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As Yemen's civil war grinds on, fears of a potential breakup

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Hani Mohammed/AP

(Read caption) Smoke rises after an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition in Sanaa, Yemen, Tuesda.. The coalition has been targeting the Iran-allied Houthis since March in a bid to stop their power grab across the country.

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UN-sponsored peace talks to end the Saudi-led, and US-supported, air campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen failed this week. Just like the last talks did. And there's a reason.

The people involved in the fighting weren't interested in stopping. Not the Houthi rebels, whom Saudi Arabia views as Iranian proxies. Not the secessionist Yemenis in the south of the country, who are questioning the wisdom of a united Yemen. And certainly not the Saudis, who can safely pound the country from a distance but don't seem to have any coherent strategy. 

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That is working out for Yemen much as you'd expect. That is, terribly.

The UN says at least 142 civilians have been killed in the country in the past 10 days, while the death toll since Saudi airstrikes began in late March now stands at more than 1,670. About 1.2 million Yemenis have been driven from their homes.

Saudi Arabia's political goal is to reinstate Yemen's exiled president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. He remains in exile in Riyadh and is no closer to taking power than he was when the bombs started falling. The northern-based Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement whose seizure of the capital Sanaa started the country's latest war, remain in control of their redoubts but little else.

Meanwhile, the civil war has proved fertile ground for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In the Hadramawt, the country's largest province, AQAP appears to be in control, though it's being challenged by supporters of the Islamic State. 

The war is also raising the question of whether Yemen should remain a unified country. 

Yemen was divided between north and south from 1967 to 1990. Though the south was nominally communist and the north nominally republican, political ideology wasn't as important as regional differences. Ali Abdullah Saleh ruled in the north until reunification, and then took control of a united Yemen. He was eventually pushed from power by popular protests that began in 2011. Saleh, a one-time Saudi client, then threw his lot in with the Houthis against Hadi, his Saudi-backed successor as president. And, crucially, he brought a significant portion of Yemen's army with him.

What precipitated the current crisis were fears among Houthis that a new constitution that would weaken their influence in the north and control over resources. In addition to religious and cultural differences, Yemen's regions have dramatically different political histories. South Yemen and its capital, Aden, was ruled by the British from 1832 until independence in 1967. North Yemen was an Ottoman possession until 1918, and was ruled as a Shiite monarchy until 1962.

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Secessionist sentiment is now running high in and around Aden, where the Houthis have been fighting local militias for control for months. On Tuesday, forces that say they're loyal to Hadi, backed by Saudi air support, retook Aden's airport from the Houthis. Some of the fighters against the Houthis in the south have been carrying the defunct flag of South Yemen.

And while the US is backing the Saudi air campaign, and continues to carry out assassinations against alleged AQAP leaders, US and Saudi objectives are exactly not the same. The Saudi monarchy is far less concerned about the country's Sunni militants than it is about the Houthis, which it views from the prism of regional rivalry with Iran. 

Bruce Reidel wrote about Saudi Arabia's priorities earlier this week.

Since the start of the Yemen war, the Royal Saudi Air Force and its coalition partners have not targeted AQAP's Hadramawt emirate. It has not been subjected at all to the bombing other Yemeni cities are enduring. As a consequence, Yemeni internally displaced persons have sought shelter and protection in Mukkalla (the largest city in Hadrawmawt). The port has also remained open for some traffic unlike ports controlled by the Zaydi Shia Houthi rebels.

Riyadh's apparent willingness to tolerate an al-Qaida stronghold on its southern border has raised conspiracy theories in Yemen that the Saudis implicitly at least welcome AQAP as an ally against the Zaydis. There are also longstanding suspicions that the Kingdom would like to annex Hadramawt to give it access to the Indian Ocean and a route for an oil pipeline to Mukkalla that would allow oil to reach the sea without transiting the Straits of Hormuz.

Meanwhile a united, and stable Yemen any time soon is looking less and less likely.