Will Yemen emerge united after the civil war?

Friday 05/06/2015
A Yemeni woman holds Saudi and Yemeni southern separatist movement flags

CAIRO - Yemen may never emerge as a united country from a civil war pitting a north­ern Shia Muslim militia and its allies in the army against fighters in the mostly Sunni south.

The conflict, in its third month, exacerbated long-standing griev­ances that are regional but also in­creasingly religious in a country whose unity has always been brittle.

Secessionist sentiment in the south, stoked by what southerners see as decades of marginalisation by the north, is deepening as result of the damage inflicted on Aden and other southern cities in assaults by the northern Houthi militia.

Sunni Muslim Arab states have maintained an air bombing cam­paign against the Houthis, allied to archrival Shia Iran, but the Houthis retain the upper hand in battles in the south.

Southern combatants fight under the flag of their formerly independ­ent state and residents spurn the idea of again joining those they see as northern invaders.

“What unity could there be af­ter the destruction we see on our streets and wars of extermination against the south? Forget it,” said Saleh Hashem, a resident of Aden, a port city whose historic commercial district lies in ruins.

Once a British protectorate turned satellite state of the Soviet Union, South Yemen joined North Yemen to form a united country in 1990 under then president Ali Ab­dullah Saleh, who took power in the north in 1978.

Many in the south, home to most Yemeni oil facilities, felt north­erners had commandeered their resources and denied them their identity and political rights. The South sought to break away in 1994 but Saleh reunited the country by force.

Resentment has festered since unification and has grown with the ongoing war, taking on more reli­gious overtones.

“We want there to be one people but in two states with open bor­ders between their citizens,” Fuad Rashed, a leader of the southern secession movement, told Reuters.

“The ongoing war has blood­ied and slaughtered what little re­mained of the national unity that has been bungled for over two dec­ades.”

Despite Saleh’s overthrow dur­ing the 2011 “Arab spring” protests, he and loyalists in Yemen’s army have made common cause with the Houthis, helping their drive from northern strongholds into the capi­tal Sana’a in September and further south.

The Houthis say their advance is part of a revolution against Sunni Islamist militants and corrupt offi­cials. Saleh says he seeks reconcilia­tion and denies accusations that he wants to settle old scores.

The northerners’ alliance against Yemen’s government, whose base of support is in Aden, may reflect a new unity of purpose in the heav­ily tribal north, where Shia Islam’s Zaydi sect, to which the Houthis be­long, prevails.

“A sectarian and regional polari­sation is under way. When the Hou­this took over Sana’a and beyond, it showed that the Zaydi tribes­men were again vying for control,” a northern Yemeni politician, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told Reuters by telephone from Sana’a.

“The majority of the military command, being northerners, quickly fell in with this agenda,” the politician said.

The northern advance is firing religious zeal in the south.

“The Houthis are a Shia reli­gious movement and the whole south is Sunni. This has caused the religious to support the idea of secession more, so that the authority remains Sunni and they avoid living in a united state run by Shias,” said Mahmoud al-Salmi, a history professor at Aden Univer­sity.

While the idea of secession has gained ground, a secu­rity vacuum brought on by the split of Yemen’s army into pro- and anti-Houthi factions may make a viable southern state harder.

Religious hardliners may be poised to make the most gains.

After pro-Saleh troops evacuated last month, a council of conserva­tive Sunni tribesmen and clerics emerged to govern south-eastern Hadramawt province, Yemen’s larg­est and home to the modest oil re­serves that keep its finances afloat.

Residents of Hadramawt’s main city, Mukalla, say the council has made a pact with al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, allowing it to hold recruit­ment rallies, set up informal Islamic courts and carry their weapons in public.

Southern activists worry that the new prominence of the group, whose goal of attacking the Yem­eni state and Western targets, could turn the region into a hotbed of strife rather than the state they seek. “The truth is that the situa­tion has become like an Islamic Re­public, where al-Qaeda operates freely to impose its deviant version of hardline Islamic Law,” activist Mohammed al-Sharqi said by tel­ephone from Mukalla.

All this will only add to the wor­ries of the United States, which poured aid and military assis­tance into Yemen, including drone strikes, to counter al-Qaeda’s rise but has had to scale back due to the latest conflict.