A house divided: The battle for Yemen's south

A house divided: The battle for Yemen's south
A bid by separatists to assert control over southern Yemen has pushed the country closer to fragmentation.
8 min read
21 May, 2020
The STC has declared self-rule in southern Yemen. [Getty]
The recent declaration of self-rule by the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Yemen's south, and its decision to stop cooperation with the Yemeni government, risk renewed conflict between two nominal allies of the Saudi-led coalition against Houthi rebels in the north. 

Following the announcement, STC forces seized all temporary government offices and buildings in Aden - the government's temporary headquarters since 2015, after Houthi rebels captured the Yemeni capital Sanaa.

The STC's decision comes six months after the signing of a Saudi-brokered agreement aimed at ending the power struggle in southern Yemen between the internationally-recognised government and separatist STC movement, and unifying them against Houthi rebels.

The decision by the separatists thus represents a serious blow to Saudi efforts to consolidate its coalition, as well as to the UN-designed plan for a nationwide ceasefire as part of preventive measures taken to battle the Covid-19 pandemic.

Reasons for 'self-rule'

The STC has been demanding greater autonomy, a greater role in peace talks and inclusion in political negotiations. It has also accused the Saudi-backed Hadi government of corruption and mismanagement of the country's finances, with reports the government has been refusing to pay salaries to public sector officials. 

The STC's declaration comes six months after the signing of a Saudi-brokered agreement aimed at ending the power struggle in southern Yemen

Susanne Dahlgren, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and lecturer at Finland-based Tampere University, sees the STC's decision as a logical move resulting from the Hadi government's lack of interest in implementing the Riyadh Agreement and a response to the actions of the Vice President Ali Muhsin and his Islah fighters' military attacks to conquer southern territories.

Anne-Linda Amira Augustin, a political advisor to the Foreign Representation of the STC at the European Union, explained that the STC declared a state of emergency and self-administration to protect civilians and restore and manage state facilities and institutions. 

"It became necessary to ensure the protection and administration of the South, which was subjected to wilful neglect, mismanagement, and collective punishment by the government," she told The New Arab.

Read more: The death of journalism in Yemen's war

The situation became more acute after the 21 April deadly flash floods that devastated Aden, in addition to the threat posed by the Covid-19. Many believe these crises were the spark for the declaration of self-rule 

However, Gerald Feierstein, Senior Vice President of the Middle East Institute and former US ambassador to Yemen, pointed out that the STC was heavily criticised by many residents of Aden for their failure to deal adequately with the consequences of the heavy flooding.

In his view "the announcement may have been intended, at least in part, to shift attention away from their own shortcomings and refocus it on the Hadi government."  

The STC leadership may also believe that "increasing their distance from the Hadi government will strengthen their ability to secure a separate seat at the negotiating table should the UN succeed in restarting peace talks to end the conflict," he told The New Arab.  

Divided south

Meanwhile, officials in three southern provinces - Shabwa, Hadhramaut and Socotra - rejected the self-rule declaration, which may suggest that the STC does not enjoy full support among all southerners. Feierstein observes that the south is divided and the STC does not enjoy strong support in the southeast, especially in Hadramawt region and Al-Mahra - a remote governate in eastern Yemen, where there are other southern movements. 

The STC leadership may believe that distancing themselves from the Hadi government will help secure a separate seat at the negotiating table should the UN succeed in restarting peace talks

According to him, these governorates have been clear that they do not support the STC proposal of re-establishing pre-1990 South Yemen. However, Dahlgren noted that governors of these governates were nominated by Hadi, so their objection to STC "self-rule" should not come as a surprise.

Moreover, the STC, according to Augustin, received positive responses coming from different tribes, civil society actors but also from other southern stakeholders outside the STC, including those from Shabwa and Hadramaut, whose residents publicly expressed their support to the STC on the streets.

While it is difficult to predict how the situation will develop in the future, there are fears of renewed conflict between the two rivals in the south. Hadi's government officials, for example, already expressed their preparedness to engage in Aden by force. The STC's announcement, on the other hand, may serve as casus belli for launching a new offensive on STC-controlled territories. The separatists have also made clear that it is ready to respond to any attack and even seize new territories.

Although a full-scale conflict is not very likely at the moment, such a possibility - as a redux of the events of the 1967 independence struggle - should not be ruled out, according to Dahlgren's research paper.  

Read more: Saudi Arabia's faltering divide and rule strategy in Yemen

Feierstein also does not believe that a resumption of an all-out conflict will take place between the STC and Hadi's government while the conflict continues with the Houthis, although low-level fighting continues.  "Much of the manoeuvring now is related to possible steps the sides may take in a post-conflict scenario," he added.

Fate of the Riyadh Agreement  

The ongoing tensions between the STC and Hadi's government greatly jeopardise the fate of the Riyadh power-sharing agreement from last November, which aimed to prevent civil war in the South by forming a more inclusive government and placing all forces under state control.  

The deal proposed a new government composed of equal numbers of southerners and northerners, as well as a withdrawal of forces and the return of all government buildings the STC had seized, but the agreement has hardly been implemented, as both sides blamed each other for not complying.

According to Feierstein, the agreement isn't formally dead but, like many agreements in Yemen, the parties signed it without committing to its implementation. As a political advisor of the STC, Augustin said that "the STC is open for talks that take into account the realities on the ground. It has to be seen if the other side is also open for talks without any preconditions."

Ongoing tensions between the STC and Hadi's government jeopardise the fate of the Riyadh power-sharing agreement

Riyadh would naturally want to preserve the anti-Houthi coalition, but it is uncertain quite how much leverage, space and influence it has over feuding sides, which both increasingly mistrust the Saudis and doubt the Kingdom's ability to monitor the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement. The agreement also opened Aden to Saudi troops, which has been hard to swallow for the majority of Adenis.  

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), unlike Saudi Arabia, has so far backed the STC, so the move has the potential to create tensions between two close Gulf allies against one another.  

But despite their different agendas from the start of the war in Yemen, and the fact that they are backing opposing sides, Feierstein said that the Emiratis have never openly challenged Saudi policy on Yemen and they recognise that the Saudis have far more at stake in Yemen than they do. Thus, each time that Saudi Arabia has asserted its priorities in Yemen, the UAE has fallen in line. 

Read more: Yemen in Focus: Dozens dying each day in coronavirus
'infested' Aden

Nevertheless, many analysts are convinced that the best power broker to save the agreement and prevent the escalation of the conflict is the UAE.

Although the UAE pulled out from Yemen last August, they still possess enough influence, especially over the STC, to convince them not to go too far and to continue to negotiate with Hadi's government. It is estimated that the STC could not survive without Abu Dhabi's support in the long run. 

Feierstein believes that it's likely that the UAE will counsel the STC to avoid taking irreversible steps to break with the Hadi government as they have in the past. But in Augustin's opinion, the STC won't back off from the declaration of self-administration. "The STC has to deliver now and the people in the South expect support and help from the STC," she added.

On the other hand, it would be interesting to see how the UAE intends to approach Hadi, given the UAE's (as well as the STC's) deep disapproval of Muslim Brotherhood elements among Hadi's camp.  

What comes next?

It is important to clarify that the STC declared self-administration and not independence, despite its secessionist agenda. Dahlgren explained that the STC took over supervising administration on the "national" level (the southern governorates), cooperating on the governorate with the current administration.

Regional powers such as the Saudis and UAE have evidently bitten off more than they can chew when dealing with southern Yemen's conundrum

The decision was made after the Hadi regime proved that it is completely unable to provide basic services to southern citizens while being often accused of corruption and embezzlement of funds. According to her, the Hadi regime simply "lacks authority among southern civil servants and the capacity to implement whatever is needed to do."

The grievances and arguments of these groups, including the ones of the STC, have not been properly defined. Augustin also criticised the absence of international guarantees to clearly address the legitimate concerns of the south in all Yemen's related UN resolutions and international consultations since 2012. 

The complexity of Yemen's problems and a lack of progress in responding to the crisis also indicate that any meaningful solution requires a decisive engagement and a big push from international actors such as the UN and others, as regional powers such as the Saudis and UAE have evidently bitten off more than they can chew when dealing with southern Yemen's conundrum.   

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence