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Yemen’s Hadramout heats up as STC strengthens secession bid 

May 31, 2023 at 1:35 pm

Fighters affiliated with Yemen’s separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) deploy around the site of a reported explosion in the Khormaksar area of Yemen’s southern city of Aden, on June 29, 2022 [SALEH OBAIDI/AFP via Getty Images]

With the US-backed, Saudi-led coalition’s war against Yemen now in its eighth year, the country remains divided among three main competing authorities. These include the “internationally-recognised” Yemeni government, which is represented by the Saudi-backed Presidential Leadership Council (PLC). Another authority is the de-facto National Salvation Government (NSG) led by Ansarallah (“the Houthis”), based in the capital city of Sanaa. In power, since it was formed in 2016, the NSG is recognised only by Iran and its allies, despite governing approximately 80 per cent of Yemen’s population.

The third faction is the Southern Transitional Council (STC), supported by the UAE. Founded in 2017, the STC is a formidable secessionist party with an affiliated militia that controls significant territory in southern Yemen. This includes Aden, which is considered the supposed interim capital by the PLC, as well as the strategically important island of Socotra and the oil-rich Shabwa region.

Established last year, the PLC led by Rashad Al-Alimi and with Aidaroos Al-Zubeidi, the head of the STC, as second in command, was formed with the support of Saudi Arabia in an attempt to salvage the faltering Riyadh Agreement. The 2019 accord aimed to bring together the STC and the government under then-President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in a power-sharing arrangement.

However, due to widespread corruption and a perceived lack of legitimacy, the Yemeni government, including its latest manifestation in the form of the PLC, does not hold significant sway as a realistic contender for power in Sanaa. Even the STC, which has allied with the government for convenience and has representation in the PLC, increasingly views them as ineffective and practically obsolete.

Amidst the increasing pressure on the PLC and STC, marked by frequent armed clashes between their armed factions and militias, an additional challenge has emerged. Last month Saudi Arabia, in a significant development, engaged in direct meetings with the NSG at the Presidential Palace in Sanaa. This move comes after Riyadh’s decision in March to restore diplomatic ties with Iran, its geopolitical and ideological nemesis as part of a Chinese-brokered initiative.

OPINION: Saudi Arabia meeting with Houthi officials in Yemen will legitimise their government

The ongoing negotiations have fueled speculation that the kingdom may be compelled to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Sanaa government, which seeks to “liberate” the entire country from foreign occupation. Such recognition would pose a serious challenge to the PLC, potentially undermining its “authority” and leaving it relegated to the pages of history. The prospect of sidelining the PLC in this process is becoming increasingly likely as diplomatic efforts unfold.

Seizing the opportunity and sensing the impending political annihilation of the PLC, the STC has escalated its own ambitions. The party has long been vocal about its goal of reviving an independent South Yemen state, and it is now actively intensifying efforts to this end. The STC sees the current circumstances as a favourable moment to advance its separatist agenda and assert its aspirations for an autonomous South Yemen.

Earlier this month, the STC signed the Southern National Charter calling for the “the restoration of the state of the south with its political and geographical borders according to what was before May 22, 1990,” in reference to the unification of Yemen. This move, which has been lambasted as a “complete coup” against the Republic of Yemen by NSG official, Abd Al-Malik Al-Ajri, was preceded by significant re-shuffles within the STC, to include two members of the PLC. The STC now includes three of the eight PLC members.

Jacob Sufyani of the South24 think tank was quoted by the National as saying “This reshuffle strengthens the STC politically, militarily and security-wise as the [UAE-backed] Giants Brigades and STC — the two strongest bodies in Yemen’s south — are united.”

Part of STC’s strategy involves the subjugation of Hadramout, Yemen’s largest governorate, which also happens to hold about 80 per cent of the country’s oil reserves. Late last year it was reported that the UAE-backed council “fears that an independence movement is brewing” in the region, although that isn’t to say the STC doesn’t have a local support base. Having sought to emulate their relative success in expelling the Saudi-backed Islah militia from Shabwa, the STC has been busy sweeping up the remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated group in the Al-Wadi region of the governorate.

READ: Yemen accuses Houthis of preparing to launch military attacks

From a military strategic standpoint, the situation doesn’t bode well for the internationally-recognised Yemeni government. It finds itself encircled, facing offensives on two fronts: Marib in the north by the Houthi-allied armed forces and Hadramout in the south by the STC. This dual offensive puts significant pressure on the government, as it is simultaneously trying to defend its remaining strongholds in both the northern and southern regions.

Once Saudi Arabia finds it no longer feasible to support the PLC politically, its military support for them will also begin to wade, significantly impacting the ground war. In fact, this appears to have started already. On Sunday, the Sanaa-based Yemen Press Agency, reported that Saudi Arabia has taken the first steps in upending its alliance with the Islah, by “stripping the party of all its military and political powers.” In their stead, the Saudis have deployed about 10,000 recruits from the Dera Al-Watan (National Shield Forces), formed at the start of the year and “is entirely funded by the Saudis and operates outside of the Yemeni government’s chain of command.”

The Saudis are reportedly not opposed to Emirati ambitions per se regarding an autonomous Hadramout, but differ on how this is to be realised. Yet given the kingdom’s long land border shared with Hadramout, the issue is one of national security, and hence it will find it necessary to check any actions directed by the UAE if it is at odds with its own interests.

The troop buildup Al-Wadi comes off the back of a conference Riyadh hosted on 25 May, involving political and tribal leaders from Hadramout, with the Hadrami rights of self-determination high on the agenda, amid concerns of the locals that the STC is attempting to dominate the region. The week before “prominent Hadrami” leaders met in the city of Seiyun to reject “any attempts at annexation.”

Nevertheless, renewed fighting could very well flare up in Hadramout, especially as the Saudis have failed to obtain security guarantees from the STC not to reignite clashes amid Shield Forces deployment.

READ: Yemen: critical talks begin in Riyadh on Hadhramaut

The direct talks between Saudi Arabia and the NSG have introduced a new dynamic to the Yemeni conflict, with potential consequences for the STC’s secessionist bid in the south. As the PLC’s and – by extension – the UN-recognised Yemeni government’s relevance wanes and the NSG in Sanaa gains legitimacy, the STC perceives an opportunity to assert itself as the legitimate representative of southern Yemen, despite not possessing the monopoly in speaking for all southerners.

However, clashes with Saudi-backed forces and escalating attacks by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (over the past year AQAP has shifted focus away from the Houthis and has stepped up attacks against the STC) pose significant challenges to the STC’s aspirations, in addition to the NSG’s commitment to preserve the territorial integrity of a “unified” Yemen. The situation is further complicated by the STC’s interests in Hadramaut, a region of strategic importance and economic potential to all parties involved in the conflict. Hadramaut’s value is recognised by various factions, and its fate, much like that of the wider country, is at risk of fragmentation.

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