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Yemen’s Terrible War Is About to Get Worse
Yemen’s Terrible War Is About to Get Worse
Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council: A Delicate Balancing Act
Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council: A Delicate Balancing Act

Yemen’s Terrible War Is About to Get Worse

Originally published in Foreign Policy

The bombing of a funeral has empowered the country's worst forces and could drag America into the fray.

On Saturday, Oct. 8, an airstrike from the Saudi-led coalition ripped through a crowded funeral in the heart of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. At least 140 mourners were killed and more than 500 injured. The unprecedented strike has killed peacemakers, empowered militants, and fueled the desire for revenge, making the prospects for peace in this conflict ever dimmer.

Yemenis are no strangers to horrific attacks on civilians. After 18 months of war, both the U.S.-supported, Saudi-led coalition and its adversaries, a combination of Houthi rebels and fighters loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, stand accused of flagrant violations of international humanitarian law, perpetrated seemingly without consequence. The United Nations estimates the war has claimed more than 10,000 lives, including 4,000 civilians, with the majority of deaths caused by coalition airstrikes. Yet this strike stands out.

The attack is likely the single-most costly strike, in terms of civilian casualties, during the course of the war. While other violations have been shrouded in a fog of war, this one happened in the capital at a well-known landmark, reducing the chances of deniability or ambiguity about its legitimacy as a target. Many killed in the community hall were among the country’s political, tribal, and military elite, and their deaths have had significant political and social repercussions. It was also a clear violation of traditional norms that protect the sanctity of funerals, even between bitter enemies and warring parties.

As shock and sadness engulfs Sanaa, some Yemenis are hoping against all odds that the event could serve as a spur for a peace agreement. But this hope is likely misplaced. The bombing killed a number of important political and military personalities supporting a peace deal, among them the mayor of Sanaa, two Yemeni members of the U.N. cease-fire monitoring team, and a general expected to play an important post-conflict security role. Their deaths empower hard-liners over peacemakers while undercutting capacity to implement any future accord.

Yes, the carnage has drawn international condemnation from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has called for an international investigation. It also pushed the U.S. government, which has sold Saudi Arabia approximately $22.2 billion in weapons since the war began, to launch a review of its support to the coalition.

But it is not clear what impact, if any, these statements will have. The U.N. has thus far been a helpless bystander, unable to broker peace or even secure an independent investigation into violations of international humanitarian law by both sides. The United States and Britain, both coalition supporters and arms suppliers, have repeatedly demonstrated a high level of tolerance for potential war crimes by their allies. It is unclear what red lines they have.

The U.N. has thus far been a helpless bystander

In the absence of a negotiated settlement, the country is poised to spiral further into chaos. Since U.N. peace talks collapsed in August, both sides have engaged in a series of tit-for-tat escalations. Houthi fighters, along with those loyal to Saleh, have increased cross-border rocket attacks and raids into Saudi territory. On Oct. 1, they attacked an Emirati vessel in the Red Sea off the coast of Mokha, approximately 50 miles north of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, through which millions of barrels of oil pass daily. The Saudi-backed government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, meanwhile, moved to put the financial squeeze on his opponents by announcing it would move the Central Bank of Yemen from rebel-controlled Sanaa to the government’s temporary capital in Aden. Only days before the funeral attack, Hadi-aligned forces launched a major military offensive northeast of Sanaa, at which their highest-ranking military commander to date was killed.

Now the funeral attack will likely produce an even more significant military escalation by Houthi forces along the Yemeni-Saudi border. This, in turn, will confirm Riyadh’s worst fears and secure U.S. support in defense of Saudi territorial integrity. Already Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi and Saleh have issued impassioned calls for mobilization along the border — a call that is being met by enraged tribesmen throughout the north. Their forces have already fired two ballistic missiles — one toward Saudi Arabia’s Jizan province and the other, for the first time, deep into the kingdom, toward the city of Taif in Mecca province. It remains to be seen if they have the ability to make good on their threats to push into Saudi territory, especially into Jizan, Asir, and Najran provinces, mostly mountainous areas that many Yemenis consider part of historic Yemen.

The growing violence may endanger American lives as well.

The growing violence may endanger American lives as well. On Oct. 9, the U.S. military reported two missiles were fired at the guided-missile destroyer USS Masonfrom Houthi-controlled territory just north of Bab el-Mandeb. U.S. official claimed that the USS Mason was targeted again in a failed missile attack on Oct. 12. The Houthis denied the Oct. 9 strike, and the United States has yet to confirm their responsibility, but if confirmed, it constitutes a major escalation near the strategic strait.

The anger and hostility directed toward the Saudi-led coalition in the aftermath of the funeral hall strike will make it harder to contain the regional rivalries unleashed across the Middle East and to convince Yemen’s domestic parties to reach a negotiated settlement. Indeed, the premonitions of Abdul-Qader Hilal, the Sanaa mayor who was killed in Saturday’s attack, are ones that deserve our attention now.

Two and a half years ago, I sat with Hilal in his home on the outskirts of Sanaa as he received rounds of Salafi, tribal, and Houthi mediators in an attempt to solidify a truce between warring factions in Yemen’s north. A politician with connections to all sides of the country’s complicated political and tribal mosaic, he predicted a conflagration if violence in the north was not contained by integrating the Houthis into the political system. When the military tide was unleashed, he warned, it would be hard to stop. “If the Houthis take Amran [a city north of Sanaa], they will take Sanaa,” he said. “If they take Sanaa, we will be talking about [stability in] Riyadh a year later.”

At the time, his concerns seemed inflated, even outlandish. In light of recent developments, they appear ever more prescient.

Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council: A Delicate Balancing Act

The past decade has witnessed the gradual destruction of Yemen’s pre-war power structures and the rise of new political forces. Perhaps no faction, not even the Huthis who control much of the northern highlands, better exemplifies these new networks than the pro-independence Southern Transitional Council (STC). Formed in April 2017, this self-styled southern government-in-waiting and its allies now hold most of Yemen’s four southern governorates, including the temporary capital, Aden, and almost a fifth of the cabinet seats in President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s internationally recognised government. As part of the Saudi-brokered deal that brought it into government, the STC should also have a seat at the table if and when the UN convenes talks over a political settlement to end the war.

The STC’s precipitous rise is not guaranteed to continue and could come to a sudden halt. The group’s leadership is engaged in a delicate balancing act, attempting to sustain local support amid economic turbulence, build its regional and international profile, and judge the trajectory of the wider war, in particular with respect to Marib governorate, the government’s last major stronghold in the north.

The STC has its roots in Yemen’s southern independence movement.

Hiding in Plain Sight

The STC has its roots in Yemen’s southern independence movement. Before 2015, the secessionist al-Hirak al-Janoubi (the Southern Movement) was a loose coalition of groups that sought to restore the southern Yemeni state, the pre-1990 People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Many Hirakis argued that they had seceded during a 1994 north-south civil war in which southerners sought to undo a 1990 unification pact; everything that followed, they said, was northern occupation of the south. Hirak was beset by internal conflicts, however, particularly between leaders who had been PDRY officials, most of whom lived in exile. During Yemen’s UN-overseen 2012-2014 political transition, diplomats regularly complained of Hirak’s inability to form a coherent negotiating platform. The movement remained largely peaceful, focusing on regular protest marches in Aden and other big southern cities.

For a time, the exigencies of war helped Hirak and other southerners overcome their divisions. In the conflict’s early days, in 2015, an alliance of the Huthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s loyalists sought to overrun southern cities and governorates. Local fighters from outside the security and military services, many of them pro-independence, mounted an unexpectedly stiff defence of their areas, pushing the Huthi-Saleh alliance out of much of the south within months with backing from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Fault lines soon emerged, however. From mid-2015 onward, a powerful network of military/security leaders emerged, closely tied to the UAE. Factions led by two Hirak-aligned commanders from al-Dhale governorate, Aydrous al-Zubaidi and Shelal Shayea, the Salafist leader Hani bin Breik, and a group of pro-independence fighters from the Yafa tribe, which spans several southern governorates, rose to particular prominence. At first, President Hadi sought to co-opt these leaders by appointing them to important local security and government positions. But as they accumulated clout, the relationship became more complicated.

Foreseen Ruptures

Two issues drove conflict between the emergent STC leadership and its Emirati sponsors, on one hand, and Hadi and his allies, on the other. The first was ideology. UAE officials argue that during the war’s early days they focused on supporting local groups that demonstrated the greatest ability to coordinate the south’s defence and, later, provide security. But UAE officials see one constituent group of the anti-Huthi bloc, Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist party, as affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement they consider a major threat to their political system and national security, and a “gateway drug” to jihadism. As such, the UAE avoided contact where possible with Islah-affiliated groups, including important local Hadi allies. Hirakis in general, and the STC in particular, also revile Islah, which they blame for some of the worst excesses of the 1994 war civil war. UAE-backed forces turned out to be particularly hostile toward Islah, allegedly sponsoring covert campaigns to uproot the party in the south from 2015 onward.

The second faultline was an intra-south rivalry that predated the 1990 north-south unity agreement. Southerners often characterise a 1986 bloody intra-PDRY civil war as a fight between forces from Abyan and neighbouring Shebwa province, on one hand, and adversaries from al-Dhale and Lahj provinces to Aden’s north west, on the other. Hadi is from Abyan, and was part of the losing Abyan-Shebwa side in the 1986 war. He later played a leading role in the northern campaign in 1994. From the beginning of Yemen’s civil war in 2015, locals in the south predicted a split between “Bedouin” from Abyan and Shebwa, such as Hadi and his allies, and “tribesmen” from Lahj and al-Dhale, such as Zubaidi and Shayea. 

The rupture came in several phases.

The rupture came in several phases. First, in April 2017, Hadi fired most of the UAE-aligned officials he had appointed in 2015 and 2016, who had become vocally critical of his rule and in some cases openly espoused southern independence. A month later, Zubaidi announced the formation of the STC as a kind of southern government-in-waiting, of which he was to be president. In January 2018, STC-aligned forces clashed with Hadi loyalists in Aden. Then, in August 2018, they mounted a complete takeover of Aden, sparking an inconclusive power struggle for the south that left the STC in control of al-Dhale, Lahj, Aden and parts of western Abyan, while Hadi and his loyalists stayed in charge in eastern Abyan and much of Shebwa. (UAE-backed Hadrami forces based in Mukalla remained largely neutral). The fighting ended only when Saudi Arabia intervened, eventually brokering what became known as the Riyadh Agreement in November 2019.

After Riyadh: A Waiting Game

The Riyadh Agreement bears all the hallmarks, and limitations, of recent international efforts to broker deals between Yemen’s rival armed and political factions, which sign accords but use the aftermath to gain new advantages. The STC heralded the international legitimacy they believe the agreement bestowed on their group, and their inclusion in UN-led talks, as a major success and a step forward for their independence cause. They have focused on implementing the agreement’s political aspects – the formation of a new government and the STC’s inclusion in national-level UN-led peace talks. The government touted the agreement as a victory over the UAE, without whose support they argue the STC would have no power whatsoever, including in moving toward southern autonomy or more. The UAE has been downsizing its footprint in Yemen since 2018, and Emirati officials say they ended their direct participation in the war in October 2019. Seeking to strengthen its position, the Hadi government is now trying to integrate STC-aligned military and security forces into command-and-control structures overseen by the Hadi-aligned defence and interior ministries – something the government says the Riyadh Agreement calls for but STC officials say they will never allow to happen in practice.

Today, the STC and the Hadi government are both playing a waiting game, each gambling that they can outlast the other.

Today, the STC and the Hadi government are both playing a waiting game, each gambling that they can outlast the other. The Hadi government calculates that without UAE support, and without UAE salaries for its forces, the STC’s military networks will soon crumble, although it is not clear that the UAE has entirely abandoned its Yemeni ally. It also believes that, now that the STC is part of the government, it can be held to account for governance failures in the south. The STC, meanwhile, is eyeing battles between the Huthis and Hadi-aligned forces in Marib. A government collapse in Marib would mean that the Huthis have, in effect, won the war for the north, dealing a major blow to the government’s credibility. In particular, some STC officials believe a government defeat would make Riyadh, whose patronage the STC believes it will need to advance its independence aims, more dependent on their forces to prevent a Huthi takeover of all Yemen. The STC also appears to calculate that the government’s presence in the south – it returned to Aden in December 2020 – will make it the face of governance failures there, manifested by a plummeting Yemeni riyal, widespread electricity and fuel shortages, and skyrocketing food prices.

Future Scenarios

government capitulation in Marib would bring political benefits to the STC, but it could leave the group exposed as the next target of the Huthis’ military campaign to take full control of the country. If, on the other hand, the government can hold off the Huthis at Marib, stabilise the economy and improve service delivery in the south, the STC may lose popular support. For now, the delicate balancing act will continue, with the STC’s quest for independence undimmed.