The Southern Transitional Council (STC), a Yemeni separatist group with close ties the United Arab Emirates, made the bold move on Jan. 30 to assert its will on Yemeni politics. After a day of clashes, the STC seized control of most of Aden from the government of internationally recognized President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi. Though the STC eventually wants to re-establish an independent South Yemen, its recent moves in the strategic southern port were not specifically motivated by that desire. Instead, the STC intended to gain a political foothold and acquire strategic territory to boost its position in Yemen, especially in the eyes of the coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the north.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are the most important members of the anti-Houthi coalition, of which the Southern Transitional Council is a part. The STC's moves threaten that fight at a critical time, directly contradicting Saudi Arabia's long-term goal of restoring Hadi's rule to the whole of Yemen. Despite this, the coalition will not be easily distracted from the gains it is finally making against the Houthis after months of stalemate. In fact, it will reluctantly accept the seizure of Aden by one of its partners. It will not, however, so easily accept an independent South Yemen.
Breaking Down Loyalties
In 2015, Houthi rebels loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh forced Hadi's government out of the capital of Sanaa and into the port city of Aden. Since then, the Saudi- and Emirati-backed coalition has worked to push back the Houthis and to prevent the Hadi government from failing entirely. (Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are concerned about Iran's influence over the rebels, hence their involvement.) But Yemen is nothing if not complicated and recent divisions across every faction have become increasingly stark.
In April 2017, Hadi fired Aden Governor Aidrous al-Zubaidi, effectively eliminating southern secessionist representatives from the coalition-backed government. Zubaidi responded by tapping into longtime southern discontent to create the STC. Calls for southern independence have endured since Yemen's reunification in 1994, and the STC capitalized on this sentiment, resurrecting old South Yemen symbols in the territory it controlled. Despite its rivalry with Hadi, the STC found backing from a key coalition partner: the United Arab Emirates. The two agreed on the necessity of combating al-Islah, a Yemeni Islamist Party that was, until December, part of the wider Muslim Brotherhood, a group the United Arab Emirates sees as a strategic threat to its rule at home.
The STC has been working since its inception last year to eliminate members of the al-Islah party from the coalition-backed government, but with little institutional sway, the group made scant headway. Then, on Jan. 21, the STC demanded that Hadi resign to make way for a more technocratic leader. When he failed to do so, they stormed the presidential palace in Aden. The presidential guard opened fire in response, pitting two factions of the coalition against each other.
The STC's seizure of Aden gives it control of Yemen's largest port, vital to coalition military supply lines. As a result, the group is positioning itself as a critical partner in the anti-Houthi war effort. Still, it is not declaring southern independence just yet. If independence were its intent, it would be taking action in Mukalla, another port city it partially controls. The Southern Transitional Council knows that declaring independence would spark greater retaliation against it, so, for now, it is content with the gains made so far.
The Real Frontlines
The Saudi-led coalition does not need to retake Aden to ensure its military position. The STC has already made clear that it will continue to support the anti-Houthi struggle. Instead, the coalition must mitigate the damage from the clash and negotiate a truce as quickly as possible. In December 2017, the Houthis split with Saleh, who was subsequently assassinated. The move divided and weakened the rebel alliance, providing an opening for opposition forces — to change the course of the stalled civil war in the coalition's favor. Emirati tanks and STC fighters led the charge to take the key port of al-Hudaydah on the country's west coast. Then coalition forces — first the Saudis and then the Emiratis — joined forces with al-Islah to make a decisive move against the Houthis. Just days ago, al-Islah fighters, who had previously been wary and unwilling to take part in major coalition offensives, felt secure enough to join a Saudi-led assault to lift the siege of Taiz.
Houthi rebels are still recovering strength following Saleh's departure. On Jan. 28, the Houthis held their first parliament session with former Saleh allies in Sanaa, hoping to bury the hatchet. With an accord in place, the Houthis can worry less about guerilla Saleh loyalists attacking them from behind and are better positioned to take advantage of any break in coalition forces. The STC's unexpected bid for control of Aden threatened to interrupt coalition supplies just as the Taiz offensive got underway. The official Yemeni government recognizes the danger. Hadi himself called for a cease-fire in Aden, reminding the STC that the "real and main battle is against the Iranian Houthi militias."
Once the dust settles, the consequences of the Southern Transitional Council's actions will be more fully revealed. The major concern is that differences of opinion over the group — and how to deal with it — could divide Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Saudis have little to gain from encouraging southern secession and have made it their aim to preserve a united Yemen under Hadi's rule. They have shown little concern for al-Islah, which wants the same.
If there is any victor in the melee, it's the southern separatist movement.
By contrast, the United Arab Emirates has reconciled with al-Islah to make gains against the Houthis, but once those gains are solidified, old concerns will rekindle. Prior to the reconciliation, the United Arab Emirates and the STC actively hunted al-Islah members in Aden and in other coastal cities. Moreover, though the United Arab Emirates has not come out in favor of southern secession, it has tacitly supported it. The Emiratis have built up sizeable naval and military assets throughout Yemen and the Horn of Africa, and they see STC rule along the southern Yemeni coastline as conducive to building an ever-larger web of influence across the Gulf of Aden.
Regardless, the longer the civil war drags on, the more opportunity extremism has to flourish. Al Qaeda is still the strongest radical group in Yemen and controls much of rural South Yemen, which is notoriously hard to govern even under the best of circumstances. A divided coalition would result in ungoverned spaces ever less patrolled by forces hunting al Qaeda.
United in Crisis
For now, there is too much at stake for the Saudis and Emiratis to push back against the STC. The Saudis won't oust Hadi, but they may work to appease the STC through a Cabinet reshuffle or the replacement of some government ministers. Riyadh might even push to replace Prime Minister Ahmed bin Daghur, who has little support in the south.
The STC will rely on the Emiratis to get the best deal they can. Control of Aden will likely fall more squarely to the Southern Transitional Council, and STC leaders may gain a Cabinet position or another prominent government post in the Hadi administration. Hadi, for his part, is mostly powerless without Saudi support. The Saudis just deposited $2 billion directly into Yemen's central bank to stave off a currency collapse, and Saudi humanitarian aid is keeping large swaths of the country from starving.
If there is any victor in the melee, it's the southern separatist movement, which will emerge from the struggle with more clout and increased military prestige and territory. Though the coalition will halt any attempts at secession in the immediate term, that will not end the movement. And the ghost of South Yemen will haunt the country for years to come.