Peter Salisbury warns about growing southern autonomy in a new Chatham House report titled “Yemen’s Southern Powder Keg.” He urges the international community to integrate southern voices into the peace process. He classifies Yemen as a “chaos state,” which means it consists of warring mini-states. One such de-facto state is the south, which has gained greater autonomy as the war has progressed.
Civil wars do not just destroy local infrastructure, state institutions or political orders; they also “contribute to shaping and producing them.” (5)
While the south is not completely unified, secessionist groups are well organized and armed, possessing clear leadership structures as well as military, police and security apparatuses. Their accumulation of power is largely due to UAE support, even though the UAE denies supporting secessionist demands. This power means the “southern question” cannot be ignored. According to Salisbury, if the South breaks off during the war the chances of a ceasefire will diminish and UN-led peace talks will be compromised.
Yemen’s south is a powder keg of tensions and rivalries, made all the more volatile by the proliferation of armed groups and the influx of weapons since the recent civil war began. (27)
Policymakers and diplomats have long dismissed the severity of the southern issue. Most notably, southern groups and southern leaders are not included in the UN-led peace process. The UN Security Council calls simply for unity without providing specific and informed resolutions to the issue. These limited actions will not suffice, especially because disenchantment with unity increased in the south after the 2013 National Dialogue Conference (NDC). Southern participation in the NDC was seen as trivial, with many foreign diplomats discounting southern issues and Southern Movement leaders refusing to participate. Since the NDC, southern secessionist groups have capitalized on this disillusionment, but it is important to recognize these groups are not monolithic, nor do they have complete control over the south.
Salisbury challenges homogenous descriptions of the south, mapping the complex political dynamics of the region and identifying key actors in each governorate. His work contributes to a larger mapping project Chatham House is conducting, which strives to “identify zones of political control, governance and economic activity across the country” (15). Salisbury begins with al-Dhali’ and Lahj. These governorates are largely controlled by highly organized and effective militias that work as part of the Southern Resistance.
Salisbury describes Aden as “the most heavily contested non-frontline space in the civil war” (17). Power in the governorate is divided among numerous groups, including UAE-backed forces, Hadi’s Presidential Guard, al-Dhali’ militias, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Moving east of Aden, southerners describe Abyan Governorate as the least stable area in the south. AQAP poses a substantial threat here, frequently engaging in conflict with pro-Hadi militias. These militias, known as the Popular Committees, also fight the Houthis in the northwest of Abyan.
In Shabwa, the UAE-backed Elite Forces are fighting AQAP, and their efforts have been largely successful. Hadi-backed militant groups in Shabwa have also succeeded in pushing the Houthis out of the northwest.
Hadhramawt is divided between UAE-backed forces and the First Military District that Hadi oversees. Residents of this region fear increased conflict between the two groups if northerners attempt to establish more control over the south.
Lastly, Salisbury discusses al-Mahrah, the large but sparsely populated governorate that borders Oman and Saudi Arabia. Al-Mahrah’s social and political structure is dominated by tribes, and various international actors have been seeking the loyalty of these tribes throughout the war.
Stepping back from governorate-specific issues, Salisbury analyzes the consequences of alliances between various groups. The UAE has partnered with some salafist groups. These safalist groups and Southern Resistance militias have occasionally fought alongside or cooperated with AQAP. Salisbury claims lines between some salafist groups and AQAP have blurred during the war. These associations with AQAP could trigger western blowback.
Salisbury then turns to the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which he describes as “the most organized, well-armed and most confident secessionist grouping the south has seen since the civil war of 1994” (24). The STC now describes itself as a “government-in-waiting” (24). In January, the STC gained more power by fighting Hadi-backed forces in Aden. This was an attempt to gain representation in the government and the UN-led peace process. Salisbury writes, “if this were to happen it would likely be viewed as legitimizing the movement,” and would encourage other groups to use force to gain representation (27). In order to avoid this precedent, Salisbury says officials must quickly create a more inclusive peace process.
To conclude, Salisbury presents a list of policy recommendations generated in a Chatham House conference that included Yemeni officials, public figures and analysts, as well as international analysts, western policymakers and gulf-based researchers. The recommendations are (verbatim):
1. A new international approach – recommendations for foreign governments, working under the umbrella of the UN process
• Move the south up on the list of state-level and international priorities, and ensure that more time is devoted to discussions of the south during bilateral and multilateral meetings.
• Increase engagement across the board at the local level with key southern leaders, NGOs and civil society organizations, including women’s groups.
• Work to develop the capacity of southern civil society. • Work to engage the UAE and Saudi Arabia on key southern issues, particularly that of armed groups, on a regular basis.
2. Addressing the issue of armed groups – recommendations for international organizations and foreign governments, working under the umbrella of the UN process
• Form a working group on security in the south that includes key coalition players (Saudi Arabia and the UAE).
• Work towards the formation of an inclusive coordination mechanism that can assist in the construction of security institutions – particularly policing – and that ensure accountability and the rule of law.
• Consider how this institution can provide the basis for centralization of security.
• Assess areas where activity (e.g. coastguard training) has been duplicated and harmonize different initiatives.
• Work to increase the capacity of local courts and the police force to deal with legal disputes and other legal issues, as well as empowering the interior ministry to more stringently oversee prisons.
• Work to reduce potential conflict flashpoints, including in Aden, Hadramawt and Shabwa through ‘deconfliction’ initiatives.
3. Research and outreach – recommendations for think-tanks, international organizations and foreign governments
• Work towards better international coordination on policy related to the south by co-funding research on the region.
• Increase the international presence in Aden and the south, with the office of the UN special envoy leading the way.
• Support existing and new research centres, either in the south or led by southerners, following the example of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies and Deepthroat, both Yemeni-run research and policy centres.
• Work towards identifying and analysing all key actors, in order to improve understanding of governorate-level and regional dynamics.
• Work to improve southern actors’ understanding of the international community and their capacity for dialogue.