This article is part of the series

Crisis Group Yemen Update #5

Yemeni soldiers guard during the meeting of the national assembly of Yemen's separatist Southern Transitional Council in Mukalla, Yemen 16 February 2019. REUTERS/Fawaz Salman
Yemeni soldiers guard during the meeting of the national assembly of Yemen's separatist Southern Transitional Council in Mukalla, Yemen 16 February 2019. REUTERS/Fawaz Salman

This week, we look at how simmering tensions in the south of the country threaten the prospects for long-term peace, and give insight into ongoing attempts to demilitarise the country's Red Sea trade corridor.

Trendline: Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council Isn’t Backing Down

As the UN makes progress on mediating a redeployment of rival fighters from areas in and around Hodeida on the Red Sea coast (see below), tensions in southern Yemen between the government of Yemen and secessionist groups continue to simmer with the potential to undermine any peace process that emerges in the north.

A year ago, many foreign officials working on Yemen were asking what could be done about the southern question. In January 2018, fighting broke out between loyalists of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a self-styled breakaway southern government in waiting, and the internationally recognised government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in the southern port city of Aden, the country’s temporary capital. At stake was control of the city and de facto authority over Yemen’s southernmost governorates. Had the STC won, they might well have declared independence in southern Yemen, 28 years after the Arab nationalist north and socialist south merged. The south of Yemen, long considered a low priority, temporarily rose up diplomats’ to-do lists.

Twelve months later, the south is again largely forgotten. Most diplomatic efforts are focused on the Red Sea coast, particularly Hodeida, the site of the most active, and fluid, frontline of 2018. With an agreement in December to freeze the fighting and demilitarise Hodeida making gradual progress, the south is likely to become a pressing issue once more, as cracks emerge in the region’s fragile détente. A meeting of the STC’s National Assembly on 16-17 February laid bare many of the long-gestating divisions at play between the STC and Yemen’s internationally recognised government.

After a period of relative quiet, the STC has made its presence known once again, holding a third meeting of its National Assembly, which it hopes will one day become the legislature of an independent southern Yemeni state, in the port city of Mukalla. The meeting is a reminder that Yemen’s “southern question” remains an important one, particularly if the Stockholm Agreement negotiated last December succeeds in demilitarising Hodeida. As rival fighters return to their homes in the south from Hodeida, the political temperature of the region will rise.

Southern grievances

Tensions between Hadi, who himself hails from the south, and the STC leadership stem from Hadi’s stated commitment to maintaining north-south unity and his apparent closeness with Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist party. Many southerners see Islah as part of a brutal amalgam of what they consider tribal northerners, whose central aim is controlling the south’s resources, including its ports and oilfields. Although this view of northern Yemen is something of a caricature, the traumatic legacy of two civil wars since unification in 1990 means that many southern grievances are valid and heartfelt.

Tensions also linger between the winners and losers of the 1986 civil war between rival factions in the then-independent southern socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) – north and south Yemen merged in 1990 – and their roles in the 1994 civil war between the north and south. Hadi was on the losing side of the 1986 war, which cost an estimated 10,000 lives, and fled north to Sanaa afterwards. He would later take the side of the northern regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh in a 1994 north-south war sparked by a southern attempt at secession. Many in the south rallied behind Hadi in the early days of the current civil war, which started in 2014, between northern Huthi rebels and a wide range of rival groups, but cooled on him as he replaced southerners with northerners as appointees to key government posts and did little to improve security or the economy in Aden or the wider south.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is widely seen to support the STC, or at least key members such as STC president Aydrous al-Zubaidi and his deputy Hani bin Breik, both of whom maintain residences in Abu Dhabi. This is likely because of Abu Dhabi’s antipathy to the Muslim Brotherhood (and political Islamism more widely) and their frustrations with Hadi’s track record in the south. UAE special forces and conventional military units helped liberate Aden from the Huthis in 2015, and UAE leaders were surprised that Hadi, who had named the city his temporary capital, did not focus on restoring basic services and security. Three and a half years after the Huthi rebels were forced out of Aden and the south, the local economy continues to languish and basic service delivery, although somewhat improved, is far from the “new Dubai” many southerners perhaps hoped would emerge through an influx of Gulf funding. Many southerners have also come to criticise the Saudi-led coalition, whose agenda is under increasing scrutiny as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi support local armed factions but are perceived to do little to help rebuild the south or the rest of the country.

Islah is often described – not entirely accurately – as “Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood”, and Hadi has leaned on the party for support in northern Yemen, where Islah-linked tribal and military forces have done most of the fighting against the Huthis. In April 2016, Hadi named Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a powerful military leader closely linked with Islah, vice president, replacing a southerner, Khaled Bahah.

The STC regularly rails against both Islah and what they call the “corruption government” Hadi has installed in Aden since replacing Bahah, who was also prime minister. At the Mukalla meeting, National Assembly president Ahmed bin Breik warned Hadi against attempting to hold a session of the national House of Representatives in Aden, as he is considering. The STC would prevent such a meeting, he said, implying the House of Representatives no longer has any legitimacy, while issuing a call for MPs from the south to abandon the national legislature and join the STC’s National Assembly.

Yemen’s legislature

The reformation of the House of Representatives has become an increasingly live issue in recent months, with Hadi pushing for a meeting of the legislature in the apparent hope that it will underpin his legitimacy and maybe even formally extend his term as president. Elections for the Yemeni legislature’s 301 seats were last held in 2003, but it remains the only institution in Yemen whose authority is derived from a freely contested vote (Hadi was the only candidate in the election that brought him to power for what was widely understood to be a two-year transitional term in February 2012). The Huthis are considering holding elections in territories they control in a similar play for legitimacy.

In a communiqué issued at the end of the meeting, STC members also warned of “terrorist” and “political extremist” elements disrupting life in the south, in particular in Wadi Hadramawt, Ataq and Bayhan in Shabwa governorate, and elsewhere in the country – areas where Islah-affiliated forces linked to Ali Mohsen and Hadi loyalists are present. They also accused the Hadi government of “tampering with the security, stability and social peace in the south”, and called for a recalibration of the relationship with Hadi, although the president’s allies claim that the STC has rebuffed his attempts at reconciliation. The STC also demands representation at future UN-led peace talks on an equal footing with the Hadi government and the Huthis, who are currently the only groups invited to negotiations. At the talks, the STC hopes to raise the issue of southern independence.

If the Stockholm Agreement brokered in December is successfully implemented and the area around Hodeida port demilitarised, large numbers of heavily-armed and well-equipped fighters drawn from the south are likely to return to Aden and their home governorates. Though UAE-backed, some of these fighters are Salafists who feel duty-bound to support Hadi either because of their quietist beliefs that encourage loyalty to one’s rulers while others are from the president’s home governorate of Abyan. Many others are hard-line separatists aligned with the STC.

If tensions between the government and the STC boil over again in the coming months, the fighting in Aden could be even more intense than in 2018 and would likely spread to other governorates, and cross over into neighbouring territory controlled by Mohsen and his allies, drawing in Islah-affiliated forces from northern Yemen. This would not only destabilise southern Yemen, it would also complicate the UN’s attempts to broker a political settlement for all of Yemen.

Bottom Line: If diplomats want to maximise the benefits of the Stockholm Agreement, they should start thinking about second-order effects, including a potential struggle for dominance in the south. This should also inform their thinking on a wider peace process for Yemen once the initial steps agreed in Sweden have been implemented.

Political and Military Developments

After close to two months of negotiations, representatives of the Hadi government and the rebel Huthi movement agreed on the format for a first phase redeployment of frontline forces from the Red Sea coast city of Hodeida and nearby ports. The compromise that the Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) reached helps restore some cautious optimism for the Stockholm Agreement, brokered by UN envoy Martin Griffiths in December, which aims to demilitarise the crucial Red Sea trade corridor. Redeployments could start before the end of February; the first phase should be completed in less than two weeks. If past experience is a guide, however, the process is unlikely to be smooth and both sides may backslide on their commitments.

At the 16-17 February meeting, led by Lt. Gen. Michael Anker Lollesgaard, a Danish general who serves as RCC chair and the head of the newly-constituted UN Mission in support of the Hodeida Agreement (UNMHA), the Huthis agreed to redeploy frontline forces first from Saleef and Ras Issa ports, to the north of the city, then Hodeida port itself. After this, UAE-backed forces will pull back from the eastern edge of Hodeida city, once the Huthis themselves have pulled back several hundred meters from the frontline there. These forces will vacate the so-called “Kilo 8 triangle” and the Red Sea Mills wheat storage, milling and distribution compound that is a vital cog in the World Food Programme’s aid delivery machinery in Yemen (See Update #2), moving about 1km eastwards of the facility (see map below).  A second phase of redeployments will then be negotiated.

Yemen's Red Sea trade corridor: Hodeida port and city, Ras Issa and Saleef Ports. CRISISGROUP
Yemen's Red Sea trade corridor: Hodeida port and city, Ras Issa and Saleef Ports. CRISISGROUP
Hodeida port and city: Key frontlines, roads and infrastructure. CRISISGROUP
Hodeida port and city: Key frontlines, roads and infrastructure. CRISISGROUP

The agreement, announced by the special envoy’s office, came after sustained pressure from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Hadi government’s main backers, for the UN to publicly criticise the Huthis – who they claim have routinely violated the ceasefire agreed at Stockholm, in place since 18 December –and for the UN to report on its progress implementing the deal. In January, the UAE, which in effect manages the anti-Huthi forces on the ground, had warned that it could return to hostilities if there was no movement, while also signalling that it expected a political track of negotiations to open up in 2019 if the Stockholm Agreement was implemented.

While much of the rhetoric from the Yemeni government and coalition was devoted to arguing that the Huthis were impeding the deal by not withdrawing from Hodeida, under the terms of the Stockholm Agreement the RCC first needed to agree on a technical plan before force redeployments could begin. The Huthis, who under the Stockholm Agreement are required to redeploy their forces first, initially posed the biggest barrier to such a plan, refusing for example to cross frontlines to meet with Yemeni government representatives (who had crossed lines twice before).

In later phases of negotiations, the sticking point became deciding on which “local forces” should take control of areas that fighters vacate, as the Stockholm Agreement stipulates. The government of Yemen argued that the Huthis could not be trusted to redeploy from the ports absent a clear monitoring mechanism and a plan for who should replace them and secure the ports and city. The two sides essentially agreed to postpone a decision on both issues for the time being, but it will likely resurface as a bigger obstacle when discussions begin over the second phase of redeployments, intended to demilitarise the city and create a cordon around it.

Bottom Line: The agreement on a first phase of redeployments is welcome news, but both sides now need to implement it – a challenging task – and negotiate the second phase. The twin issues of monitoring and local forces are likely to become more contentious during the next round of RCC discussions.

Regional and International Developments

The devastating humanitarian and economic conditions in Yemen will garner some much-needed attention on 26 February when donor countries meet in Geneva for the annual UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) donor conference. As in previous years, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are likely to be the biggest donors, and therefore will want a say in how and where their funding is used. Reflecting the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, OCHA will make its largest ever single country funding appeal at $4.2 billion for the calendar year. Donors and Yemeni experts will also meet in the coming weeks to discuss improving the performance of the Central Bank of Yemen and reintegrating its two rival branches in Sanaa and Aden. They will also discuss ways to stabilise the riyal and make it easier for traders to import food into the country.

The weakness of the riyal has been a major factor in Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, pushing food and other basic goods even further out of reach of ordinary Yemenis. The riyal has been extremely volatile in recent months, falling to YR800 to the dollar in September 2018 before rising to around YR450 in early 2019 and then falling again to YR600. It is currently around YR590 to the dollar. The split between the two central banks in Sanaa and Aden has seen the rival branches attempt to undermine one another’s policies, likely contributing to the riyal’s woes. While many Central Bank staff are open to deeper cooperation, the political divide is likely to prevent any substantive movement on the issue.

The EU and its member states meanwhile issued Council Conclusions on Yemen, which endorsed implementation of the Stockholm Agreement and offered EU political and financial support to the UN. Member states called on partners to launch the UN Mission in support of the Hodeida Agreement swiftly, and encouraged conflict parties to engage with the RCC. The EU also called for greater support to the Central Bank of Yemen, quick monetary reforms and the payment of public salaries – all urgent steps to avert the looming famine.

Bottom Line: Funding for the OCHA appeal will be crucial to preventing what is already the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world from spiralling further out of control, and the work on the Central Bank is similarly important. But the humanitarian crisis is unlikely to see major improvements absent a broader political accord.

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