Southern Yemen Inches Toward Independence. But at What Cost?

7 MINS READNov 5, 2019 | 17:19 GMT
Armed men gather to protest against the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.

Armed Yemenis gather on Sept. 17, 2019 in the country’s nominative capital of Sanaa, which remains under Houthi control, to show their support of the rebel cause.

  • The most recent battle for Aden will give the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) more political influence to pursue its goal of southern independence.
  • This will continue to fuel conflict with the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, straining Riyadh and Abu Dhabi's alliance in Yemen in the process (even as their partnership in other theaters remains intact). 
  • The fighting will also grant Houthis and jihadist groups a chance to make limited gains elsewhere in the country, as the Saudi-led coalition focuses on keeping the STC from gaining more ground in the south.  
  • Such security risks may ultimately prompt the two sides to shelve their current battle, though the southern separatists will still likely use their gains to demand greater autonomy in Yemen's future. 

Editor's Note: A power-sharing agreement signed Nov. 5 between the government of Yemeni President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council marks an end to their current split while advancing the separatist southern group's ambitions of national political legitimacy. However, as this assessment originally published Sept. 19 points out, while the deal may paper over the rifts between the forces cooperating in the fight against Houthi rebels, the country's underlying northern-southern divisions will likely surface again.

Since 2015, the southern Yemeni city of Aden has been the site of several major clashes between the U.N.-recognized government of President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council (STC). But the latest bout of fighting between the partners nominally aligned in the battle against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels has, for the first time, left the port city largely under STC control — demonstrating the separatist group's ability to take ground from the Yemeni government and retain control of it. 

The Big Picture

Yemen's fragile anti-Houthi coalition has been fighting the rebel movement since 2015. But the alliance has long been riven with factionalism, demonstrated most recently by violence between the Southern Transitional Council and the U.N.-recognized Yemeni government in the country's south.

Bolstered by years of military, economic and political support by the United Arab Emirates, the STC now has the opportunity to build up shadow institutions and governing capabilities in Aden that will bring the group closer to achieving its ultimate goal: restoring an independent South Yemen. But doing so will mean drawing resources from the Saudi-led coalition's broader fights against Houthi rebels and jihadist groups — and potentially inviting backlash from other southerners seeking to stake their claim to the war-torn country's future. 

Chasing the Dream of Independence

On Aug. 1, a Houthi missile struck a coalition military parade in the port city of Aden — killing a popular STC commander and up to 46 others. But rather than take revenge on the Houthis, the STC blamed the Hadi administration, claiming the Muslim Brotherhood movement al-Islah (a nominal Hadi ally) aided in the attack. The STC has since embarked on a campaign against the Hadi government, with its Emirati backers even launching airstrikes on Hadi-aligned forces on Aug. 29. After the dust settled, the STC retained hold of Aden — leaving the Hadi administration with little influence in the most strategically important city in southern Yemen. 

With control of Aden, the STC's advantage over the Yemeni government has never been bigger. But the group still faces significant roadblocks in pursuing its long-sought aspiration of restoring South Yemen. For one, international diplomacy on Yemen is still centered largely on the Hadi-Houthi conflict. The lead backers of the anti-Houthi coalition — namely, the United States, the United Nations and Saudi Arabia — have shown no signs of shifting that focus, as they see the south and the STC ultimately playing a minor role under a unified Yemeni government. Indeed, in a region already riddled with border disputes and proto-states, the prospect of a fracturing Yemen remains a tough sell from a global standpoint.

Without full control of the south, the STC also has yet to gain the on-the-ground leverage it needs to force its way into these international talks. And expanding its influence will prove no easy feat, as the organization does not represent all of the region's broad swath of factions, tribes and citizens. Given its locus of power in Aden, the STC has ideological and political differences with the interior provinces of southern Yemen, such as Hadramawt and al-Mahra. The STC's leader, Aiderous al-Zubaidi, has rivals for power in the south.

Thus, an independent South Yemen remains a distant dream. But in the meantime, the STC can still build de facto sovereignty with control of the region's largest city. In doing so, the STC will slowly build up governing capacity and could then use the city as a base to extend its power into new territories held by the Hadi administration. The council could also use the leverage of controlling Aden to gain a greater say in a unified national government — increasing its chances of being taken seriously in international diplomacy involving Yemen.

The Saudi-Emirati Split 

The STC's recent success in Aden can in part be attributed to a long-standing policy rift between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in Yemen. The Emiratis and Saudis are still seemingly aligned in the fight against Houthi rebels to restore Hadi's U.N.-backed authority over the country. But Abu Dhabi is also updating its regional strategy to one that includes focusing less on the Houthi threat in Yemen and more on consolidating its gains through proxies like the STC. This shift has subsequently left Riyadh in the lurch. While Saudi Arabia continues to broadly push back on the Houthis, the Emiratis have decided — seemingly unilaterally — to deprioritize this effort in favor of maintaining their influence in southern Yemen, especially in key port cities like Aden. 

Despite this growing rift, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have sought to uphold an image of unity on Yemeni policy. But Abu Dhabi's actions on the ground tell a different story. After striking Hadi-aligned forces in support of the STC on Aug. 29, Emiratis promptly and publicly claimed responsibility for the attack. This move demonstrated that for Abu Dhabi, a thriving STC is currently more important than a legitimate, unified Yemeni government, at least under the Hadi administration, which has a strained relationship with Abu Dhabi. 

With control of the largest city in southern Yemen, the secessionists’ advantage against the Yemeni government has never been bigger.

The United Arab Emirates' shift in strategy is the result of several factors. The growing threat of being engulfed in an increasingly likely U.S.-Iran confrontation, for one, has lowered Abu Dhabi's overall risk tolerance in the Gulf region. Meanwhile, in Yemen, the military situation with the Houthis has largely stagnated ever since the United Arab Emirates led an offensive in 2018 against the port city of al-Hudaydah. As a result, putting forces on the front lines against Houthis has yielded fewer and fewer gains over the past year — while placing Abu Dhabi squarely in the rebels' crosshairs, with the Houthis building up capabilities to strike the Emirati homeland. Key allies, such as the United States, the United Kingdom and France, are also still trying to fend off other local Yemeni forces looking to punish the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for their involvement in Yemen's civil war. 

Thus, for Abu Dhabi, the risks of actively combating the Houthis outweigh the benefits. But that doesn't mean the United Arab Emirates will simply abandon Yemen altogether and forfeit the gains it has made there. Its continued support of the STC suggests it plans to stick around for some time to come. 

Widening Yemen's War

But this shift southward poses its own set of security risks, as the northern-based Houthis will capitalize on the uptick in STC-Hadi infighting to press their claims. With the Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia now partially focused on mitigating the STC challenge in Aden, fewer resources will be available to stem Houthi attacks — leaving the rebel group with ample opportunity to roll back some of the coalition's military positions.

But Houthis aren't the only ones who stand to benefit. The STC is also a potent foe of Yemeni jihadists, including those associated with al Qaeda and the Islamic State. And like the anti-Houthi front, the STC's preoccupation with fighting Hadi-backed forces will leave it with fewer resources to counter extremists. Amid the influx of more internal clashes, there's a chance that some disillusioned Yemenis could be tempted to join the jihadists, whose draconian Islamist vision for the country — while radical — at least promises some return to order. 

The risks of both Houthi gains and extremist revivals in Yemen could eventually compel the United Arab Emirates to counsel an end to the STC's current push against the Saudi-backed Hadi administration. But like all local proxies, the STC also has its agenda. Thus, any agreement Abu Dhabi can cajole will only paper over north-south tensions until the next opportunity arises for the group to nudge Yemen's future from being one country toward two. 

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