02 September 2019

Yemen: The battle for Aden. South’s secession?

Claudiu Nebunu

The situation in Aden is on the edge of an anarchy, as the forces trained by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are fighting the internationally recognized troops, led by exiled president, Absu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, supported by Saudi Arabia (SA). Fighters of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), an organization supported by UAE, whose agenda focuses mainly on South’s secession, took the control over the military bases and governmental buildings in Aden, one of the most important cities in the country. The confrontation between the forces supported by SA and UAE are revealing a sort of interests conflict between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, despite recent meetings (Monday, 12th of August, Mecca), between the crown princes of UAE and SA, Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), respectively Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), to discuss the situation in Aden and, in detail, in Yemen. How will this bear upon the field? Is South’s secession something to be considered?

Image source: Mediafax

Anarchy start…

The civil war devastated the country which was already one of the poorest and unstable countries in the world. Yemen faced a military deadlock, as the Houthi rebels, supported by Iranians, had the control over Sana’a and the biggest part of North and Center of the country, and the forces trained by SA and UAE, who were fighting to reinstate the Hadi government, however fighting over the city port Aden, in south of the country.  

After UAE’s troops withdrew from Yemen, the proxy elements got on the frontline and STC fighters took the control over many military bases and governmental buildings in Aden, in the detriment of pro-Hadi forces supported by SA.

In the middle of July, UAE withdrew most of its troops from Yemen, leaving SA the responsibility to manage this conflict. Saudi military aircrafts continue to hit Houthi targets, in north of the country, but, in the meantime, Iran has increased its logistic support for the rebels, which have attacked, with drones and missiles, some objectives on SA’s territory.

The war in Yemen is about to become a catastrophe, especially given the devastations that brought to the country. The Yemeni president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, remains in exile to Riyadh, hoping that the accredited people fighting in his behalf will win and then get back to power.

The Yemeni foreign minister has admitted STC’s victory, calling it a “coup d’état”. After some days of full silence, Riyadh asked for ceasefire.

MBS met with Hadi in the Saudi capital to discuss about crises’ worsening, but no conclusion was made.

STC forces are well equipped and trained, and organization’s agenda is focused on creating an independent Southern Yemen, a nightmare scenario for SA. STC’s efforts and the pro-Hadi ones have managed to reject the Houthi rebels from key southern areas, but could not get an advantage in other parts of the country. Arab coalition’s end led by SA is revealing a new possible deadlock.

Houthi rebels found out about their enemies who are fighting against “hotels’ government”, but also that the internationally recognized government is no longer controlling the traditional capital Sana’a, nor the offices and hotel apartments in Aden, where they were previously staying.

Not that the UAE withdrew, the war in Yemen seems to enter a new devastating phase and no side seems to get any significant advantage. For many years, the international community tried to solve the conflict in Yemen thorough negotiations, but none of them succeeded. MBZ has recently made publicly a peace initiative for Aden, joining the calls for “dialogue and ration’s prioritization to benefit Yemen and this country’s citizens”, but it is important to mention that the secessionists supported by UAE are on a force line, currently controlling all military bases and Aden’s presidential palace.

What’s happening on the field?

Separatist fighters supported by UAE have took the control over many military bases in Abyan (Yemen’s south), and the confrontations with the forces which are loyal to the internationally recognized government made many victims. Even if both parts, now in conflict, were allied in the military Coalition led by SA against Houthi rebels…

At the beginning of this month, the “Security Belt” militia, STC’s military branch, ended all connections with the pro-Hadi government and took the control over its facilities in Aden. According to UN, at least 40 people were killed in only a few days of confrontations…

Security Belt’s fighters’ actions extended, taking the control over many military bases in Abyan (Zinjibar, Al-Kawd- east of Aden). The increasing tensions and the confrontations between separatist forces and pro-Hadi ones are showing an important difference when approaching the conflict between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh and is complicating UN’s peace efforts in Yemen.

The deputy foreign minister in Yemen, Mohammad al-Hadhrami, stated that recent escalations of the situation from Abyan is undermining the peace discussions: “it is unacceptable and will undermine the mediation efforts of Saudi Arabia”, stated the minister, talking about a delegation sent by Riyadh to Aden to discuss the new front in the Yemeni war. Al-Hadhrami asked for the “immediate and complete end of the military and financial support” from UAE for separatists.

STC replied that they are taking the dialogue, but are not considering any military withdrawal from Aden. “There will be no dialogue if they ask us to give up our positions…”. In a statement made by the UN Security Council (Tuesday, 13th of August), STC has firmly kept its self-governing demands in south of Yemen and their inclusion in any discussions sponsored by UN about Yemen’s future.

Who is fighting …who?

Southern Yemen was a separate state until its 1990 merger with the North. Four years later, an armed secession attempt failed to undo the reunification. United Nations Representative for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, said before the UN CS that "country's fragmentation is becoming a stronger and burning threat, and Yemen cannot wait." The long war in Yemen has triggered what the UN describes as world's worst humanitarian crisis, with 24,1 million people - more than two-thirds of the population - in need of help. Tens of thousands were killed and millions were forced to leave their homes.

The change in Yemen’s conflict was triggered by the secessionist offensive against Aden's governmental targets, which started on August 7. The assault took place on the same day as Munir's "Abu al-Yamama" al-Yafei funeral, a Security Belt commander. Yafei was one of the dozens killed in a missile attack, made by Houthi rebels during a military parade, in western Aden, on August 1.

 However, CTS members accused Al-Islah, Muslim Brotherhood’s Yemeni branch, of being behind the attack and, moreover, of acting along Houthi to destabilize southern Yemen, though Al-Islah and Houthi are on opposed positions in the conflict between the pro-government troops backed by the Saudis and the Houthi rebels.

It is also possible for the UAE and STC to have used this attack on Aden in order to remove the Saudi influence and, therefore, Al-Islah’s presence in southern Yemen.

What does STC wants?

The separatist feeling is back: STC wants the secession of southern Yemen. Aden was the only British colony in the entire Arabian Peninsula, directly managed by London’s authorities, between 1839 and 1967, as part of British India. After the 1967 independence, Southern Yemen or, officially, People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, entered in Soviet Union influence. Communism collapse in the late 1980’s hastened the reunification of South and North, in 1990.

However, a dissatisfied population because resources were unfairly allocated to Northern provinces led to an attempt to separate from Sana'a, in 1994. Then, a two-month civil war wherein the Unionist forces of former President Ali Abdulla Saleh crushed the rebellion South and led to placing all power in Sana'a.

In 2007, it was established the Al-Hirak Al-Janoubi (Southern Movement) to challenge the seizure of Saleh's power and reaffirm South’s distinct identity. In the weeks before the 2015 Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, thousands of Al-Hirak activists defended Aden against Houthi or pro-Saleh fighters. In May 2017, Aidarous al-Zubaidi announced the establishment of STC, which, he said, it would be responsible for "representing people’s will ". In January last year, confrontations broke out between separatists and government forces in Aden, leading to the deaths of dozens of people.

There are still many questions on how the conflict in Yemen changed. But one has a definite answer: it was not a surprise!

 The events that took place earlier this month have changed the conflict in Yemen radically. After taking control of Aden, STC ensured its presence in any future peace initiative.

STC is supported by the Security Belt, which has provided military equipment and financial assistance since the conflict started, back in 2015. Abu Dhabi's main interest seems to be providing the transportation corridor along the strategic Bab el-Mandeb strait. Thus, if the Houthi rebels would have controlled the South, they would probably had UAE’s support

A backstage look…

Secessionists’ success from southern Yemen in taking over Aden has opened a new chapter in country's history. It has effectively undermined all efforts to restore the legitimate authority of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi's government and endangers country's territorial integrity. After UAE decided to withdraw most of its soldiers from Yemen, the secessionists tried to make a move against pro-Hadi forces in the south. In fact, what happened is part of Abu Dhabi’s plan for southern Yemen, especially Aden and its seaport.

Geographically distanced from Yemen, UAE did not see the threats and developments in this country, within the last decade, the same as SA. Whether they came from Houthi rebels or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, they generally did not affect UAE’s security. This was the case before civil war’s outbreak, in 2015. Several factors asked for a change in UAE's attitude towards Yemen, including the Houthi agenda of controlling the central authority, their alliance with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and their advancement in the South and Aden’s occupation, as well as its surroundings.

Moreover, Houthi threatened emirates’ interests in the Yemeni ports (most important being Aden), part of UAE's roadmap to become a major naval and commercial player in the wider Gulf region to the Mediterranean. Since the mid-2000s, UAE has made some agreements with several states along this strategic route to manage commercial ports and establish military bases (Djibouti, Eritrea and entities from Somalia - Somaliland and Puntland). However, for UAE, stopping Houthi did not necessarily mean restoring Hadi's authority legitimacy over the country.

Indeed, UAE has officially supported the Hadi government, but, in fact, they have helped and supported the southern enemies, paving the way for secession. After recovering Aden from the Houthi, Emirati forces and their Yemeni allies continued to push the rebels towards north, toward Mokha and Hodeida, both strategic maritime facilities, and imposed a siege on Yemen’s western coast to limit Houthi's ability to import weapons. The last UAE military operation on the ground took place at the end of 2018, when they have supported the Yemeni troops against Houthi that were close to Hodeida. Following this pressure, Martin Griffiths negotiated the ceasefire agreement (Stockholm) in the Hodeida area, which is currently effective.

The apparently endless the war in Yemen, now in its fifth year, the emirate economy’s slowdown and Gulf tensions have forced UAE’s withdrawal from Yemen. However, the gains from the south of the country and the local allies were not abandoned. This is why Abu Dhabi allowed STC to take control of Aden (in fact, a coup d’état against the Yemeni president and his government).

 It is quite likely for the battle for Aden and its strategic facilities to be only be the beginning of a series of confrontations, whose ultimate goal is removing all Hadi's authority vestiges in southern Yemen.

What’s Saudi Arabia’s plan?

Saudi Arabia’s position on what happened in Aden, at the beginning of August, is quite unclear. Hadi government officials’ statements are revealing a Saudi inaction against secessionists. Riyadh seems unable to fulfill the promises made to President Hadi, when he launched Decisive Storm Operation.

 Things were not supposed to be this way. Through its relations with Yemen's political factions, SA could have helped negotiators during multi-party dialogue meetings after 2012 to reach a compromise for a new Yemen.  


Instead, the Saudi crown prince, MBS, hitched his MBZ horse. After four and a half years of military actions in Yemen, MBS cannot claim any success, and MBZ withdrew with southern Yemen as war capture. The Houthi rebels are keeping Sana'a capital and other areas and continue to attack important SA targets with missiles and drones.

 The humanitarian disaster in Yemen - caused almost equally by the Saudi Coalition and the Houthi rebels - is largely put on Saudi operations’ shoulders, with Riyadh getting the unwanted international blame.

Possible scenarios…

If not reversed, Aden’s takeover by southern secessionists could very well be the decisive step towards southern Yemen’s secession. Although SA has announced that it will host reconciliation meetings between Hadi and his opponents, there is no guarantee that they will actually be successful. After allowing Abu Dhabi to do whatever it wanted in Aden, Riyadh will hardly oppose STC’s territorial expansion. In the coming weeks or months, Aden’s crisis could led to significant evolutions.

Firstly, the current status quo can be maintained, allowing STC to continue to control Aden and port's maritime facilities. This would be a significant, yet not complete, victory for UAE. Consequently, STC could try to take over other strategic maritime centers, such as Mokha and Hodeida, accomplishing what Abu Dhabi wants. If this were to happen, UAE would provide a financing line for the costs for keeping these positions as foundation in the strategic plan for this region.

Secondly, the Hadi government could continue to control the inland areas, such as Taiz, Dhale, Lahj, etc., which will create two power spheres in the south. This could encourage more leaders to state their autonomy in areas they control, which will practically lead to country’s dismemberment, rather than to a mere division between North and South. This should worry Saudi leaders, who will have to deal with far more players in Yemen than they have so far.

Thirdly, Houthi-controlled territories situation becomes stable and Hadi government's concern about the challenge posed by secessionists in the South may offer Houthi rebels an opportunity to increase their military pressure on SA. This will most likely lead to the establishment of a state led by Houthi, in northern Yemen, and a UAE-supported state in the South.

Time will show us how things will end… For now, anything can happen in Yemen!

Translated by Andreea Soare