Southern Movement supporters demonstrate against recent decisions by President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi that sacked senior officials supported by the United Arab Emirates, including governor of the southern Yemeni port city of Aden, Aydarous al Zubaidi (pictured in the banner) in Aden, Yemen May 4, 2017. The banner reads: "No regions. We all are with the leader Aidaroos al-Zubaidi and the drive for independence". REUTERS/Fawaz Salman

May 12, 2017

Warning Update: Fracturing of the Yemeni state

The Yemeni state is fracturing. The former governor of Aden, Aydarus al Zubaidi, announced a new government for southern Yemen on May 11, 2017. The “transitional political council” includes 26 southern leaders and draws legitimacy from a May 4 declaration calling for Zubaidi to form a representative political entity in southern Yemen. The council’s establishment further divides the government of Yemen. Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the al Houthi movement declared a government in Sana’a that represents northern and central Yemen in late November 2016. The U.S.-backed internationally recognized government of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi does not have a strong constituency in Yemen and is unlikely to be able to unify the Yemeni factions. The development places U.S.  policy at risk of failure, since the policy is predicated on a unitary Yemeni state under a recognized central government.

The formation of the transitional political council for southern Yemen challenges the unity of the Yemeni state. Many of the council members are leading southern separatists. Members include former Hadi cabinet Minister of State Hani Ali bin Brik as Vice President and the governors of Lahij, Abyan, Shabwah, Hadramawt, and Socotra governorates, and the unofficial sultan of al Mahrah governorate. The council is representational across southern Yemen, but does not include certain southern leaders, which may challenge it in the future. The council’s mandate is for one year, which may be a period in which members seek to determine how to establish a formal and legitimate government for southern Yemen.

The question of independence for the South Yemen is not new. Southern Yemenis organized in opposition to the central government in 2007 under an umbrella group known as the Southern Movement, or al Hirak. They sought reparations for the 1994 Yemeni civil war, during which the South attempted to secede from Yemen, and redress for perceived political and economic marginalization. Southern Movement leaders were part of a September 2014 political agreement that granted them and the al Houthi movement additional representation within the central Yemeni government. They did not support the al Houthi movement as the country collapsed into civil war, however. The  “Southern Issue”—how southern Yemen should be represented in a central Yemeni government—remains unresolved.

Southern leaders had supported Hadi’s government for the past two years during the civil war in order to stabilize southern Yemen and to buy time for them to determine their next steps. Southern leaders had not been able to agree on who would lead a South Yemen state or how to delegate power within the south. It is not clear whether they have a unified vision yet. The vague promise of Emirati support may have incentivized southern leaders to take action before organizing a comprehensive coalition:

  • April 22: Hadhrami leaders declared their intention to be an autonomous region at a conference sponsored by Emirati-backed Hadramawt Governor Ahmed Said Bin Brik.
  • April 23: Ahmed al Qana’, a Southern Movement founder who joined the al Houthi-Saleh government in Sana’a, reached out to the Southern Movement in a statement emphasizing its shared grievances with the al Houthi movement. Members of the al Houthi-Saleh bloc may want to utilize growing tensions in the Hadi government to negotiate a favorable ceasefire with the Southern Movement.
  • April 25: Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted talks with Saleh and the Emirati Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan to discuss a political resolution to the Yemeni civil war.
  • April 27: Hadi removed Aydarus al Zubaidi and Hani bin Brik, both of whom were close to the Emiratis, from his government on the anniversary of the start of the 1994 Yemeni civil war. Hadi’s decision sparked protests across southern Yemen which grew through May 4.
  • April 29: Southern Movement protesters attempted to burn down the headquarters of the Islah Party, perceived to be supporting Hadi’s government, in Lahij governorate.
  • May 3: Hadramawt Governor Ahmed Said Bin Brik threatened to secede if a political resolution to the civil war was not reached.
  • May 3: Protesters locked the gates to the Aden governorate building, chanting “we choose our leaders, not Hadi.”
  • May 4: Massive demonstrations against Hadi’s government occurred in Aden’s Al Arudh Square. Southern Movement leaders released the “Aden Historic Declaration,” which called for Zubaidi to lead an effort to establish a federal state. Exiled former South Yemen president Ali Salem al Beidh called Zubaidi offering his support.
  • May 5: Southern Movement protesters attempted to burn down the Islah Party headquarters in Aden governorate.
  • May 9: Saleh stated that he is open to negotiating with Saudi Arabia, possibly seeking to exploit the fracture within the Hadi government.
  • May 11: Zubaidi announced his presidency of the “Transitional Political Council of the South.” Hadramawt Governor Ahmed Said Bin Brik announced that the Council will also form a military branch.
  • May 11: The spokesman for Ansar Allah, the al Houthi political wing, Mohammed Abdul Salam rejected the Transitional Political Council as an Emirati and American scheme to establish a colonial state and destroy the territorial integrity of Yemen.
  • May 11: Hadi rejected the Transitional Political Council as a move that harms Yemen’s social fabric and advances the al Houthi-Saleh bloc’s interests. Hadi stated he will take “all necessary steps” to preserve Yemen’s unity. Early reporting surfaced of Yemeni military troops loyal to Hadi’s deputy, Vice President Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, mobilized in al Abr, in northwestern Hadramawt governorate.

The announcement of a Transitional Political Council sets the stage for a potential new frontline for the Hadi government to prevent actual state fragmentation as the Yemeni civil war drags on. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other members of the coalition intervened militarily in Yemen in March 2015 with the objectives to restore the Hadi government as the central government of Yemen and to prevent the spread of Iranian influence in northern and central Yemen through the al Houthi movement. Neither objective has been achieved. More significantly, the policies to re-establish the Hadi government in southern Yemen very likely drove parts of the South to call for autonomy. Southern leaders exchanged their support for Hadi for patronage through the Hadi government. Emirati forces trained and funded southern militias to counter al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Hadi’s dismissal of Zubaidi and others from his government removed their incentive to back his government, and they now had been empowered with the bones of a southern military. The trade-off for short-term stability in southern Yemen may lead to additional conflict.

U.S. policy for Yemen is now in peril. The U.S. supports the Saudi-led coalition, which has been ineffective at best on the ground in restoring order to Yemen and at worse has added to the challenges, including a major humanitarian crisis. The American position remains the re-establishment of a unitary Yemeni state, aligning the U.S. with the Hadi government. Of the three governments claiming authority in Yemen—the al Houthi-Saleh government, the new southern council, and Hadi’s government—the Hadi government is the least legitimate among its constituents. Emirati support for southern Yemeni factions as part of its counterterrorism strategy to roll back and prevent the expansion of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula may have enabled those southern elements to break from the Hadi government. Recent negotiations over a possible Russian-brokered political settlement also open the door for  Russia to challenge American freedom of movement in the Gulf of Aden. The U.S. could rapidly lose its ability to secure its own interests in Yemen. America must stop out-sourcing its policies to partners and instead take the lead.