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Aug 19, 2015 | 09:15 GMT

7 mins read

In Yemen, Division Will Outlast the Conflict

In Yemen, Division Will Outlast the Conflict
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • The alliance that is gaining the upper hand in Yemen is unlikely to last beyond the current conflict.
  • After the conflict ends, the Southern Movement will likely use the political and military power it has gained over the past five months to renew its calls for independence.
  • Once peace is restored, Yemen's central government will still have to deal with political disputes while managing relations with tribal elements, the Houthi movement and the Southern Movement and keeping jihadist groups in check. 

After five months of the Saudi-led intervention, Yemen's civil war may be drawing to a close. The Saudi-led air campaign has finally given way to an effective counteroffensive supporting exiled President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi. The question is no longer whether there will be a settlement but rather what the specific terms of peace may be. Whatever the impending solution, it will not fully resolve the deep political disputes that divide the country. The same conflict that has devastated Yemen has also united its many interest groups into two opposing factions; with the end of the war, those alliances will dissolve, creating an even more fragmented political environment and laying the groundwork for Yemen's next crisis.

Even apart from these long-term concerns, Yemen's government still has much to do before it fully resolves the fighting. Hadi's government will be looking to reassert control over the country while negotiating with Houthi rebels over what levels of autonomy they will have and within which territory. Simultaneously, he will have to rebuild his own security forces, which have split into two blocs — those loyal to him and those loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Moreover, the crisis has sapped Hadi's security forces even as it has energized organizations such as the Southern Resistance and al Qaeda. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will likely play an important role in peace negotiations to re-establish the Yemeni government, but foreign powers will favor different factions, with Saudi Arabia supporting Hadi and the Islamist al-Islah party, while the United Arab Emirates supports the Southern Movement.

Lingering Challenges

When the government is nominally in control of the country again, the Houthi movement will not simply disappear. The conflict may become dormant, but Houthis will be a political and demographic entity in Yemen and will continue to seek more autonomy.

Yemen's history shows that Houthi rebellions emerge and dissipate over time, and there is no reason to believe the current incarnation of this crisis will be the last. Yemen's central government will be forced to deal with the Houthi presence in the northern mountains, and though the Houthis are unlikely to mount another violent rebellion anytime soon, in the longer term a renewed Houthi resistance may again threaten a distracted and overburdened government.

Hadi will also have to reintegrate Saleh's political backers who split from Hadi's party into the government. Meanwhile, political opposition — such as the al-Islah party, with its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood — and various tribes will continue to disrupt efforts to tackle any other crises. Moreover, it will be difficult for the Yemeni government to manage Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the al-Islah party when both countries have different relationships to the Islamist group. Saudi Arabia has few qualms about supporting political partners of the al-Islah party. The United Arab Emirates has been working to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood domestically and abroad, backing the Southern Movement instead.

But perhaps one of the more serious short-term threats of a new government will be the rejuvenation of the independence movement in the south. The country was split between a North and South Yemen from 1967 to 1990, but since that time, until recently, the central government has suppressed the Southern Movement's lingering dream of reviving South Yemen. However, its weak rule over Yemen's central mountains and eastern deserts and coastal area continue to somewhat legitimize the claims for South Yemeni independence.

The fact that the crisis has empowered the Southern Movement also means that the faction is more of a threat than ever. As of now, the Southern Movement is preoccupied with fighting the Houthi and Saleh-aligned forces that have captured significant portions of Yemen. As soon as this mission is over, however, and rebuilding the Yemeni government and its security forces becomes the priority, the Southern Movement will suddenly hold a lot more power in negotiations.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are the most dominant partners in the broader coalition operating against Houthi and Saleh forces in Yemen, have gladly taken to arming, training and providing air support to Southern Movement forces, which turned out to be a more valuable partner than the scattered remnants of Hadi's military. Even though they are partners now, the Southern Movement still broadcasts its aspirations for statehood by flying the South Yemen flag. Various Yemeni officials have proposed integrating Southern Movement units into the Yemeni armed forces, but even if this were to happen, the true loyalties of integrated troops would likely side with the Southern Movement. A realistic separatist claim by southern Yemen cannot be ruled out; the Southern Movement's momentum and capabilities will force Hadi's government to compromise as well as rely on help from foreign powers to prevent a successful bid for southern independence.

The Jihadist Threat

Another party that has benefited from the crisis is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The group has actively fought Houthi rebels, mostly with vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attacks and armed assaults on Houthi positions in conjunction with its tribal allies. It also took control of the town of Mukalla in the coastal Hadramawt province. The group's successes have not been without costs, though — in particular, several drone strikes have targeted al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leaders in and around Mukalla. Still, the jihadist faction is comfortably nested in Yemen and will become yet another serious problem for a central government. Much like the Southern Movement, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is directing its attention to the Houthi threat for now. But as soon as Houthi forces no longer project power in Hadramawt, the jihadist group will compete with the Hadi government and the Southern Movement to regain control over the province. 

Jihadist activity in Yemen could become a lot more complex in the near future as well. Islamic State affiliates have entered the country. So far, the militant group's cells have been active in the capital of Sanaa with only limited ability to conduct significant attacks. Should Islamic State affiliates become more effective, however, their activity combined with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula may overwhelm security forces that are already severely weakened, forcing the Yemeni central government to rely on the United States and Western powers to help manage the jihadist threat in its borders.  

To retain any semblance of stability, Hadi's government will have to depend completely on its foreign backers. Already, Hadi and his forces would not be participants in the Yemen crisis without the substantial support of Riyadh, which will likely be willing to counter any challenge from the Houthis but may be less inclined to defend Hadi from the Southern Movement, as it is less of a direct threat to the Saudis than the Houthis. Separately, the Southern Movement has also been working closely with Saudi Arabia, and perhaps even more so with the United Arab Emirates, and its value in the crisis may boost its perceived reliability in the eyes of the Gulf states.

The future of Yemen is, then, somewhat in the hands of the Gulf states — bad news for the Houthis and the jihadist groups that these Arab powers oppose. But Gulf interests in Yemen end there. While Yemen's government can rely on its Arab partners to help counter the Houthis and jihadists, Yemen will have to manage its other challenges alone. 

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