Thousands of southern Yemenis took to the streets of Al-Mukalla, the capital of the Hadhramaut province of South Yemen, earlier this week in support of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and calling for the autonomy of the southern regions of Yemen.
With the lull in the fighting in Yemen, the country’s political factions are trying to maximise their bargaining chips in any anticipated settlement of the conflict in the war-torn country.
Over the past few months, the situation in South Yemen has been getting worse as the legitimate government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi has focused on its southern allies rather than facing up to the rebel Iran-backed Houthi militia. However, since the internationally recognised government of Hadi began to court the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood, the southerners have become wary of the future.
When the Hadi government called in the Saudi-led Arab Coalition forces in 2015, it was mainly to fight the Houthi rebels who then dominated the country. Most of the military achievements of the coalition in liberating provinces from Houthi control saw the active participation of southern fighters more than that of the army loyal to the Hadi government.
In successive cabinet reshuffles, Hadi brought the Al-Islah Party, representing the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, into his government, letting party members control the military and incorporate their own militias into it. The southerners felt betrayed and formed the STC in 2017 in a bid to take control of the liberated areas of South Yemen.
Late last year, the Saudis brought the two sides together to sign a power-sharing agreement in a bid to direct all efforts towards the Houthi rebels. But Al-Islah elements in the government saw this as allowing them to take control of areas where terrorists used to cluster in the southern and middle parts of the country.
Some of these areas came under Houthi control some years ago when Al-Islah conspired to let them in.
Even during the heat of the conflict in recent years, elements of the Al-Islah Party in government forces were allegedly responsible for deadly attacks by Houthi rebels on coalition forces, especially Emiratis. Last summer, the UAE withdrew its forces from Yemen and kept only a small contingent there to facilitate humanitarian assistance to Yemenis in areas liberated from the Houthis.
Signed in November by the Hadi government and the STC, the Riyadh Agreement was supposed to lead to the formation of a new government, but Al-Islah elements have been putting up obstacles since then. In April, the STC announced the self-rule of the South and itself started standing up to the Al-Islah militias, including those contributing to the army.
When the Houthis recaptured parts of Maarib, the STC denounced this as the result of “treachery” on the part of Al-Islah and the Yemeni government. Al-Islah figures based in Turkey started a campaign to call for Turkish intervention in Yemen, raising the ire of both the Saudis and the STC as many Turkish activities in Yemen have already been hidden under the cover of charitable organisations.
The city of Shabwa governor met Turkish officials two months ago, and the Socotra Provincial Governor Ramzi Mahrous is said to have secretly met Turkish and Qatari intelligence officials in Istanbul.
The STC then moved into Socotra and drove the Al-Islah elements in the local government out, angering Al-Islah elements in Hadi’s government and Brotherhood elements in Turkey.
Last month, Saudi Arabia called the parties to Riyadh to negotiate the implementation of the November Agreement. The southerners feared pressure to form a government with elements of Al-Islah in it would dilute their quest for self-rule.
For this reason, protesters in Al-Mukalla this week carried the flags of the former Republic of South Yemen that united with the north in 1990. They shouted slogans calling on STC leader Ahmed Saeed bin Buraik, to implement self-rule in the province, while negotiating power-sharing with Hadi’s government.
The Hadhramaut province is rich in oil, and it used to be a base for terrorists from many groups that were offshoots of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood. Many southerners now consider that “Al-Islah militias are disguised as the national army.”
Yemeni journalist Nassim Al-Deeni told Al-Ahram Weekly that Al-Islah is again “dealing with the Houthis and asking tribes close to them to give aid.” She also stressed the fear of the South that Turkish involvement called in by Al-Islah was a real threat to the achievements against the Houthi militia and terrorist groups in the South.
Though Turkey has denied any involvement in Yemen, Al-Deeni said that the Turkish defence minister, who visited Doha last week after a visit to Libya, had discussed involvement in Yemen with Qatari officials.
Despite its military campaigns in Syria, Iraq and Libya that might stretch the cost of another foreign adventure, Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan might find supporting the Brotherhood in Yemen another means of moving against Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries opposed to his aggressive policies in the region.
According to New York-based lawyer Irina Tsukerman in a paper written for the Israeli think tank the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies, “while Ankara has been asking for financial support from various countries, it is too early to rule out the possibility that it will invest financing it does not have in another conflict. Turkey can likely rely on its funder Qatar’s willingness to fuel the fires wherever possible and embroil its regional adversaries in endless asymmetrical and media wars.”
Al-Deeni said that the Yemenis know from experience that the Brotherhood will never honour any agreement with the Saudis, especially when it comes to South Yemen.
Though some have argued against the possibility of Turkish military involvement in Yemen, Al-Deeni referred to an announcement by Ankara that it was sending naval vessels to the Bab Al-Mandab Strait off Yemen in September.
The announcement came as part of Turkey’s assuming the lead of the Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151) to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia in the Indian Ocean, with Al-Deeni pointing out that Turkey has the support of the terrorist group Al-Shabab in Somalia, allies of terrorists in South Yemen.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly