A Renewed Southern Push for Autonomy Risks Deepening Yemen's Woes

6 MINS READAug 14, 2019 | 09:30 GMT
A member of the southern separatist movement rides an armored military vehicle in Aden, Yemen, on Aug. 11, 2019.
(NABIL HASAN/AFP/Getty Images)

A Saudi-led coalition launched a strike against Yemen's southern separatists after they seized the presidential palace in Aden in deadly fighting that threatened to push the war-ravaged nation deeper into turmoil.

  • Southern separatists are flexing their military muscles to push for the political concession they've been after for years: a legitimate, equal role in the next Yemeni government that grants them a path toward greater autonomy.
  • As the anti-Houthi conflict in the country grinds on, the southern movement's role within the war has shrunk over time, prompting it to focus on accelerating its sovereignty demands.
  • Transnational jihadist militants active in Yemen will work to take advantage of a partial Emirati withdrawal, infighting among southern factions and north-south tension.

While it may have taken a back seat to the Saudi-led fight against the Houthi tribe opposing the government of President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi, Yemen's long-simmering north-south divide has never quite faded into the background. On Aug. 10, that conflict came to the fore once again following a move by the separatist government under the Southern Transitional Council (STC), ostensibly a partner with Hadi in the Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition, to forcibly take control of the presidential palace and two military bases in the strategic southern port city of Aden from Hadi's forces. While frequent skirmishes between the southerners and the recognized Yemeni government have erupted during the past few years of the anti-Houthi operations, this latest incident stands out for what it signals for Yemen's future.

The Big Picture

The civil conflict in Yemen is a brutal contest for political and economic dominance between local Yemeni actors. Deep involvement by the Arab Gulf states of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran has transformed an already violent war into a proxy theater for geopolitical dominance. As the loose Yemeni government coalition that formed to fight the Houthi rebels threatens to fracture further, another conflict within the conflict threatens to unfold.

Since its formation in 2016 out of components of the southern movement, the STC has long controlled large portions of southern Yemen, including Aden. And until its moves in Aden, it had, for the most part, allowed the Hadi government to retain a foothold in the city that technically functions as its capital. In the aftermath of the move to kick out Hadi's forces, STC leader Aiderous al-Zubaidi asserted the southern government's enduring commitment to the anti-Houthi cause, while adding the claim that the STC had been forced into its actions to defend itself from the Hadi government, which it blames for instigating an Aug. 1 Houthi attack on STC forces. In doing so, the southern separatists are trying to demonstrate their military and political hold over their territorial stronghold to demand the place in U.N.-backed negotiations with the Houthis that they feel has long been denied them. By remaining a partner in the anti-Houthi cause, the STC is trying to convince the Hadi government, as well as coalition partners Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that while it is willing to defer its fight for greater autonomy in service of the broader cause against the Houthis, its cooperation would come at the price of a guarantee of greater power in the south and a greater share of overall political power in Yemen's governing structure.

One of the STC's chief grievances centers around being shut out of peace negotiations between the Houthis and the Hadi government. At several previous rounds of talks, the STC has functioned only as a component of the Hadi government. After all, gaining a seat at the table would bolster the STC's push for increased southern autonomy after the anti-Houthi conflict wanes. But with that conflict showing signs of a growing stalemate, the southern separatists likely feel as if the time to act to gain political traction is now, although their move is increasing the risk of further instability in Yemen. The faltering cease-fire in al-Hudaydah shows the extent to which neither side in the conflict is willing to budge. As the war grinds on, the Houthis, buoyed by support from Iran, have shown a marked improvement in their offensive capabilities, as evidenced by their continuing drone and missile attacks on targets in southwestern Saudi Arabia. Their growing military abilities have allowed them to stand toe-to-toe on the front lines of their battles with the Saudi-led coalition and even gain control over large swaths of territory in the north. A case in point could be seen in fighting in the Dhale governorate of central Yemen that resulted in the town of Qataba frequently switching hands between both sides.

And now, by removing the presence of the Hadi government in Aden, the STC has dealt a blow to its influence in the south. That, coupled with the Houthis' ability to capture and hold significant chunks of the north, weakens the government's claim to sovereignty over the country at large. But that's not the only trouble spot for Yemeni stability. Although the STC, formed in 2016 from components of the Hirak movement, is intensifying its press for more autonomy for the south, there is a risk that over time that the leaders of its constituent factions who don't agree with the strategy will split away. A divide among the factions could lead to weaker southern stability.

Discord among the anti-Houthi coalition partners and the southern factions of the STC risks feeding further into the proliferation of transnational jihadist groups in Yemen, including the Islamic State and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Even though the Islamic State has directed more attention to Hadi government targets in recent weeks, any infighting among the STC — or among the elements of the Yemeni government coalition — could give it space to expand its presence in the country.

Discord among the anti-Houthi coalition partners and the southern factions of the STC risks feeding further into the proliferation of transnational jihadist groups in Yemen.

The struggles between the STC and the Hadi government also illustrate the limits of the abilities of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to control events on the ground in Yemen. Although the Saudis and Emiratis have been able to smooth the differences between the STC and the Hadi government in the past, neither are stepping in as firmly to the most recent situation. The United Arab Emirates, which over time had forged economic and political links in southern Yemen, has remained a strong backer of the STC. Both share a reluctance of working with militants and politicians affiliated with Islah (or Muslim Brotherhood). The STC has specifically blamed the Hadi government for using African mercenaries and Islah-linked militants to fight the Houthis in the south. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is more comfortable with that arrangement.

Now, with the Emiratis seeking to withdraw from the fight against the Houthis, a key question arises about the extent of the Emirati hand guiding the STC in its efforts to obtain greater autonomy. Although the United Arab Emirates does not want to foment another war within a war, it backs STC claims for more southern sovereignty and thus might be tacitly allowing the STC to create headaches for the Hadi government.

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