The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen finds itself locked in a fight with separatists in the South, who have seized military bases and the presidential palace. The coalition officially supports the government of President Hadi who lives in Saudi Arabia. As many as 40 people have been killed and 260 injured since August 7 when clashes began between government forces and separatists supporting the Southern Transitional Council. When the Houthis took over Sana’a, the government moved to the large southern port of Aden. In 2017, the secessionist Southern Transitional Council was created in Aden. Why is the split between southerners and northerners only growing more pronounced? Could this lead to the reemergence of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in the south? Why does the UAE support separatists in the South while Saudi Arabia backs the supporters of Hadi? How will this affect the future coalition? How do the Houthis stand to benefit from the confrontation in the South? What will Iran do?
The conflict between the two wings of the Arab Coalition (AC) in Yemen, essentially comprising its leader, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, took shape in 2016 in response to disagreements over the strategy for the military campaign in Yemen and the choice of Yemeni partners to carry it out. It was the UAE that initiated the military operation in the South in April 2016, using local paramilitary forces trained and equipped by the UAE military to liberate almost the entire Arabian Sea coast in Yemen from the control of Ansar al-Sharia, a group loyal to the leaders of the banned terrorist group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This group tried to proclaim the so-called Islamic Emirates in the South in 2011 and by April 2015 had seized almost all the major port cities of the South – from Ash-Shihr in the east to Zinjibar 50 km from Aden in the west, without any serious resistance from the AC. The terrorists’ imperious claims in the South, which had pledged loyalty to the AC, shocked the local population, which had been fighting radical Islamists consistently for over 15 years. The establishment of quasi-administrative bodies in these cities by the Islamists was accompanied by violence against the local Sunni population. The terrorists brought in several Salafi Islamist groups that had access to the Yemeni Muslim Brothers from the Al-Islah party, which was imposing its religious rules – new to the local population and intolerant of previous Yemeni customs – all throughout Yemen.
In September 2014, Al-Islah suffered a political defeat in the North from the emerging alliance between the Houthi Movement, Ansarullah, and General People's Congress (GPC), Ali Abdullah Saleh’s party, which remained in power for about 30 years, first in the YAR, and after the 1990 unification, in the YR. But the real reason for the defeat of Al-Islah was its leaders’ loss of support from the largest tribal confederations of the North – Hashid and Bakil. Their sheikhs, keen to avoid religious division in their tribes – traditionally part of the Zaydi community – refused to fight the Houthi on the side of the Muslim Brothers, which ended their long conflict in favor of the alliance. The Al-Islah leaders fled to Riyadh, describing the Houthis’ peaceful entry into Sana'a on September 21, 2014 as a “coup,” although President Hadi remained at his post in Sana'a until he voluntarily ceded power on January 22, 2015 by submitting his resignation to parliament.
In March 2015, the leaders of Al-Islah announced support for Hadi as the legitimate president and took the leading wartime positions in his administration. In early 2016, the informal leader of the party’s military wing, General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, was appointed deputy commander and vice president of Yemen. That appointment led to an emerging rift in the AC between the pro-Saudi and pro-UAE wings. The Yemenis’ attitude towards the general and the Al-Islah party determined, to a certain extent, the subsequent shifts in political sentiment both in the North and in the South.
Although the UAE-led antiterrorist military operation in the southern port cities was bloodless, and the militants were allowed to leave the cities and move to their camps with their weapons to avoid civilian casualties, it clearly showed that the UAE and the majority of the population of the South would not tolerate AQAP terrorists or even Muslim Brothers from the Al-Islah party in this part of the country.
In May 2017, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) was established in the South, headed by Aidarus al-Zoubaidi who had been dismissed the day before by President Hadi as governor of the Aden province. The STC’s founders include almost all the governors of southern provinces (former PDRY); its political manifesto was the program of Al-Hirak, the secessionist Southern Movement, established in 2007 with the declared goal of restoring the sovereignty and independence of the South. Even split into many factions and regional branches, Al-Hirak undoubtedly remained the most influential ideological force in the South, steering political processes and sentiment there. STC predictably joined the pro-UAE wing of the AC, getting all the assistance from the UAE they needed. This factor also determined the STC’s position among other political influence centers in the Al-Hirak system: it remained a part of the AC and continued to formally support the legitimacy of President Hadi, who remained in Riyadh despite the obvious deviation from his policy of maintaining the unity of Yemen. At the same time, the STC supported the AC’s anti-Houthi line in Yemen, calling them agents of Iranian expansionism, but that move was more about achieving a complete break with Sana’a than returning President Hadi to power.
In 2018, the conflict between the two flanks of the AC camp began to spread to parts of the South quite far away from Aden, which were completely free from the Houthi – the Socotra Archipelago, Hadhramaut, Mahrah, and Shabwah. All these southern provinces had one thing in common – their significant geopolitical value. Certain factions of Al-Hirak that were not members of the STC, suspected the AC of plans to divide the South into zones of influence disregarding the will of the southerners, and launched protests to end the “AC occupation policy.”
The situation in the South in 2018 was also aggravated by the STC leadership’s support for Southern paramilitary forces’ (Al Amalaqah Brigades) involvement in the Golden Victory offensive on the North Yemeni port of Hodeidah, which was later considered the key operation of the protracted and stalled military campaign in Yemen. Earlier, Al-Hirak categorically refused to fight against the Houthi alliance forces outside the 1990 borders of the PDRY. It was not until January 2017 that new paramilitary South Yemeni units created by the UAE first crossed the invisible border of the former People’s Democratic Republic to join the AC operations in the vicinity of the northern Yemeni city of Taiz. In June 2018, the UN intervened cutting off the AC forces’ offensive on Hodeidah, where they would have engaged in tough and bloody battles with the forces of the Sana’a alliance. The reason for the international organization’s intervention was international experts’ projections of an inevitable and unprecedented humanitarian collapse in Yemen, where 80% of the local population had become dependent on external humanitarian assistance. The blocking of the port of Hodeidah would have endangered the lives of millions of civilians, as 70% of humanitarian goods were shipped through it.
The southerners’ involvement in the war in the North – while the AC parties installed their stationary military facilities on the territory of the South, dissociated from the war with the Houthis, where many of the military camps of President Hadi remained under the command of General Ali Mohsen – began to destabilize the South.
The process culminated in the events of early August 2019 in Aden, when the pro-UAE wing command responded to the August 1 terrorist attacks on its special forces leadership, which the STC blamed on the Al-Islah party and Muslim Brothers, by ordering to seizure of the Maashiq presidential palace and military camps in Aden controlled by the Saudi wing of the coalition. The fighting lasted three days, from August 7–9, leaving 40 dead and 260 injured; on August 10, the STC announced it was in full control of Aden. But for the whole of August, the death toll easily exceeded one hundred. And that was followed by a political demand to delegate power to the STC in the South on behalf of President Hadi. In all likelihood, this will become the main subject of the next meeting in Riyadh that STC President Eidros Al-Zubaidi agreed to attend.
It would be premature to make any projections about how the conflict in the AC might develop from here. This is just part of a larger ball of contradictions that had existed in Yemen even before the foreign intervention, but have now reemerged in a new shape as a result of the disastrous war. Neighboring powers are vying in pursuit of their geopolitical interests in Yemen, and this fact keeps interfering with local developments, upsetting the balance of power between Yemen’s centers of political influence located in Aden and Sana'a.
Iran’s involvement in the Yemen conflict as the military campaign enters its fifth year is highly doubtful. Whether the Houthis are acting in the wake of Tehran’s policies, or their ideology is a manifestation of Shiite solidarity or a reaction to the divisions and conflicts engulfing the Middle East is a debatable issue. The absolute dominance of Ansarullah, a movement 50% comprised of the former ruling party GPC, in the the coalition regime established in Sana'a in August 2016 and having proved resilient since then, is equally dubious. The Sana'a-based core of the GPC still enjoys strong support both in cities and especially in the tribes, not to mention the bureaucracy, the army, and the parliament also reestablished that year. These aspects of the war have long been obscured by simplistic arguments about civil war and Iranian intervention spread by the media and politicians.
The conflict in Yemen requires a political dialogue aimed at restoring the country's statehood in a format that would meet the demands of its people. Apparently, there can be no return to the original political process – led by the UN and interrupted by the intervention – after the dramatic changes in the political scene of Yemen over the war years. However, UN mediation still can and should help select, as soon as possible, the best formats for a speedy settlement in Yemen with the participation of the new Yemeni centers of political influence that established themselves before they became too numerous. The threat of the collapse of the entire security system of Arabia is growing as this war continues. The main lesson to be drawn from it is that the sovereignty and independence of Yemen are the only guarantees of stability and security in this part of Arabia, including in the strategic international zone of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, whose importance to the world economy continues to rise.
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. The events in Aden are also an incentive for the AC command to switch to a peaceful track, following the example of the UAE, which announced on July 8, 2019 that their military contingent in Yemen was being reduced and their continued involvement would be predominantly political. Sticking to the current paradigm will inevitably cause new tensions in Saudi-UAE relations, completely destabilizing the entire oil-rich peninsula.