Fighting in the south between separatists and government forces points to why peace is even more elusive

Every soldier in the Yemeni city of Aden is on edge. The main checkpoint on the coastal road has two large holes in the roof from mortar shells and the beach has been dug up into berms to slow the advance of any hostile vehicles.

The problem is that the 25 men milling around their posts are not sure what their enemy looks like. In the recent fighting which saw the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) eject from the city troops loyal to the exiled Yemeni president their former allies al-Qaida took advantage of the chaos, putting on STC uniforms to ambush the soldiers here.

STC
STC forces at a checkpoint controlling an entrance to the port city of Aden, on 8 September, 2019. Photograph: Achilleas Zavallis for The Guardian

They raided every checkpoint up to this one, said Munier al-Atifeh, 42, an STC soldier. Terrorists, Islah [the Islamist bloc of the Yemeni government], what does it matter? They all want the same thing, which is to keep the south weak.

More than four years in, Yemens conflict is now actually three wars in one: a fight between the Iran-backed northern Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition of Arab nations; a fight between both those parties and extremist elements such as al-Qaida and Islamic State; and belatedly, a fight between the STC, which wants a return to independence for south Yemen, and its former Yemeni government allies.

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The ruins of a mosque that was bombed in 2015 during clashes with Houthi forces for control of the port city of Aden, seen on 9 September, 2019. Photograph: Achilleas Zavallis for The Guardian

The Guardian was invited by the STC to see the situation on the ground in Aden. What we found was a complicated tangle of separatist militias and politicians trying to consolidate control in a situation where alliances that may still exist on paper do not mean anything in reality. A situation that will make it even harder to bring an end to a war which has already killed an estimated 100,000 people and sparked the worlds worst humanitarian crisis.

After simmering hostility for years, the southerners and the government of the president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi came to blows thanks to the Houthis: a devastating drone and missile attack on a military parade in Aden last month killed more than 30 STC soldiers, including an important senior commander, Munir Mahmoud, known as Abu al-Yamama.

Southerners accused the Hadi government of disregarding the threat posed to southern forces by the Houthis by failing to share intelligence. Demonstrations and four days of intense fighting followed, killing dozens and driving men loyal to Hadi out of Adens presidential palace, military bases and airport.

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Members of the STC (Southern Transitional Council) forces seen at a security checkpoint in the port city of Aden, on 16 September, 2019. Photograph: Achilleas Zavallis/Achilleas Zavallis for The Guardian

The fighting also called the stability of the Saudi-led coalition into question after the reaction of the United Arab Emirates, its second-biggest member. When Hadis Saudi-backed troops tried to launch a counterattack on 29 August, the UAE, which funds and arms the STC, launched airstrikes against them, killing about 40 soldiers and civilians.

Aden has been the interim internationally-recognised capital of Yemen since the Houthis forced Hadi to leave Sanaa in 2015, but in this new chapter of the war, the Yemeni government no longer has a presence there. The UAE strikes were condemned by Yemens information minister, Moammar al-Eryani, as a treacherous attack.

The port city of Aden is nestled in the natural harbour formed by the crater of a dormant volcano. Jagged mountains surround it, curled around the city like a sleeping dragon. The ocean blue of the STC flag, usually twinned with that of the UAE, is unmissable.

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A young boy plays in the sea as fishermen unload fish they caught earlier, at a fish market in the port city of Aden, on 8 September, 2019. Photograph: Achilleas Zavallis for The Guardian

Many southerners say they were not happy with the creation of modern Yemen in 1994 and that the national government has consistently marginalised them.

Hadi, who became president in 2012 after Yemens longtime autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh was deposed in the Arab spring, is seen as weak for his failure to stop al-Qaida from terrorising the south before help arrived from the UAE.

Adenis are proud of their distinct and cosmopolitan history: African, Chinese, Indian and Persian traders have all left their mark on the port city, as well as the Portuguese, Ottomans and the British, for whom there is a particular nostalgic fondness.

The golden days, however, are long gone. STC officials point out trappings of the British Empire, such as the only churches on the Arabian peninsula and a gate on the corniche built for the Queens visit in 1954, but they are all pockmarked with bullet holes and other damage from the war.

Adens luxurious beachfront hotels became the frontline in the battle to drive the Houthis out of the city in 2015. They tower above the sea, roofs caved in and their insides burnt out.

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Fadhel Mohammed al-Gade, member of the Southern Security Council, during an interview in his office, in the port city of Aden Photograph: Achilleas Zavallis for The Guardian

We have a difficult job to rebuild and make sure Aden is safe but we are ready to do so, said Fadhel al-Gade, assistant secretary-general of the STCs presidential council. We are doing this for ourselves since others wont.

The STC may want independence but it is heavily reliant on its UAE patrons: one well-connected source in the city said the Emiratis came to the rescue with the airstrike against Hadis troops because the STC does not have the numbers to fight them off alone.

The UAEs aim in Yemen as well as elsewhere in the region is to curb the power of political Islamist groups such as Yemens Islah, which it sees as a threat, and to gain control of the crucial Bab el-Mandeb strait which connects the Red Sea to the gulf of Aden one of the worlds most important oil shipping channels. A protectorate of sorts in south Yemen fits both bills.

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The remains of beachfront hotels in the port city of Aden on 8 September, 2019. Photograph: Achilleas Zavallis for The Guardian

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Two young boys selling balloons in the streets of Aden, on 8 September, 2019. Photograph: Achilleas Zavallis for The Guardian

While the UAE announced it would withdraw the majority of its troops from the country in July, it still retains most of its sway on the ground through the STC and allied militias.

Southern Yemen

Maj Gen Ahmed Saeed bin Buraik said the UAEs support in both the fight against the Houthis and Sunni extremists was welcome. As a former ruler of Hadramawt governorate, he was instrumental in driving al-Qaida out of the city of Mukalla before the STC was formed in 2017. We won the support and trust of our friends in the UAE by making Yemen safer, he said. This is an equal partnership in every sense.

The STC has strong local support in Aden and the surrounding Lahij, Abyan and Dhale governorates. It is very unlikey Hadi will try to retake the city again. In the rest of the south, however, the STCs influence is not as strong, and a delicate negotiation must be struck with Hadi over central bank resources and maintaining government services: civil servants in Aden have not been paid their salaries for the past month.

I dont care who is in control, said Umm Khaled Abdul Rahman, 43, as she shopped for supplies for the new school year with her twin daughters in the Krater district market. I just need to be able to feed my family and the electricity to stay on for more than a few hours. That hasnt happened in years.

Hadi, in turn, needs the STC to continue allowing his government to access Adens airport. De-escalation talks in the Saudi city of Jeddah in the past few weeks have concentrated on the need for the STC, Hadi and Islah to continue cooperating in the fight against the Houthis on several different fronts and giving space to STC voices inside the government.

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Sultan al-Aradah, Governor of Marib, pictured at his office in Marib, Yemen on 3 September, 2019. Photograph: Achilleas Zavallis for The Guardian/The Guardian

Hadi and Islahs seat of power is in the process of shifting to the dusty central city of Marib, which is rich in oil and gas reserves. In the past few years, Maribs governor, Sultan al-Aradah, has succeeded in turning Marib into a wild west-style boom town where displaced people from elsewhere in the country have found relative safety. On a brief visit en route to Aden, Aradah told the Guardian he believed a peaceful solution could be found to the new schism.

What happens next depends on whether the STC will try to shore up its position outside the city of Aden: most observers fear more clashes in Abyan province, the midpoint between Aden and government-loyal Shabwa.

The only certainty in the war-within-a-war is that more fighting will bring more civilian suffering.

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