A follower of the separatist Southern Movement holds a flag of former South Yemen in Aden, Yemen, February 26, 2013. (Reuters)

February 28, 2013

Desknote: The Southern Movement Uprising

Yemen’s fragile and reversible gains against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are threatened by a new challenge:  the re-emergence of a violent secessionist movement in the south. Southern Movement violence has spiked significantly over the past seven days, and is drawing on Yemen’s limited military resources and political attention. Those resources were already strained to the breaking point managing the political transition in Sana’a and retaking territory from AQAP and its insurgent affiliate, Ansar al Sharia. If this violent secessionist movement continues, it is not clear that Yemen will be able to maintain, let alone expand, its gains against terrorists that threaten the United States and the West.

Clashes involving a militant faction of Yemen’s separatist Southern Movement erupted over the weekend across the southern governorates of Aden, Abyan, al Dhaleh, Shabwah, and Hadramawt. The resumption of violent demonstrations in the south – not seen since President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi took office a year ago – is reminiscent of the years before Yemen’s Arab Spring. Yemen was once split into two states, which were reunited in 1990.The south attempted to split away again in 1994, prompting a bloody civil war and inflaming north-south tensions that linger to this day. The current Southern Movement formed in 2007. It is a loose grouping of disparate elements that does not speak with a clear voice. Some factions of the Southern Movement are armed and conduct attacks against government targets in Yemen’s south.  But the movement had not previously shown the ability to conduct coordinated attacks on this scale.

Crackdowns against Southern Movement supporters, starting in early February 2013, escalated in Aden on February 21, the anniversary of Hadi’s election to the presidency. Government forces fired into a demonstration, killing between four and nine civilians. Violence then ballooned into Hadramawt, al Dhaleh, and Abyan governorates on February 22. Southern Movement fighters had blocked off a major road in al Dhaleh, leading to clashes there on February 21. They also targeted Islah Party headquarters and shops owned by Northerners in several southern governorates, including Hadramawt and Shabwah. A group calling itself the Popular Movement for the Liberation of the South issued a declaration of an armed struggle for secession on February 24. The violence was wide-spread, severe, and appeared to be coordinated.

The central government in Sana’a is responding to the violence on military and political fronts. President Hadi traveled to Aden and Abyan on February 24 and is meeting with local leaders. It is notably his first trip to the south since assuming the presidency in February 2012. Armored vehicles and Central Security Forces were reportedly sent to quell the unrest in Hadramawt – a dangerous distraction given Yemen’s limited military capacity. And conventional forces were deployed to al Shihr, Hadramawt on February 26.

Sana’a has diverted resources from the fight against AQAP before. The armed conflict with the al Houthis in late 2009 was a prime example, as was the protest-related unrest during Yemen’s Arab Spring. America’s strategy to combat AQAP relies heavily on its Yemeni partner, and should the south continue to agitate for secession, it could shift much-needed resources from combating AQAP to putting down a secessionist movement.