Karen Dabrowska

Originally published: 5th July 2020

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The future of South Yemen: more questions than answers

The declaration of self-rule by the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Aden and the areas in South Yemen under its control on 26th April 2020 raised more questions than answers about the future of the south.

The STC was established in May 2017 by the majority of the pro-independence Southern Movement (Al-Hirak Al-Janoubi) to restore the independence of the south. Its president is the former Governor of Aden, Aidarus Al-Zubaidi. When the council was first established, its prominent members were the governors of Dhale, Shabwah, Hadhramaut, Lahij, Socotra, and Al Mahrah.

The Saudi-led coalition, which is receiving military assistance from the USA, UK and France, is made up of the internationally recognized Yemeni government led by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, and 15 countries including Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt.

The Hirak Al- Janoubi helped the coalition to dislodge the Iranian-backed Houthis from South Yemen in 2015. The Houthis who overthrew Hadi’s government in 2014 now control most of the north including the capital Sanaa and invaded the South militarily but were forced out by the Southerners supported by the coalition.

When Hadi sacked the governors of the southern governorates for refusing to abide by his government’s instructions, the STC decided it could no longer work with him. This prompted the self-rule and state of emergency declarations. The alliance between the STC and the Saudi-led coalition can be compared to a marriage of convenience which has hit the rocks.

Forces loyal to the STC seized 6.4 billion rials ($255 million) in bank notes that Russia had printed for the country’s central bank. During a video conference Navigating the future of South Yemen organized by the Washington-based Middle East Institute Amr Al-Beidh a member of the STC’s presidential council said that it was the STC’s duty to provide services. “The government did not do anything and we had to feed the people and provide the services, security and stability which the corrupt government did not provide.” The STC is now in control of all government institutions in Aden.

Yemen’s southern provinces have witnessed repeated clashes between government forces and STC fighters since the declaration of self-rule. On June 21st the STC seized control of the island of Socotra which UNESCO has designated a world heritage site due to its unique fauna and flora, among them the Dragons Blood trees, and 700 other species of flora and fauna which are not found anywhere else in the world.

The seizure of Socotra by its ally the STC has been a been a boost to the STC ambitions in South Yemen. The Emirates has plans to develop the island as an eco tourism destination and use it as a base from which to extend its maritime trade across the Indian Ocean and beyond along with other southern ports such as Aden and Mukalla.

Yemen conflict map

Some of the most ferocious clashes occurred in Abyan Province. Government forces led an offensive on the outskirts of Zinjibar the capital which was controlled by the STC. On June 25th the Saudi-led coalition deployed observers to monitor a ceasefire which has not been observed.

“Our forces in Abyan suffered a violent attack by the invading forces a few hours after the ceasefire came into effect,” the STC’s spokesman Nazar Haitham said. “It is an irresponsible act of the government which says it is bound by the ceasefire but does not respect it on the ground.” The STC forces have also clashed with government forces in Mukalla and Hadramawt. Writing on Twitter, Information Ministry Undersecretary Mohamed Qizan said UAE forces “broke into Al-Mukalla seaport in Hadhramaut and looted five containers of cash printed in Russia”.

Yemen politics is full of contradictions. The internationally recognized government and the STC may be fighting on the ground but are holding peace talks in Riyadh where Hadi resides. Yemen’s army has disintegrated and the internationally recognized government is rapidly becoming a government in exile.

New fronts are developing in Yemen’s multifaceted war which has been locked in military stalemate for years. The Houthis are fighting the Saudi led coalition in the north. In the south there is a war within a war as the STC fights the government’s army. But some southern politicians hostile to the STC are making alliances with Turkey and Qatar which could led to the creation of a new coalition. The Houthis are trying to get back into the south through Dhala Governorate and are being repulsed by the STC.

The Arab Weekly reported that the resigned Yemeni transport minister, Saleh Al-Jabwani opened a military recruitment camp in the city of Ataq the capital of Shabwa an oil-rich province in accordance with a Turkish plan and Qatari financing. He is planning to create anti-Arab coalition militias with the support of the Minister of the Interior Ahmad Al-Maysari who does not see eye to eye with Hadi.

Doha’s agenda in Yemen, according to The Arab Weekly, is to confuse the Arab coalition and create an environment for a Turkish role in Yemen in line with the wishes of the Muslim Brotherhood which Turkey and Qatar support. A Turkish-led coalition is seen as an alternative to the Saudi-led coalition.

But the people in Shabwa are not happy about the political games played on their territory and Shabwa recently saw a tribal uprising against forces affiliated to Yemen’s Islah Party an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The STC is having a hard job traversing the fragmentation of allegiances within the south. The Hadramis have a strong governorate identity and are unlikely to accept rule from Aden as they have enjoyed greater autonomy since the outbreak of the conflict.

In Al Mahra governorate, dubbed the wild east, Ali Salem Al Huraizi a former undersecretary has been described as a Qatari agent. He attacked the Arab coalition and accused the Saudis of preparing to hand Al Mahrah to the STC.

Yemeni journalist Afrah Nasser told Al-Jazeera that there are about 25 separatist groups in South Yemen. “They are all for independence but have different visions on how to achieve it so in that sense are much more polarized. Some reject outside intervention and advocate for a peaceful movement.”

Israel is also becoming involved in South Yemen’s imbroglio. Israel Today reported that it received information from various sources in Jerusalem that the new government in South Yemen is conducting secret talks with the Israelis.

So what does the future hold for the south of the country? Seemingly oblivious to the realities on the ground the United Nations and the international community have consistently affirmed the legitimacy of Hadi’s government and Yemen’s territorial integrity.

But Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall, is broken, and can never be put back together again. The cultural differences between the north and the south are incompatible and the Houthis want to rule over the entire country and turn it into their version of an Islamic state.

The south could be an independent state if the Gulf countries and other states who are intervening in the conflict give the southerners a chance to decide their future. But what kind of future will that be: a united southern state with a central government based in Aden, a federation of southern states where the governorates run their own affairs or a fragmented south with mini statelets and local rulers vying for power?

The parties to the current conflict would have to agree with the statement of President Ali Abdullah Saleh who was ousted in Yemen’s Arab Spring, when he said that governing Yemen is like dancing on the heads of snakes.