Southern Yemen Wants Independence—but at What Cost?

November 30, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: YemenSouthern YemenYemeni DependenceHouthisCivil War

Southern Yemen Wants Independence—but at What Cost?

Yemen's bloody civil war continues.

Editor's Note: A power-sharing agreement signed Nov. 5 between the government of Yemeni President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council marks an end to their current split while advancing the separatist southern group's ambitions of national political legitimacy. However, as this assessment originally published Sept. 19 points out, while the deal may paper over the rifts between the forces cooperating in the fight against Houthi rebels, the country's underlying northern-southern divisions will likely surface again.

Since 2015, the southern Yemeni city of Aden has been the site of several major clashes between the U.N.-recognized government of President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council (STC). But the latest bout of fighting between the partners nominally aligned in the battle against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels has, for the first time, left the port city largely under STC control — demonstrating the separatist group's ability to take ground from the Yemeni government and retain control of it. 

Bolstered by years of military, economic and political support by the United Arab Emirates, the STC now has the opportunity to build up shadow institutions and governing capabilities in Aden that will bring the group closer to achieving its ultimate goal: restoring an independent South Yemen. But doing so will mean drawing resources from the Saudi-led coalition's broader fights against Houthi rebels and jihadist groups — and potentially inviting backlash from other southerners seeking to stake their claim to the war-torn country's future. 

Chasing the Dream of Independence

On Aug. 1, a Houthi missile struck a coalition military parade in the port city of Aden — killing a popular STC commander and up to 46 others. But rather than take revenge on the Houthis, the STC blamed the Hadi administration, claiming the Muslim Brotherhood movement al-Islah (a nominal Hadi ally) aided in the attack. The STC has since embarked on a campaign against the Hadi government, with its Emirati backers even launching airstrikes on Hadi-aligned forces on Aug. 29. After the dust settled, the STC retained hold of Aden — leaving the Hadi administration with little influence in the most strategically important city in southern Yemen. 

With control of Aden, the STC's advantage over the Yemeni government has never been bigger. But the group still faces significant roadblocks in pursuing its long-sought aspiration of restoring South Yemen. For one, international diplomacy on Yemen is still centered largely on the Hadi-Houthi conflict. The lead backers of the anti-Houthi coalition — namely, the United States, the United Nations and Saudi Arabia — have shown no signs of shifting that focus, as they see the south and the STC ultimately playing a minor role under a unified Yemeni government. Indeed, in a region already riddled with border disputes and proto-states, the prospect of a fracturing Yemen remains a tough sell from a global standpoint.

Without full control of the south, the STC also has yet to gain the on-the-ground leverage it needs to force its way into these international talks. And expanding its influence will prove no easy feat, as the organization does not represent all of the region's broad swath of factions, tribes and citizens. Given its locus of power in Aden, the STC has ideological and political differences with the interior provinces of southern Yemen, such as Hadramawt and al-Mahra. The STC's leader, Aiderous al-Zubaidi, has rivals for power in the south.

Thus, an independent South Yemen remains a distant dream. But in the meantime, the STC can still build de facto sovereignty with control of the region's largest city. In doing so, the STC will slowly build up governing capacity and could then use the city as a base to extend its power into new territories held by the Hadi administration. The council could also use the leverage of controlling Aden to gain a greater say in a unified national government — increasing its chances of being taken seriously in international diplomacy involving Yemen.

The Saudi-Emirati Split 

The STC's recent success in Aden can in part be attributed to a long-standing policy rift between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in Yemen. The Emiratis and Saudis are still seemingly aligned in the fight against Houthi rebels to restore Hadi's U.N.-backed authority over the country. But Abu Dhabi is also updating its regional strategy to one that includes focusing less on the Houthi threat in Yemen and more on consolidating its gains through proxies like the STC. This shift has subsequently left Riyadh in the lurch. While Saudi Arabia continues to broadly push back on the Houthis, the Emiratis have decided — seemingly unilaterally — to deprioritize this effort in favor of maintaining their influence in southern Yemen, especially in key port cities like Aden. 

Despite this growing rift, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have sought to uphold an image of unity on Yemeni policy. But Abu Dhabi's actions on the ground tell a different story. After striking Hadi-aligned forces in support of the STC on Aug. 29, Emiratis promptly and publicly claimed responsibility for the attack. This move demonstrated that for Abu Dhabi, a thriving STC is currently more important than a legitimate, unified Yemeni government, at least under the Hadi administration, which has a strained relationship with Abu Dhabi. 

Bolstered by years of military, economic and political support by the United Arab Emirates, the STC now has the opportunity to build up shadow institutions and governing capabilities in Aden that will bring the group closer to achieving its ultimate goal: restoring an independent South Yemen. But doing so will mean drawing resources from the Saudi-led coalition's broader fights against Houthi rebels and jihadist groups — and potentially inviting backlash from other southerners seeking to stake their claim to the war-torn country's future. 

Chasing the Dream of Independence

On Aug. 1, a Houthi missile struck a coalition military parade in the port city of Aden — killing a popular STC commander and up to 46 others. But rather than take revenge on the Houthis, the STC blamed the Hadi administration, claiming the Muslim Brotherhood movement al-Islah (a nominal Hadi ally) aided in the attack. The STC has since embarked on a campaign against the Hadi government, with its Emirati backers even launching airstrikes on Hadi-aligned forces on Aug. 29. After the dust settled, the STC retained hold of Aden — leaving the Hadi administration with little influence in the most strategically important city in southern Yemen. 

With control of Aden, the STC's advantage over the Yemeni government has never been bigger. But the group still faces significant roadblocks in pursuing its long-sought aspiration of restoring South Yemen. For one, international diplomacy on Yemen is still centered largely on the Hadi-Houthi conflict. The lead backers of the anti-Houthi coalition — namely, the United States, the United Nations and Saudi Arabia — have shown no signs of shifting that focus, as they see the south and the STC ultimately playing a minor role under a unified Yemeni government. Indeed, in a region already riddled with border disputes and proto-states, the prospect of a fracturing Yemen remains a tough sell from a global standpoint.

Without full control of the south, the STC also has yet to gain the on-the-ground leverage it needs to force its way into these international talks. And expanding its influence will prove no easy feat, as the organization does not represent all of the region's broad swath of factions, tribes and citizens. Given its locus of power in Aden, the STC has ideological and political differences with the interior provinces of southern Yemen, such as Hadramawt and al-Mahra. The STC's leader, Aiderous al-Zubaidi, has rivals for power in the south.

Thus, an independent South Yemen remains a distant dream. But in the meantime, the STC can still build de facto sovereignty with control of the region's largest city. In doing so, the STC will slowly build up governing capacity and could then use the city as a base to extend its power into new territories held by the Hadi administration. The council could also use the leverage of controlling Aden to gain a greater say in a unified national government — increasing its chances of being taken seriously in international diplomacy involving Yemen.

The Saudi-Emirati Split 

The STC's recent success in Aden can in part be attributed to a long-standing policy rift between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in Yemen. The Emiratis and Saudis are still seemingly aligned in the fight against Houthi rebels to restore Hadi's U.N.-backed authority over the country. But Abu Dhabi is also updating its regional strategy to one that includes focusing less on the Houthi threat in Yemen and more on consolidating its gains through proxies like the STC. This shift has subsequently left Riyadh in the lurch. While Saudi Arabia continues to broadly push back on the Houthis, the Emiratis have decided — seemingly unilaterally — to deprioritize this effort in favor of maintaining their influence in southern Yemen, especially in key port cities like Aden.