Is South Yemen on way to autonomy?

Ahmad Mostafa, Wednesday 31 Aug 2022

An escalation in clashes between the Islah Party and the STC may alter the playing field and affect a comprehensive settlement, reports Al-Ahram Weekly.

Is South Yemen on way to autonomy
File Photo: Yemeni pro-government fighters gather in the back of a pick up truck near the district of Harib on last January (photo: AFP)


After a week of fighting between forces belonging to the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and forces of Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islah Party in Shabwa, STC forces took control of an important gas and oil field in south Shabwa.

The AE-backed STC forces, Giants Brigades and Shabwa Defence Forces have been fighting Islah militias, the paramilitary police known as the Special Security Forces, for weeks. It started when the legitimate government, led by the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) approved the sacking of pro-Islah police and military commanders in Shabwa earlier this month.

Both Islah and STC are part of the PLC, backed by the Arab Coalition for Support of Legitimacy in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia. The Head of PLC Rashad Al-Alimi asked the head of STC, Aidarous Al-Zubaidi, who is a member of the council, to direct his forces to stop fighting the government army in the south.

The Saudi-backed PLC replaced the previous government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to cement the truce between internationally recognised government forces and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The truce, sponsored by the UN, was meant to pave the way for a political settlement in the war-torn country. The Saudi-led Coalition intervened militarily about six years ago when the Houthi militia ousted the legitimate government from the capital Sanaa and controlled most of the country.

South Yemen was independent from 1967 to1990, when a military campaign by late president Ali Abdullah Saleh led to unifying the country. Since the start of the Houthi coup, southerners have been trying to regain independence and separation from North Yemen.

Since the start of current crisis in 2015, Southern Yemenis have been hoping to reclaim their part of the country in a political settlement. The main coalition partners, Saudi Arabia and UAE, had different views on the issue of the south from the beginning, while Qatar supported Islah as part of its wider support to Muslim Brotherhood.

Current fighting between STC and Islah forces in Shabwa seems to be unsettled “as the Houthi rebels are backed by Iran, Islah forces are backed by regional powers and neither is working for the Yemeni people’s interest”, according to Saudi commentator Abdul-Aziz Alkhames.

“STC fighting is not against the legitimate government as they are part of it, but it is mainly against the Islah Party. The Islah militia and forces within the ‘legitimate’ government cooperate with Houthi rebels. Look what they did in areas they control, they not only did not fight the Houthis there but let them take it. Not only in Shabwa, but in Taiz, Islah are the reason the Houthis are still holding up,” AlKhames added.

This rivalry between two components of the PLC is not helping with the effort to achieve peace. The Giants Brigades are holding captive some Islah fighters in Shabwa, especially after the STC forces took control of the province’s capital Ataq earlier this month. A Yemeni source told Al-Ahram Weekly that the PLC head note to STC leader was mainly requesting the release of those Islah fighters.

The irony is that news websites close to the Iran-backed Houthi rebels are furious about what they see as an STC widening of control in Shabwa and Abyan.

In 2020, Houthi rebels captured areas of northern Shabwa in an attack that the STC accused Islah of failing to stop. The Giant Brigades and other southern forces pushed the Houthis back and STC managed to remove the pro-Islah governor of the province, Mohamed Saleh bin Adio, in December last year.

“STC fighters have been combatting terrorism in the south successfully and that annoyed Islah and the Houthis. On previous occasions, STC fighters managed to defeat the Houthi militia and recapture southern areas that the rebels controlled. They are better fighters than the Ikhwan, the Houthis and even the government army”, Abdul-Aziz Alkhames told the Weekly.

Some observers saw the recent escalation of fighting as a way by warring factions to strengthen their negotiating position in the anticipated political process towards a peaceful solution to the Yemen crisis. They associate that with the hope that a revival of an Iran nuclear deal will be a catalyst for ending the war in Yemen. But Alkhames disagrees. “In fact the revival of a nuclear deal might not be a positive factor in reaching a political solution in Yemen. On the contrary, the Americans failed to include Iran’s ballistic missiles or its support to militias in neighbouring countries in the new deal. That will make Iran more stubborn in its efforts to destabilise neighbouring countries through its proxies once it concludes the nuclear deal.”

Asked about the STC and its move to complete its control of Southern Yemen as an obstacle to a political solution that stipulates a unified country with all political factions involved, the Saudi commentator said there is more understanding now of the southerners’ aspirations. “I think the call for some sort of autonomy for Southern Yemen is becoming more ‘acceptable’ to certain parties now. The file of the status of the south is now on the table in preparation for a final settlement. It is becoming more evident that southerners will not accept the full rule of Sanaa again. One of the options to avoid full separation is that the south enjoys self-rule within a unified country,” he added.

Apart from the separation of the country into two Yemens, with the south free of Iranian-backed Houthis, there is another important issue. Most of Yemen’s energy resources – oil, gas, and pipelines – are in the south. South Yemen will also be in control of the strategically important southern entrance to the Red Sea in Aden. Any political solution will have to find answers to these issues if the STC is to gain autonomy in the south.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.


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