On April 25, 2020, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) declared self-rule in Aden, which serves as the interim capital of the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi and Yemen's southern governorates. The STC is a secessionist movement with the ultimate aims of creating an independent country in southern Yemen. The political situation in the area remains fragile and extremely volatile. Clashes between STC forces and those loyal to al-Hadi cannot be ruled out, unless some sort of a political agreement is reached in the coming days. In addition to declaring self-rule, the STC declared full control over government institutions, seized control of critical infrastructure and government sites, and established security checkpoints outside government ministries throughout Aden. Al-Hadi has described the declaration a flagrant violation of the November 2019 Riyadh Agreement – a power-sharing accord that ended tensions between the STC and al-Hadi forces after the former takeover of Aden in August 2019. The STC has justified its recent takeover of Aden by claiming al-Hadi's administration is corrupt, has failed to deliver basic services to the public, and has not lived up to the terms of the 2019 Riyadh Agreement.
The Southern Transitional Council
The STC was established in 2017 by Major General Aidroos al-Zubaidi, the former governor of Aden, to serve as an official governing body for southern Yemen. Yemen unified in 1990, but the southern tribes and groups allied with the STC claim they are marginalized by the government and have issued repeated calls for independence. Backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the STC represents a significant military and political force within southern Yemen. While the STC is not representative of the entire secessionist movement, it does represent the single most unified and powerful political organization fighting for independence. So long as Yemen's governmental, political, and military situation remains weak, support for a southern state, and therefore the STC, will continue. With the Shi'a Al-Houthi rebels - who control Sana'a and much of northern Yemen - on the offensive, a looming coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, and a weak government in Aden, the STC will likely continue its calls for independence and strengthen its position vis-à-vis al-Hadi's administration.
Yemen’s Current State of Affairs
Yemen has faced civil war since 2015. The Al-Houthi rebels have occupied much of the north, including the crucial cities of Sana'a, parts of Tai’iz, and Al-Hudaydah. Both the STC and al-Hadi's forces are backed by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies; they are, in fact, allied against the Al-Houthis. Many troops fighting on behalf of al-Hadi are doing so for personal gain rather than a sense of loyalty. With few exceptions, al-Hadi’s Saudi-backed military coalition against the Al-Houthi rebels is an alliance of convenience between local militias, tribes, and mercenaries, with each faction guided by self-interest.
Yemen's complex politics have long prevented national unity; however, the events of the Arab Spring in 2011 and subsequent civil war have deepened Yemen's political division and fragmentation. Al-Hadi's appointment as president at the behest of Saudi Arabia and ongoing efforts to bring about a political settlement with the Al-Houthis has further galvanized the STC's desire for nationhood. Al-Hadi, who remains deeply unpopular, is regarded by the STC as a Saudi puppet due to his apparent refusal to govern from Aden rather than Riyadh. Given that the STC, al-Hadi, and the Al-Houthis all have divergent interests and are pursuing diametrically different national agendas concerning Yemen’s future, a return to any semblance of a unitary state remains unlikely.
What Happens Next?
This is not the first time that the STC has attempted to strike on its own or clashed with al-Hadi loyalists. Clashes between the STC and al-Hadi loyalists have occurred intermittently since 2017. The apparent trigger for the latest declaration was a lack of governmental support following a series of floods across southern Yemen. While the governors of several southern governorates, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and al-Hadi have all rejected the self-governing declaration, the underlying causes and desire for an independent southern state remain. Even if the latest crisis is resolved, it will likely only be a temporary solution to a long-term issue that will periodically threaten the stability of southern Yemen.
As in previous disputes between the STC and al-Hadi, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, as the main international backers of the respective parties, will initiate a process of mediation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE will likely leverage their influence to force through a similar power-sharing agreement to the 2019 Riyadh Agreement. However, even if the two parties agree to a new compromise, it will likely be beset with the same issues of mutual distrust, infighting, and competition for resources. Given that the STC is unwilling to subject itself to the primacy of the government, al-Hadi’s influence will continue to wane, and a lasting solution to the latest dispute is unlikely to be achieved.
The possibility of clashes between the STC and al-Hadi loyalists cannot be ruled out. On the island of Socotra, fighting between STC forces and al-Hadi loyalists have ceased following Saudi mediation efforts, May 2. If the ongoing Saudi and Emirati mediation attempts at resolving the latest dispute fail, the possibility of additional clashes erupting across southern Yemen’s mainland remains high. An outbreak of intra-factional fighting would almost certainly expedite the country’s humanitarian crisis, weaken efforts at containing the Al-Houthis, and accelerate the fragmentation of Yemen.
Various militant groups, such as the Al-Houthis, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and Islamic State in Yemen (IS-Y), will likely attempt to take advantage of the deteriorating security situation. Such nonstate actors benefit from the instability, which have been prompted by the internal divisions anti-Al-Houthi alliance. In 2019, clashes between the STC and al-Hadi loyalists, in addition to the unexpected withdrawal of Emirati troops, led to an upsurge in militant attacks. The latest declaration will likely create the same conditions that enabled the Al-Houthis to make significant territorial gains, in addition to an increase of suspected AQAP and IS-Y attacks against targeting civilian, military, and critical infrastructure sites.
While it remains to be seen whether the current crisis between al-Hadi loyalists and the STC can be resolved, the root causes of the conflict, namely the desire for independence, will remain. Given the involvement of several external powers, as well as the internal competition for power and resources, any improvement in the near future seems unlikely. Instead, a return to the status quo ante – namely a cyclical nature of intra-factional fighting and a worsening humanitarian crisis – will persist.
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