Ambassador Stephen A. Seche assesses the prospects for an end to the conflict in Yemen, in light of U.S.-Iranian tensions.
An early August attack on a military parade in Yemen’s interim capital of Aden that killed over 40 soldiers from the United Arab Emirates-trained Security Belt forces – including a prominent commander known as Abu Yamamah al-Yafaei – unleashed a deadly power struggle between forces loyal to ousted President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the secessionist Southern Transitional Council in the southern governorates of Aden, Shabwa, and Abyan.
Although the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels claimed the attack, leadership of the STC accused elements in the Hadi government of orchestrating the violent events to help benefit the Islah political party (which is loosely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood) and eliminate Southern leadership.
The rising tensions led to four days of Saudi-led mediation talks in Jeddah between the Hadi government and the STC, after which Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates issued a joint statement calling for an end to all military activity and stressing their continued support for the “legitimate” government of Yemen.
While the subject of regional states’ involvement in Yemen’s war – and their divergent objectives – deserve special attention, the issue of Southerners’ discontent and desire for autonomy merits close analysis in its own right. Assuming that the STC is simply a UAE client that will relinquish its cause if its funding is severed is a fundamental misconception that could lead to further failed policies in dealing with the South.
Civil War and the Islah Problem
The Southern desire for independence dates back to the 1994 war of secession, which lasted three months and killed between 5,000 and 7,000 people. For Northerners, the war closed the chapter on secession and solidified unity, but for Southerners, a sense of defeat and second-class citizenship ushered an era of “occupation” as the communities suffered from exploitation and systematic abuses by the state.
In the year following unification, there was a wave of assassinations of members of the Southern leadership of the Yemeni Socialist Party. The majority of the murders took place in the North and were not prosecuted, causing rifts between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Vice President Ali Salem al-Beidh and serving as a major instigator of the North-South split that led to the 1994 civil war. Immediately after the war, a sense of “us against them” overcame North-South dynamics and accentuated polarization and identity politics in Yemen.
According to the International Crisis Group, Saleh’s regime allowed members affiliated with the Islah Party certain transgressions following the war: “Immediately after the 1994 war, militants associated with Islah took part in the sacking of Aden and the desecration of Sufi shrines in Hadramawt.” As a result, the Islah Party was viewed as a larger threat to the Southerners than Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress, as it was perceived that Islah was created as a counterweight to the Yemeni Socialist Party that had ruled Yemen’s South prior to unification. After the 1994 civil war, Islah was largely rewarded by the state for its role in “winning” the war and given prime pieces of both public and private property in the South. According to Southerners, Saleh’s regime allowed Islah to control politics in Aden. Salafist wings of Islah established mosques and schools throughout the South, which many educated Southerners considered as an attempt to alter the region’s open traditions and Sufism, prevalent in Hadramout governorate.
Further, the regime tasked imams with making political messages incriminating secessionists. Imams passed rulings on exiled leaders of the South, and religiously incriminated, and intimidated, members of the Southern movement – Al Hirak al-Janoubi. Imams released religious rulings, or fatwas, describing Hirak members as heretics, and instigated violence against them. Islah scholars like Abdul Majid al-Zindani (who is on a U.S. global terror list) and Abdulwahab al-Daylami sanctioned killing Southerners for being “communists.”
Structural Violence and Suppression of Dissent
Adding to Southerners’ grievances was a sense of neglect as tens of thousands of Southern soldiers and civil servants were forced to retire following the 1994 conflict. Many employees of government agencies were discharged, which caused an economic crisis as the government did not provide other jobs. Furthermore, the collapse of local industries in the aftermath of the civil war and privatization of industrial lands by Northern elite are often cited by Southerners among the main drivers of an economic decline that was seen as a form of collective punishment against Southerners. The wide discontent associated with the Saleh policies led to loud calls from soldiers, officers, and civil servants who were laid off to either be reinstated or begin receiving pensions. These demands first sparked protests in 2006, which the state squashed violently. Gradually, these demands led to the establishment of the Hirak movement in 2007 and ultimately to calls for secession.
Hirak’s premise was that unification with the North was a failed project since its inception and unity was not based on democratic principles, but rather on greed and desires of the political elite to exploit the country. Despite its popularity and ability to mobilize a large number of people, Hirak had no real central leadership or clear hierarchy; nevertheless, state rhetoric made it clear that secessionists were a threat. Human Rights Watch reported that in 2008-09 “authorities arbitrarily arrested thousands of people for exercising their right to peaceful assembly, suspended independent media critical of government policies, and detained journalists and writers on spurious charges.” Furthermore, the Saleh regime rounded up scores of protesters, including children, and put some of the Southern leaders on trial on charges of “acting against national unity” and “encouraging secession.”
Independent southern-based media outlets were also under attack as the government blocked their websites, arrested journalists, and suspended publication of eight newspapers including the popular Al-Ayam. The state rhetoric accentuated polarization and heightened identity politics in Yemen’s culture. Southerners also harassed Northerners in their communities and some committed acts of violence, leading many Northerners who lived in Aden to close their businesses and move to their home communities in the North between 2011 and 2014.
There was an opportunity for real change and reconciliation after Saleh was ousted. However, Southerners were still unable to overcome the feeling of exploitation due to state neglect of public services, including the security sector. The National Dialogue Conference, which took place in Sanaa, was perceived as disconnected from reality and unable to capture the pulse of the Southern street, despite having a committee dedicated to dealing with the “Southern case.” While some participants of the conference claimed to be Hirak members, they were seen as pro-Hadi loyalists and had no grassroots support, “especially in solidly pro-separatist areas like Dalia and Lahj.”
The South after the 2011 Uprising and the Role of the United Arab Emirates
Many Yemenis and observers alike presumed that the consensus candidate for president chosen after Saleh’s ouster, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, would address the Southern need for political representation and dampen the calls for secession given that Hadi himself is from Abyan in Yemen’s South. However, many Southerners instead see Hadi as part of the problem as he sided with Saleh, served as his vice president, and is seen as having helped Saleh win the war against the South.
Nevertheless, after the Houthis seized Sanaa in 2014 and Hadi fled house arrest on February 21, 2015, he enjoyed a brief popularity in Aden that ended when he left for Saudi Arabia with members of his Cabinet before the Houthis attacked the city and seized the airport. The abrupt departure of Hadi left Southerners to defend their lands from an incursion by an alliance of Houthi and Saleh forces. Southern Hirak activists loosely organized to protect their cities from what they perceived as another “Northern invasion.” Discontent against both the Northern forces and Hadi renewed a sense of frustration and deepened mistrust of Northern communities. A dangerous perception in the South remains that all Northerners are Houthi sympathizers and will reconcile with the Houthis if it is seen in their best interest to do so.
Although Emirati special forces belonging to the Saudi-led coalition intervened and aided Southerners in reclaiming Aden and surrounding territory from the Houthis, many Southerners believed that liberation was possible because of their already existing local military capacities and rejection of Northern rule. Moreover, the UAE was able to find a reliable ally in Aden, as the informal Southern army shared the UAE’s objectives of resistance to the Houthis, countering terrorism in their communities, and rejecting the ideology of Islah.
The Southern Transitional Council – a group of Hirak members, Southern elites and activists, discharged military personnel, and labor union workers who support Southern autonomy started organizing in 2016 and was seen as a reincarnation of Hirak. The STC was supported by the UAE-backed Southern Security Belt forces and became a political power that threatened the interests of the Islah Party within the government. Although the STC is not representative of every Southern faction, it remains the region’s largest movement. Aden’s former governor, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, became the STC president, and a number of government officials affirmed their loyalty to the region rather than the state.
Moreover, the UAE-trained Giants Brigades, which played a large role in the coalition’s efforts to liberate the port city of Hodeidah from the Houthis in 2018, was entirely a Southern force. On August 26, 2019, the Giants Brigades openly declared support for the STC, asking Hadi to “listen to the STC because their demands are those of the Southerners.” They also criticized Islah’s role in its readiness to mobilize against Southern forces in Shabwa instead of fighting to liberate the North from the Houthis.
The recent clashes between Hadi government and STC forces following Abu Yamamah’s death, and the defeats that the STC has faced in the governorates of Shabwa and Abyan, underscore the complexity of the South. The Hadi government used an irregular army composed of Marib tribes, local forces from Shabwa and Abyan, and some militarized members of the Islah Party – some of whom are suspected of having dubious relations with extremist elements. The Security Belt forces, which have been confronting fighters from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, have often been suspicious of radical elements coming from the Northern cities of Marib and surrounding rural areas. According to recent analysis from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy: “AQAP now enjoys an urban sanctuary in Marib city and freedom of movement in the surrounding rural tribal areas.”
Opaque practices by the government in recruitment of its national army forces, and bringing what Southerners perceive as a Northern army with Islah militia members into the region raises the stakes for Southerners who feel that they are now at a point of no return. The situation was further complicated with the UAE’s airstrikes on August 29 on what it claimed to be “terrorist organizations” but the Hadi government claimed were members of the national army. Furthermore, the STC accused Islah members in the government of encouraging unarmed groups to create civil unrest in Aden, as mobs started vandalizing various residential neighborhoods. In a similar vein, abuses conducted by the STC on unarmed Northerners and prisoners of war, which have been condemned nationwide, reflect a high degree of mistrust and regionalism.
Neither the Hadi government nor Saudi Arabia are in a position to accept the STC and its demands. For the Saudis and Hadi, the STC’s push for independence could cause the coalition to lose the war to the Houthis because losing the South would weaken Hadi’s government, which would be left with small governorates to govern, and the fighting diverts resources and manpower away from what they perceive as the real threat. It also leaves the Saudis with an Iran-backed Houthi state at their border, which would increase the kingdom’s vulnerability. Saudi official sources and media have largely voiced support for the Hadi government as the only “legitimate” entity.
With the STC realizing that the Saudis are the main impediments toward the formation of their independent state, it provided assurances of supporting the Hadi government and the coalition in their fight against the Houthis. Ahmed al-Saleh, a Southern media activist, praised the Saudis for their leadership role as government supporters critiqued the Saudi silence on the UAE’s airstrikes and accused the UAE of complicity with the STC. The STC’s move to gain the Saudis’ attention and trust, while farfetched at the moment, could prove valuable in the future should the balance of power shift again in Yemen to the detriment of the unified state.
Many Southerners and STC loyalists believe that the UAE is helping their cause from a sympathetic position, often citing strong social bonds as a large number of Southerners migrated to the UAE in the 1970s, following the Marxist takeover in 1969, and became naturalized Emirati citizens. STC loyalists also believe that the Hadi government’s inefficacy and shifting alliances made it an unreliable partner for the UAE. These factors, although not a reason for backing the South, were able to facilitate greater trust and respect between the Southern communities and the UAE.
However, there are three more plausible reasons why the UAE has chosen to concentrate on the South, all of which stem from political and economic objectives that could help shore up the UAE’s power in the region. First, the UAE’s mistrust in the Hadi government stems from its incorporation of elements of Islah – whose ideology conflicts with that of the UAE. The UAE does not want to see Islah Party politics dominate in the South, as has occurred in areas of Jawf, Marib, and Taiz that were liberated from the Houthis. Second, the UAE has interests in the strategic port of Aden and sea lanes off the southern coast of Yemen, therefore its support for the Southerners stems from the hopes of having greater economic partnerships. Third, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE see Southerners as potent partners and fighting forces against the Houthis, AQAP, and ISIL.
For its part, the Hadi government does not want to see the UAE exert any influence on the South, which it perceives as an infringement of its rights and sovereignty. But for many Southerners, the UAE provides the international support needed if their cause is to advance. For this reason, the STC is seeking the support of Saudi Arabia and is in active talks with Russia.
Even if the UAE withdraws support, Southerners’ desire for autonomy is unlikely to disappear. Southerners have long-held grievances. Resolving the current Southern conflict requires the Hadi government and STC leadership to find another way forward, with regional and international powers backing a road map for de-escalation that would look at federalism as highlighted in Yemen’s National Dialogue process. The U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, needs to incorporate Southern voices into his current peacemaking efforts. Such mediation among the conflict’s actors are unlikely to build trust immediately, but finding a middle ground and initiating a more inclusive process would be a good place to start.
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