Military clashes that flared last week between forces of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and those loyal to Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi may have ended, but the political confrontation between the two sides is far from over.
Tensions are still rife as they compete to stipulate preconditions in advance of the dialogue that Saudi Arabia will host in Jeddah in collaboration with the UAE.
The Hadi government insists that STC forces must withdraw completely from all government buildings, military installations and other strategic locations.
The STC insists that all “northern” forces must leave the south, demanding an end to the control of the “Muslim Brotherhood’s Islah”, referring to the Yemeni Congregation for Reform Party.
According to STC Spokesman Nazar Haytham, STC forces have already withdrawn from key positions they seized from government forces in Aden, such as Al-Maasheeq Presidential Palace and the Jebel Hadid and Bir Saad military camps.
He stressed that these positions were not handed over to the Hadi government, but to Arab coalition forces.
A source in Aden told Al-Ahram Weekly that the STC has not yet handed over the oil refinery in Aden and that this was a reason why the Jeddah dialogue has not convened yet.
Apparently, the dialogue’s sponsors had thought it’s possible to begin the dialogue this week, although no date had been set. Nazar Haytham, in remarks to the press Monday, said that the STC had already formed delegation it would send to Jeddah but that it would not make its composition public until a date is announced.
However, reports in Emirati media have indicated that the General People’s Congress, the former ruling party and the “Guardians of the Republic” of the 4 December Movement led by Tarek Saleh would be attending the talks.
Saleh is the nephew of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and served as commander of the Republican Guard under his uncle’s rule. Reports also suggest that Islah’s profile in the government will be reduced but not eliminated.
The STC advocates secession and the revival of an independent state in the south, as had existed until unification in the 1990s, and recent statements by its leaders have made it clear that this is still its objective.
According to a number of informed sources, there is a certain degree of understanding among Gulf countries for this drive, but within the framework of a federated system.
As for the exact constitution of such a system and the mechanisms for achieving it, these have yet to be fleshed out. Perhaps this will be one of the main tasks of the participants of the Jeddah dialogue which is expected to produce a roadmap for resolving the issues that led to the latest flareup in one of the dimensions of the Yemeni crisis.
On the other hand, independent sources in the south told the Weekly that the STC already has a roadmap of its own and that its goal is complete control over the south.
Experts on Yemeni affairs believe that Hadramawt governorate will be the main factor that determines future of the Yemeni map in the south and the prospects of a federated system or a return to the pre-unification period.
This helps account for the STC forces’ drive eastward in order to assert their control over the rest of the territory that was formerly part of South Yemen. Still, a number of obstacles stand in the way.
Foremost among them is Saudi Arabia’s extensive influence in Hadramawt and its support for the Hadramawt Rally Conference, the largest political bloc in the governorate opposed to the STC. Another obstacle might be Oman’s influence in Al-Mahra governorate.
President Hadi appears more set on refocussing attention on his primary drive, though in the process he spoke of a vision for a “new federal Yemen”.
In a meeting at his temporary government headquarters in Riyadh, Monday, he pressed the need “to thwart everything that threatens to divert our compass from the confrontation against the main Iranian threat, namely the Houthi militias... The Yemeni people are yearning to be delivered from the Iranian-Houthi coup and to progress towards the development of the new federal Yemen.”
One of the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference in 2014, which the Hadi government and its Arab coalition backers generally cite as one of the frames-of-reference for a solution to the Yemeni crisis, was a proposal for a six-region federal system.
For all practical purposes, that proposal appears to have been eclipsed by developments on the ground, leaving the two-region (north and south) federation as the alternative.
As the situation stands, developments are progressing at two levels, one tactical and entailing the political rupture between the Hadi government and the STC; the other strategic and involving the Yemeni crisis as a whole, including both the Houthi insurrection in the north and the southern question.
Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi appear agreed on the need to sustain the Hadi government until the coalition succeeds in ending the Houthi insurrection in the north.
A sign of this accord can be found in recent tweets by Hani Bin Breik, a key STC leader who had previously served in the Hadi government. He has said that the Southern Resistance Forces (SRF), the military wing of the STC, will continue to work with the Arab coalition against the Houthis, especially in the western coastal region.
Breik’s tweets did not spare the STC from harsh criticism from the Giants Brigade, another militia from the Southern Movement, that took part in the coalition’s northward march up the western coast towards Hodeida.
Spokesmen for the Giants Brigade have protested STC policies and called for an independent investigation into the STC’s military actions in Aden this month.
The STC leadership also came under attack from other directions. Houthi militia leader Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi cautioned Sunday, “the STC shouldn’t jubilate over its achievements. It won’t be able to rejoice for long.”
At the broader strategic level, the STC, according to sources in south Yemen, has suggested that UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths assume responsibility for the current situation in the south since it is part of the Yemeni crisis as a whole.
By time of writing, there had been no indication as to whether or not Griffiths would take part in the envisioned Jeddah meeting.
In his statements to date, Griffiths has expressed concern over developments in Aden, condemned the military clashes and called on all parties to protect civilians and to choose dialogue over violence.However, he has not given any indication as to whether he was considering intervening in this dimension of the crisis.
Meanwhile, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, a prominent journalist who is close to the Saudi leadership, maintains that the STC has only two options to choose from: peaceful negotiations over a form of separation that would only take place after the end of the Houthi insurgence or turning to the UN in an appeal for international recognition.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Will Yemen divide?