New twist in Yemen conflict as STC takes over Aden

“A return to a united Yemen is no longer possible. At the same time, it is impossible to revive a country that was once called South Yemen," said Yemen specialist Khairallah Khairallah.
Saturday 17/08/2019
Yemenis demonstrate in support of the Southern Transitional Council in the Khormaksar district of Yemen’s second city of Aden, August 15. (AFP)
A new reality on the ground. Yemenis demonstrate in support of the Southern Transitional Council in the Khormaksar district of Yemen’s second city of Aden, August 15. (AFP)

DUBAI - The conflict in Yemen took a major turn when the Southern Transitional Council took effective control of Aden after days of fighting with troops loyal to the government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Since the conflict began in March 2015, fighters with the Southern Transitional Council (STC) have been a major component of the Saudi-led coalition’s battle against the Iran-backed Houthi movement that ousted Hadi from power in Sana’a in 2014.

The southern port city of Aden has been the temporary base of Hadi’s government. The president has based himself in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The war against the Houthis seems to have revived old strains between north and south Yemen — formerly separate countries that united into a single state in 1990 under Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The move August 11 by the STC, which is backed by most of the Security Belt Forces and led by former Aden Governor Aidarus al-Zubaidi, came amid fears that Islamist forces in the Saudi-led coalition could take over the south, even permitting al-Qaeda to make a comeback there.

The STC maintains that whatever the outcome of the drawn-out conflict, southerners need to be represented in peace talks and have a say in the country’s future.

The STC has reportedly been considering Saudi Arabia’s call to de-escalate and preparing to attend an emergency summit in Jeddah aimed at reaching an agreement for all parties in Aden.

However, Saleh Alnoud, a Britain-based spokesman for the council, vowed on August 14 that the STC  would maintain control over Aden, saying that the only way out of the impasse was for Islamists, a reference to al-Islah party that constitutes a backbone of Hadi’s government, and northerners to be removed from positions of power in the south.

“Giving up control of Aden is not on the table at the moment,” Alnoud said in an interview with Reuters.

The STC has accused al-Islah, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, of being complicit in a deadly Houthi missile strike on southern forces earlier this month. “Al-Islah has been at the heart of this,” Alnoud said.

While the STC is unlikely to forego its advances in Aden, it is also unlikely to pursue independence in the short term, relying instead on negotiations to resolve the crisis.

Analysts noted that the STC has significant leverage but warned that al-Islah remains a threat.

“A return to a united Yemen is no longer possible. At the same time, it is impossible to revive a country that was once called South Yemen and which at one point was going by the name of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen,” said Khairallah Khairallah, an analyst and author on Yemeni politics.

“The recent events at Aden, not only serve to expose the weakness of the al-Islah backed legitimacy camp but also usher a turning point that can ultimately to Aden possibly regaining some of its past glory by providing the necessary services and security for its people.”

“This is the real challenge for the Southern Transitional Council, not that of reviving a defunct state in the south going back to the pre-unification era,” he added. 

Iraqi writer Ali Sarraf said that while “Yemenis are united around their land, history, culture and economy,” there has been “damage done by the northern political parties, notably al-Islah, to Yemen’s national unity.”

“Members of al-Islah party… can only view today’s Saudi Arabia as an enemy,” Sarraf added. “However, southerners could turn out being a better ally if they consider the need for Riyadh to support them in their fight against two evils: the Iran-backed Houthis and failed tribalism that has long been upheld by Islamists.”

The agenda in Jeddah will likely be determined by the Arab coalition and would reportedly centre on reaching a mechanism to reduce political and security tensions.

The Arab coalition eyes the development of consensus to having joint security forces maintain security in Aden, under the supervision of the Arab coalition, and on removing from Aden brigades and other military units that are not needed for Aden’s security.

The agreement, media reports said, would integrate the STC in government institutions and assigning it ministerial portfolios. It would also include measures for unifying media statements by the government and the STC and focusing them on confronting the Iranian project in Yemen.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have displayed a united front on Yemen, playing down reports of divisions that analysts say could weaken their joint campaign against Iran-linked rebels.

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan met with Saudi leaders near Mecca August 12, backing Riyadh’s calls for dialogue between the warring parties.

The United Arab Emirates, which in July announced it was scaling down its military presence in Yemen amid Gulf tensions with Iran, has long been suspicious of al-Islah.

While the group is part of Hadi’s coalition government, some Yemenis allege it is collaborating with Qatar to divert the attention of the Saudi-led coalition from its fight against the Houthi militia.