BEIRUT: Despite analysts ruling out an imminent partition of Yemen, separatists have re-emerged as a political force in the south – one that is a direct challenge to the internationally recognized government. Recent bloody clashes between President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi’s government and the pro-secession Southern Transitional Council, both backed by an Arab-led coalition, have not only weakened the alliance fighting the Houthi rebels but have also brought Yemen’s two-state past to the foreground.
Once seen as a poorly organized movement, southern secessionists have gathered under a unified front in the form of the STC, in what analysts describe as a rising power in Aden.
Historically, the south has been divided between those who supported a unified Yemen and those who want to go back to the preunification borders separating the Yemen Arab Republic in the north and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south.
“When you look at it in the context of the south, this is what makes the STC important, it really is the closest to a kind of one single umbrella group united under a single leadership with a more unified form of southern politics,” Adam Baron, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Daily Star.
Southern Transitional Council spokesman Salem Thabet al-Awlaqi told The Daily Star that the period since the founding of the STC and recent events in Aden “proved that the council has put a stop to claims that the south and the southerners are not unified and that there are conflicting plans within the movement.”
After unification in 1990, calls for the re-establishment of independence in southern Yemen never desisted, leading to several crises in the country, including a civil war in 1994. Over a decade later, Al-Hirak al-Janoubi, or the Southern Movement, was created to represent the interests of southern separatists but remained largely disparate and lacked a real strategy.
With backing and funding from the United Arab Emirates, the separatists eventually proved to be an effective force in the coalition-backed government’s war against the Houthis. Despite a loose alliance with Hadi, himself a southerner, the separatist movement never fully supported him due to Hadi’s own alliance with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh during the 1994 civil war, which was seen as a betrayal.
“Hadi is not a beloved son of the south and they never really got behind him,” said Jill Schwedler, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, but as the Houthis made their push on Aden in 2015 “the separatists were happy to have allies to push back against the rebels and Hadi was on that side.”
This alliance of convenience was short-lived as tensions between government troops and UAE-backed forces loyal to Aden’s secessionist Gov. Aidarus al-Zubaidi escalated last year, regularly leading to clashes.
The situation culminated when Hadi retaliated by firing UAE-backed Zubaidi and minister of state Hani bin Braik, sparking public protests.
In response, Zubaidi created the STC in May 2017, a 25-seat body with a stated objective of forming an independent southern state in its pre-1990 borders. The STC is composed of military and political leaders linked to the Hirak and commands its own military wing, the UAE-trained Security Belt.
By the end of 2017, the STC’s rising influence was reflected by its offices spreading across the south and a number of governors in the region allying themselves with the movement, according to the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies in its “Special Issue – 2017 in Review” report.
After a number of governors were dismissed for their links to the STC, tensions between Hadi and the council reached a boiling point when Zubaidi issued a one-week ultimatum to the Aden-based government in late January this year: fire Prime Minister Ahmed bin Dagher and other Cabinet members for alleged corruption.
“The decision by Hadi to fire these governors was dangerous. He did not understand that the approach in the south is political and not administrative,” Farea al-Muslimi, a fellow at Chatham House, told The Daily Star.
When the deadline expired with no compliance by the government, days of clashes ensued in Aden in which the STC quickly gained the upper hand, laying siege to the presidential palace and trapping members of Hadi’s government.
The fighting killed 36 people and wounded 185 others.
Muslimi said the political approach would have been to contain the situation but Hadi miscalculated and ultimately failed to isolate the movement.
“I think, it seems he wouldn’t have minded some chaos by the Hirak because he thinks nothing would destroy [its secessionist aspirations] more than chaos,” he said.
The fighting ended with a diplomatic intervention by the Arab-led coalition and the STC rolled back on some of its territorial gains but retained control of much of Aden and areas in neighboring provinces.
STC spokesman Awlaqi said that the Southern Transitional Council dealt with the crisis responsibly “after promises of reform were made that would force the government to implement an agenda relative to the exceptional phase in wartime instead of resorting to futile battles in liberated southern regions.”
The crisis created an opportunity for the southern separatists to demonstrate their strength on the ground, and as a result Hadi’s weakness and waning influence were highlighted. “Otherwise, it would have been possible to paralyze the separatists, as can happen to any revolutionary movement,” Muslimi said.
In a report published in January, the United Nations’ Panel of Experts said the STC’s goal has become a realistic possibility, according to the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies. The report also points out that Hadi has lost control over security forces acting at the government’s behest.
Due to STC’s proliferation in the south, along with affiliated paramilitary groups, and the Houthi rebels’ tight control of the north, the government’s authority “has now eroded to the point that it is doubtful whether the government will ever be able to reunite Yemen as a single state,” the panel of experts was quoted as saying by Sanaa Center.
After nearly three years of conflict, the separatists took advantage of the chaos in the country to boost their status as a political actor and some factions believe that “they are setting the stage for independence in the south,” Baron said.
Analysts agree, however, that the path to independence will be laden with obstacles and it is unlikely that the country will witness partition anytime soon.
Muslimi expressed belief that even if the STC makes direct moves toward its goal, the council would not reach it because various factions across Yemen would not allow these ambitions to succeed and violent chaos would follow.
“There will be interventions everywhere in Yemen, areas like Marib and Sanaa will rise against this and this is much worse than separation and worse than unity under its current form,” he said.
Muslimi said the devastating impact of the war on the country does not provide the grounds for the establishment a new state, adding that “separation is a lot of wishful thinking right now.”
Even as southern separatists try to unify their voices, a divide still exists on how different factions envisage what the south should look like.
“There are significant disagreements about how far secession should go, whether they want significant amount of autonomy or they want a full secession, independent state,” Schwedler told The Daily Star.
Despite being backed by a powerful ally like the UAE, analysts say the future of south Yemen ultimately rests with Saudi Arabia.
While the UAE has less at stake in Yemen, Saudi Arabia shares a 1,800-kilometer southern border with the war-torn country that makes its calculations different from the Emiratis’.
“Saudi Arabia is less adventurist and impulsive in the south than the UAE, which might not mind a division in Yemen. A separation would create problems for the [Saudi] kingdom, so it cannot afford more than one Yemen,” Muslimi said.
Awlaqi said that the fight for independence is ongoing but the recent battle in Aden resulted in new realities on the ground and the fact that the separatists’ objective has been 20 years in the making dictates that the council deals with the situation with “realistic sensitivity.”
Although a partition of Yemen appears out of reach for the foreseeable future, the STC has delivered a clear message that it is a force that will not be sidelined in the south. The crisis has strengthened the separatists’ hand politically and placed them in a position of power to assert themselves – for them, this is their moment to push, according to Schwedler.
“Their main battle now is increasing credence and moving what they’ve done into something more formative and concrete. As of now, they will try to demonstrate that they have the ability to govern,” Baron said.
Early this year the STC hired the American lobbying firm Grassroots Political Consulting, which incidentally represents Libya’s powerful Gen. Khalifa Haftar, for political and strategic counseling and “to solicit support for the STC and the people of South Yemen to regain their independence,” as stated by filed disclosure forms.
The STC also aims to open an office in Washington in order to gain international recognition and advance its cause, AFP reported.
“You will witness in the coming period advanced political work, which is the result of institutional and organized efforts that the council was created to undertake,” Awlaqi said.
Details of the agreement reached between Hadi’s government and the STC are still widely under wraps and, according to analysts, a lot depends on the coming period and the particulars of the compromise.
It remains to be seen exactly how powerful the STC is but what is certain is whichever deal has been brokered by the Arab-led coalition, the reality on the ground in Aden shows the STC in a “stronger position militarily and seemingly one step closer to gaining a seat at the political bargaining table,” said April Alley, a senior Arabian Peninsula analyst at the International Crisis Group.