The Yemeni island of Socotra fell into the hands of Yemen’s southern secessionists last weekend, in a move seen as opposing the internationally recognised government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which is already fighting Houthi rebels in the north of the country.
Socotra became part of the Yemeni conflict five years ago due to its strategic location in the Gulf of Aden, a maritime route for oil-tankers and commercial ships navigating through the Red Sea to and from the Suez Canal.
The island is located 350 km southeast of the Yemeni coast and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is famous for its natural resources and rich flora and fauna including the dragon blood tree.
Its fall under the control of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), the political front of the southern secessionists, at the weekend puts vital areas of South Yemen out of the hands of the legitimate government.
South Yemen was an independent state after its liberation from British occupation in 1967 and until its unity with neighbouring North Yemen in 1990. The STC declared autonomous rule in Aden, the capital of the South, and a number of ports in April this year.
South Yemen had earlier announced that it was not against the legitimate government, but only against the militias of the Al-Islah Party of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, though Hadi’s government has called the STC’s capture of Socotra a “fully-fledged coup.”
In a statement, the STC congratulated “the people of the Socotra Archipelago on the return of Socotra and its capital Hadiboh to normalcy and the restoration of its proper position as a civil capital and a mecca of coexistence, harmony and the cohesion of the social fabric.”
STC presidency member Salem Thabet said that “we control the Special Forces Camp, the last stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood militias in Hadiboh, and all the weapons and military equipment of the Brotherhood militias.” He added that the southern forces “have declared a general amnesty and the beginning of self-rule in Socotra.”
The STC sacked Ramzi Mahrous, the governor of the Archipelago, who decried the acts of the “secessionist militias,” saying that “over the past weeks, the militias have attacked the camps and institutions of the state and stormed into Hadiboh on Friday morning.”
“We, and the people of Socotra, expected to be supported, but we were met with silence and disappointment,” he added.
The Saudi-led Arab Coalition that is supporting the legitimate government in Yemen did not refer to the operations in Socotra and released no comment on developments on the island.
The internationally recognised government announced through its news agency that “what the STC militias have done in the Socotra Archipelago is a fully-fledged coup that has shackled state institutions in the governorate.”
As a result, the Riyadh Agreement signed by the legitimate government and the STC in November 2019 is no longer binding, it said. The agreement was sponsored by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two largest forces in the Arab Coalition, and it was signed a few months after secessionist forces took control of Aden.
Many observers at the time opined that the legitimate government had no real weight on the ground and that it depended primarily on certain southerners and Al-Islah elements.
The government has the loyalty of a number of Yemeni army officers, the majority of whom are loyal to the regime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh who was overthrown during the 2011 Revolution in Yemen. Saleh then allied with his former foes, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, and died at their hands after disagreements.
Saleh had engaged in six rounds of conflicts against the Houthis during the last years of his rule that started in 1978. The Houthis attacked Sanaa in autumn 2014, driving Hadi and his followers to flee to Aden and request an Arab intervention to return his internationally recognised government to its headquarters.
The Arab Coalition was formed under Saudi leadership and has been carrying out operations against the Houthis since 2015.
The conflict has led to tens of thousands of people losing their lives and millions displaced. Yemen has become dependent on international aid, and thousands of citizens had contracted cholera before the Covid-19 was added to the list of hazards threatening the country.
“We are not fighting against the legitimate government or the president, despite our reservations about them. We are fighting against the Muslim Brotherhood,” Naguib Seddik, a former Press Syndicate head in Aden, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“The southerners are Sufis targeted by the Muslim Brotherhood,” he added.
The majority of Yemenis are Zaidis, the closest Shia denomination to the Sunnis, and the rest are Shafiis, said Haitham Abu Zeif, a researcher on Islamic heritage.
Seddik believes the southern secessionists want to see reconciliation with the legitimate government, “but not at any cost” since it is important that this takes place under a “republican” banner.
Many members of the General People’s Congress, the ruling party in Yemen before the 2011 Revolution, had called for a republican alliance against the Houthis following the consecutive defeats of the legitimate government in the regions of Dhale and Marib.
Seddik said the republican alliance should not comprise the Muslim Brotherhood and the Houthis because they are “terrorist forces.”
“It is not logical or politically sound to resist Houthi extremism with Brotherhood extremism. They both belong in one camp,” he said.
The present dilemma will not be easy to resolve, since the republicans in the north reject the secession of the south. The STC also accuses Saleh’s supporters in the north of contributing to the south’s marginalisation during the years of unity.
“There is no balance. We number fewer than three million, and the northern population exceeds 20 million,” Seddik said. “The north is excluding southerners from prominent positions and neglecting development in the regions. Defeating the Houthis will not change our status,” he added.
The weakness of the legitimate government is complicating domestic affairs in Yemen, making stability and peace less likely due to multiple forces on the ground including the legitimate government, the Al-Islah Party, the southern secessionists, the remnants of the General People’s Congress and the Houthis.
“It will be difficult for all these forces to accept to meet to resolve the crisis. Everyone rejects everyone else, and the regional powers backing each will not allow reconciliation at the expense of their allies,” Seddik said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly