Friends of South Yemen

Pattern strip

Three missed opportunities to establish autonomy

Yemen today can be compared to a rudderless ship with several captains at odds with each other steering it onto the rocks where disintegration is inevitable.

The Houthis in the north are trying to motor full speed ahead with the establishment of a fundamentalist Shia theocracy supported by Iran. The internationally recognized government, led by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, is rearranging chairs on a ship that’s going down by trying to set up a government where ministerial positions are shared equally between North and South - but the Southerners will never share power with hardline Islamists. The Southern Transitional Council (STC) cannot make up its mind about autonomy. It declared self-rule, rescinded the declaration after two months and is now once again saying that secession from the North is the only solution to the country’s unrest.

While the Houthis are speaking through the barrel of a gun, for the rest of the country the Riyadh Agreement brokered in November last year to enable the STC and Hadi’s government to share power is the only game in town. But this game is on an extended time out period.

In return for rescinding the self-rule declaration on July 29th, the STC agreed to abide by the Riyadh Agreement and a new government should have been formed within 30 days. This has not happened. STC leaders are ensconced in their residences in Riyadh and its head, President Aidaroos Qassem Al-Zubaidi, is addressing meetings in Aden through video calls.

As the political stalemate continues, Yemen is in the grip of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, eloquently described by Tim Loughton, the Chair of the British All Parliamentary Group on Yemen, as the most lethal and complex cocktail: an extended and seemingly insoluble civil war with international ramifications; various other man-made disasters; numerous natural disasters and potentially catastrophic environmental ones; an economic meltdown; and now, on top of it all, a deadly pandemic that Yemen was least prepared and equipped to deal with.

The STC missed three golden opportunities to advance the case for Southern statehood: in 2015 when the Houthis were kicked out of Aden, in 2016 when the STC was set up, and in 2020 when it rescinded the self-rule declaration.

Commenting on these watersheds in the movement’s history FOSY’s Chairman Abdul Galil Shaif Kasim pointed out that in 2015 the Houthis, having overthrown Hadi’s government, decided to invade South Yemen so that they could exert political and military control over the whole of Yemen. But the Southern movement (Hirak) and its local Adeni supporters who were adamant about establishing their own state in the South fought back and with Emirati forces, part of the Saudi-led coalition, drove the Houthis out of Aden after they had been in the city for at least one month.

Hadi immediately appointed Al-Zubaidi as governor of Aden and other Southerners to leadership positions throughout the South. These Southern governors could have taken control of state institutions. Hadi fired Al Zubaidi and other southerners because of the influence of Islah with the presidency. Their inaction was a missed opportunity to take over state institutions while they were in authority.

The formation of the STC in Aden 2016 inspired hope that an independent state in the South was no longer a fata morgana. The movement had huge support throughout the south and the weakening authority of Hadi’s government, which had become a government-in-exile based in Saudi Arabia, placed the STC in an ideal negotiating position on the regional and international stage. But once again it failed to step up to the plate and its weakness in taking decisive political action during the last five years enabled Hadi to make political and military in roads into Hadhramaut, Shabwa and parts of Abyan.

Though the STC are nominal allies in a Saudi-led military coalition fighting the Houthis, the rivalry between the STC and Hadi’s government has led to a civil war within a civil war and the historic struggle between the south and the central government continues, opening old wounds.

Pressure from the Saudis prompted the STC’s declaration of self-rule in Aden in 2020, a move designed to influence the coalition to put more pressure on Hadi, to be abandoned in the hope that the Riyadh Agreement, always honoured more in the breach than in the observance, would finally be implemented. This lost the STC credibility within its own ranks and with the southern population. Southerners see themselves cheated out of their own state while others feel that ending the military conflict means accepting that independence is a long process and that kicking the ball into the long grass may be the only option feasible for now.

The STC’s survival as a political force for independence will be dependent on the way it explains the current complexities to its supporters and on the effectiveness of whatever new government, when and if it is formed, in providing critical services to the public. Many Southerners have become more concerned about the deteriorating economic situation, lack of electricity and clean water, and less concerned about the structure of their state.

President Al-Zubaidi chairs a meeting of the STC Council
by video link from Riyadh

The conflict will most likely continue until both the STC and the Yemeni state have weakened significantly to provide the coalition with an opportunity to shape the political road map of Yemen in its own political and economic terms. But not all Southerners accept the controlling hand of Saudi Arabia and the UAE and some describe the coalition’s forces as occupation forces. Other Southern leaders and movements may replace the STC as the main player in South Yemen’s political game. (See Issue 3 of South Yemen Update for a guide to the South’s political parties and groups). Some Southern politicians hostile to the STC are making alliances with Turkey and Qatar which could lead to the creation of a new coalition. The Arab Weekly reported that Turkish intelligence activities, under the umbrella of humanitarian work, have increased, possibly preparing the ground for Turkish intervention in the southern provinces.

Riyadh knows that there is no military solution to the war in Yemen. At one point it was spending $5 billion a month supporting Hadi’s government. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman ignored Yemen’s history of frustrating invaders. He thought it would be short and sharp. Five years on, it has proved to be anything but. Now, with the possibility of a Biden victory in the U.S., which could spell the end of Washington’s support, there is more impetus to find some kind of resolution that will allow the Saudis to secure their border and minimize Iran’s support for the Houthis.

It is time for the STC to stop selling, bargaining, compromising and trading with Southern statehood. It has to ensure the South emerges from this brouhaha with a sovereign state. It has lost three major battles but the war can still be won. Every great crisis presents a great opportunity.

Karen Dabrowska - October 2020