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More than four years after the start of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen against the Houthi rebels, there is no sign that either side will win a decisive victory any time soon and establish control over the devastated country.
Meanwhile, with nominal international attention, the separatists in South Yemen are accumulating military power and political strength. Who are these separatists? Why do they want to secede? And is it even a viable proposition?
The Southern Transitional Council
The major separatist force in South Yemen is the Southern Transitional Council (STC). It is based in the provisional capital Aden and led by the city’s former governor Aidarous al-Zubaidi.
The STC, which is backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was established in May 2017 as a political movement striving to separate the southern part of the country from the north.
Since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, the UAE has taken a clear stance against the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world. In Yemen, the UAE supports the separatists in the south to prevent the Islamist Islah party, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate and President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s main ally, from emerging as the alternative to the Houthis, as Hadi does not enjoy wide support in Yemen.
Al-Zubaidi was the commander of southern armed groups fighting alongside the Saudi-led coalition and Hadi’s internationally recognized government against the Houthis.
Al-Zubaidi subsequently broke away from the president and formed the 26-member STC with the apparent support of the UAE, when Hadi dismissed him as the governor of Aden, accusing him of disloyalty. In the intervening two years, the STC has de facto controlled the governorates of Aden, Lahj, Abyan, al-Dhalia, and part of Shebwa, challenging the authority of both Hadi and the Houthis.
The STC’s Security Belt Forces, which are estimated to number around 90,000 fighters, seized Aden from pro-Hadi forces in early August 2019. In a typical Yemeni style, the defeated forces have not been disarmed or detained. At least 38 people were killed in three days of fighting, before the Saudi-led coalition and the UAE mediated the return of the city to government-loyalist control.
The STC leaders reiterated that the council is still a part of the anti-Houthi coalition, and will remain so, but Saudi/Emirati efforts to reconcile the separatists and Hadi, who has lived in exile in the Saudi capital Riyadh since March 2015, have so far been in vain.
Ahmed bin Fareed, the STC’s representative in Europe, told The Independent newspaper after the Aden showdown, “We accept to go to Riyadh for talks, we are still committed to the coalition, but we will not back down from our demand of a state. No one will accept a unified Yemen. South Yemen was an independent state until very recently. We want a return to our country.”
Separatist movements and sentiments are almost as old as unified Yemen itself. The former Yemen Arab Republic or North Yemen, led by Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen or South Yemen, led by Ali Salim al-Beidh, unified peacefully on 22 May 1990 to form the Republic of Yemen. Three years later, al-Beidh, then vice president, retreated to his former capital city Aden, angrily complaining of domination by the northerners and demanding immediate separation and restoration of South Yemen.
A civil war broke out between the north and south in May 1994 and ended two months later with the humiliating defeat of the southerners and Saleh’s supremacy in Sanaa.
Since then, the southerners have continued to grumble about political and economic marginalization, exclusion, and the outcome and consequences of the 1994 war, especially for the southern military personnel, thousands of whom were given early retirement or simply dismissed.
The continued marginalization of the south led to the formation of the first openly separatist movement called al-Hirak al-Ganoubi in 2007. Under the leadership of the outspoken southern politician Hassan Baoum, al-Hirak spearheaded the protests and demands for secession. The Sanaa government’s response to the protests was brutal, further escalating the separatist tendencies.
The fall of Saleh’s regime in 2011 and the loosening grip of the central government across the country encouraged al-Hirak to intensify its activities and expanded its support in the south. This culminated in the Shiite (Zaidi) Houthi rebels taking over Sanaa in September 2014, which was unacceptable to the overwhelmingly Sunni south.
Both Baoum and al-Zubaidi are known for maintaining ties with al-Beidh. From his exile in Beirut, Lebanon, al-Beidh was reportedly an active crusader for secession, with covert Iranian support, until he was forced to move to Austria in 2016.
There are also smaller and less important separatist movements and activities in other areas in the south. For instance, many residents of Hadramout Governorate have expressed aspirations for independence, claiming the governorate is different from the rest of the country.
Is separation realistic?
The southern separatists are stronger than ever before, taking advantage of the ongoing war against the Houthis in the north to bolster their position. But is separation a realistic and achievable goal?
Abdelnaser Almawda, an independent Yemeni writer, argues that separation is almost impossible, either legally or as a de facto situation.
The south makes up about two-thirds of Yemen, so it is not an insignificant area by any means. Furthermore, the north and south are inextricably integrated socially and economically. Almawda added that the STC enjoys broad support only in the governorates of Aden, Lahj, and al-Dhalia. Another important factor is that 80 percent of Yemen’s oil reserves are in the south, and no government in Sanaa can afford to run the country without them.
Even the separatists’ foreign supporters, namely the UAE, cannot afford the consequences of independent south. It is far from the UAE geographically with no common borders. A lengthy civil war would be too costly for a country with a population only 3 percent the size of Yemen’s, no matter how rich it is.
Moreover, the problems posed by a divided and potentially lawless Yemen would likely spill over into neighboring Saudi Arabia and Oman, Almawda concluded.
Any serious attempt to divide Yemen would inevitably prolong the current conflict, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis and leaving the country even more prone to regional and international intervention.