Five years of civil strife in southern Yemen has given rise to southern centers of power, some oriented toward secession and others seeking the semi-autonomy of a federal system. Their views and causes were contained, however, until the dynamics of the current war increased southern autonomy, ultimately encouraging some southern political elites – gauging their chances of governing sufficiently strong – to declare self-rule.
The roots of the southern cause go back to 1994, four years after the unification of North and South Yemen formed the Republic of Yemen. An attempt by southern parties to secede was violently put down during weeks of fighting, and the south would generally be subjected to neglect and marginalization from ruling authorities in Sana’a moving forward. While 2007 witnessed the birth of renewed southern political mobilization with the formation of the peaceful Southern Movement (Al-Hirak), substantial change in the southern arena began five years ago when Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched Operation Decisive Storm.
The battles of 2015 ended what many southerners considered northern domination of the south by liberating southern governorates from Houthi forces and fighters loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. At the time, southern factions united to push back northern forces. President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi (himself a southerner from Abyan) and his supporters among military commanders and civilian officials joined with southerners of the opposition, represented by political figures from the Southern Movement as well as the local armed resistance groups.
Southern Movement figures within the internationally recognized Yemeni government cooperated to fill the power vacuum that had resulted from the Houthis’ successful takeover of Sana’a in 2014, turning Aden (now the temporary capital) and Hadramawt (the country’s largest governorate) into military, economic and political centers of gravity. Hadi and the Southern Movement initially managed to share this authority reasonably well, with figures affiliated with the movement appointed to political and local authority positions. Aiderous al-Zubaidi, for example, was appointed governor of Aden, the most senior local political position, while Brigadier General Shalal al-Shayea was appointed the city’s security chief. On the military level, Hadi established the Presidential Protection Brigade, and in October 2016, he issued a presidential decree to establish the Support and Backup Brigades, appointing Southern Movement commanders to form them. The southern honeymoon wouldn’t last, however, and in 2017 Hadi sacked a number of southern ministers and governors, beginning with Al-Zubaidi and Minister of State and Security Belt forces commander Sheikh Hani bin Breik. Hadi then sacked others, including the governors of Hadramawt (Ahmed bin Breik) and Shabwa (Hamed Lamlas) because they responded to Al-Zubaidi’s call for a new southern entity.
Newly excluded from power, opposition southerners reorganized to forge the Southern Transitional Council (STC) as declared in the Aden Historic Declaration of May 2017, with Al-Zubaidi at its head. After Decisive Storm, this was the second key development in empowering southerners. The STC derived its character and much of its power on the leadership level from its short-lived experience of governing at Hadi’s side, which produced a younger political elite who inherited the historical leadership positions of the southern state from men now in or entering their 80s, such as former South Yemen presidents Ali Salem al-Beidh and Ali Nasir Mohammed and former Prime Minister Abu Bakr al-Attas. On the ideological level, the STC adopted the rhetoric of liberation and independence, which provided it with a large base in the community and strong moral and political legitimacy. Perhaps most importantly, the STC gained armed muscle and significant political and financial support from the United Arab Emirates, which handled the training of STC-allied forces.
The longstanding political divisions related to southern Yemen had returned to the fore as soon as the immediate Houthi threat receded. A major point of contention dealt with the future makeup of Yemen. Southerners aligned with the Hadi government backed plans to transform Yemen into a six-region federation, which was proposed in February 2014 and rejected at the time by most Southern Movement factions. Meanwhile, the STC was adamant about the secession of southern Yemen. A second factor in the tensions is historical and linked to the intense rivalry between two political-social groups: the Zumra, whose influence is mainly centered in the governorate of Abyan, the home governorate of President Hadi and an area which, along with Shabwa governorate, historically benefited from allegiance to past ruling regimes; and the Tughma, centered in Al-Dhalea and Lahj, whose past marginalization has made the governorates fertile ground for revolutionary action against rulings authorities, whether for the STC, the Southern Movement before it or all the way back to the 1960s during the insurgency against the British-run Colony of Aden. The final factor relates to regional support: Southerners of the opposition positioned themselves within the Emirati circle of influence while southerners aligned with the government identified either with Riyadh, the dominant regional player, or with Doha, which desired to replace Abu Dhabi’s influence in Aden.
The STC benefitted in 2017 from the momentum of the southern cause, and used that to solidify itself politically, expand its geographic influence, build its internal structure to function both as a party and to mimic a state, and increase its military capacity. However, at this point, it remained a de facto power and did not attempt to leverage its strength into becoming a ruling authority like the Houthi movement did in northern Yemen, or competing for influence within Hadi’s government like the Islamist party, Islah. The STC’s interim strategy focused on defining itself as an alternative for southerners within the government and securing a place at any future UN-led peace negotiations as the representative of the southern cause.
In January 2018, clashes broke out between the government and STC-aligned forces in Aden, but there were several reasons the “southern-southern” division stopped short of reaching the point of no return. Both sides were preoccupied confronting the Houthis, particularly in battles along the western coast as part of the offensive toward Hudaydah. Away from combat, each was still preoccupied with consolidating its respective power. Hadi succeeded in monopolizing the southern representation within his government, sharing authority equally only with his northern allies led by Ali Mohsen and Islah, but failed to weaken the STC on the ground. Despite mounting tension, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the main actors in the coalition and the primary backers for the Yemeni government and STC respectively, managed to keep their allies in check.
In August 2019, however, open conflict erupted between government forces and the STC in Aden, and expanded to Abyan and Shabwa. This marked the most recent key development propelling southern interests into a strategically strong position.
On the surface, it seemed that the situation exploded after the Houthi assassination of Abu al-Yamama, commander of the Security Belt forces in Aden and an iconic Southern Movement and resistance leader. The missile attack that killed him, and recriminations by STC figures that Islah had collaborated with the Houthis, sparked a chain of events that quickly had Hadi government soldiers and STC-allied forces turning on each other, with the former eventually ejected from the city. On a deeper level, however, the UAE’s decision earlier in the year to begin withdrawing troops from Yemen was the main impetus behind the escalation of events. The STC’s rivals and their respective regional backers — the Houthis and Iran, Hadi and Saudi Arabia, Islah and Qatar and Turkey — wanted to preempt a power vacuum in southern Yemen and put an end to Abu Dhabi’s policy of empowering its local allies, which had dramatically bolstered the STC’s military capabilities over the years. Meanwhile, the STC leadership pressed hard in response to the targeting of its commanders, attempting to grab territory before the fragile strategic balance in the south was disturbed.
In the end, the Houthis succeeded in pitting their rivals against one another. The STC succeeded in imposing its will in Aden while Hadi’s government imposed its will in Shabwa. Saudi Arabia ultimately imposed order through the Riyadh Agreement, which nominally gives the Saudis political and military authority across the entire south from Al-Mahra governorate in the east to Aden in the west. The STC, at least on paper, achieved all its interim goals — positions in the government and a seat at the negotiating table across from the Houthis when the time comes — and in exchange agreed to integrate its forces into the government’s army and security forces. Meanwhile, its patron, the UAE, completely left the Aden scene in October 2019 to Saudi Arabia.
When the Riyadh Agreement was signed in November, Saudi Arabia presented it as the perfect formula to maintain peace and implement unified governance in the south. However, terms of the agreement have not been implemented to this day. Implementing the agreement has faltered because of the text’s ambiguity and the absence of strict enforcement mechanisms. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia enjoys a dual role, as a party to the settlement and as mediator of the agreement. Riyadh’s strategic interests conflict with many southerners’ secessionist goals, and the STC is incapable of exerting any sort of political pressure that could influence Saudi behavior to favor the mediator role. Hadi and his vice president, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, also have obstructed measures needed to implement the agreement, united in considering the political concessions distasteful and in a desire to weaken the STC on the military, political and popular levels.
Synchronizing political and security measures would represent the magical solution needed for the Riyadh Agreement to succeed, but Riyadh has struggled to activate the political components of the agreement and has instead focused its efforts on security arrangements — an approach the STC views as directly targeting it and empowering its rivals.
The radical change in the balance of power in southern Yemen in favor of Riyadh and its allies deprived the STC of the space to maneuver that it had when the UAE was present there, and it undermined its political ability to curb the Hadi government’s obstructive behavior. Instead of accepting self-erosion, it made the dramatic announcement of self-rule across southern Yemen. The STC’s call was not welcomed in most southern governorates, but it succeeded in shaking up the political stalemate surrounding the Riyadh Agreement.
Saudi Arabia has a real interest in seeing the Riyadh Agreement is implemented, and this is why the agreement is still standing despite the STC’s escalation and the Hadi government’s obstruction. The agreed upon power-sharing framework may help avoid a repeat of the full-blown descent into open violence witnessed in August of last year. The Riyadh Agreement, therefore, appears to have been transformed into a “southern Stockholm Agreement”, containing and pacifying the political crisis instead of resolving it.
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.