A recent escalation of fighting in the south of Yemen has renewed calls and increased demands from secessionist groups for independence. This comes amidst a critical point of the war, during which developing events have indicated a peaceful resolution could be possible in the coming months. These incidents indicate the significant internal weaknesses of President Hadi and his government, and show the coalition’s overall failure at achieving its publicly stated objective. The empowerment of separatist groups in the south and the Houthis in the north pose important questions as to Yemen’s hypothetical make-up if and when a resolution is reached among the major parties to the conflict. While decisions as to Yemen’s final form would ideally be left up to the Yemeni people themselves, regional and international actors will necessarily have a crucial say on this issue due to their influence and interests. Any possible change to the structure of the Yemeni state will have ramifications that reverberate not only through Yemen’s local levels, but also in the regional and international realms. However, as the interests of major external actors increasingly diverge, Yemen will continue to be a theater of regional instability.
On May 22, 1990 the Yemen Arab Republic (north) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (south) merged to become the recognized country we see today: The Republic of Yemen. However, after the newly appointed President Saleh consolidated power both in the north and the south, disagreements soon emerged. The dispute escalated between Saleh and his southern counterpart and Vice President Al-Beidth, as the latter rejected any agreement that left his bloc with less than half the power. Despite some mediation efforts by the late King Hussein of Jordan, in April 1994 an exchange of fire took place in a southern Yemeni camp near Sana’a that eventually devolved into a full-fledged war. Al-Beidh declared himself president of the south, but Saleh’s northern troops took control of Aden in July 1994 forcing Al-Beidh to flee the country. Since then, Yemen remains unified, but sensitivities between the two parts of the country are unignorable, especially those felt by southerners towards the people of the north. These tensions with the north contributed to the formation of groups that oppose the continuation of a unified Yemen. The most prominent example of these groups is the Southern Movement (Al-Hirak) which had multiple confrontations with governmental forces before and after the events of the 2011 Arab Spring. These groups had been calling for independence from the north, but at that time did not receive listening ears or support from the international community.
The 2015 Yemen
The Houthis’ gaining control over Sana’a in late 2014 and their military march to the south intensified the incongruities between the two parts of Yemen. The Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen in March 2015 helped push the Houthis back from the southern governorates. Together these internal events and the fomenting of regional support renewed calls for southern independence. While the main goal of Saudi Arabia in the war is to defeat the Iran-backed Houthis, the UAE (the second largest contributor to the coalition) has additional interests and ambitions in the south. In that part of the country, the UAE worked to establish the Security Belt forces and has supported the Southern Transitional Council (STC) by providing them with military training in addition to financial and political support. These new groups that continually call for independence from the north have become an important, and have gone on to sporadically fight with the Hadi government’s forces. Last month, the UAE scaled down its presence in Yemen, but have maintained support for its southern proxy groups in order to pursue its interests.
On August 6th, 2019, clashes erupted in Crater, Aden between STC and Hadi government forces during the funeral of Munir Al-Yaf’I (Abu Al-Yamama), a Security Belt leader who was killed by a Houthi missile on August 1st. On August 7th, Hani bin Buraik, the STC vice president who is close to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), broadcast a statement calling for the mass mobilization of southern people and forces to march on the Presidential Palace in Aden and “depose the traitors affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood Islah.” Although the STC controls a sizable part of Aden, the call did not mobilize enough of the population to revolt against the Hadi government. The statement, however, resulted in ongoing military clashes that have killed dozens of people. The UAE-backed forces were able to take control of most of the Hadi-government’s military bases in Khor Maksar and Aden. STC forces were also able to besiege and control the Presidential Palace, symbolically taking over the leadership of the city.
As it began to increasingly seem as though the STC controlled the city and had declared their victory, Saudi Arabia decided to respond more clearly. The Saudi-led Coalition issued a statement on August 10th requesting that all parties involved in the events in the south agree to a ceasefire. The Saudi coalition also demanded that the STC and Security Belt forces withdraw immediately from the positions they captured over the previous few days. Also, Saudi Arabia invited the parties to an urgent summit in Riyadh. STC questioned the seriousness of the Saudi withdrawal demands, especially since they had taken over important military sites in Aden. To prove its firm position, Saudi Arabia launched a few airstrikes on STC forces which prompted STC president Aiderous Al-Zubaidi to communicate to the coalition his acceptance of the withdrawal.
The sensitive issue of independence has been debated for decades, and calls for the secession of south Yemen seem to be growing louder and louder. These calls, however, do not necessarily represent all the people of the south as evidenced by bin Buraik’s failure to motivate adequate popular support to engage in a full-scale revolt. Many southerners oppose the UAE’s influence and that of its southern proxies. While international organizations stress the idea of a self-determination left to Yemenis in the south to work out an agreement with the north, any change to the structure of the state of Yemen will not see the light of day without the support and blessing of regional and international powers. The UAE is actively supporting groups calling for independence, potentially giving it a higher geostrategic potential should south Yemen become an independent nation. Saudi Arabia does not seem to be enthusiastic about the idea of separation in Yemen, but only took to action in support the Hadi government at the last possible moment. Saudi Arabia, the leading country of the coalition, seems strategically lost. The Kingdom is finding itself dealing with a new reality that is being shaped by its coalitional ally: the UAE. The Saudi Kingdom does not seem to have a clear vision on the issue of south Yemen, but as of writing is continuing attempts to prove its primacy over crucial decisions concerning its southern neighbor. This has most recently been evidenced by the inviting of Yemeni parties fighting in the south for a meeting in Riyadh, and by inviting Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) to show support and alignment with the Saudi position. Despite a manufactured public image that projects unity between the Saudi and Emirati leaderships, recent days have shown that there are unsurfaced disagreements concerning the problem of south Yemen.
Furthermore, the perspective of the United States is also very important to the issue of Yemeni independence. So far Washington does not appear to be in support of secession. On August 8th, the State Department issued a statement calling all parties “to refrain from escalation and further bloodshed,” and urged for dialogue that would “achieve a stable, unified, and prosperous Yemen.”
Many issues surround the idea of southern independence. First among these is that Aden, the stronghold of STC and Security Belt Forces, is not representative of the entire southern region. The pre-unification south comprises other important provinces like Hadramout, Al-Mahrah, and Lahj where the STC’s influence is not strong. In these locales there are a number of sheikhs and influential figures who might accept independence, but could oppose the “colonizing” efforts of the UAE’s proxy groups. The eventual borders of an emerging south is also a thorny and complex issue. Even if these concerns were to be resolved, it is important to note that in the case of independence, intra-southern conflicts are likely to emerge between the various southern entities due to their differing perspectives on how a hypothetical ‘South Yemen’ would be run, especially as it relates to the role of external influence. The emergence of such conflicts might have negative implications for the entire region given southern Yemen’s location overlooking the economically important Strait of Bab Al-Mandeb.
President Hadi and his government have proven incompetent and incapable of governing and controlling important parts of Yemen. Given this new reality, the Hadi government does not have a future in Yemen, whether north or south. The recent events in the latter are simply additional proof that Hadi and his government do not have popular Yemeni support. It is only Saudi Arabia that is keeping Riyadh-based Hadi as the president of the ‘internationally recognized government.’ The lack of internal support for Hadi is another challenge that Saudi Arabia has to address sooner or later. With an increasing likelihood of divisions in Yemen, the Saudi/Emirati-led coalition whose publicly stated objective is to restore the legitimacy of the government did nothing more than strengthen the position of the Houthis in the north, and separatists in the south. Between the continuation of unification and independence of the south, there are still viable options of federation and confederation that might find some acceptability among Yemenis and international players. Regardless, any peace deal that resolves the current conflict will change the shape and structure of Yemen as it has been known since 1990.
 “Clashes erupt in Yemen’s Aden, killing one,” Arab News, August 7, 2019 http://www.arabnews.com/node/1536981/middle-east
 STC statement, Hani bin Buraik Twitter account, August 7, 2019 https://twitter.com/HaniBinbrek/status/1159085348074545152?s=20
 Al-Batati and Rasmussen, “Yemen separatist soldiers capture presidential palace in Aden,” Wall Street Journal, August 10, 2019 https://www.wsj.com/articles/yemen-separatists-soldiers-surround-palace-in-aden-11565449846
 “Saudi-led coalition calls for immediate Aden ceasefire: Reports,” Al-Jazeera, August 11, 2019 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/08/saudi-led-coalition-calls-aden-ceasefire-reports-190810202651708.html
 “Saudi-led coalition launches air strike against UAE-backed separatist forces in Aden,” Middle East Eye, August 11, 2019 https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/saudi-led-coalition-launches-air-strikes-again-uae-backed-separatist-forces-aden
 “Violence in Aden: Press Statement,” U.S. Department of State, August 8, 2019 https://www.state.gov/violence-in-aden/