Fighting in Aden: southern separatists, regional rivalries

Summary: southern separatists take Aden. Another blow to the credibility of the internationally recognised government of President Hadi, and the appearance of a split in the coalition between Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

International attention on Yemen is mainly focused on the war between the Houthis, Zaidi Shia tribes whose heartland is in the mountains of the far north of the country but whose control now extends to Sanaa and much of Western and Central Yemen, and the government of President Hadi, recognised by the United Nations and militarily supported by the Saudi-led coalition but with minimal presence in Yemen itself. This week attention has shifted to the second main conflict, the movement for independence of Aden and the South (Aden and the South were separate under British rule which ended in 1967 and subsequently as the People’s Republic of South Yemen and then the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen; after a long series of conflicts and reconciliations north and south were joined as a single state in 1990). There are other simultaneous conflicts too, notably with al-Qa’ida and perhaps decreasingly with IS (and Washington is increasingly concentrated on these conflicts). The background is the appalling human suffering in Yemen from war, famine and disease which has at last begun to get some of the world attention it deserves.

On 30 January southern forces apparently backed by the UAE seized control of Aden (drawing only a minimal reaction from Washington), whose status as interim capital of the internationally recognised government of President Hadi had become more and more of a fiction. Saudi and UAE generals visited Aden on 1 February in an attempt to “realign their focus” on the war with the Houthis.

We are grateful to Helen Lackner for the analysis below which reveals as so often in Yemen that the conflict is more complicated, both internally and externally. Internally the southern separatists are themselves divided between western (Dhala’/Lahej) and Eastern (Abyan) elements, while those yet further east (Hadhramaut) await the outcome. Externally the actions (rather than the statements) of Saudi Arabia and the UAE increasingly reflect Saudi Arabia’s backing for a united Yemen under Hadi, and UAE backing for the southern separatists. Neither state wants to deal with a Shia Yemen; the Saudi solution is to maintain Sunni control over the whole country, the UAE solution is to pack the Shia back to the remote north. The UAE is suspected by some of an ambition to control Yemen’s ports, especially of course Aden.

Open military conflict in Aden came as little surprise to close observers of the situation. While southern separatism challenges Yemeni unity as a whole, its internal dynamics are equal challenges to the concept of a united southern entity.  Media and official discussions present last week’s events as a struggle between, on the one hand, the internationally recognised government (IRG) of exiled president Hadi and, on the other, southern separatists who aim to restore a southern state along the borders of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) or the previously British- administered Aden and the Protectorates. This is only part of the story:  two other elements are of considerable significance.  First, this struggle revives tensions of the PDRY period between Dhala’/Lahej military and political elements against those based in Abyan and, to a lesser extent, Shabwa.  Hadramis generally keep out of these fights, waiting to see who wins, while today Mahra has its own problems but, in any case, is far away with a very small population.  Second, regardless of regularly repeated assertions of full concordance of objectives and strategy between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the leaders of the Arab Coalition, their actions on the ground in the past two years have increasingly diverged with the UAE consolidating its support for separatists while Saudi Arabia continued to back Hadi, as it prefers Yemen to be united, a state with a Sunni [Shafi’i] majority, rather than having an immediate neighbour dominated by Zaydis, who are a form of Shi’i.

The Southern Transitional Council (STC) was established last May by Aydaroos al Zubeidi from Dhala’ Governorate, after Hadi dismissed him as governor of Aden. The STC’s explicit ambition is to re-establish a single state within the borders of the former PDRY and it has succeeded, formally at least, to bring under one umbrella a fair number of the numerous separatist factions. By its very nature, the STC challenges the IRG given that the latter’s claim to legitimacy is justified by its objective of returning to power in Sana’a and ruling all of Yemen, regardless of the fact that it is hardly present in the 70% of Yemen’s surface which is not under Huthi control.

Zubeidi’s close associate Shalal Ali Shaye became head of Aden’s Security organisations when Aydaroos was appointed Governor in December 2015 and remains in position to date, and thus works with the STC while being a senior IRG official! It is worth remembering that Shalal’s father, Ali Shaye, was one of the leaders killed in the January 1986 ‘Events’ when Hadi was a commander of the then defeated opposite faction;  he then joined Saleh’s government in Sana’a, and returned victorious in the 1994 civil war. That conflict was widely perceived at the time to be a fight opposing Dhala’/Lahej and Abyan/Shabwa.  Today, once again, forces from these areas are in conflict.

The STC’s vice president, Hani Bin Breik is a Salafi from Yafi’, who benefits from the loyalty of  thousands of Salafis staffing the Security Belts,  military units  equipped, trained and paid by the UAE leadership in Aden.  Most of them are deployed in their home governorates but some had moved to the Red Sea Coast to support coalition forces there and have now returned to Aden to join the STC forces. They complement the powerful local brigades loyal to Zubeidi and Shalal.  All of them operate in close coordination and agreement with the UAE military authorities in Aden; their performance has provided much of the evidence of the gap between Emirati rhetoric and reality with respect to its strategy in Yemen.

On the opposing side are Hadi’s Presidential Guard led by his son Nasser. They are now allied with Mehran al Qubati, commander of its 4th Brigade who is particularly unpopular with the UAE military leaders as he refused to hand over his unit’s heavy weapons despite the fact that they had originally been supplied as assistance from the Coalition.  Significantly, the Presidential Guard are mostly from Abyan, thus reviving an old conflict. A further element of the conflict is financial with (probably justified) mutual accusations of corruption.  Here, the focus is on funds collected by Aden governorate authorities during Zubeidi’s tenure. Prime Minister bin Dagher tried to access these funds and has been in conflict with governorate administration for many months over this issue, the latter refusing to either hand over funds or explain how they have been used.

A number of additional factors have contributed to bringing the crisis to a head:  the current Hadi  appointed governor of Aden, has retreated to Cairo, having been unable to even enter his office in Aden.  Second, in recent months, the STC has, despite a few hitches, consolidated its international reputation as a leading southern separatist organisation.  Third, despite the presence in Aden of a few ministers, including the Prime Minister, the internationally recognised government has failed to demonstrate its ability to administer Aden, let alone other governorates.  Fourth, decision makers in the international community are expressing increasing doubts about the viability of Hadi as a president, an issue which is becoming prominent in early 2018, with the appointment of a new UN Special Envoy and international pressure on the UNSC to review resolution 2216.  Although Britain is the ‘pen holder’ on Yemen at the UNSC and has failed to address the problems inherent in the resolution (our posting of 9 January), in 2018 the UNSC has new members who have a deep commitment to finding a viable solution (Kuwait chairing in February and the Netherlands a member this year).  Finally but by no means least, the killing of Saleh in December presages significant changes in the overall internal balance of power in Yemen. Even divided, Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) remains the largest and most significant political party in Yemen.  As the GPC restructures, its new political and military alignments are likely to lead to different political alliances and configuration in the country’s internal politics.

All these factors may have persuaded the STC leadership that this was an opportune moment to launch an offensive against  its old opponent Hadi. As of early February, this seems to have succeeded: after 3 days of fighting in Aden, the overall agreement reached to stop the fighting has given the separatists more power: the departure of Hadi’s military forces should leave Aden under the control of the UAE-led Security Belts which are difficult to distinguish from STC forces  while a new technocratic government should be formed.  Regardless of any short-term changes to this agreement or, indeed, its non-implementation hinted in a statement by a ‘source’ in Hadi’s office, it would be unwise to assume a stable future in Aden or beyond in the southern governorates, nor is it likely that the current struggle has been definitively settled.  However, while Yemen may possibly remain united in the future, one thing is clear.  Should the country split, it will not be a neat division along its pre-1990 borders, as the southern part is highly unlikely to end up as a single entity as old rivalries re-surface in the west, while Hadramaut and al Mahra look elsewhere.

Helen Lackner has worked in all parts of Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years.  She has written about the country’s political economy as well as social and economic issues.  She works as a freelance rural development consultant in Yemen and elsewhere. Her new book Yemen in Crisis: autocracy, neo-liberalism and the disintegration of a state was published by Saqi books in October 2017.