2 thoughts on “The Yemen conflict: Southern separatism in action”

  1. My thanks to Dr. Lackner for her insights into what is undoubtedly one of the most multilayered and complex conflicts today.
    With deference to her expertise as one of the world’s premier experts on Yemen, the article does not directly address why the STC decided to pursue such an aggressive move beyond an implicit desire for power and control over resources. The lack of progress by the Hadi government, the failings of the Riyadh Agreement, and general public frustration over public services all suggest a proximate cause for the STC’s unilateral declaration of autonomy, but what I do not think is highlighted enough is the distal causes from recent history, shaped by the outbreak of hostilities in 2014-15.
    The Hirak of Yemen’s not-so-long ago have never really had a unified voice and suffered from debilitating infighting. The civil war left scars and blame trading (probably encouraged and subtly promoted by the Saleh regime—as that was his modus operandi) that kept any Southern political ideology from coalescing. 2012 created a moment of (relative) Southern unity as delegates negotiated for the best deal out of the national dialogue. Hadi’s unilateral announcement of the results that marginalized both Aden and Saada led to a fleeting moment of unity between the Houthis and the Southerners in rejecting the results—something oddly left out of much Yemen analysis. Houthi aggression, however, went too far for the South and it took a leading role in keeping their forces at bay.
    The current conflict (in my humble view) did a few things that allowed for the STC to pull this move today. First and foremost, it created a flood of arms (thank you Gulf states) to the South that it had not seen in quite sometime, providing means of utilizing coercive force. It helped unify parts (not all) of the South’s fragmented Hirak, who never really got over losing the pre-unification struggle and generally view the North as barbaric, corrupt, and irredeemable. After seeing the failures of international and regional intervention over the past 5 years, it also took a page from the Houthis in realizing that only facts on the ground truly mattered. With Gulf actors divided over the best course forward and an impotent UN-led peace effort with no real diplomatic heft exerted by the West, the STC likely figured it was now or never.
    Helen is absolutely correct about the challenges it will face going forward in terms of building legitimacy, which would require immediate and delicate maneuvering. Nonetheless in speaking to Yemeni friends, the arc of history is looooooong and many Yemenis think of these issues along a generational time horizon that our soundbite-and tweet-filled world find hard to comprehend.

    1. Thanks for this really interesting comment and I agree with most of it; good to develop interesting exchanges and additions. A few minor clarifications:
      First, the Huthi/southern response to the 2014 Federation decision: I would say that they both had the same response, i.e. rejection, but this did not bring them together. They did this separately and I doubt that there was any coordination.
      Second, while the UN and UNSC go on about respecting the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference, which ended early 2014, not 2012, the Southern divisions were very visible there. Although 56% of the membership of 565 people were southerners, only 85 represented southern separatists, the rest supported unity. Moreover the majority of separatist factions simply refused to participate, insisting that there should only be ‘state to state’ negotiations, this further made participation in discussions difficult for those separatists who were present. [See my detailed analysis of this in the International IDEA paper, Yemen’s ‘peaceful’ transition from autocracy – https://www.idea.int/sites/default/files/publications/yemens-peaceful-transition-from-autocracy.pdf%5D
      Third, I don’t think the STC has managed to bring together many of the southern factions, only a few and those are the ones whose dependence on UAE limits their freedom of action, though of course they could try and live elsewhere and earn their living differently.

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