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Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question
Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Six Steps to Make the Most of the U.S. Senate’s Yemen Vote
Six Steps to Make the Most of the U.S. Senate’s Yemen Vote
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

Members of the Yemeni pro-government forces walk through destruction in an industrial district in the eastern outskirts of the port city of Hodeida on November 18, 2018, during the ongoing battle for control of the city from the Huthi rebels. STRINGER / AFP

Six Steps to Make the Most of the U.S. Senate’s Yemen Vote

By an unexpectedly large margin, the U.S. Senate voted on 29 November to move ahead with a bill to end U.S. involvement in the Yemen war. Crisis Group calls on the key actors to seize this opportunity to suspend the fighting and pursue peace in earnest.

The U.S. Congress is notoriously reluctant to take tough decisions on matters of war and peace, which makes the Senate’s 29 November vote on the conflict in Yemen all the more remarkable.

The Senate voted by a 63-37 margin to advance a resolution that would require the Trump administration to “remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting the Republic of Yemen”. In doing so, it sent a clear message to both the administration and its allies intervening in Yemen, the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The message: a large, bipartisan group of senators is deeply troubled by both the war in Yemen and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist killed by the kingdom’s agents in Istanbul, and correspondingly dissatisfied with the administration’s business-as-usual backing of the Saudis. Efforts by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis to defuse frustrations by reminding the Senate of the U.S.-Saudi partnership’s importance right before the vote fell flat; the administration’s failure to produce CIA Director Gina Haspel as a witness to speak about the Khashoggi affair only made things worse.

The Yemen war is moving quickly toward an inflection point.

The Trump administration and the Saudi leadership may be tempted to wait for the Senate’s moment of anger to pass. But that could be a serious miscalculation. With peace talks slated to begin in Sweden in early December, the Yemen war is moving quickly toward an inflection point. In the coming weeks and months, there is a modest but real opportunity to build trust between the warring parties and prevent what is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis from descending into famine. The alternative – a brutal fight for the Red Sea port and city of Hodeida, the collapse of the incipient peace process and starvation on an unprecedented scale – is, unfortunately, more likely. Beyond its profound humanitarian costs, this outcome would further stain the reputations of the Saudi-led coalition and its Western supporters. The Senate vote, which staffers say represents the lowest ebb in sentiment toward Riyadh since the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, is just a taste of what could be in store if the coalition barrels blithely ahead.

The worst need not happen. Instead, the Trump administration and its Gulf allies should treat the 29 November vote as a spur to correct the course they have been on to date. To maximise the odds of a course correction, and to end the war, Crisis Group suggests the following six steps.

Congress Should Keep Up the Pressure

Congress should not let up on the Trump administration and its Gulf Arab allies. The Senate’s procedural vote sent a strong signal, albeit at this point a largely symbolic one. It would lose much of its force if the same or a similar resolution fails to gain sufficient support when it comes to the floor for adoption next week.

Moreover, the legislation’s sceptics argue that even if it becomes law (which would require a companion House of Representatives bill to pass and either presidential signature or a Congressional veto override), the bill’s broad reference to withdrawal from hostilities will be insufficient to secure the administration’s compliance. The White House has said it does not consider the U.S. to be engaged in the coalition’s war effort in Yemen, and the judiciary would be highly unlikely to take a position on this issue should Congress attempt to force the administration’s hand in court.

But these considerations miss the bigger picture. The Senate has telegraphed bipartisan revulsion at the war and at the U.S.’s complicity in it, along with a growing willingness to expend political capital in order to distance Washington from Riyadh. Saudi leaders with an eye on the long-term bilateral relationship should see cause for real concern.

Some of the technical issues in the resolution that would weaken its impact should it become law (notably the fact that the White House has already argued that the U.S. is not engaged in hostilities in Yemen and thus that the law would be without effect) could still be addressed. If the Senate wants to amend the resolution before a floor vote, it can do so. A source of inspiration could be another draft bill, the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act sponsored by three Democrats and three Republicans. The Senate did not plan to debate this bill until a new Congress is seated in January. But senators could borrow some of its specifics, which arguably would make the current bill more effective. Among other things, they could incorporate a suspension of both offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, a prohibition on refuelling coalition aircraft, and provisions requiring sanctions for those blocking humanitarian aid access, circumventing some of the current resolution’s shortcomings. They could also use the current bill to block spare parts transfers. 

The Senate should impress upon Riyadh and the White House that the withdrawal resolution is just the beginning if things do not change. A strong Senate vote in favour of the withdrawal resolution – whether amended or not – will put the new Congress (including a new Democratic majority in the House) in position to ratchet up the pressure still more if need be.

The White House Should Prioritise Preventing a Battle for Hodeida

As Crisis Group has repeatedly argued, a battle between UAE-backed Yemeni forces and Huthi rebels for the Red Sea port and city of Hodeida would be catastrophic in terms of both the human cost – the UN says fourteen million Yemenis are on the verge of famine – and the peace process. Yet the Trump administration baulks at decisive action to rein in the coalition whose proxies sit impatiently outside Hodeida. A reprieve in military pressure, it argues, could give the Huthis new confidence in their position going in to forthcoming consultative talks in Sweden. The administration used this argument in an attempt to peel supporters away from the Senate withdrawal bill and to freeze a UN Security Council resolution calling for a halt to the Hodeida campaign. It is mistaken.

The talks would be an important step, but they are not designed to produce a peace deal.

The administration’s position seems to underestimate both the likelihood and the gravity of an assault on Hodeida. Crisis Group’s field reporting points clearly to such an offensive, either before or after the consultative talks, unless something happens to change the coalition’s calculations. Such a fight would be devastating. It would take months, be horrendously destructive, induce famine and set back the peace process, all probably without changing the Huthis’ attitude as the UAE hopes.

The argument that pressure on the coalition could jeopardise the outcome of the Sweden talks and therefore should be avoided is equally misplaced. The talks would be an important step, but they are not designed to produce a peace deal; their purpose is to develop a framework on how to proceed with future talks. To mortgage the lives at stake in Hodeida and the country at large in the name of advancing the coalition’s negotiating position at these talks would be wrong, given that all previous rounds of talks have collapsed, and that anything achieved in Sweden would be utterly undone by a battle for the port and city.

The White House Should Not Suggest That It Can Protect the Coalition from the Political Fallout of Its Actions

The White House message to the coalition should be simple: you saw the Senate vote. Congress is furious, and we cannot do anything about it. Help us help you by calling off the Hodeida offensive, agreeing to a cessation of hostilities, and genuinely seeking a negotiated end to the war.

The Saudi-led Coalition Should Halt Any Plans for a Hodeida Offensive, Agree to a Cessation of Hostilities and Negotiate in Good Faith

The Senate vote is just the latest signal of Riyadh’s fraying relationships on Capitol Hill, and its reputation in the U.S. more broadly. The coalition ought to consider what it needs to do to repair the damage before it is too late. The UAE, which is leading the Red Sea campaign, has so far escaped the opprobrium directed toward Saudi Arabia but should be mindful that this could change and that a collapse of its most important regional partner’s standing in Washington would be costly for it as well.

A good first step would be for the UAE and Saudi Arabia to abandon plans to take over Hodeida and enter in good faith into detailed conversations with the UN over an acceptable way of moving the port to UN management – something the Gulf powers have thus far resisted. More broadly, the coalition should agree to a cessation of hostilities and in particular halt all airstrikes.

An unconditional Huthi surrender is not realistic.

Finally, the UAE and Saudi Arabia should also be clear in laying out what they see as an acceptable deal with the Huthis, and express willingness to compromise, rather than pushing for maximalist demands framed by UN Security Council Resolution 2216, in particular that the Huthis disarm completely without receiving anything in return. An unconditional Huthi surrender is not realistic. Instead, the coalition could offer a phased integration of the Huthis into Yemen’s security sector; a detailed plan for the integration of coalition-supported fighters, including hardline Salafis; and guarantees that they will accept a future meaningful political role for the Huthis.

The Saudi-led Coalition Should Prioritise Humanitarian Aid Access

Separate from the political process, the coalition should work closely with UN agencies – as it has begun to do – to reestablish full humanitarian access and capacity in and around Hodeida. The battle front lines in recent months have nudged up against key storage and grain milling sites that house the bulk of the UN’s surplus supplies. One of them is the Red Sea Mills, a wheat storage and milling facility near Hodeida that it took over from the Huthis in October and that is crucial for the UN to maintain its humanitarian operations. The coalition should provide the UN with access to the mills, clear and secure routes of entry and egress, and help remove mines and other hazardous materiel left in the mills by the Huthis.

The coalition should also guarantee that it will not cut off the last road connecting Hodeida port and city to the rest of the country, the loss of which would be commensurate in humanitarian impact to a battle inside the port or city.

The Coalition Should Give Peace Talks a Chance

The coalition should also give the talks set to begin in Sweden time and space to succeed. While the Saudis and Emiratis publicly support the peace process, they seem to expect the consultations to collapse, to end inconclusively or not to take place at all – and appear to be doing little to steer clear of those outcomes. Riyadh’s agreement to allow for the evacuation of injured Huthi fighters was one small step in the right direction. To further build confidence, the coalition should agree to other UN suggestions, such as the mutual release of prisoners and, optimally, to a nationwide cessation of hostilities.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi argue that the Huthis and their Iranian backers are unlikely to reciprocate any coalition good-will; rather, they can be expected to take advantage of it, bolster their military position, and bank on time and growing U.S. war fatigue to consolidate their position. This is a risk, and it is a reason why, as Crisis Group has previously argued, all who have ties to the Huthis need to exert pressure on them as well.

But at this point, the priority must be to halt the slide toward famine and do whatever is possible to end a war that has ravaged Yemen. The Senate vote offers a renewed opportunity to do so. It must be seized.