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Yemen’s Southern Question: Avoiding a Breakdown
Yemen’s Southern Question: Avoiding a Breakdown
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Military Strikes Are No Simple Answer to al-Qaeda’s Rise in Yemen
Military Strikes Are No Simple Answer to al-Qaeda’s Rise in Yemen
Report 145 / Middle East & North Africa

Yemen’s Southern Question: Avoiding a Breakdown

Yemen must agree on its state structure, including the South’s status, to forge a stable future. A final agreement cannot be forced by the National Dialogue Conference; for some key issues, only continued, more inclusive talks in the context of confidence-building measures can succeed.

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Executive Summary

Yemen is at a critical juncture. Its six-month National Dialogue Conference (NDC) was to have closed on 18 September, ushering in constitution drafting, a constitutional referendum and new elections. The timetable has slipped, and, though no end date has been set, there is an understandable urge among many international and some domestic actors to stick closely to agreed deadlines, wrap up the NDC negotiations and finish the transition to-do list. But despite progress, there is no broad-based, implementable agreement on the state’s future structure, and thus on the South’s status. Worse, such a result is unlikely to emerge from the current dialogue, even with a short extension. A rush to declare victory and complete the transition checklist could mean forcing through an outcome without necessary legitimacy or buy-in. It would be better to agree to a time-limited delay of the referendum, put in place modified transitional arrangements and ensure the next round of negotiations is in concert with confidence-building measures and includes a wider, more representative array of Southern voices.

How to structure the state arguably has become the most complicated and divisive political issue and must be a key component of any new constitution and durable political settlement. Parties have presented a wide array of options: from the current unitary system, through multi-region federalism, to two-state federalism (one entity in the North, the other in the South). Even this broad spectrum fails to include what, in the South, has turned into an increasingly attractive rallying cry: the demand for immediate independence.

Indeed, the question of the state’s structure inevitably is tied to the so-called Southern issue, shorthand for the political, economic and social demands emanating from the South, which had been an independent state prior to 1990. There, a loosely aligned mix of organisations and activists, known as the Southern Movement (Hiraak), is calling for separation or, at a minimum, temporary two-state federalism followed by a referendum on the South’s future. Separatist sentiment is running high and appears to have strengthened over the course of the transition.

To an extent, the NDC has made advances. It helped launch a healthy and overdue public debate over the roots of the Southern problem and began the consideration of potential outcomes. But the conference faced severe limitations. Debate in Sanaa is far removed from the increasingly separatist Southern street. Within the NDC, discussion of solutions, bereft of detail, was squeezed into the last two months of negotiations. Although consensus appears to be forming around a federal structure, critical elements remain unresolved: how to define administrative boundaries; redistribute political authority; and share resources. Even a general agreement will be hard to achieve. It will require bridging the yawning gap between Hiraak delegates, who demand a three-year transition under two-part federalism in order to rebuild the Southern state in advance of an ill-defined referendum on the South’s future status, and staunch pro-unity advocates, who passionately reject this option.

Garnering popular support for any eventual agreement will be more challenging still. The Hiraak delegation suspended its participation for nearly three weeks, complaining that negotiations were biased against it; even that delegation hardly is representative of broader and more militant Hiraak sentiment. Only a small slice of the Hiraak – many enjoying close ties to President Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi – agreed to join the NDC. The bulk of the movement chose to stay on the sidelines of talks they deemed illegitimate.

The South’s lack of faith in the NDC process perhaps was inevitable, but it has been exacerbated by the absence of genuine measures to improve security and economic conditions in the region. Government promises notwithstanding, little has changed, further undercutting those Southerners willing to negotiate and providing fodder to those for whom the only way out is separation.

As the time for reaching an agreement nears, all parties appear to be digging in their heels. The Hiraak NDC delegation demands significant concessions, arguing that anything short of two-state federalism and/or a promise to organise a referendum on the South’s future status is unacceptable; leaders from the former ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and from the predominant Islamist party, Islah, flatly refuse either prospect, clinging to the notion of a federal model with multiple administrative units. Each has made bets on the effect of competing political pressures: the former believe that their more militant rank and file will force the North to move toward them; the latter wager that Hadi’s interest in overseeing a successful transition will lead him to impose a compromise on his Hiraak allies. Both cannot be right, and middle ground remains elusive.

Then there are those on the outside. Most Hiraak members bank on the negotiations’ failure, due to inability to reach a substantive compromise or, if it comes to it, lack of implementation on the ground. They vow to escalate protests and a civil dis­obedience campaign, regardless of NDC decisions, until they achieve independence. A constitutional referendum would provide a focal point for their opposition, triggering a boycott and likely violence. The result would be to further undermine the transition’s legitimacy.

If Yemen hopes to forge a more stable future, it desperately needs to agree on the basic question of its state structure. That much is clear. But it does not mean forcing through a final settlement in circumstances where basic trust, legitimacy and consensus are lacking. That would be more than a fragile state, fragmented country and fractured political class could handle. It likely would further discredit the process, strengthen more militant Southern views and provoke dangerous brinkmanship and bloodshed. The goal instead should be a broad-based agreement that only continued, more inclusive negotiations in the context of improved security and economic conditions potentially can achieve.

Sanaa/Brussels, 25 September 2013

Yemeni security forces gather in Aden's Mansura district, where a car bomb was used by suspected al-Qaeda fighters to target the city's police chief on 1 May 2016. AFP/Saleh Al-Obeidi

Military Strikes Are No Simple Answer to al-Qaeda’s Rise in Yemen

High civilian casualties from the latest U.S. counter-terrorism raid in Yemen risk aggravating rather than helping to resolve a conflict that is the principal reason for the growth of al-Qaeda in the devastated country. 

The first counter-terrorism raid authorised by U.S. President Donald Trump over the weekend targeted al-Qaeda in Yemen. How effective was the operation, and what is known about the new administration’s broader strategy on Yemen? 

The raid in al-Bayda, a key battlefront in Yemen’s civil war where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its local affiliate Ansar al-Sharia (AAS) are embedded in the conflict, is a good example of what not to do. The use of U.S. troops and the high number of civilian casualties – local sources report that at least ten women and children were killed – are deeply inflammatory and breed anti-American resentment across the Yemeni political spectrum that works to the advantage of AQAP. The raid ignores the local political context, to the detriment of an effective counter-terrorism strategy. The tribesmen targeted had links to AQAP/AAS, yet many, if not most of them, were motivated less by AQAP’s international agenda, including targeting the West, and more by a local power struggle in which AQAP is viewed as an ally against the Huthis (a Zaydi/Shiite militia) and fighters aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. At a local level, the raid not only plays into AQAP’s narrative of the need to violently oppose what they claim is a U.S. war against Muslims, but it also gives AQAP an opportunity to accuse the U.S. of assisting Huthi/Saleh forces in the fight for al-Bayda, an accusation that will likely resonate with the anti-Huthi/Saleh population in this area. This is ironic, because the U.S. is assisting Saudi Arabia in bombing Huthi/Saleh forces. 

It is too early to determine what, if any, broader strategy the Trump administration has in Yemen. On counter-terrorism, it seems he will continue former President Barack Obama’s policy of relying heavily on drones and special operations. Yet drone attacks have shown limited effectiveness and a propensity to backfire politically when they cause high civilian casualties. Although they have dealt repeated blows to AQAP by killing key leaders and ideologues, they have failed to stop its rapid growth – in large part because the opportunities provided by the war outstrip its losses 

How serious is the threat posed by the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda? 

AQAP is stronger than it has ever been. While Islamic State has dominated headlines in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, in Yemen, al-Qaeda has been the success story. Over the course of the country’s failed political transition and civil war, it has exploited state collapse, shifting alliances, a burgeoning war economy and growing sectarianism to expand its support base, challenge state authority and even govern territory at times. It has morphed into a local insurgency, attaching itself to a larger “Sunni” opposition to the Huthi/Saleh alliance and pursuing a strategy of gradualism by avoiding aggressively offending local norms and by working with local communities to improve services and swift provision of justice. AQAP is embedded in a war economy that spans the various political factions, including Huthi/Saleh fighters, and it has obtained new resources by raiding banks, controlling the port of Mukalla for over a year, looting army bases and indirectly obtaining weapons from the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition that is supporting the internationally recognised Yemeni government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi against Huthi/Saleh forces. 

Although AQAP has pursued a “Yemen first” strategy of addressing local grievances and blending into local conflicts, it continues to balance local and global objectives, calling for attacks, particularly “lone-wolf” attacks, against the West. There is debate about the degree to which the group poses a risk to the U.S., in particular, but a long-term threat remains.

Who are AQAP’s friends and enemies in Yemen? 

Yemen’s political elites have a long history of collaboration with and co-optation of Sunni jihadist groups, including AQAP. This creates obstacles to combating the group, as elites have the ability and sometimes an interest in using it for their own financial or political gain. On the other hand, given that AQAP and its local affiliate, AAS, are primarily Yemeni organisations with legitimate local grievances – lack of justice provision, services and jobs – there are opportunities to weaken its transnationally-focused leadership by addressing these domestic concerns. 

While virtually all Yemeni and regional belligerents claim AQAP and IS as their enemies, they have all contributed to their rise. The Huthi/Saleh front’s military push into predominantly Sunni areas has opened vast opportunities for AQAP and IS to insert themselves into a broader “Sunni” opposition. The Huthi/Saleh side has a counterproductive propensity to conflate a range of opponents, including southern separatists, the Sunni Islamist party Islah, AQAP, and Islamic State. For its part, the anti-Huthi bloc has operated on the principle of the “enemy of my enemy is my friend”, only turning on AQAP and IS once the Huthis are pushed out of territory. The Saudi-led coalition has focused on the Huthi/Saleh advance, which it views as part of Iranian expansionism, as priority number one, allowing AQAP to govern large territories for extended periods and reap the attendant financial benefits. In April 2016, coalition forces from the United Arab Emirates dislodged AQAP from Mukalla, for instance, but the group was not defeated and merely melted away into the hinterland. Meanwhile, it profits from continuing conflict, especially along the front lines. In short, AQAP is in the paradoxical position of being the enemy of all parties yet arguably the war’s biggest beneficiary. 

Last week, UN Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed briefed the Security Council and recommended an immediate ceasefire. How close are the parties to reaching any agreement to halt the fighting?

There is little chance of reaching a settlement at the moment, largely because the Saudi-led coalition and the Hadi government appear determined to secure military gains along the Red Sea coast before returning to meaningful talks. In October, the Huthi/Saleh alliance agreed to negotiate based on the terms of the “Kerry plan”, which combined security and political compromises allowing for Huthi/Saleh withdrawals from Sanaa, phased disarmament, and the formation of a national unity government in which they would be part. But it was unclear how far they would compromise on details of withdrawal and disarmament that are important to the Saudis and their allies. Ultimately, the intervention from then Secretary of State John Kerry proved too little, too late, as the Hadi government rejected the plan, an indication of its understanding that the Obama administration was a lame duck unable to press the Saudis toward a peace deal. Now efforts to restart negotiations are effectively dead. Although the UN remains an essential umbrella under which to negotiate a settlement, after three rounds of failed peace talks and numerous ceasefire attempts, it has lost credibility on all sides and is unlikely to revive meaningful negotiations absent a change in the main belligerents’ calculation as to what constitutes an acceptable compromise. 

If the prospects for bringing the war to a negotiated settlement remain distant, what can be done in the near term to limit the threat posed by al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups?

The most effective way to reverse AQAP’s gains is to address the conditions that made these possible, by ending the war through a durable, inclusive political settlement. As this is a distant prospect, there are several steps that could reduce the group’s influence. For states and groups operating in areas currently or previously under AQAP control, such as the Hadi government, affiliated militias and the United Arab Emirates, these measures include: prioritising basic security, service and justice provision, especially quick and transparent dispute resolution; disaggregating rather than conflating the wide range of Sunni Islamist groups; and using military and policing tools judiciously and in accordance with local norms and laws. For the U.S. and other governments interested in fighting AQAP, it means being willing to evaluate and constrain local and regional partners who may tolerate or even encourage AQAP/AAS for their own political or economic gain. It also means avoiding heavy-handed military action outside of a political strategy, such as the 29 January raid in al-Bayda, which is likely to aggravate rather than mitigate the problem. The Huthi/Saleh bloc could help by avoiding further military incursions into predominantly Sunni areas, which have inflamed sectarian tensions and fuelled AQAP and IS propaganda. All Yemeni and regional belligerents should refrain from labelling enemies in crude sectarian terms.