Yemen’s vicious civil war, ongoing since 2014, has now claimed close to 400,000 lives. Yet since April 2022, this war, which initially pitted the remnants of the loyalist forces with the backing of a Saudi-led coalition against the Iran-backed Houthi regime in Sana’a, has been frozen due to a temporary ceasefire. Given that the Houthis have established a solid grip over Northern Yemen and control approximately 200,000 troops, it is hard to imagine the scattered loyalists and fatigued Saudis being able to decisively defeat them on the battlefield. As such, negotiations to end the conflict are ongoing, but there is no end in sight.
Meanwhile, the power vacuum opened by the government’s collapse allowed the rise of a third force: the Southern Transitional Government (STC). This entity hopes to reestablish an independent South Yemen and maintains effective control over Aden and the most productive areas of the region. Here, too, reverting to the status quo ante bellum appears unrealistic, and the STC will likely remain the dominant force in the South for the foreseeable future.
The United States, which officially backs the Saudi-led coalition with military and intelligence support, has few interests in Yemen other than stopping the bloodshed and stabilizing the country. Given Washington’s interests and the conflict’s intractable nature, a change in tact is required. To resolve the war in Yemen, a north-south partition of the country is necessary.
Understanding the Yemen Divide
North Yemen gained independence from the Ottoman Empire right after the end of World War I, while South Yemen remained a British protectorate until 1967. The South soon gained Soviet support, while the North grew closer to Saudi Arabia and the West. Aden and Sana’a fought two wars to unify the country until an agreement in 1990 led to a peaceful merger. However, southern separatism became a perennial problem, and tensions reemerged after the Arab Spring.
Interestingly, the current demarcation line between the Houthis and the STC roughly corresponds to the former North-South Yemen international border. Since the Houthi regime controls most of former North Yemen and the STC dominates the southern seaboard, rooting for the losing loyalists makes little sense. The loyalist government has lost control of the country’s most populous and wealthy areas. It still stands thanks only to Saudi support and has no path to victory.
Moreover, the internationally-recognized authorities are notoriously corrupt and show little concern for the Yemeni public’s well-being. The Houthis and the STC are no better, but they are the ones with effective control over Yemen’s core—the country’s future is now in their hands. Reviving the old North-South Yemeni border with a Houthi government in the north and an STC government in the south is Washington’s best bet to end the war for good.
Can America Push for a North-South Divide?
Some may disagree with Washington speaking against respect for territorial integrity. But the United States has broken with this norm in the past. It supported Montenegro’s independence from Serbia in 2006 and Kosovo’s in 2008. Moreover, it recognized South Sudan as a sovereign state in 2011 after it seceded from Sudan. At the end of the day, internationally-recognized borders are just that; a line on the map. Borders are not fixed for eternity, but merely the expression of a certain balance of power at a certain time. The United States accommodated secessionist states in the past and should do it again for South Yemen.
If the United States chose to pursue this diplomatic route, it may find support from its regional allies. The United Arab Emirates supported the rise of the STC and would readily accept a partition of Yemen. Saudi Arabia, too, has an often overlooked but essential security interest in a divided Yemen. The country’s population is almost as large as the kingdom’s, and it is growing quickly. Moreover, a robust unified Yemen could use its oil and gas reserves to kick-start its economic growth, which could in the long-term break Riyadh’s domination over the Arabian Peninsula and be a formidable competitor.
However, Riyadh might resist such a partition plan, as the Saudis have long feared the presence of a pro-Iranian Houthi stronghold on their southern border. Nevertheless, the Saudis are eager to exit the Yemeni war and have come to increasingly acknowledge that the Houthis are here to stay. Additionally, the recent thaw in Saudi-Iran relations has alleviated some of Riyadh’s concerns about Iranian clout.
Still, if diplomacy fails to sway the Saudis, light American pressure might. Washington could leverage its military support; for instance, restricting the U.S. supply of ordnance and spare parts to the Saudi Air Force would limit Riyadh’s ability to bomb the Houthis in the future. This would push Saudi Arabia toward accepting partition and a definitive peace with the Houthis. Yemen is one of the rare ongoing crises where America could reach a relative international consensus. Outside the Middle East, China, Russia, and other major powers have little stake in the Yemeni civil war’s outcome and are unlikely to oppose an American peace plan.
President Joe Biden pledged to end the Yemen war. A partition plan acknowledging realities on the ground appears as the last viable path toward a lasting settlement. The administration stands to lose nothing from trying, and a successful partition would be hailed as a major victory for U.S. diplomacy. Will Biden seize the opportunity?
Dylan Motin is a Marcellus Policy Fellow at the John Quincy Adams Society and a former visiting research fellow at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies. Dylan was named one of the Next Generation Korea Peninsula Specialists at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and a Young Leader of the Pacific Forum. His research expertise revolves around international relations theory, and his main interests are balance-of-power theory, great power competition, and Korean affairs.