by International Crisis Group
What’s new? The anti-Huthi alliance in Yemen has reached a breaking point with southern secessionist forces taking over the interim capital, Aden, from the internationally recognised government. The government calls the move a coup and accuses the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of complicity. Saudi Arabia is trying to broker a truce.
Why does it matter? If allowed to fester, the intra-alliance discord in the south could tip the country into a civil war within a civil war. That development almost certainly would lengthen the wider conflict, deepening Yemen’s humanitarian emergency and making a political settlement harder to achieve.
What should be done? Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE and UN special envoy, should mediate an end to intra-alliance violence and address its causes by expanding the number of groups representing the anti-Huthi bloc in UN-led talks, placing the southern question on the agenda and laying the foundation for a durable peace.
The past eight years of uprisings and war have redrawn Yemen’s political map almost entirely. UN-led attempts first to prevent and then to end the country’s bloody civil war have failed, often because they lag behind the rapidly changing facts on the ground. The latest political rupture came in August 2019, when the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC), a self-styled government-in-waiting led by Aydrous al-Zubaidi, seized the southern port city of Aden, the country’s interim capital, from the internationally recognised government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. As of this writing, the situation is in flux: the government is mounting an offensive in hopes of retaking Aden; both sides are preparing for renewed battle; and their respective external allies appear to be stepping in.
This turn of events brings longstanding but partially hidden tensions within the anti-Huthi coalition into the open – and could prolong the war. Backers of the opposing sides in the south should, with the UN’s help, mediate an end to the fighting and negotiate a more inclusive power-sharing arrangement. That deal, in turn, could lay the foundation for a pan-Yemeni peace process that comprises all the primary stakeholders.
There is considerable debate over how the STC’s takeover of Aden came about, in particular whether it was premeditated or spontaneous. What can be said with certainty is that the sequence of events started with the death of a senior southern security official aligned with the STC, Munir “Abu al-Yamama” al-Mashali (also known as al-Yafei). Mashali died in a Huthi-claimed missile strike on 1 August. Nine days later, STC-affiliated forces trained and equipped by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were in complete control of Aden’s military bases and government institutions. In the interim, they exchanged fire and recriminations with Saudi-funded units, their ostensible allies under Hadi government command. Government officials say they hold the UAE, which has cooperated closely with the separatists since 2015, responsible for the STC’s actions. Since then, the two have become to blows with the UAE launching airstrikes against government-aligned fighters, which they say were terrorist militias seeking to attack the Arab coalition, as they moved to Aden in an attempt to re-take the city.
If left unaddressed, fighting in the south could spark a civil war within a civil war. It could thus prolong the overall conflict, worsen Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, and drive a wedge between Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
But there is a better way. The Aden takeover provides a chance for international stakeholders in Yemen to revive and recalibrate a peace process that is increasingly removed from facts on the ground. This process has long been constrained by UN Security Council Resolution 2216 (passed in 2015) that effectively – and unrealistically – called for Huthi surrender to the Hadi government. Most have interpreted the resolution to limit the UN’s mandate to negotiations between the government and the Huthis, leaving out other critical stakeholders, notably southern secessionists. Ideally, events in the south would prompt the Security Council to pass a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and renewed UN-led talks that include southern separatists to end the war and establish a transition period. Yet this outcome is highly improbable, given Saudi Arabia’s opposition to any new resolution and a likely U.S. veto.
A more practical approach would be for the Saudis and Emiratis, with UN help, to work with their Yemeni allies to reshuffle the anti-Huthi coalition deck in a way that tamps down the immediate potential for more violence and lays the foundation for more inclusive and sustainable UN-led negotiations. They could, for example, negotiate formation of a government based on a new power-sharing arrangement, including southern separatists. This arrangement could then act as the basis for the selection of an inclusive delegation to future UN-led talks to end the war, which would also need to encompass discussion of the southern issue. Such an approach would allow a much-needed course change, while allowing the Saudis and Hadi government to avoid upending 2216.
The STC takeover of Aden and the looming battle for control of the city are part of a new phase of the Yemen war, one of consolidation and bargaining – through both political and military means – along the lines of the country’s altered political map. The major power centres are clear: the Huthis, with growing Iranian support, in the north; the UAE-backed STC in the south; and the Saudi-backed alliance of tribal and military forces, many of whom fall under the banner of Islah and are Hadi’s most important allies, in the centre. UAE-backed forces aligned with Ali Abdullah Saleh’s nephew, Tareq Saleh, are also seeking to create a base in southern Hodeida governorate and could become an important factor in Yemen’s fractured politics. Recent events demonstrate the complex and interconnected nature of Yemen’s multiple, overlapping conflicts: the Huthi/anti-Huthi military stalemate perhaps partly explains the STC’s aggressive move to introduce facts on the ground and assert both its own claim to authority and its right to be included in peace talks, while pressing for southern separation.
The priority now for international stakeholders ought to be to prevent the outbreak of a full-fledged civil war within a civil war. To that end, they ought to steer the STC, Hadi government and their allies away from conflict and push them toward compromise and bargaining – first with one another, next with the Huthis. Riyadh and its Western backers can either seize the moment, participate and encourage an inclusive bargaining process or, as in the past, attempt to apply a band-aid that freezes rather than resolves the conflict. If they allow the fighting to worsen, as seems likely to happen, they may be powerless to stop it. Such an outcome would postpone indefinitely any prospect of putting Yemen back on a path toward a durable peace.
Excerpted and republished, with permission, from the International Crisis Group.