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Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question
Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Breaking A Renewed Conflict Cycle in Yemen
Breaking A Renewed Conflict Cycle in Yemen
Report 114 / Middle East & North Africa

Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question

Amid uncertainty fuelled by ongoing mass protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s political future, as well as its unity – notably the status of the South – hang in the balance.

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Executive Summary

Ten months of popular protest spiked by periodic outbursts of violence have done little to clarify Yemen’s political future. Persistent street protests so far have failed to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh or bring about genuine institutional reform. The country is more deeply divided between pro- and anti-Saleh forces than ever, its economy is in tatters and both security and humanitarian conditions are deteriorating. Amid the uncertainty fuelled by this lingering crisis, the country’s unity – and notably the status of the South – hangs in the balance. Old grievances are coming into sharper relief and, among some, secessionist aspirations are gaining steam. There remains an opportunity for Yemen’s rulers, opposition groups and protesters to reach agreement on a political transition that would give priority to the Southern question and redefine relations between centre and periphery, for example by moving toward a federal model. Should this chance be missed, the conflict risks getting bloodier. And Yemen’s unity could be a thing of the past.

The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) merged with its northern neighbour, the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), on 22 May 1990 to form the Republic of Yemen. From the start, this was a troubled unification that resulted in a short, bloody civil war in 1994. The North emerged victorious, but this hardly closed the chapter. In the wake of the conflict, two profoundly different narratives took shape. Under one version, the war laid to rest the notion of separation and solidified national unity. According to the other, the war laid to rest the notion of unity and ushered in a period of Northern occupation of the South.

The most recent tensions did not suddenly erupt in the context of the January 2011 Yemeni uprising. In 2007, a broad-based popular protest movement known as the Southern Movement (Al-Hiraak al-Janoubi) had come to the fore. The Hiraak originated as a rights-based movement requesting equality under the law and a change in relations between North and South – all within a united country. The government responded to the demands with repression; it also largely ignored its own promises of reforms. By 2009, the Hiraak had begun to champion Southern independence. In the months leading up to the uprising that became the Yemeni Spring, its influence and popularity in the South clearly were on the ascent.

Could the popular uprising open up fresh opportunities to peacefully resolve the Southern issue? If the various sides act reasonably, it should. From the start, it facilitated cooperation between Northern and Southern protesters and broke through barriers of fear, allowing a larger spectrum of Southerners to join the national public debate on the status of the South. Most importantly, it has facilitated debate and growing consensus around federal options. If political foes can reach agreement on a transition of power in Sanaa and launch an inclusive national dialogue, they could seize the moment to negotiate a peaceful compromise on the Southern issue as well.

The problem is that there is no indication Yemen is heading there. Instead, as mass protests have continued without result, frustration has grown and so too has Southern distrust that anything that happens in the North will improve their lot. The risks are many. An enduring political impasse could prompt further collapse of security and economic conditions throughout the country, producing greater unrest and instability in the South. Alternatively, a full-fledged civil war could break out between Northern rival elites, a scenario that could prompt Southern stakeholders to pursue a serious bid for separation. Already, the early euphoria generated by coordination between protesters in the North and South is giving way to resurgent calls by some for Southern independence.

This is a dangerous brew. The South’s secession almost certainly would be resisted by the North and could spark a violent conflict. Any effort toward independence also could trigger in-fighting and additional fragmentation within the South itself. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other violent groups already are prospering amid growing instability and chaos; further deterioration would only expand their reach.

A clear path toward a redefinition of relations between centre and periphery is badly needed. This can only be achieved through an inclusive dialogue that recognises Southerners’ legitimate grievances and the importance of profoundly amending that relationship. Four possible outcomes are being discussed in various forums, with varying degrees of popularity: maintenance of a unitary state albeit with improved government performance; maintenance of a unitary state but with significant powers devolved to local governments; a federal state consisting of two or more regions; and Southern secession.

Of these, the first and last are the more likely recipes for heightened conflict. The former (a kind of status quo plus) would essentially ignore Southerners’ legitimate demands for greater participation, control of local resources and protection of local identity and culture. The latter (Southern independence) would alienate not only Northerners but also many Southerners who strongly prefer reform within the context of unity.

That leaves the two middle options. Both have their problems. Hiraak supporters suspect that a mere strengthening of local government powers – even under a more democratic and representative central government – could be a subterfuge and fail to truly protect Southerners’ rights. For this and other reasons, they favour either immediate separation or, at a minimum, a federation of two states lasting four to five years, to be followed by a referendum on the South’s ultimate status.

On the other hand, federalism, especially under a two-state formula (one Northern, the other Southern), is eyed by many with considerable suspicion as only the first step toward the South’s eventual separation. Some form of multi-state federalism, with perhaps four or seven regions, potentially could allay those anxieties. It has found relatively wider appeal in the North and arguably could gain traction even within staunchly pro-unity parties, such as the ruling General People’s Congress and the opposition Islamist party, Islah. But much more precision about the details of this model will be required before it does so. Overall, none of these fears ought be brushed aside or downplayed. Instead, they should be aired openly and discussed seriously through robust debate and peaceful negotiations.

External players, including the Gulf Cooperation Council members, the U.S., the UK, the EU and the UN, have a role to play. All officially support a unified Yemen. But that is an umbrella broad enough to accommodate the need for Yemenis to comprehensively renegotiate the relationship between the central government and regional entities.

Yemen’s upheaval presents a rare opportunity to redefine its flawed and failed political compact. At the same time, however, it has considerably raised the price of inaction. If nothing is done soon to peacefully address both national and Southern deep-seated grievances, a darker and more ominous chapter could yet be written.

Sanaa/Brussels, 20 October 2011

Local security forces wait at a checkpoint in Al Jawf Governorate, Yemen, 5 January 2020. CRISISGROUP/Peter Salisbury

Breaking A Renewed Conflict Cycle in Yemen

Heavy fighting has started again in Yemen after one of the war’s quietest months. Battles on the northern front lines highlight the flaws of the piecemeal approach to negotiating an end to the war – and the pressing need for a coordinated multi-track effort.

The narrow window of opportunity to end the Yemen war that opened in late 2019 may fast be closing. Fighting along key front lines in northern Yemen, along with Huthi rebel missile strikes and the resumption of Saudi-led aerial bombardment, threatens to tilt the conflict toward a major escalation, reversing tentative steps toward dialogue. There is still a chance to break the cycle by expanding newly opened communication channels between Huthi rebels (who call themselves Ansar Allah) and Saudi Arabia to include the internationally recognised Yemeni government and others in order to negotiate a truce on all major fronts. But success will require a coordinated and continuous regional and international effort.

For now, neither the Huthis nor the Saudis wish to abandon the talks, but the de-escalation process is under severe strain.

The swing from stalemate and de-escalation to shooting war was sudden. On 18 January, after a month that UN Envoy Martin Griffiths described as one of the conflict’s quietest periods, the government alleges that the Huthis launched missiles at one of its military camps in Marib governorate (the Huthis refuse to confirm responsibility). The strike reportedly killed more than 100 soldiers in one of the war’s deadliest single incidents to date. It came amid intensified combat along previously stalemated front lines in al-Jawf, Nihm and Marib between allies of the Huthis, on one side, and of the government, on the other. These battles became still fiercer after the strike, with both sides suffering heavy losses. The Huthis have since fired several more missiles at military facilities in Marib. Saudi Arabia, in turn, has ramped up its air campaign, launching dozens of raids in what the Huthis argue is a breach of a putative cross-border truce. Saudi officials label the fighting a Huthi attempt to take advantage of border ceasefire negotiations under way since October. For now, neither the Huthis nor the Saudis wish to abandon the talks, but the de-escalation process is under severe strain.

The fighting underscores the limitations of the current piecemeal regional and international approach to ending the war. This approach, in which Saudi Arabia has taken the lead on the key negotiating tracks in the south and on the border, has been as much about firefighting as conflict prevention. The UN is struggling to sustain the year-old Stockholm Agreement to prevent a battle for the Red Sea port of Hodeida. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is pressuring the government and the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) to firm up the November 2019 Riyadh Agreement that ended fighting over the southern port city of Aden. Many observers, including Crisis Group, had hoped that the parties could thread these two disparate tracks together with the Saudi-Huthi border de-escalation into a single UN-led process to end the war. Progress in demilitarising Hodeida would, under this view, build confidence among the Yemeni parties; the Riyadh Agreement would prevent a war-within-a-war and lay the groundwork for forming a more inclusive government; and the Saudi-Huthi talks would help remove Yemen from the regional power struggle between the U.S. and its allies, on one hand, and Iran, on the other. 

Recent events, however, suggest that the piecemeal approach rests on inherently weak foundations: a series of bilateral agreements designed to halt specific parts of the conflict without tackling their underlying causes, something only national multiparty talks can achieve. Left unaddressed is the fighting between government-aligned forces and the Huthis on fronts in the north and south, making the approach’s success or failure vulnerable to events on the ground. The cause of the sudden escalation in the north is contested, with both the Huthis and the government claiming they are taking defensive measures in response to their rivals’ premeditated aggression. In explaining their expanded military activities, the Huthis cite a series of alleged Saudi airstrikes and ground attacks they say took place before the 18 January missile strike. The government says the Huthis had launched a series of small-scale raids on strategic positions, including highways in government-controlled areas, over the course of January before the Marib strike. What triggered the fighting may in fact have been a local dispute over a checkpoint in al-Jawf governorate early in the month that gradually spiralled out of control. 

Regardless, it is clear that both parties had been preparing for renewed hostilities in the north after a long period of stalemate. The Huthis and the government each claimed their rivals were planning major new operations in the weeks and months before the escalation. Huthi fears may have grown in recent weeks as government forces previously based in the south of Yemen were redeployed to Marib as part of the Riyadh Agreement.

The fighting in the north will have a knock-on effect on each of the ongoing negotiation tracks. Saudi-Huthi talks continue but are strained; hawks in both camps have arguably gained traction, and they have come close to scuttling discussions on several occasions. The Riyadh Agreement has also come under stress since the 18 January missile strike, in part because the Huthis’ refusal to claim it encourages speculation about its provenance. 

Pro-government news sites and social media have spread an unlikely rumour that either the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or the STC, the secessionist grouping aligned with Abu Dhabi, fired the missiles. A number of government officials note that the UAE removed its Patriot missile defence system from Marib in mid-2019, leaving the area vulnerable to Huthi short-range missile attacks. Pro-government media have also used the fighting in the north as an opportunity to lambast the Stockholm Agreement, which they see as an artificial stalemate imposed from outside. The government has publicly threatened to leave the agreement. The renewed focus on Stockholm is in part motivated by concern that Saudi Arabia and the UN are close to negotiating a truce in the north at a time when the Huthis remain dominant on the ground. But it may also portend renewed hostilities along the Red Sea coast. 

At the time of writing, the Huthis appeared to be making the biggest gains on the battlefield, reportedly controlling the important Nihm front north east of Sanaa after several days in which both sides claimed a series of largely symbolic victories while suffering numerous casualties. In a sign of deep frustration and fatigue among ordinary Yemenis, public criticism has turned inward: the Huthis’ tribal allies have criticised the rebels for the high cost of what are likely inconclusive battles, while the government’s supporters have similarly reproached President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi for failing to gain ground on the Huthis. Some voices in the anti-Huthi bloc blame Riyadh for providing insufficient support at what they believe was a potential turning point in the war. 

The fighting could spark renewed conflict elsewhere in Yemen. Many in the anti-Huthi bloc see it as an opportunity to attend to unfinished business. The widespread narrative in their ranks is that the Stockholm Agreement forestalled a pivotal battle that would have weakened the Huthis and allowed for a national political settlement on more equitable terms. With fighting already raging in the north and in the southern governorate of al-Dhale, many in the anti-Huthi camp believe they could make a renewed push for Hodeida and reignite battles along the border in a rare, coordinated multifront campaign. Many Huthis suspect such a battle was the Riyadh Agreement’s real aim all along. Hawks in the Huthi camp, meanwhile, appear to relish the prospect of a national showdown particularly if, as seemed to be the case at the time of writing, they have come out on top in the latest round of fighting.

The uptick in violence is extremely worrying, yet actors supporting the political track may still be able to reverse the current trajectory.

An expansion of the conflict would be a devastating blow to current efforts to end the war. Senior Huthi officials have staked their reputations on the de-escalation initiative with the Saudis, and would likely lose considerable capital within the movement if it fails. Saudi as well as Huthi military leaders were already sceptical of the de-escalation effort and may decide that the only option now is outright military victory. In addition, developments in the U.S.-Iran rivalry may well have motivated Riyadh’s decision to negotiate with the Huthis, following a missile attack on vital Saudi Arabian oil production facilities in September 2019 that was claimed by the Huthis, but widely attributed to Iran. Arguably fearful of a regional war in which U.S. support was uncertain, Riyadh may have sought to mitigate the risk along its southern border by de-escalating with the Huthis and seeking to drive a wedge between them and Iran. But Saudi officials might also have reappraised this approach (or at least slowed it down) after unrest in Iran, huge protests in Iraq and Lebanon, and the U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani, the architect of Iran’s regional asymmetrical war strategy, in early January. 

The uptick in violence is extremely worrying, yet actors supporting the political track may still be able to reverse the current trajectory. Crisis Group recommends the following: 

  • The UN Security Council should echo UN Envoy Griffiths’ call for a de-escalation, and urge a truce on all fronts or, even stronger, steps toward a nationwide ceasefire, reiterating the point that the only solution to the Yemen war is a political one. 
     
  • The U.S. in particular should push Saudi Arabia, and the UN, the EU and Oman should press the Huthis, to continue talks, maintain the cross-border truce and implement further bilateral de-escalation measures. In parallel, the U.S. and the UN should encourage Saudi Arabia to bring the Yemeni government and its allies into negotiations with the Huthis. 
     
  • The UN should lead the establishment of a national military body, comprising senior military representatives from the government, the Huthi movement, key military officers on major frontlines (as some anti-Huthi commanders like Tariq Saleh on the Red Sea coast do not fall under the direct authority of the government) and Saudi Arabia, overseen by the UN and advised by international ceasefire planning experts. This body would be charged with planning and implementing frontline truces and reopening key roads. It would include political liaisons capable of transmitting proposals directly to their leaders. 
     
  • International and regional support as well as coordination for such an initiative would be critical. Crisis Group has advocated in the past for the formation of a contact group of key regional and international stakeholders including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Oman, as well as the U.S., UK and EU. Such a grouping could meet regularly and divide labour for outreach, pressure and the provision of technical expertise, taking its cues from the UN envoy. A meeting of such a group should take place as soon as possible, making the formation of a military body its immediate task.
     

The present scenario is wearyingly familiar: modest advances toward a political settlement undone by local fighting that explodes into a national escalation, driven by overconfidence or miscalculation on the part of key protagonists. There still is time to stop this dangerous slide, but it may fast run out.