Clashes erupted over the weekend between the internationally recognized government of Yemen and separatists in the country's south, threatening to complicate an already-complex skein of alliances — and exacerbate the bloody conflict that has raged for years between them.
This weekend's bloodshed broke out Sunday in the southern port city of Aden, where forces loyal to the separatist Southern Transitional Council traded gunfire with loyalists of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The scattered fighting has claimed at least 12 lives and injured scores more.
The two sides had shared an uneasy alliance since 2014, when they were united in their opposition to the Houthi rebels who seized cities in the country's northwest, including the capital, Sanaa. Together, the STC and Hadi's forces managed to repel the Houthis from Yemen's southern governates and Aden, the large city where Hadi's government had presided since its ouster from the capital.
Now, that fragile pact appears to have shattered, as well.
The Associated Press reports Ahmed Obeid bin Daghir, prime minister in Hadi's government, described the violence Sunday as a "coup" — while STC senior official Ahmed Said Ben Brik cast his fellow separatists as reluctant warriors who broke out their weapons only when pressed.
"They forced us into military uniforms even though we said we are peaceful," he tweeted Sunday." But we are ready."
As Reuters notes, the fighting follows the expiration of a deadline set last week by the southern separatists. Irate at what they call corruption and the deep erosion of public services in the areas still governed by Hadi, the STC had delivered him an ultimatum: shake up the cabinet and sack bin Daghir or face ouster. That deadline came and went without sign that Hadi had any intention of complying.
There's a history here
The new fault that has opened between Hadi and his erstwhile allies in the STC adds another dimension to a war already packed with a dizzying array of players — and a long, tortuous history dating back at least to 1990. That's when South Yemen, a formerly independent state with Aden for its capital, agreed to unification with its northern counterpart. The union has never quite been an easy one, strained by a 1994 civil war and more recently, calls for greater autonomy in the south.
Add to that latent friction the bloodshed of recent years, which has seen Yemen's internal conflicts take on the character of a proxy war among competing powers in the Gulf region. The Houthis, a Shiite group based in the northwest, have been backed by Iran, while Saudi Arabia has led a coalition conducting an air campaign since 2015 supporting Hadi and his Sunni allies.
Yet, as the recent violence in Aden makes clear, even that complex set of alliances threatens to deteriorate into still greater complexity, for even the Saudi-led coalition is no monolith. Though Saudi Arabia supports Hadi, Al-Jazeera reports that one of the Saudis' principal coalition members, the United Arab Emirates, "has focused much more on southern Yemen than the northern areas."
That's because "the UAE's military and economic interests lie in the strategic location of Aden and its port near the Bab al-Mandab Strait," the Qatar-based broadcaster notes. And that has led the UAE to focus its support on the southern separatists — a fact that threatens a rift of its own between coalition members.
"The Saudis believe any talk of secession will delegitimise the war effort, which they have repeatedly claimed is about restoring the government of President Hadi. Meanwhile, the Emiratis don't want to see any party close to Hadi and Islah anywhere near power," Maysa Shuja al-Deen, a non-resident fellow at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, tells Al-Jazeera.
"The coalition is divided and no longer knows what they want."
The civilian cost
And all the while, Yemeni civilians have been caught between the competing factions. As infrastructure has crumbled in recent years, disease has found fertile ground in the wartorn country: Suspected cases of cholera crested one million last month, diphtheria has taken hold, as well — and the United Nations says 17 million people, or a staggering 60 percent of the Yemen's population, "are affected by acute hunger."
All of these threads have woven together to create what major international aid groups call the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
Meanwhile, Oxfam, an international aid agency fighting poverty, says the renewed fighting in Aden and nearby regions has disrupted the group's work.
"With shells landing 500 meters away, we had no choice but to temporarily close our office in Hoban, Taiz. We are ready to resume our work providing much needed aid to Yemenis as soon as we can ensure the safety of our staff," Shane Stevenson, Oxfam's country director in Yemen, said in a statement Monday.
"The situation is dire and we call on all sides to protect civilians and spare them further death and misery," he added. "A cease-fire is urgently needed to protect lives and to allow humanitarian assistance to reach people in need."