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Remembering the 1994 Yemeni Civil War

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI Yemen was divided with the north and south forming separate countries

May 4, 2022 at 8:15 am

What: A few years after Yemeni unification, amid growing tension between the north and the south, civil war broke out with the separatist south declaring independence.

Where: Yemen

When: 4 May-7 July 1994

What happened?

On 22 May 1990 the unification of Yemen took place with a merger between the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen). This happened after years of internal conflict.

The union ended more than 150 years of separation for the Yemeni people, whose land had once been divided between the British and the Ottoman Empires in the mid-19th century. After the Ottomans left at the end of the First World War in 1918, North Yemen gained independence and was ruled by Zaydi imams until the 1962 army-led coup led to a republic.

In 1967, Britain withdrew from its former colony of Aden in the south, which became the People’s Republic of South Yemen, and then the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) following a radical Marxist coup. The PDRY aligned itself with the Soviet Union.

As the demise of the Soviet Union loomed with the end of the Cold War, the country unified under the leadership of the late northern President Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, as Yemen was never truly unified as a nation state, tension soon began to surface between the north and the south. This resulted in the resignation of the leader of the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) and Vice President, Ali Salim Al-Beidh, in 1993, which was the year of the first multiparty elections in the country. He was replaced as vice president by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Political rivalry between Saleh and Beidh revolved around their unwillingness to commit fully to power-sharing. Each man saw himself as the more formidable and capable leader of a united land. There were also underlying southern grievances about economic and political marginalisation by the government based in Sanaa in the north.

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The situation deteriorated with a series of tit-for-tat assassinations targeting politicians, which also prompted Beidh to step down and relocate to the former southern capital of Aden from where he challenged the north. Attempts to salvage the political unity and stability of the country included talks that resulted in the signing of an accord in Jordan on 20 February 1994. However, this was unable to prevent the outbreak of civil war a matter of weeks later.

The northern and southern armies had not been integrated fully. They fought sporadic skirmishes in the same week that the accord was signed, and again in early spring. However, full-scale civil war broke out on 4 May. The next day, as the fighting escalated, Saleh’s forces crossed the demarcation line in pursuit of the southern army heading for Aden.

Despite possessing air superiority and being the only side in the conflict with a navy, most of the fighting took place in southern Yemen. Within a week of the outbreak of the war, the government forces were on the offensive in what became a very brief conventional conflict lasting just two months.

The war was also known as the War of Secession because, on 21 May, southern leaders seceded unilaterally and declared the establishment of the Yemeni Democratic Republic (DRY), which failed to receive international recognition. The southern separatists did however receive covert funding and support from Saudi Arabia, which was angered by Saleh’s alliance with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and backing of the Iraqi leader’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Part of President Saleh’s success over his southern adversaries was due to his recruitment of, and reliance on, the Islamist Islah militia and Salafi jihadists, including returnees from the Afghan-Soviet war who were already ideologically opposed to “godless communists”. It has also been argued that Sanaa turned a blind-eye when Al-Qaeda established a base in the south in order to hinder stability and keep future separatist ambitions at bay. This has had long-lasting implications; Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its offshoot Ansar Al-Sharia have carved out swathes of territory under their control in the sparsely populated south and east of Yemen.

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On 7 July 1994, Saleh’s forces captured Aden and brought the civil war to an end. Beidh and his comrades fled to neighbouring Oman, before moving to Germany and then Lebanon from where he continued to champion the southern cause. According to a Human Rights Watch report published later that year, the conflict’s “slow pace allowed civilians to flee and soldiers to seek cover. These factors account for the relatively low military and civilian casualties which numbered, according to informed estimates, about 6,000 civilian and military wounded and 1,500 killed during the seventy-day conflict.”

In order to subdue the south and prevent any uprising, Saleh offered a general amnesty. He also dismantled southern institutions, including the army, forcing most of its officers and soldiers into early retirement.

The 1994 Civil War was significant as the first post-Cold War conflict between two conventional Arab armies. It would have far-reaching consequences for contemporary Yemen and the ongoing aspirations for southern independence.

What happened next?

The Southern Movement (Al-Hirak Al-Janoubi) emerged in 2007 and was composed of various factions renewing their calls for secession. These demands grew amid the wider Arab Spring uprisings from 2011 onwards, and were accompanied by growing tension between Sanaa and the Ansar Allah movement, based in Saadah in the north. Referred to popularly as the Houthis, the movement had its own long-standing grievances with the government and ambitions to revive the Zaydi imamate. Saleh was killed by the Houthis following the collapse of a short-lived alliance after the fall of Sanaa in 2014; he was succeeded by his former Vice President, Hadi, a southerner.

In response to the takeover, Hadi asked Saudi Arabia to intervene militarily in March 2015. Riyadh — where Hadi is still based in exile — along with close ally the UAE led a coalition of mostly Arab states which has since carried out over 25,000 air raids and imposed a crippling siege on Yemen. According to the UN, this has contributed to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. By the end of last year, the international organisation estimated that 377,000 people have been killed in the war.

The Southern Transitional Council (STC) was founded out of Al-Hirak Al-Janoubi in 2017 with support from the UAE. With its own affiliated militia, the STC demanded the withdrawal of Islah militia and other pro-Hadi forces in the south and was determined to have self-rule.

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In 2018 the STC seized Aden, the interim capital of the Saudi-based Hadi government in exile, where the council remains a dominant force. Clashes between the STC and pro-government militias persist in parts of the south, as well as targeted killings and kidnappings.

Attempts to set aside conflict to focus on the mutual threat of the Houthi-led government in Sanaa have thus far been unsuccessful. The power-sharing Riyadh Agreement signed in 2019 has suffered several setbacks and failed to bring about the envisioned unity government.

The latest Saudi-backed initiative, the Presidential Leadership Council formed on 7 April 2022, saw Hadi transfer his powers to the new council, made up of four northern and southern leaders, including the head of the STC, Aidarous Al-Zubaidi. Yet doubts have already been raised about the council’s legitimacy and its ability to assert its authority. There is also the crucial question of whether or not the executive body’s members can overlook their political differences along Yemen’s lingering north-south divide. An already violated ceasefire coinciding with the month of Ramadan 2022 is nearing its end as I write; it remains to be seen if there will be an end in sight to the devastating war.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.