Sep 6, 2019
Expert Voices

Southern separatism threatens new front in Yemen's war

separatist security forces with military vehicles in the middle of a road

Fighters in Yemen's UAE–trained, STC–heavy Security Belt Force near the Aden airport. Photo: Nabil Hasan/AFP/Getty Images

Military confrontations between Yemen's internationally recognized government and a regional separatist group, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), are threatening to open a new frontier in the country's civil war.

Why it matters: The Saudis and Emiratis now face divisions among their allies in the fight against Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels. They are currently facilitating indirect talks in Jeddah to de-escalate tensions between the government and the STC, but a new round of violence could erupt if that effort falls through.

Driving the news: Last month, a ballistic missile attack on UAE-backed Security Belt Forces in the interim capital of Aden killed more than 30 soldiers. Although Houthis claimed responsibility, the STC accused government officials from the al-Islah party, which is loosely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, of plotting the attack to weaken their southern leadership.

  • STC forces subsequently overtook Aden's airport and advanced to nearby cities of Shabwa and Abyan, while the government mobilized troops from northern and tribal areas — renewing a sense of oppression that augmented calls for southern independence.
  • Tensions escalated further after the UAE conducted an airstrike against targets it declared terrorists but which the Yemeni government claimed as members of its army.

Context: The southern independence movement has been a 2-decade-long struggle, slowed by state repression and imprisonment of its leaders.

  • Yemen's government has been self-exiled in Riyadh, unable to provide security for citizens or fully function in the south, which diminished its support.
  • As the Yemen government's relationship with the UAE has soured, it has asked its Saudi partners to help end the Emiratis' “flagrant interference” on behalf of the STC.

What to watch: Since STC-allied forces have assisted the Saudi-led military coalition, they hope to secure guarantees for their overall objective of reclaiming their southern state — support the Saudis are unlikely to deliver.

  • At most, Saudi Arabia might back a power-sharing agreement, not wanting to harm its relationship with Yemen's government or risk being left with a de facto Houthi state on the Saudi border.
  • The fraught politics of the conflict may continue to limit open dialogue, complicating attempts to accommodate each party's divergent interests.

Fatima Abo Alasrar is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.

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