Who Is Interested in South Yemen's Independence?

On August 7, clashes broke out in Aden between forces loyal to Yemen’s internationally recognized government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed south Yemeni separatist organization. These clashes resulted in 40 fatalities and culminated in the STC’s seizure of Aden on August 10. After a tentative truce was declared, Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes on STC-held targets in Aden, with the intention of reversing the STC’s territorial gains in the city.

Although the speed of STC’s victory in Aden was surprising, south Yemeni separatism has been a powerful political force since the Southern Movement orchestrated mass demonstrations in 2007. The National Dialogue Conference, which followed Ali Abdullah Saleh’s fall from power in 2012, did not result in south Yemeni autonomy, and the region’s political alienation caused support for separatism to increase further. This accumulation of grievances caused south Yemeni separatist militias to form as Yemen plunged into civil war, and intense clashes between STC and pro-government forces in Aden in January 2018 foreshadowed the recent upsurge in violence. 

As a result of these long-standing grievances and material support from the UAE, the STC has emerged as southern Yemen’s dominant faction. Because the UN Security Council continues to support a united Yemen, the STC has been excluded from UN-backed peace negotiations on Yemen, and the STC hopes that its seizure of Aden will reverse this trend. The STC could hold a referendum on south Yemeni independence to rally international support for its cause, but the precedents of Somaliland in 2001 and Iraqi Kurdistan in 2017 demonstrate that large referendum victories do not necessarily lead to independence. The short-term best-case scenario for the STC is autonomy within a federal system, which will secure the UAE’s interests on the Red Sea but fall short of the STC’s goals.

North and South: Who Benefits from a Divided Yemen?
Sergey Serebrov
There is a growing understanding of the threats to the country’s political future in both parts of Yemen, a nation long riven by political division and foreign military intervention. This trend is also evident in the disturbing and bloody events of August 2019 in Aden. The growing self-awareness in the North and South proves that the political doom – projected by the supporters of the theory that the entire republican period of the country's development was a failure – is a myth.
Expert Opinions

Although the short-term prospects for south Yemeni independence are remote, the STC’s triumph in Aden has potentially significant geopolitical implications. The UAE’s partial drawdown from Yemen forced Saudi Arabia to take full control over anti-Houthi military operations, and Abu Dhabi’s creation of a second theater of confrontation in Aden further undercuts Riyadh’s ambitions. In order to reset bilateral relations, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed met with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in Mecca to discuss Yemen. After their meeting, both leaders vowed to combat common security threats in the Gulf region and resolve the crisis in Aden through political means. The STC’s refusal to withdraw from its freshly captured territories in Aden has dashed hopes for a swift Saudi-UAE rapprochement on Yemen, and the Arab coalition will likely remain fraught with internal discord for the foreseeable future.

The Houthis could benefit from increased Saudi-UAE tensions, as a two-front war will heap increased pressure on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to accept a peace settlement. In order to expedite this outcome, Houthi rebels have launched drone strikes on Saudi targets, and these attacks could become more frequent, as the Houthis try to weaken Saudi Arabia’s resolve. The ultimate goal for the Houthis is the implementation of a peace agreement, which grants them sovereign authority over northern Yemen. The Houthis also hope that STC’s seizure of Aden will lead to a revision of UNSC Resolution 2216, which institutionalizes Hadi’s legitimacy.

US Policy in Yemen: Applying Pressure on Trump
Adam Baron
Long referred to as “the forgotten war,” Yemen has emerged at the forefront of discussions in Washington. Longstanding opponents of the United States’ role in the conflict won their first major victory on the November 28th when the senate voted to allow a measure calling for an end US support for the war in Yemen. This marked the most significant rebuke to the Saudis since the start of the conflict—and just the latest sign of increasing tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia following the murder of Jamal al-Khashoggi in Istanbul.
Expert Opinions

Iran strongly supports the Houthi campaign for recognition, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s historic meeting with Houthi chief diplomat Mohammed Abdulsalam in Tehran on August 13 illustrates the strength of the Iran-Houthi alliance. Although Khamenei publicly criticized “Saudi-led plots to divide Yemen” after his meeting with Abdulsalam, Iran could capitalize on Saudi-UAE tensions over Yemen by stepping up its diplomatic engagement with Abu Dhabi. If Saudi Arabia remains unable to divert military resources from Yemen and towards the Persian Gulf, Iran could eventually co-opt Riyadh into accepting a maritime security pact modelled after the Tehran-Abu Dhabi deal on August 1.

Although the STC’s seizure of Aden is unlikely to result in the swift creation of an independent south Yemeni state modelled after the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), the STC’s actions will have lasting geopolitical reverberations. As tensions between the STC and Hadi’s government show few signs of ebbing, Iran and the Houthis could emerge as the unintended beneficiaries of the STC’s triumph in Aden.  

North and South: Who Benefits from a Divided Yemen?
Sergey Serebrov
There is a growing understanding of the threats to the country’s political future in both parts of Yemen, a nation long riven by political division and foreign military intervention. This trend is also evident in the disturbing and bloody events of August 2019 in Aden. The growing self-awareness in the North and South proves that the political doom – projected by the supporters of the theory that the entire republican period of the country's development was a failure – is a myth.
Expert Opinions
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.