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Will South Yemen resurface after Saleh’s slaying?

Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s removal from the political scene creates an unprecedented chance for the former Cold War-era state of the “Democratic People’s Republic of Yemen”, commonly known as “South Yemen”, to resurface in the form of a federal unit following the possible post-war internal partition of the country, even though this populist move would play into the UAE’s geostrategic hands.  

The Yemeni rebel movement experienced a sudden though unsurprising split late last week when former President Saleh pivoted towards the Saudi coalition and publicly announced his willingness to commence peace talks if the international parties removed the blockade, stopped the bombing, and signed a ceasefire. According to Al Jazeera’s extensive report investigating “How Did Yemen’s Houthi-Saleh Alliance Collapse?”, this move was the result of long-running secret negotiations between Saleh and the UAE, the latter of which influenced Saudi “Red Prince” Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) through his mentor Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ) to go along with this strategy as the most convincing face-saving maneuver for crafting the conditions for a coalition withdrawal from Yemen. Furthermore, the Qatari-based outlet wrote that the Houthis had begun to distance themselves from Saleh ever since August when they began openly talking about how they don’t have any type of “alliance” with him in response to what they viewed as his disparaging remarks about them being a “militia”.

That shouldn’t have been unexpected because Saleh’s forces fought the Houthis on many occasions over the years prior to their flimsy ‘marriage of convenience’ early on in the civil war stage of the now-multidimensional conflict, and tensions had already boiled over a few days before the former President’s announcement after clashes erupted between both camps over control of the capital’s largest mosque on the eve of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. What no one could have anticipated is that the most powerful figure in Yemeni politics over the past three decades would end up unceremoniously slain at the hands of his former Houthi allies just a couple of days later as he was either fleeing from Sanaa or was captured in his home, which thus nevertheless sparked a heated and ongoing debate about whether he was a traitor to the rebel cause or a peacemaking patriot trying to save his country from its looming humanitarian catastrophe.

From South Yemen To The Republic Of Yemen

Largely absent amidst this frenzy of discussion is a serious conversation about the ramifications of Saleh’s removal from the political scene as they relate to the prospects of the former Cold War-era state of the “People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen”, commonly known as “South Yemen”, resurfacing in the form of a federal unit following the possible post-war internal partition of the country. This one-time country emerged in 1967 following the amalgamation of the British-held territories of the “Federation of South Arabia” and its eponymous “Protectorate”, the former of which came out of the “Federation of Arab Emirates of the South” and was originally a part of the larger Aden Protectorate that at one time covered the entirety of South Yemen. The short-lived South Yemen Civil War of 1986 devastated the country’s “deep state” and made it much more willing to eventually unify with the Yemen Arab Republic (commonly known as “North Yemen”) in 1990 in accordance with the long-delayed will of both parties as per the 1972 Cairo Agreement.

The “Yemeni Gaddafi” In The “African Mideast”

Saleh had already been ruling over North Yemen since 1978 and became the President of the unified Republic of Yemen (henceforth referred to simply as Yemen) in 1990, which required legendary Gaddafi-like domestic diplomacy to keep the tribally diverse state together. In many ways, the two Yemens – to say nothing of their post-Cold War unification – could be described as “African states in the Mideast”, bearing in mind the complex nature of their tribal and clan relations, further driving home the point of just how much Saleh channelled Gaddafi in the sense of becoming the indispensable political force holding the entire entity together. Try as he might, however, he was unable to execute a smooth unification, and a brief civil war in 1994 saw the former state of South Yemen unsuccessfully attempt to secede from the newly formed country. The historic differences between the North and South over nearly the past century and a half (and even prior to that, to be sure) had led to the creation of separate cultures, dialects, and overall identities that could only be temporarily overcome by force, and superficially at that.

Back To The Future

Saleh is symbolic because he represents the first-ever modern leader of unified Yemen, keeping in mind that “Yemen” used to previously refer to the broader region itself and not any historic state per se (though there have been some which stretched across most of the area), and that he was the victor in the 1994 civil war that squashed the South’s secessionist (“re-independence”) aspirations. The contemporary country of Yemen is therefore historically unique to a large degree, thus drawing its very territorial integrity into question, even though this wasn’t ever a serious topic up until the past year or two. To explain, while the big tent “Southern Movement” of neo-separatists was first created in 2007 during the last five years of Saleh’s tenure, it took the most recent Yemeni Civil War from 2014 until the present day to create the conditions whereby South Yemen could rise again in some shape or form.

The Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite National Liberation Movement, rose up in 2014 and teamed up with Saleh to oppose his successor, who was his former Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Unlike the Houthis and Saleh who represent the 40% or so of Yemenis that follow Zaydi Shiism (mostly concentrated in North Yemen), Hadi is a Sunni from South Yemen who was manipulating sectarianism in order to remain in power and even sought to “federalize” (internally partition) the country into six separate regions, which would have seen the Zaydi-majority areas of the Houthi and Saleh homelands cut off from the sea. On top of that, Hadi’s corruption was just too much for many in the country to bear, and that’s why shadow-broker Saleh allied with the Houthis and facilitated their rise to power by early 2015, though not without inadvertently stoking regionalist-sectarian fears among Sunni-majority South Yemen and reopening its pre-unification divisions with Shiite North Yemen.

The UAE’s Grand Strategy

That’s why the Saudi-led coalition focused on capturing Aden at the beginning of their invasion and using it as their base of operations for driving the Houthi-Saleh alliance further northland and into their Afghan-like mountainous redoubt that has yet to be controlled by outside forces, ergo the need to “flip” Saleh in order to break through the stalemate and make progress on advancing the ‘face-saving’ conditions for a multilateral downscaling of this disastrous conflict. The UAE is the dominant occupation force in South Yemen, and it’s thought to have encouraged the astronomical rise of the Southern Movement since then in order to indirectly lay claim to even more territory in the strategic Gulf of Aden near the Bab el Mandeb and Red Sea. The Emirates already has a base in Eritrea’s Assab and is building one in Berbera in the self-declared state of “Somaliland” in northwestern Somalia, and being able to exert proxy influence in South Yemen would make Abu Dhabi the unparalleled gatekeeper of the Gulf of Aden and therefore a globally significant rising power.

Eritrea is a sovereign state and “Somaliland” de-facto behaves as such, but South Yemen could never hope to attain any similar functionality because its most hopeful “independent” prospects are to become a constituent “(con)federalized” entity of a possible internally partitioned post-war Yemen that’s heavily under the UAE’s sway. No international actor is seriously backing the formal division of Yemen into its Cold War-era Northern and Southern halves once again, mostly because none of the GCC+ stakeholders (the organization and its warfighting allies in Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, and “Somaliland”, plus their “Lead From Behind” American-Israeli partners) have any idea how they would “contain” what they believe to be Iran’s Houthi “proxy army” in that event. That’s why the seemingly irreversible re-division of the country as a result of the dynamics stemming from the latest multidimensional civil-international war would have to be unofficial, though ‘stably’ institutionalized through a “(con)federation” between the two parts, one which could have seen Saleh rule over the North, Hadi over the South, and a compromise figurehead legally leading the nominally unified state.

The Emirati Model

The chances of pulling this off in North Yemen are uncertain right now because no GCC+-acceptable figure is militarily capable of succeeding Saleh after the Houthis successfully secured their control over Sanaa, though this blueprint is still very promising when it comes to South Yemen. Not only is the Southern Movement the main political organization in this region, but it also has genuine grassroots support among the populace who yearn to reverse what many of them believe to be the mistake of their 1990 unification with the North as much as possible given the international geostrategic constraints to their cause. Moreover, the UAE is in a prime position to guide this effectively (re-)independent statelet via the export of its political model to part of its territory, which could see the divide-and-rule revival of its colonial-era emirates (the 1959-1962 “Federation of Arab Emirates of the South” which then became the 1963-1967 “Federation of South Arabia”) and their alignment together along tribal-clan lines just like the seven ones along the southern coast of the Persian Gulf did before them.

The author originally proposed the idea of the UAE’s governing system being exported elsewhere in the region in his June 2017 analysis about “The Machiavellian Plot to Provoke Saudi Arabia and Qatar into a ‘Blood Border’ War” in explaining why the “Little Machiavelli” collection of Emirates tried to set its “big brother” of Saudi Arabia up for geopolitical failure against Qatar by exploiting his country’s influence over the easily misguided MBS. The concept is that the de-facto dissolution of any country in the Arabian Peninsula could lead to its local warlords coming under UAE patronage and being “legitimized” by Abu Dhabi as “emirs” over their territory, after which they’d be encouraged to join together into a “federation” just like the UAE itself earlier did in ultimately coming under their influence by proxy. Even in the event that the checkerboard of emirates doesn’t play out due to what might be a solid sense of unified regional identity as South Yemen, then the single entity itself could simply function as one “big emirate” vis-à-vis UAE grand strategy.

Like The Kurds But Different

The resurfacing of South Yemen in a “federalized” (internally partitioned) form following the end of the country’s war would to a large extent be a copy-and-paste of the same strategy underway in northeastern Syria with the Kurds and their “Rojava” project, especially seeing as how both are using referenda as a means to “legitimize” their aspirations and each of them would be equally abused by foreign powers for geopolitical purposes. The primary difference between South Yemen  and Syrian Kurdistan, however, is that the former actually has a long-running historical claim to statehood and many factors of identity separateness that differentiate it from its formerly independent northern neighbor of the same broader Yemeni region. In addition, Saleh’s assassination was a seismic event of symbolic and substantial proportions for the South Yemeni separatist cause because it represented the death of the man who both presided over a unified Yemen and had also defeated their compatriots during their failed 1994 secessionist/re-independence campaign.

Mixed Feelings About A Pragmatic Outcome

In view of the aforementioned domestic and international factors contributing to the revival of South Yemen, it’s evident that this is a mostly grassroots initiative with a strong historic basis, though one which will nevertheless work out to the advantage of the anti-Houthi coalition if it’s ever actualized and would first and foremost directly benefit the UAE more than any other actor. This complicated reality understandably makes the South Yemen movement difficult for some observers to support given how its unipolar geopolitical implications of dividing-and-ruling the Republic of Yemen outwardly contradict its multipolar internal motivations in correcting what many of its local proponents believe was a colossal neo-imperial mistake, but the fact of the matter is that this “compromise political solution” to the War on Yemen is becoming increasingly inevitable from a pragmatic standpoint.

The Houthis are militarily unable to oust the international coalition from South Yemen, and the US would likely intervene through “surgical strikes” and special operations raids to prevent what it has fear mongered to be an “Iranian proxy army” from kicking the UAE and Saudi Arabia out of the country, though on the flipside, these aforesaid forces don’t have the political will and military prowess to conclusively defeat the Houthis on their home turf in North Yemen. This state of affairs, especially in the failed aftermath of what was supposed to have been Saleh’s game-changing peacemaking move, suggests that the war will remain stalemated for the foreseeable future barring a severe outbreak of intra-regional conflict in North or South Yemen, which in any case is more than likely to work against Houthi interests because of their sudden split with Saleh’s forces than against the coalition’s, if such a scenario happens at all that is.

Concluding Thoughts

In any case, this means that the most pragmatic solution to part of the multidimensional and many-sided Yemeni conflict is shaping up to be the de-facto independence of South Yemen via a “federalized” (internally partitioned) structure after the war. It’s hard to imagine that the revived feelings of identity separateness inspired by this former country’s practical split from their one-time northern neighbors and fellow civic compatriots throughout the course of this conflict, powerfully aided and abetted as they were by the UAE for its own grand strategic purposes, could peacefully result in anything less. The Houthis have no realistic chance of capturing South Yemen because the coalition won’t withdraw from this valuable piece of global real estate, and it’s impossible to patch Yemen back together like how it was before this war, which was even at that time just a tenuously unified country that never fully overcame its lingering pre-unification and civil war-era divisions.

For all intents and purposes, when accounting for the slaying of the “Yemeni Gaddafi” in this heavily tribal and clan-influenced country in the “African Mideast”, the odds have never been more favorable to South Yemen’s geopolitical resurfacing in a “federalized” format than they are right now, even if the “will of the people” largely corresponds to the strategic designs of the aggressor states that intervened in the War on Yemen, leading to observers to have admittedly mixed feelings about one of the most practical outcomes of this conflict.

DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution. 

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