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.
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.
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.