would take another month or two for the coalition to capture Taiz. (Taiz, though, is still about 160 miles from the capital, Sanaa, which remains in Houthi/Saleh hands).
On Saturday, the UN envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, arrived in Aden for discussions with Hadi about proposed peace talks. Even if talks do get under way it's difficult to see how they can bring anything more than a temporary respite.
One obstacle to a solution is that while the Saudis and Emiratis regard Hadi as the legitimate president his support within Yemen is limited and what measure of legitimacy he once had has now almost entirely evaporated. At the same time, though, there is no one else with an obviously superior claim to legitimacy.
Yemen is now a failed state and likely to remain so for years. The Saudis and Emiratis have no way of extricating themselves and, if anything, are likely to become more deeply embroiled. Military involvement aside, keeping the country on life support and containing the security threat within its borders looks set to become a major long-term drain on their financial resources.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 6 December 2015