CAIRO — After five years of war, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, appeared to be inching away from his ruinous campaign in Yemen in recent weeks, seizing on the coronavirus pandemic to declare a unilateral cease-fire that, although ineffective, at least signaled that the prince finally agreed with critics who insisted the fight was unwinnable.
His fractious Yemeni allies, however, have other ideas.
A declaration of self-rule over the weekend by Yemen’s leading separatist group, which seized control of the southern port city of Aden and its Central Bank, threatens fresh chaos in the war-torn country.
It comes as the war’s main sponsors, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates, distracted by their own woes, turn away from the fight. That has left their Yemeni allies, previously united against the Iranian-supported Houthis who control the country’s north, to battle for supremacy.
It could hardly come at a worse time.
International funding for humanitarian aid to the famine-threatened country has plunged this year and regional players are distracted by the pandemic. Aid workers are scrambling to bolster Yemen’s shattered health system against a potentially devastating outbreak of Covid-19.
Although just one case has been declared in Yemen, involving a 60-year-old port worker, there is a “very real possibility” of many more undetected infections, the United Nations office in Yemen said in a statement Tuesday. It warned that a funding shortfall would hamper efforts to combat the virus.
“This increases the likelihood of a surge of cases which may quickly overwhelm health capacities,” the statement said.
The self-rule declaration by the separatist group, the Southern Transitional Council, raises the specter of renewed clashes inside the coalition assembled by Prince Mohammed in 2015 in an effort to oust the Houthi rebels from the Yemeni capital, Sana.
The council, based in Aden, is at odds with its nominal ally, President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who leads Yemen’s weak, internationally recognized government. Its forces are based in two provinces adjoining Aden.
The factions have clashed sporadically for over two years. The feud descended into open warfare last August after the United Arab Emirates withdrew most of its forces from southern Yemen, apparently weary of the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis, leaving behind a power vacuum.
After clashes that killed 40 people, Saudi Arabia deployed troops to Aden and, in November, brokered a peace deal between the southern separatists and Mr. Hadi that was signed in Riyadh.
That deal collapsed on Saturday, when separatist fighters surged through the streets of Aden, seizing control of government offices and waving the flag of South Yemen, a Communist country that existed from 1967 to 1990.
On Monday the Saudi-led coalition pleaded with the separatists to reverse the self-rule declaration, which it called an “an escalatory action,” in a call that was backed by the United Arab Emirates, which has traditionally funded and armed the separatists.
The United Nations envoy, Martin Griffiths, joined the calls for a de-escalation. “The latest turn of events is disappointing, especially as the city of Aden and other areas in the south have yet to recover from flooding and are facing the risk of Covid-19,” Mr. Griffiths said in a statement.
But Nizar Haytham, a spokesman for the Southern Transitional Council, insisted the group would not back down. “The southerners have the right to govern themselves and manage their revenues,” he said by phone on Tuesday.
Flash floods in Aden last week submerged homes in water and mud, and killed at least 14 people, prompting a wave of public fury over corruption and mismanagement that prompted the separatists to move against Mr. Hadi. But more prosaic factors also lie behind the upheaval.
Since January, the Emirates has stopped paying salaries of about $400 to $530 a month to separatist fighters in Aden, a senior council official said. The Saudis refused to make up the shortfall, stirring anger in the ranks.
Yet the Emiratis continued to pay salaries to Yemeni fighters in other parts of the south, like Hadramout and Shabwa, where their special forces units are deployed on missions to hunt Islamist militants, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid public criticism of Saudi Arabia.
The war-within-a-war adds yet another dimension to the chaos of Yemen, where years of foreign meddling have inflamed longstanding Yemeni rivalries and power struggles. Analysts say that any violent clashes between the two sides are likely to erupt in Abyan governorate, which lies between their forces.
At the same time, the leaders of those groups are based in neighboring countries. Aidarous al-Zubaidi, who heads the Southern Transitional Council, lives in Abu Dhabi, while President Hadi is in Saudi Arabia.
The southern schism plays into the hands of the Iran-supported Houthis, whose forces have pushed aggressively into oil-rich Marib Province in recent weeks.
Prince Mohammed tried to slow that advance by declaring a unilateral, two-week cease-fire on April 9. That was later extended for the duration of the holy month of Ramadan, which started last weekend. But fighting has continued, with the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis accusing each other of breaches.
Prince Mohammed’s appetite for the war in Yemen appears to have waned in the past year, amid global condemnation of Saudi military tactics that killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes. Plunging oil prices in recent weeks have significantly raised the financial strain of the war for the kingdom.
A series of talks between Saudi and Houthi officials aimed at ending the war have made little progress, Mahdi al-Mashat, the president of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, told a Yemeni newspaper on Saturday.
But it is unclear how much control the Saudis or Emiratis exert over their Yemeni proxies. When the Emiratis drew down their forces last year, said Peter Salisbury of the International Crisis Group, they signaled they were no longer willing “to keep a lid on things.”
The latest flare-up, Mr. Salisbury said, “is about a Yemeni-Yemeni rivalry with regional overtones that are not very clear.”
The Yemeni port worker who caught the coronavirus has since recovered. But health workers say they failed to track down “patient zero,” the person who brought the infection to Yemen, and they fear that even a mild surge in cases would quickly overwhelm the country’s dilapidated health system.
“Now, more than ever, all political actors must cooperate in good faith, refrain from taking escalatory actions, and put the interests of Yemenis first,” said Mr. Griffiths, the United Nations envoy.
So far, though, there is little evidence of such enlightened thinking among the conflict’s myriad protagonists.
Saeed Al-Batati contributed reporting from Al Mukalla, Yemen.