Although the fighting in the south has stopped for the time being, there’s this possibility that the prevailing agitating atmosphere in the south could easily lead to a full fledged armed conflict between the Hadi government and the southern separatists.
[Manish Rai | Oped Column Magazine]
Separatists demanding secession of southern Yemen had recently captured Aden, a strategically important port city situated in the south of Yemen, further complicating the situation in an already war-torn country.
This move effectively has started a civil war within a civil war, as Aden is currently the seat of exiled Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government.
On August 10, the southern separatist group, namely the Southern Transitional Council (STC), has taken effective control of Aden after four days of fierce battles that killed at least 40.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE), which, until recently, was deemed to be Saudi Arabia’s strong partner in the ongoing Yemen war, has been backing the southern separatists for a while now.
The recent clashes are not the first time the two sides – the forces loyal to Hadi’s government and the southern separatists – had engaged in deadly fighting. Previously, in January 2018, three days of battle between these two sides had killed dozens and wounded hundreds in Aden.
THREE POWER CENTRES IN YEMEN WAR
Alongside multiple militias, there are now three defacto power centres in today’s Yemen:
- the Iran-backed Houthis, who control capital Sana’a and the northern towns,
- the UAE-backed southern separatists who are strong in and around Aden, and
- the internationally recognised Hadi government that runs its operations from Saudi Arabia.
While the fight against the Houthis has largely stalled, the conflict between Hadi government and southern separatists is gaining momentum.
Saudi and Emirati governments have issued statements supporting unity and legitimacy in Yemen after officials from both sides held discussions.
Although a temporary stalemate has set-in accordingly, there is little guarantee that the joint Saudi-Emirati appeal will be heeded on the ground in Aden. Current situation in the south is very fragile and clashes may erupt anytime.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF NORTH AND SOUTH YEMEN
The Yemen Arab Republic and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen were two formerly independent countries which were united into one-fold in 1990 to establish today’s Republic of Yemen. While the Arab Republic was consisted of northern parts of Yemen, the Democratic Republic was consisted of southern parts of Yemen.
These two parts had never been formally unified prior to 1990, but were developed along different political and religious lines.
There are tracks of Zaydi Shia influence on northern parts of Yemen, as it was once ruled by a Zaydi Shia theocratic imam.
Southern parts of Yemen had a different history. It had been largely ungoverned due to its sparse population and harsh environment, though there are tracks of brief Ottoman and Ayyubi rule.
In the nineteenth century, southern parts of Yemen became a British colony and used by the British to service ships en-route to India.
Fast forward to 1994, northern and southern parts of Yemen were merged with the intention to bring-about economic prosperity and better governance. Unfortunately, this merger was never implemented in its true spirit.
What’s worse, this unification left many southerners with unaddressed grievances about representation in the new-formed central government and the distribution of state resources.
These southern grievances persisted and later became strong through a secessionist civil war in 1994 and the subsequent rise of the grassroots separatist movement, known as Southern Movement (or Hirak), in 2007.
FULL-FLEDGED CONFLICT COULD ERUPT
The recent massive rally in support of the STC’s takeover of Aden reflects that even today widespread grassroots support for secession persists in the south.
Although the fighting in the south has stopped for the time being, there’s this possibility that the prevailing agitating atmosphere in the south could easily lead to a full-fledged armed conflict between the Hadi government and the southern separatists.
Reports coming from local officials on the ground suggest that both sides are gathering troops and military hardware — a situation that hints towards renewed escalation.
There’s a believe that the government forces have been preparing in the oil-producing Shabwa province to recapture the neighbouring Abyan region and the port city of Aden.
As both sides have powerful backers, this incoming conflict is unlikely to be over soon.
IRAN AND AL-QAEDA WOULD BENEFIT FROM A DIVIDED YEMEN
A divided Yemen would result in years of on-and-off war between the north and south.
While Iran would, in a divided Yemen, deepen its relationship with the Houthis in the north and make it a permanent client-state, South Yemen would become a safe-operating-zone for militant groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Hence, a divided Yemen is a perfect recipe for chronic instability and conflict in a geographic area that occupies a strategic position along one of the world’s most important trade routes.
It would, therefore, be catastrophic for the international community and the Arab world to remain as mute spectators of this conflict, which has the potential to divide the country into two new chaotic and problematic entities.
DECENTRALIZED FEDERALIST STATE
Turning Yemen into a decentralized federalist state – that provides equal degrees of autonomy and resource sharing to southern separatists and other traditionally independent regions in Yemen, including the north – might lay the foundations of a peaceful, stable and united future Yemeni state.
All sides must start working for an immediate de-escalation of the conflict. The first step toward achieving this de-escalation could be the reduced roles for outside powers, allowing Yemenis come in forefront and decide for themselves.
There’s also an urgent necessity for talks between the Hadi government and the southern separatists so that some legitimate demands of the southerners – such as better representation in the government – could be addressed immediately.
Failing to do so would drag Yemen into another bloody conflict that would only add to the ongoing sufferings of the Yemeni population.
Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geopolitical news agency Viewsaround.