The announcement by the Coalition to Support Legitimacy in Yemen over the weekend about “repositioning” its forces in Aden to be under Saudi command is being seen as a preliminary overture to a long-negotiated deal between coalition local partners brokered by Saudi Arabia.
The deal is to be signed soon in a ceremony in Riyadh between the government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and leaders of the Yemeni Southern Transitional Council (STC) with the goal of de-escalating tensions in the south of the war-torn country.
According to the official announcement on Sunday of the preliminary agreement, the “repositioning aims to enhance humanitarian missions and strengthen efforts to secure waterways adjacent to the Yemeni coast. It also aims to combat terrorism in the country.”
The southern Yemeni port city of Aden was the theatre of fierce clashes between the STC and government-backed forces in August. They ended with the southerners driving the government forces out of Aden, where they were positioned in an interim situation until the liberation of the capital Sanaa from Houthi militias.
Some Yemeni factions, mainly the Islah Party – an offshoot of the International Organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood –have accused the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of backing the STC in its “secessionist claims”. The UAE has refuted the accusations and reiterated its position as the main component of the coalition along with Saudi Arabia.
The negotiations between the government and the STC, led by the Saudis, have been fully backed by the UAE. The southern and STC forces were trained mainly by Emirati forces of the coalition to help in the fight against the Houthi militia and terrorist groups in the south.
This training was successful, since the coalition started its military efforts in Yemen in 2015. Most of the south was cleared, and Hadi’s government moved briefly from exile in Saudi Arabia to Aden.
Hadi has little popular base in the rest of Yemen, and he was convinced by the Muslim Brotherhood that they could provide him with one. Though the UAE was not happy with the MB dominating the government they have been fighting to support, it valued its relationship with Saudi Arabia more.
The UAE later started scaling down its military activities in Yemen, and the Islah Party within Hadi’s government started targeting the STC and other southern factions.
This in turn pushed the southerners to raise the stakes and threaten not to fight for a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, vowing to defend south Yemen against both Houthi and MB forces, along with the terrorist groups associated with them. This threatened the alliance the Saudis need to conquer the Iran-backed Houthi militia.
The recently announced repositioning is hoped to be more than a Saudi buffer in the south of Yemen between the southerners and the Hadi government. The UN, which is leading efforts to settle the struggle in the country politically, and all the concerned parties hope it will pave the way to an actual repositioning of the whole situation towards a political solution to the conflict.
April Alley of the international NGO the International Crisis Group hoped it “would keep a lid on the violence for long enough to allow progress in other parts of the country, such as de-escalation in the north that would allow a pivot to peace.”
Saudi commentators have hailed the announcement as the beginning of consolidating efforts to get the Houthi militia to capitulate. This assumed capitulation might just mean forcing the Houthis to negotiate a settlement with the Hadi government, or with its sponsors Saudi Arabia.
The southerners seem content thus far with the tactical progress that has been made, and they have said they are ready to bring their fighters back into the fold of the coalition. However, a major obstacle will be the implementation of the final agreement that has yet to be signed.
Comments by the STC leaders on Twitter have provided glimmers of hope, and leaked excerpts of the agreement show that the Hadi government will appoint a 24-member cabinet within 30 days of the signing.
The southerners will get ministerial posts for the first time, with the cabinet divided equally between northern and southern representatives. The other practical part is starting with the announced repositioning of the coalition forces in Aden, placing all forces under coalition control.
The deal includes a provision for moving some Hadi-affiliated brigades from the south, and a committee to implement the agreement will be overseen by the coalition, in other words Saudi Arabia.
Some optimists hope that the agreement, if successfully implemented, could be a template for the whole of Yemen in the form of negotiations between the Saudi-backed government and the Iran-backed Houthi forces.
If this happens, it will mean an opening to Saudi-Iranian dialogue.
Expectations are high, but as the Hadi government is not abandoning its Muslim Brotherhood links altogether hurdles might arise in the implementation of the agreement. The main outcome of the Riyadh negotiations between the STC and the Hadi government is that a repositioning in Yemen towards a political solution is now in the works.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.