27 March 2018

An unintended consequence of the civil war is that the south of the country is rapidly moving towards outright autonomy. If a breakaway effort were to occur before the end of the war, it would undermine the UN-led peace process.

Authors

Peter Salisbury

Peter Salisbury

Senior Consulting Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

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Ships destroyed during fighting for Aden in 2015, Mualla Port, Aden, February 2016. Photo: Peter Salisbury.
Ships destroyed during fighting for Aden in 2015, Mualla Port, Aden, February 2016. Photo: Peter Salisbury.

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Summary

  • After three years of civil war, Yemen has become a ‘chaos state’. It more closely resembles a region of mini-states – beset by a complex range of internal politics and disputes – at varying degrees of conflict with one another, than a single state engaged in a binary war.
  • An unintended consequence of the conflict is that the south of the country is rapidly moving towards outright autonomy. Southern Yemen has a long history of agitation for independence. Historically, political elites and foreign officials believed that the ‘southern question’ could be deferred indefinitely because of a lack of cohesion or strategy among secessionist groups.
  • Although not entirely unified, pro-independence groups have become much more organized and heavily armed. Recent fighting in Aden between secessionist and pro-government forces demonstrated the relative power and cohesion of the pro-independence movement; and the potential for the southern issue, if left unaddressed, to further complicate efforts to end the ongoing Yemen civil war.
  • In a reversal of a quarter of a century of increasingly centralized control from Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, southern governorates now have their own evolving military, police and security infrastructures, largely drawn from the local population. An emerging political leadership has been able to organize itself more coherently than past iterations of the secessionist movement.
  • In the past, southern secessionist groups struggled because of the lack of external backers. The support of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for key players has been crucial to their recent evolution, and many southerners now believe that it supports their push for independence, though it denies this.
  • The UAE’s agenda is not entirely clear. Several factors – including its role in the Saudi-led coalition that has intervened in the country, its antipathy towards the Muslim Brotherhood, and its broader national and regional priorities – are likely to take precedence over the ambitions of Yemen’s southerners.
  • The south’s current trajectory may lead to an attempt at independence or autonomy. If a breakaway effort were to occur before the end of the civil war, it would undermine the UN-led peace process. If an attempt happens once a ceasefire has been agreed, it could spark renewed conflict. Even without an outright declaration of independence, the potential for conflict with the internationally recognized government in contested southern areas – Aden, Shabwa and Hadramawt – remains high.
  • Southern groups will play an important role in deciding Yemen’s future security, stability and territorial integrity. Yet international policymakers have paid little attention to the south since the civil war began, in keeping with a historical tendency of seeing the region as a second-tier issue. As a consequence, southern groups are not formally included in the peace process.
  • In order to foster security and stability in Yemen, and prevent a further deterioration of the relationship with the government, policymakers will have to develop a deeper understanding of the south, improve communication with southern leaders and work to build the capacity of southern civil society – as it will need to in the rest of the country.
  • The appointment of a new UN special envoy, at a time when the broader conflict appears to be stagnating, has created an opportunity for a new international approach to mediation in Yemen in general, and to the southern issue in particular.
  • The so-called ‘southern question’ can no longer be deferred if the mistakes of the 2012–14 transition are to be avoided. At that time, the Houthis, with the support of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, were able to march south to Sana’a because they were not seen as being a credible threat to the political process. In fact, the Houthi takeover of Sana’a sparked the current war, and the group now controls much of Yemen’s northern highlands and western seaboard.

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