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Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question
Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The U.S. Should Reverse Its Huthi Terror Designation
The U.S. Should Reverse Its Huthi Terror Designation
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

An elderly woman looks on while sitting on a make-shift bed as people try to salvage tents damaged by torrential rain, at a camp for Yemenis displaced by conflict in the northern Hajjah province on 30 September 2020. Essa Ahmed/AFP

The U.S. Should Reverse Its Huthi Terror Designation

The outgoing Trump administration has designated Yemen’s Huthi rebels a terrorist organisation. Proponents argue the measure will provide leverage with the Huthis, but in reality it will hurt efforts to end the war and could precipitate famine. The incoming Biden administration should rescind it immediately.

Against the advice of more or less everyone working in the humanitarian, economic and diplomatic fields in Yemen, and including many of its own professional staff, the outgoing Trump administration has designated Yemen’s Ansar Allah, better known at home and abroad as the Huthis, as a terrorist organisation.

The designation (in fact, a package of designations that named the Huthi movement both a “Foreign Terrorist Organisation” and, along with three of its top leaders, a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” entity) will unquestionably make what the UN says is already the world’s largest humanitarian crisis much worse by tipping parts of Yemen into famine. The action is also bad for UN-led efforts to end the war. And it arguably runs counter to U.S. interests and harms the security of Washington’s Gulf allies.

The designation will unquestionably make what the UN says is already the world’s largest humanitarian crisis much worse by tipping parts of Yemen into famine.

For these reasons, the incoming Biden administration should reverse the Huthis’ designation as soon as possible upon taking office. In the meantime, the Trump administration should state unequivocally what exceptions and licences it has put in place to allow for the continued flow of humanitarian aid into Yemen and expand them to include commercial imports. Without such steps, famine is all but certain to follow.

The debate over the merits and risks of a designation is not new. Proponents of a designation, namely Saudi Arabia and its Yemeni allies along with the United Arab Emirates, have been unable to win the war militarily and contend that fighting will only end when the Huthis, now in the ascendant militarily and confident in their status as de facto rulers of north-western Yemen, have been forced into “behaviour change” by economic and political pressure. They also argue that the designation is warranted because the Huthis fulfil the criteria for it by engaging in indiscriminate attacks upon civilians in Yemen as well as firing rockets and missiles at Saudi Arabia and attacking shipping in the Red Sea. As the most recent example, they cite a missile they claim the movement launched at Aden’s international airport in southern Yemen to target the newly formed Yemeni government that had just arrived there on 30 December. The Huthis deny responsibility for the strike.

Critics of the designation, including Crisis Group, approach the issue from a different angle. They argue, first and foremost, that the designation will impose dire collective punishment on the estimated 20 million people who live in Huthi-controlled areas. Yemen is a poor country in peacetime; in wartime, ordinary people have become too impoverished to pay for basic foodstuffs, leaving them increasingly dependent on extensive humanitarian aid. As detailed below, the designation will send a chill through aid agencies, which will fear running afoul of the U.S., and it could throw international trade with Yemen into a deep freeze. Food will become scarce and costlier, making it too expensive for most people to buy. Critics of the designation also contend that it will contribute little to resolving the conflict. The Huthis are likely to become more bellicose and make up any income they lose from taxing local markets by increasing tariffs on goods, pushing the cost of living to even more unsustainable levels for ordinary Yemenis. They are also likely to rely more heavily on Iran, their main external backer, for economic and political support – an outcome the U.S. says it is determined to avoid.

A nurse cares for a malnourished child at a clinic in Tuhayta, Western Yemen, 28 September 2018. CRISISGROUP/Peter Salisbury

The Huthis’ ties with Iran are not the only issue where Washington’s actions are likely to prove counterproductive to its stated goals. Huthi officials say they will take “reciprocal” action as the designation’s impact becomes clear. Responses could range from a ban on contact with U.S. nationals to intensified cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia as far as to efforts to halt maritime traffic in the Red Sea. In December 2020, Saudi media outlets reported that a seaborne mine launched by the Huthis had struck a cargo ship in the Red Sea in what some in Riyadh saw as a warning from the Yemeni rebels.

The designation also complicates UN-led efforts to negotiate a ceasefire and convene political talks about ways to end the war. These efforts were already stalling, and in dire need of a boost from the U.S., as both the Huthis and the government seem resolved to pursue a military victory. The Huthis may now choose to boycott the UN envoy, whom they sporadically accuse of being a tool of U.S. interests. Foreign diplomats are likely to be constrained in their ability to meet the Huthis because of the designations. The Yemeni government, meanwhile, will see in the designation validation of its maximalist demand that the Huthis, in effect, surrender, rather than working to find a middle ground with the rebels. The designation further hampers UN-led efforts to remove an estimated one million barrels of oil from a rusting tanker off Yemen’s Red Sea coast, thus averting ecological disaster, and to decommission the vessel, an operation that will require foreign experts to travel to Sanaa – something that will become more difficult with the designations.

Along with UN and humanitarian officials, Crisis Group has repeatedly raised these concerns with senior U.S. officials. But the proponents have won the day, having gained the support of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other senior Trump administration officials. Since mid-2020, a group of these officials have come to see a designation as another building block in their “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and as a source of much-needed leverage with the Huthis for the U.S. and its allies. Internal deliberations over the designation intensified after President Donald Trump lost the November 2020 election, and Pompeo and others sought a final series of political “wins” at home and abroad before leaving office, including the normalisation deals between Israel and Arab states and a final wave of sanctions against perceived U.S. rivals. Congressional insiders in Washington liken the raft of punitive measures unleashed over the course of the administration’s final months to a “minefield” deliberately laid for the incoming Biden administration, which will likely be overwhelmed by the sheer number of politically sensitive measures it is pressed to undo in its early days.

The U.S. officials’ rush to the finish line has had deeply troubling consequences. So eager was the Trump administration to designate the Huthis before leaving office that it announced the move before it had done its due diligence on limiting humanitarian harm. It made the announcement before the Treasury Department had prepared a package of licences that would assure the UN aid agencies and humanitarian NGOs that they could continue their work in Yemen without fear of civil or criminal penalties in the U.S. Treasury officials are now scrambling to complete this package before the designation takes effect on 19 January. Meanwhile, no such licence is being prepared for private-sector importers, meaning that trade inflows may grind to a halt even if the U.S. puts humanitarian waivers in place in time. Senior aid officials say that if food and other imports are frozen, there is little they can do to prevent a famine. In December 2020, the UN warned that 16,500 Yemenis were already in famine-like conditions and that this number would triple by the end of 2021, before accounting for the effects of a designation.

If it wants to ward off mass starvation, the Trump administration should immediately take mitigating steps.

If it wants to ward off mass starvation, the Trump administration should immediately take mitigating steps. It should have the Treasury Department issue an expansive licence package while the Department of Justice should state unequivocally that humanitarian organisations will not be prosecuted for working in Yemen or engaging directly with the Huthis. If it cannot complete the package before the designation comes into force, the designation should be halted. The U.S. should also issue licences for the private sector, or at a minimum give clear public guidance to commercial interests that they will not be prosecuted for trading with merchants in Yemen, who may be subject to taxation, for example, in Huthi-held areas – that is to say, all businesses importing goods into Yemen.

But these measures are merely palliative – and inadequate at that. Never before has the U.S. slapped a terrorist designation on a group like the Huthis that controls this much territory (around 30 per cent of Yemen’s land mass) and administers (at least de facto) so many people (approximately twenty million Yemenis). Even with licences in place, international banks, insurers and commodity traders that grease the wheels of international trade could well conclude that the risk of legal censure in the U.S. outweighs the meagre profits offered by trade with Yemen. The only way to avoid additional impediments to the movement of trade is to lift the blanket designation of the Huthis.

That task will fall to the incoming Biden administration. The new president’s senior advisers may believe there are more pressing issues to attend to, or worry that lifting the designation is too tricky politically, given that the Huthis are a violent armed group with a sectarian outlook that overthrew Yemen’s internationally recognised government. Nonetheless, the administration must lift the movement’s dual Foreign Terrorist Organisation and Specially Designated Global Terrorist designations, preferably in its first days or week. That said, lifting designations can take time, and in the interim the Biden administration should be prepared to issue as expansive a licencing regime as possible and signal to the humanitarian aid community and others its intention to revoke the designations. It is far better to prevent a full-blown famine driven by U.S. actions now, than to deal with the consequences only when they become so evident as to be uncontrollable.