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.

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.

The United Arab Emirates' shift in strategy is the result of several factors. The growing threat of being engulfed in an increasingly likely U.S.-Iran confrontation, for one, has lowered Abu Dhabi's overall risk tolerance in the Gulf region. Meanwhile, in Yemen, the military situation with the Houthis has largely stagnated ever since the United Arab Emirates led an offensive in 2018 against the port city of al-Hudaydah. As a result, putting forces on the front lines against Houthis has yielded fewer and fewer gains over the past year — while placing Abu Dhabi squarely in the rebels' crosshairs, with the Houthis building up capabilities to strike the Emirati homeland. Key allies, such as the United States, the United Kingdom and France, are also still trying to fend off other local Yemeni forces looking to punish the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for their involvement in Yemen's civil war. 

Thus, for Abu Dhabi, the risks of actively combating the Houthis outweigh the benefits. But that doesn't mean the United Arab Emirates will simply abandon Yemen altogether and forfeit the gains it has made there. Its continued support of the STC suggests it plans to stick around for some time to come. 

Widening Yemen's War

But this shift southward poses its own set of security risks, as the northern-based Houthis will capitalize on the uptick in STC-Hadi infighting to press their claims. With the Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia now partially focused on mitigating the STC challenge in Aden, fewer resources will be available to stem Houthi attacks — leaving the rebel group with ample opportunity to roll back some of the coalition's military positions.

But Houthis aren't the only ones who stand to benefit. The STC is also a potent foe of Yemeni jihadists, including those associated with al Qaeda and the Islamic State. And like the anti-Houthi front, the STC's preoccupation with fighting Hadi-backed forces will leave it with fewer resources to counter extremists. Amid the influx of more internal clashes, there's a chance that some disillusioned Yemenis could be tempted to join the jihadists, whose draconian Islamist vision for the country — while radical — at least promises some return to order. 

The risks of both Houthi gains and extremist revivals in Yemen could eventually compel the United Arab Emirates to counsel an end to the STC's current push against the Saudi-backed Hadi administration. But like all local proxies, the STC also has its agenda. Thus, any agreement Abu Dhabi can cajole will only paper over north-south tensions until the next opportunity arises for the group to nudge Yemen's future from being one country toward two. 

Southern Yemen Inches Toward Independence. But at What Cost? is republished with the permission of Stratfor Worldview, a geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm.

Image: Reuters.