The war in Yemen is entering a dangerous new phase. Militias that allied together to drive the Houthi rebels – the primary enemy of the Saudi-led coalition – from the south in 2015 are in 2018 turning against each other. Aspirations for southern secession have risen significantly since then, pitting forces loyal to President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi against separatists who call themselves the Southern Transitional Council (STC).
Saudi Arabia is supporting the former while the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is backing the latter. The UAE is part of the Saudi-led coalition that is at war against the Houthis, a Zaidi Shiite rebel group that still controls the capital Sanaa.
Peter Salisbury, a senior consulting fellow covering the Middle East and North Africa for Chatham House, warns that if the south secedes before a political settlement is brokered, it would derail current UN-led peace talks.
Despite the warnings, separatists appear to be gunning for independence at any cost. On 28 January 2018, the STC declared a state of emergency in the port city of Aden and vowed to overthrow Hadi’s government, which fled there from Sanaa in late 2017. Fighters from the STC surrounded the presidential palace in Aden two days later, forcing the prime minister of the internationally recognized government to flee. Saudi Arabia eventually mediated a ceasefire, yet tensions remain high.
The STC has long wanted independence for south Yemen, which it had before it unified with the north in 1990. Since then, separatists have been at odds with the central government in Sanaa – a body that Hadi has presided over since 2012 – accusing it of corruption and marginalizing the south.
Outbreaks of violence between pro-government forces and fighters loyal to the STC is a result of these outstanding grievances, claims senior Yemeni analyst for International Crisis Group’s April Longley Alley.
“[The recent fighting] shows how the war has shattered the country, fracturing it along historical divides,” she told the Washington Post. “The narrative of a ‘legitimate government’ fighting the ‘Iranian-backed Houthis’ obscures a complex local reality, and it hinders efforts to achieve peace.”
“It’s going to be quite hard for the international power brokers, and this includes the Yemeni government themselves, to marginalize the STC to the extent that they’ve been marginalizing them before,” added Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
If fighting escalates between separatists and pro-government militias, it could damage the relationship between the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The former is particularly antagonistic towards Islah, a Sunni Islamist party that serves as Saudi Arabia’s and the Hadi government’s dominant ally. Never mind that the UAE is supporting its own so-called pro-autonomy Salafists in the conflict.
Complicating matters further, the UAE is cooperating with the United States (US) in a secretive counter-terrorism campaign that relies almost entirely on secessionist groups. The UAE is charged with administering prisons where captured suspects are held, tortured and then interrogated by US officers. Members of Islah are believed to be detained alongside al-Qaeda militants in these prisons.
The counter-insurgency, however, risks backfiring. Groups like al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (IS) rapidly expanded in the south shortly after the Saudi-led coalition started its bombing campaign. Now, with the UAE-backed separatists combating these jihadist groups, AQAP is stoking fears about the Emiratis’ long-term plan for Yemen.
Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Pembroke College, wrote that tribes in the east believe that the UAE is favouring militants who support southern independence. Some tribal leaders, she claims, also suspect that the UAE has commercial interests in Yemen, which is why separatist forces have helped the UAE control key ports as well as oil and gas production.
Most of all, the assassination of imams, arbitrary arrests and use of torture inside the secret prisons risks generating a community backlash against separatist groups. If that happens, Kendall warns, extremists like AQAP could stand to gain more influence and power.
Separatist factions are nonetheless weighing their options now that they have external support from the UAE. But Salisbury notes that the Emirates’ long-term plan for the south remains ambivalent. One Western diplomat reportedly told him that the UAE is merely interested in “testing their ability to shape events across the region”. The problem, he added, is that they are not telling anyone what their goal is.
Whatever it might be, conquering the Yemeni island of Socotra is clearly part of the plan. On 3 May 2018, UAE troops took over the strategic airport and seaport. The Independent reported that the Emirates has all but annexed Yemen’s sovereign island, building military bases and setting up communication networks. It has also reportedly flown civilians on the island into the UAE for free medical care while giving 5,000 men jobs by recruiting them as soldiers.
Yet other residents on the island are suspicious of the UAE’s presence. Some demonstrations have already taken place in Socotra’s capital Hadibu. The Hadi government also told reporters that the occupation of Socotra is an act of hostility.
The current trajectory of the conflict risks making an already volatile situation even worse. In the south, the possibility of outright secession or an escalating conflict between coalition forces in Aden are both likely scenarios. In the case of the former, the formation of an independent state could eventually lead to clashes with sectarian groups, predicts Salisbury.
The government, meanwhile, is in a tough spot. Not only is it losing territory to its coalition ‘ally’, but some STC members reportedly told Salisbury that they have resorted to force to acquire greater representation in the government as well as more leverage in UN-mediated talks. But Hadi remains reluctant to accede to separatist demands, fearing that other groups with long-standing grievances would also turn to violence to achieve political aims.
That might be so, but Salisbury believes that policymakers can no longer neglect the grievances of separatists in the south. The UN and the international community, he stresses, must host more inclusive peace talks while Saudi Arabia and the UAE should attempt to harmonize their strategy to avoid further clashes between coalition-backed forces.
These measures will not address the grievances in the south, but they could at least mitigate the violence and spare more loss of life. As for Socotra, the UAE’s arrival suggests that no part of the country is secure as long as Yemen is fragmented. In any event, Yemen is clearly far more complex than a two-sided proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as it is often framed. It is a battleground where regional interests and historical divisions have converged, resulting in one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of our time.