The past decade has witnessed the gradual destruction of Yemen’s pre-war power structures and the rise of new political forces. Perhaps no faction, not even the Huthis who control much of the northern highlands, better exemplifies these new networks than the pro-independence Southern Transitional Council (STC). Formed in April 2017, this self-styled southern government-in-waiting and its allies now hold most of Yemen’s four southern governorates, including the temporary capital, Aden, and almost a fifth of the cabinet seats in President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s internationally recognised government. As part of the Saudi-brokered deal that brought it into government, the STC should also have a seat at the table if and when the UN convenes talks over a political settlement to end the war.
The STC’s precipitous rise is not guaranteed to continue and could come to a sudden halt. The group’s leadership is engaged in a delicate balancing act, attempting to sustain local support amid economic turbulence, build its regional and international profile, and judge the trajectory of the wider war, in particular with respect to Marib governorate, the government’s last major stronghold in the north.
Hiding in Plain Sight
The STC has its roots in Yemen’s southern independence movement. Before 2015, the secessionist al-Hirak al-Janoubi (the Southern Movement) was a loose coalition of groups that sought to restore the southern Yemeni state, the pre-1990 People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Many Hirakis argued that they had seceded during a 1994 north-south civil war in which southerners sought to undo a 1990 unification pact; everything that followed, they said, was northern occupation of the south. Hirak was beset by internal conflicts, however, particularly between leaders who had been PDRY officials, most of whom lived in exile. During Yemen’s UN-overseen 2012-2014 political transition, diplomats regularly complained of Hirak’s inability to form a coherent negotiating platform. The movement remained largely peaceful, focusing on regular protest marches in Aden and other big southern cities.
For a time, the exigencies of war helped Hirak and other southerners overcome their divisions. In the conflict’s early days, in 2015, an alliance of the Huthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s loyalists sought to overrun southern cities and governorates. Local fighters from outside the security and military services, many of them pro-independence, mounted an unexpectedly stiff defence of their areas, pushing the Huthi-Saleh alliance out of much of the south within months with backing from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Fault lines soon emerged, however. From mid-2015 onward, a powerful network of military/security leaders emerged, closely tied to the UAE. Factions led by two Hirak-aligned commanders from al-Dhale governorate, Aydrous al-Zubaidi and Shelal Shayea, the Salafist leader Hani bin Breik, and a group of pro-independence fighters from the Yafa tribe, which spans several southern governorates, rose to particular prominence. At first, President Hadi sought to co-opt these leaders by appointing them to important local security and government positions. But as they accumulated clout, the relationship became more complicated.
Two issues drove conflict between the emergent STC leadership and its Emirati sponsors, on one hand, and Hadi and his allies, on the other. The first was ideology. UAE officials argue that during the war’s early days they focused on supporting local groups that demonstrated the greatest ability to coordinate the south’s defence and, later, provide security. But UAE officials see one constituent group of the anti-Huthi bloc, Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist party, as affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement they consider a major threat to their political system and national security, and a “gateway drug” to jihadism. As such, the UAE avoided contact where possible with Islah-affiliated groups, including important local Hadi allies. Hirakis in general, and the STC in particular, also revile Islah, which they blame for some of the worst excesses of the 1994 war civil war. UAE-backed forces turned out to be particularly hostile toward Islah, allegedly sponsoring covert campaigns to uproot the party in the south from 2015 onward.
The second faultline was an intra-south rivalry that predated the 1990 north-south unity agreement. Southerners often characterise a 1986 bloody intra-PDRY civil war as a fight between forces from Abyan and neighbouring Shebwa province, on one hand, and adversaries from al-Dhale and Lahj provinces to Aden’s north west, on the other. Hadi is from Abyan, and was part of the losing Abyan-Shebwa side in the 1986 war. He later played a leading role in the northern campaign in 1994. From the beginning of Yemen’s civil war in 2015, locals in the south predicted a split between “Bedouin” from Abyan and Shebwa, such as Hadi and his allies, and “tribesmen” from Lahj and al-Dhale, such as Zubaidi and Shayea.
The rupture came in several phases. First, in April 2017, Hadi fired most of the UAE-aligned officials he had appointed in 2015 and 2016, who had become vocally critical of his rule and in some cases openly espoused southern independence. A month later, Zubaidi announced the formation of the STC as a kind of southern government-in-waiting, of which he was to be president. In January 2018, STC-aligned forces clashed with Hadi loyalists in Aden. Then, in August 2018, they mounted a complete takeover of Aden, sparking an inconclusive power struggle for the south that left the STC in control of al-Dhale, Lahj, Aden and parts of western Abyan, while Hadi and his loyalists stayed in charge in eastern Abyan and much of Shebwa. (UAE-backed Hadrami forces based in Mukalla remained largely neutral). The fighting ended only when Saudi Arabia intervened, eventually brokering what became known as the Riyadh Agreement in November 2019.
After Riyadh: A Waiting Game
The Riyadh Agreement bears all the hallmarks, and limitations, of recent international efforts to broker deals between Yemen’s rival armed and political factions, which sign accords but use the aftermath to gain new advantages. The STC heralded the international legitimacy they believe the agreement bestowed on their group, and their inclusion in UN-led talks, as a major success and a step forward for their independence cause. They have focused on implementing the agreement’s political aspects – the formation of a new government and the STC’s inclusion in national-level UN-led peace talks. The government touted the agreement as a victory over the UAE, without whose support they argue the STC would have no power whatsoever, including in moving toward southern autonomy or more. The UAE has been downsizing its footprint in Yemen since 2018, and Emirati officials say they ended their direct participation in the war in October 2019. Seeking to strengthen its position, the Hadi government is now trying to integrate STC-aligned military and security forces into command-and-control structures overseen by the Hadi-aligned defence and interior ministries – something the government says the Riyadh Agreement calls for but STC officials say they will never allow to happen in practice.
Today, the STC and the Hadi government are both playing a waiting game, each gambling that they can outlast the other. The Hadi government calculates that without UAE support, and without UAE salaries for its forces, the STC’s military networks will soon crumble, although it is not clear that the UAE has entirely abandoned its Yemeni ally. It also believes that, now that the STC is part of the government, it can be held to account for governance failures in the south. The STC, meanwhile, is eyeing battles between the Huthis and Hadi-aligned forces in Marib. A government collapse in Marib would mean that the Huthis have, in effect, won the war for the north, dealing a major blow to the government’s credibility. In particular, some STC officials believe a government defeat would make Riyadh, whose patronage the STC believes it will need to advance its independence aims, more dependent on their forces to prevent a Huthi takeover of all Yemen. The STC also appears to calculate that the government’s presence in the south – it returned to Aden in December 2020 – will make it the face of governance failures there, manifested by a plummeting Yemeni riyal, widespread electricity and fuel shortages, and skyrocketing food prices.
A government capitulation in Marib would bring political benefits to the STC, but it could leave the group exposed as the next target of the Huthis’ military campaign to take full control of the country. If, on the other hand, the government can hold off the Huthis at Marib, stabilise the economy and improve service delivery in the south, the STC may lose popular support. For now, the delicate balancing act will continue, with the STC’s quest for independence undimmed.