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Yemen Crisis: Relevance of STC Poses New Questions for Congressional Action

When the 116th Congress left Washington D.C. in observance of the August 2019 recess, the congressional agenda toward Yemen seemed relatively straightforward. Democrats, in addition to a few Republicans, continued to rail against Saudi Arabia and the Arab Coalition in Yemen due to reported human rights violations, while most congressional Republicans continued to toe-the-line with the President regarding the centrality of Saudi Arabia within the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” policy toward Iran. However, for all the former camp’s efforts to block weapon sales and end support to the Arab Coalition in Yemen, the latter’s occupancy of the Executive Branch has allowed for the Presidential veto to block these efforts at every turn, regardless of their bipartisan support. However, when Congress returns to Washington D.C. in September, Yemen will be subject to vastly different circumstances due to the long bubbling under Southern Transitional Council (STC) having amassed enough local support and the backing of a regional powerhouse (the United Arab Emirates), to make the emergence of an independent South Yemen a realistic possibility. While up to this point little activity on the Hill has distinguished the nuances of Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s respective roles in Yemen, or the infighting between the Arab Coalition allies,  the developments that have occurred over the past month may necessitate the emergence of a policy meant to reckon with Yemen’s impending bifurcation. Facing this possibility, STC representatives can build on an argument seemingly heavily tailored for U.S. lawmakers, however, only time will tell if Congress is currently in a position to add complexity to an issue already subject to newfound Congressional infighting.

Official efforts by the STC to influence Congressional attitude toward the conflict in Yemen began in early 2018 when the Southern Transitional Council hired D.C.-based Grassroots Political Consulting to take their case for an independent South Yemen to Congress.[1] That contract, which appears to have not resulted in any noteworthy legislative achievements, was terminated in January 2019. Still, a small group of STC registered lobbyists remain operational in D.C.[2] Over the course of their tenure representing the STC, several publications by these lobbyists reveal a strategy meant to encourage support from members of Congress that primarily focus on three issues: South Yemen’s tolerance of its Jewish minority, desire for representative democracy and opposition to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). These three points were heavily emphasized by STC Chief of Mission Abdusalem Mused, who in an editorial from 2018 criticized a failure to distinguish ‘Yemeni forces’ from ‘South Yemeni forces,’ and went on to purport that South Yemeni forces “were the only group that effectively fought and removed Al-Qaeda from different parts of Yemen,” “are devoted to an egalitarian, democratic and ethical society,” and a “bel[ief] in the right of Southern Jews to their land and property.”[3] Regardless of the veracity of these three claims, what is clear is that this messaging is being tailored for a Congress that has historically been concerned with democracy promotion, pursuing the global war on terror, and has a track record of extending support to the Jewish community. However, regardless of this appeal, the Congress has not appeared to elevate the issue of South Yemen to one of importance equal to the ongoing Saudi-led coalition in the Republic of Yemen, which continues to be described as a unified country in legislation and member-office press releases.

While recent events in South Yemen have seemingly asserted the group’s relevance to any Yemen peace discussions, several factors related to the current state of affairs of Congress’ foreign relations committees may impede any meaningful legislative activity or advocacy. The end of July saw a stark divide as to how the Senate should proceed in punishing Saudi Arabia for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war. Several bills under consideration aimed at punishing Riyadh indicate that the Congress is much more interested in prosecuting Saudi Arabia, (of which Yemen concerns are just one facet), than it is actually gaining a complex understanding as to Yemen’s internal dynamics. Therefore, until members of Congress feel placated that Saudi Arabia has been properly reprimanded, the ability for lobbyists working with the STC to depict Yemen as a standalone nation with its own internal fractures independent of Saudi Arabia seems slim. This outcome is especially unlikely given a recent statement from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator Risch (R-ID), who after failing to gain adequate support for his supposed ‘compromise bill’ said of the Senate’s role in reforming U.S.-Saudi relations, “This is over. We’ve worked at it for a long time…it is what it is.”[4]

Impeding the STC’s potential emergence as an influential force within Washington have been other global events that have dominated the news cycle amidst the congressional recess. ‘Exhibit A’ are the pro-Democracy protests in Hong Kong, which have drawn support during the recess from numerous lawmakers, including congressional leadership.[5] The overall lack of attention given to Yemen during the recess speaks to where Congress’ current priorities may now have shifted. Yet, there remains a chance this attention could pivot back to Yemen, as certain lawmakers who have a history of keenly watching the nation have taken the time to comment during the recess. One such lawmaker is Senator Chris Murphy (D-CN) who recently commented on the Aden events in a tweet. Interestingly, he mentioned the “potential interesting upsides for peace,” that could arise from the STC’s newfound relevance to Yemen-negotiations, a perspective that could be pleasing to South Yemen’s supporters. [6]

For students of Yemeni history, chatter of a possible North/South Yemeni split may evoke a sense of déjà vu, as prior to the 1990 unification that formed today’s Republic of Yemen, the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) were two distinct nations. At the time, Western-backed North Yemen, and the communist affiliated South Yemen became a hot zone within the otherwise Cold War. Naturally, given the South’s association with Communism, United States policy unduly supported North Yemen, and Washington was satisfied when North Yemeni leader (the late president Ali Abdullah Saleh) assumed the Presidency of the unified Republic of Yemen. Decades later, however, it would appear that the Saudi-backed Hadi Government (arguably the last legs of what constituted the originally U.S.-backed North Yemen) has been on the receiving end of most Congressional ire due to its Saudi-backing, with South Yemen clearly working hard to perfect a rhetoric that appeals to U.S. lawmakers. Still, in spite of this effort, the STC has yet to make any major impact on the proceedings of Capitol Hill, and faces an uphill battle to capture the attention of lawmakers whose profession and accountability to a voting public almost necessarily reduces their ability to tackle the complexities and internal intricacies required for a case like Yemen.

 

Reference:

[1] Bryant Harris, “Yemen’s Southern Separatists Take Case to Congress” Al-Monitor, January 25, 2018.

[2] Julian Pecquet et. al, “This Week’s Middle East Lobbying Updates,” Email, Al-Monitor, August 16, 2019.

[3] Abdusalem Mused, “For Yemen’s Southern Resistance, the Next Battle is for Independence,” The Defense Post, June 21, 2018.

[4] Rachel Oswald, “Risch Drops Saudi Measure, Panel Backs Menendez Sanctions Bill,” Roll Call, July 26, 2019.

[5] Michael Crowley and Edward Wong, “Trump’s Hong Kong Caution Isolates Him from Congress, Allies and Advisers,” The New York Times, August 15, 2019.

[6] Chris Murpy, Twitter Post, August 16, 2019.

Issue: U.S. – Gulf Policy
Country: Yemen

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