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Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question
Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Behind the Yemen Truce and Presidential Council Announcements
Behind the Yemen Truce and Presidential Council Announcements
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

Image grab taken from Yemen TV early on April 7, 2022 shows Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi during a televised speech. AFP / YEMEN TV

Behind the Yemen Truce and Presidential Council Announcements

The UN has brokered a surprise truce in Yemen’s long-running war, while the country’s internationally recognised president has handed over his powers to an eight-man council. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Peter Salisbury explains the significance of these developments.

What has happened in Yemen?

The UN envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, announced on 1 April that he had secured a two-month truce between “the parties” to the country’s seven-year war. The agreement came into force at 7pm Yemen time the next day. Local and regional media continue to report fighting, particularly around the embattled city of Marib, but overall the war’s tempo appears to be slowing.

By “the parties” to Yemen’s war, the statement from Grundberg’s office meant the Huthi rebels, who go by the name Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), and the internationally recognised government, which at the time the truce was signed was headed by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. It did not mention the coalition led by Saudi Arabia, which is running an intensive air war upon the Huthis in support of the Yemeni government, or the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which until early 2020 had troops fighting in Yemen as part of this alliance. The Huthis, who have Iranian support, have launched missile strikes on both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But the coalition endorsed the truce, which includes a freeze in coalition air strikes – a key Huthi condition for halting the fighting. UN Secretary-General António Guterres commended it for doing so. Meanwhile, on 7 April, Hadi handed over his powers to a presidential council, which will be responsible for enforcing the truce’s terms from the government side.

What did the parties agree to?

UN officials have been at pains to underscore that a truce is not the same as a ceasefire. A truce is an informal agreement to stop fighting. It is a step short of a formal ceasefire – the latter would not only halt the hostilities but also include agreed-upon monitoring and de-escalation mechanisms.

The newly announced truce outlines a couple of significant confidence-building measures. The Yemeni government and the coalition will ease their embargo on fuel entering the Huthi-held Red Sea port of Hodeida and allow commercial flights to and from the capital Sanaa, which the rebels also control, for the first time since 2016. The parties also committed to reopening talks over road access to Taiz, a city in central Yemen, which the Huthis have encircled since 2016, and other parts of the country.

The UN has yet to publish all the details, but Huthi and government officials have confirmed the contents of the text to which they agreed, providing specifics. Under the agreement, the government and coalition will allow eighteen fuel shipments to enter Hodeida over the course of the two-month truce, along with twice-weekly flights to Sanaa from two destinations: Cairo and Amman.

Was the truce expected?

It came as a surprise. That the UN was exerting efforts to negotiate a truce to coincide with the start of Ramadan was an open secret. But there was plenty of reason to be pessimistic it would succeed. The agreement’s broad contours – halting the fighting, letting fuel ships into Hodeida and reopening Sanaa airport – had been at the heart of UN mediation efforts since early 2020. Grundberg’s predecessor, Martin Griffiths, sought to broker a ceasefire around these elements to prevent a battle for Marib in both 2020 and 2021. Until now, the government and the Huthis had taken turns in blocking such an agreement.

Perhaps the bigger surprise, if the agreement’s terms outlined above are accurate, is that the parties settled for such a limited set of conditions. The Huthis have long sought to have all restrictions on trade entering Hodeida port lifted and for Sanaa airport to be opened to commercial flights from all over the world. The eighteen fuel shipments and two weekly flights are a far cry from this goal.

Moreover, both the Huthis and the government had sought a ceasefire deal that would mainly favour their side. For example, the government wanted the Huthis to withdraw from their positions around Marib. This city is the government’s last stronghold in the north and the country’s largest oil and gas extraction facilities are located in its environs. From their side, the Huthis, who paint the war as a battle by their “nationalist” forces against Saudi “aggression”, sought to limit a ceasefire to cross-border attacks – in other words, a ceasefire or truce between the Huthis and the coalition, not the government – leaving their rivals exposed to a continued ground assault in Marib and elsewhere. In the event, they agreed to what is in effect a self-policed military freeze-in-place.

What should we make of the formation of the presidential council and will it affect the truce?

On 7 April, Hadi, Yemen’s interim president of a decade’s standing, announced that he was removing his vice president of the past five years, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and more importantly, ceding his executive powers to a presidential council. The members of the eight-man council were apparently selected by delegates at talks in Riyadh convened by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an inter-governmental body comprising the six Gulf Arab monarchies. It was Hadi, however, who officially appointed the council by means of an “irreversible” presidential declaration. The council will be led by Rashad al-Alimi, Yemen’s former interior minister. It unprecedentedly brings together prominent leaders of the anti-Huthi military and political factions that control territory and forces on the ground. It is evenly split between northerners and southerners.

There have long been rumours about such an overhaul at the top. By mid-2021, a broad consensus had emerged in the anti-Huthi bloc that the political status quo was unsustainable. Hadi was widely recognised as exerting little to no control, or even influence, over most of the major anti-Huthi groupings now represented on the council. He provided little in the way of leadership and anti-Huthi forces were beset by factional disputes. In September 2021, the Huthis made breakthroughs in central and northern Yemen that allowed them to almost entirely surround Marib city. Only the intervention of UAE-aligned forces in Shebwa and Marib governorates prevented the government’s defences from falling apart. These offensives, proceeding over the past few months, marked the first time that the Huthis have lost territory in almost four years. But government-led forces subsequently failed to capitalise on these gains, in particular proving unable to capture a single city in northern Yemen. Yemenis cited these difficulties and the dire economic straits of nominally government-controlled areas as evidence that Hadi and Mohsen were too weak to keep heading the government.

It is not clear what persuaded Hadi to step down ... but the Saudis ... are widely held to have compelled him to do so.

In the hours after the council was formed, Riyadh and the UAE announced $3 billion in aid to stabilise Yemen’s cratering economy. As part of his decree forming the council, Hadi also appointed a new economic committee. It is not clear what persuaded Hadi to step down after so many years of manoeuvring on his part to avoid ceding power, but the Saudis, his hosts for the past seven years, are widely held to have compelled him to do so.

An important question is whether the council was formed to advance the government’s cause in the war or to sue for peace. Reading prepared comments during the GCC meeting’s closing ceremony, Yemeni Prime Minister Maen Saeed Abdulmalik, who retained his post as head of the cabinet, said delegates had agreed that there was no military solution to the war, arriving instead at a consensus behind pursuing peace with the Huthis. Several people involved in the Riyadh talks point to language in the presidential decree that charges the council with negotiating a permanent ceasefire and a comprehensive political solution to the conflict. They and GCC officials say negotiations will be a priority. Riyadh will also be aware that the council comprises rival factions and hence it will likely want to move fast before internal tensions bubble up to the surface. But some in the anti-Huthi camp are already arguing that the presidential council should work to unify military efforts instead of making peace overtures.

Why did these things happen now?

The truce and the council’s appointment are both likely results of shifts in conflict dynamics over the course of 2021 and 2022. By late 2021, the Huthis were convinced that they were poised to march into Marib and therefore deemed a truce harmful to their prospects of seizing the city and eponymous governorate. From their side, the government and its allies equated the Huthis’ terms for a ceasefire – lifting all restrictions on Hodeida port and Sanaa airport – with an assault on the government’s sovereign authority. Nor did Riyadh want to make concessions to the Huthis without a meaningful return, likely related to their demand that the group cut its ties with Iran.

The full Huthi takeover of Marib – which appeared entirely possible some months ago – never came to pass. Marib’s fall to the Huthis would have given the group access not only to Yemen’s main oil fields but also to a swathe of desert bordering Saudi Arabia. The rebels already control territory abutting the kingdom, chiefly their northern highland bastion of Saada, but if they were to take this desert, they would have a vast new staging ground for possible cross-border attacks. The situation changed in early 2022. As mentioned above, in January, UAE-aligned forces made the first significant military gains against the Huthis in almost four years, greatly complicating Huthi efforts to seize Marib city and governorate. The Huthis responded to their losses by launching drone and missile strikes on the UAE. These attacks, which killed and injured several people, were the first Abu Dhabi has acknowledged publicly (the Huthis have twice claimed prior attacks on Abu Dhabi airport about which UAE has made no comment). The UAE has since pushed for the U.S. to re-designate the Huthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. (The Biden administration removed this designation, which its predecessor had put in place shortly before leaving office.)

The Huthis also increased the frequency of their attacks on Saudi Arabia, most recently hitting an oil storage depot in Jeddah just ahead of a Formula 1 race in the city. Riyadh responded with more airstrikes on Sanaa and other populated areas, increasing the risk of mass civilian casualties that would draw more censure from abroad. These events created a broad military equilibrium for the first time in several years. Meanwhile, the economy in both government- and Huthi-held areas has been badly affected by the price spikes in global commodity markets set off by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions that provoked. Fuel shortages in Huthi areas have become more and more acute, in part because of the embargo.

By the time the UN mediated the truce ... both sides were hurting and stood to gain from at least a temporary pause.

By the time the UN mediated the truce, in other words, both sides were hurting and stood to gain from at least a temporary pause. Riyadh has long said it wants a negotiated solution to the war and has been under pressure from the U.S. to find a way to end the conflict. But it was clear that a solution would not be possible with Hadi at the helm. In principle, the council’s formation should provide the Huthis with a credible negotiating partner, though whether it will lead to serious talks is far from clear. Thus far, the rebels have mocked the council and say they will negotiate only with the Saudis.

What do Yemenis think about the truce and the council?

Responses are mixed. Exhausted by the war, most ordinary Yemenis want to believe the truce can hold. Many of the people Crisis Group has spoken to, even those who are vehemently anti-Huthi, are excited by the idea that Sanaa airport will reopen along with key roads and highways. A functioning airport would allow the sick to travel abroad for medical treatment, while greater freedom of movement will let families reunite and improve the economic and humanitarian situation, particularly for those stuck in besieged Taiz. The riyal, which has collapsed in value against the dollar, has appreciated marginally since the truce announcement.

Yet pessimism is pervasive. Many people believe that the parties agreed to the truce merely as a tactical pause and are not ready for serious peace talks that could lead to a formal and perhaps longer-lasting ceasefire. The Saudis are widely rumoured to have forced the government into the agreement. If they did, the deal may not hold as the government seeks to stymie its implementation. As for the Huthis, their rivals claim that the group agrees to truces or talks only when it benefits them to do so, in order to regroup for future attacks. Many in the anti-Huthi camp believe the Huthis will break the truce soon in order to renew their assault on Marib – or use the truce to prepare for another attack shortly after the two months elapse.

A common refrain among social media commentators is that the truce is “Stockholm 2.0”, a reference to the 2018 UN-brokered Stockholm Agreement. That deal prevented what could have been a terrible battle for Hodeida, with UAE-aligned forces at the port city’s doorstep at the time, but little of its substance ever saw the light of day. The two sides repeatedly accused each other of violating the ceasefire around Hodeida and constantly quibbled over the terms of a proposed prisoner swap and revenue-sharing mechanism for the port. Similar problems are likely to plague the new truce agreement.od

So far, the presidential council’s reception has been largely positive among anti-Huthi groups, which tired long ago of Hadi’s sclerotic, self-serving rule and saw a government shake-up as badly needed. But the welcome is not unanimous. Some factions of Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist party, which is prominent in defending Marib and Taiz cities, have expressed concern that the council is designed to dilute their group’s influence and argued that Hadi’s decree establishing it is unconstitutional. Partisans of the various Islah factions are also complaining that their role is too small relative to others’. The Huthis, as noted, dismiss the council as more of the same, a mere Saudi-controlled front for continuation of Riyadh’s “aggression”.

Will the truce hold?

A large gap remains between the sides as to what a political settlement should look like and how to get there. Even the limited truce agreement will be hard to keep in place. The UN will not formally monitor the truce, and authorities in Marib have already accused the Huthis of violating it. It is easy for the government and the coalition to allow fuel shipments into Hodeida. But reopening Sanaa airport to international flights is likely to be fraught with technical difficulties, especially if the government and Huthis choose to make it so by squabbling over things like flight paths and passport authority, which they almost certainly will do. If no flights arrive in Sanaa soon, the Huthis may accuse the UN of letting the truce fail. The rebels regularly accuse the UN of bias toward their rivals.

By the same token, if no progress is made on Taiz, many in the anti-Huthi camp are likely to accuse the UN of brokering a deal designed to benefit the rebels. They may also say international diplomats care more about civilians in Sanaa suffering fuel shortages and the lack of an airport than those besieged by the Huthis in Taiz. Fighting on the ground also could scupper the deal. Already, local officials in Taiz have begun to report Huthi troop build-ups on key front lines across the governorate. They warn of a coming offensive that exploits the freeze in Saudi airstrikes.

A more optimistic reading is that the Saudis – who clearly were instrumental in making the truce possible, even if they are not a formal party to it – and the Huthis agreed to the truce independently of one another and did so because they saw it as beneficial rather than because they were under outside pressure. The Stockholm Agreement came about largely because of U.S. pressure on Riyadh in the wake of the killing of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul and because the Huthis feared they might lose Hodeida. International pressure on the Saudis has lessened since, although the U.S. has pushed Riyadh to meet some Huthi conditions to make a ceasefire possible. Scrutiny of the Huthis has increased, especially since the Abu Dhabi attacks.

The pressure is now on the UN to prove that it can bring the truce to fruition.

With the conflict in balance, there is no single pressure point that would disproportionally favour one side or the other. For both, the upside of halting the conflict is clear and either can resume fighting any time it likes. By overseeing the formation of the presidential council and setting the tone of the Riyadh meeting, including the Yemeni prime minister’s statement, the Saudis have both signalled a desire to negotiate an end to the war and shown an ability to unite anti-Huthi war efforts. If anything, the pressure is now on the UN to prove that it can bring the truce to fruition. If it fails, Riyadh and Sanaa are both likely to blame Grundberg and return to old arguments that their rivals cannot be trusted.

What needs to happen next?

The UN needs to move fast to get fuel shipments into Hodeida and flights moving in and out of Sanaa. It also needs to prove it is serious about reopening Taiz. Finally, it needs to try getting the new presidential council in a room with the Huthis. Patience is likely to wear thin among Yemenis by the end of the first month of the two-month truce. Sanaa flights allowing families to reunite by Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that closes Ramadan, would be a powerful symbol of the value of negotiation that could give a boost to further UN-led mediation. The cost of failure, meanwhile, would be deeper cynicism among Yemenis that the warring parties are capable of compromise or that the UN is capable of brokering an end to the conflict. Three and a half years have passed since the UN mediated the Stockholm Agreement and an even longer gap is likely in the event that this truce does not last past its expiry date. Getting to a ceasefire and political talks – both of which are imperative – is unlikely if the truce cannot be sustained and expanded. The anti-Huthi camp, meanwhile, will be aware that the new council risks being racked with infighting the longer it lasts, and should push at a minimum for an interim political settlement that ends the fighting and allows Yemen’s rival factions to attempt to resolve their differences through talks.