An independence push by southern separatists who have seized the Yemeni government’s de facto capital has laid bare deepening fault lines and shifting alliances in the war-plagued country.
A deadly battle for control of the southern city of Aden, the base of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi’s government, ended this week in a takeover by separatists backed by troops trained by the United Arab Emirates.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia lead a military coalition that has fought alongside the Hadi government and its now-former southern allies since 2015 in a war against the Huthi rebels from north Yemen that has left more than 9,200 people dead.
The official narrative from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi has been unconditional support for Hadi, who has lived in exile in the Saudi capital since 2015.
But behind the scenes, sources close to the separatists and in Washington say, the coalition may be growing frustrated with Hadi, who has been unable to gain the upper hand in the south.
“It might be too big a statement to say this is the end of the Hadi government… but I think it’s fair to say it is the end of one Yemen,” said Farea al-Muslimi, Yemen researcher at the London-based think tank Chatham House.
“It’s not necessarily the start of a South Yemen, but it is the end … of the uncomfortable political honeymoons of the Yemen war.”
Among those honeymoons, according to analysts, is that of the UAE and Saudi Arabia around Hadi in particular.
– ‘At odds with reality’ –
Historically, the UAE has more military experience than Saudi Arabia, having sent troops to Kosovo in the 1990s and dealing more closely with the Yemeni army on the ground today.
“The Saudi-Emirati coalition has been pushing a narrative which is at odds with reality,” said Simon Henderson, director of Gulf research at The Washington Institute.
“The reality seems to be that the UAE has become exasperated with Hadi and is orchestrating its own plans for the south”.
The collapse of the southern coalition — which comes less than two months after ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed in a fight with his former allies the Huthis — ends the ties that have dominated Yemen throughout its civil war.
The demise of the southern Yemen alliance, which included the Hadi government and southern factions, was foreseeable long before the Aden clashes of the past week.
In April last year, Hadi dismissed a cabinet minister, Hani bin Breik, and Aden governor Aidarouss al-Zoubeidi — now the president of the self-proclaimed Southern Transitional Council (STC), a 25-seat body of military and political separatist leaders.
In January, the STC released an English-language mission statement calling for the “complete liberation of all territories of South Arabia” and the establishment of a “civilian state of the South”.
But how long the council will hold, and how far it reaches, remain unclear.
“For the moment, the STC appears to be paying lip service to the Hadi government and the notion of a unified Yemen,” said Henderson.
“But it seems that the country is increasingly split along north-south lines as well as Huthi-Hadi lines.”
– Facing West –
Those lines are infinitely more complex than a divide between a national government and insurgents.
Oil-rich and impoverished, south Yemen is lined with a string of ports along the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea.
It is home to separatists with different backgrounds and beliefs, Islamist organisations including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State group, and an army with factions trained by, and loyal to, various national and international powers.
Cutting across those divisions are tribal loyalties that have long dominated Yemen’s provinces, including Aden — until 1989 the capital of former South Yemen and after 2014 yet again the bastion of an embattled government.
Once a stronghold for socialists and Marxist-Leninist groups, the south was the site of a failed leftist coup in 1986 that helped pave the way for the 1990 unification under Saleh, who remained in power until 2012.
The south has long complained of neglect and marginalisation, grievances which did not disappear under Hadi, who is himself a southerner.
A deadline given to Hadi by Zoubeidi to clean up his “corrupt” government expired on Sunday, triggering the clashes that saw Zoubeidi’s forces seize Aden this week with the support of the UAE-trained troops, dubbed the “Security Belt”.
But Zoubeidi has stopped short of stating his council’s goal is southern independence, saying he would await a “positive response” by the international community.
The STC now aims to open a bureau in Washington with the hope of gaining recognition by the international community.
According to two STC leaders, the council has sent a delegation to the US capital in what they say is an attempt to secure a licence for an office. The State Department has not confirmed talks with the STC.