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Guardian: Yemen peace talks must accept country is divided in two, says southern leader

The leader seen as integral to solving Yemen’s nine-year civil war has said the west has to accept a new reality in which Yemen’s north is controlled by the Houthis and the south is run by his separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC).

In a Guardian interview, Maj Gen Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, the president of the STC and vice-president of the UN-recognised government of Yemen, said the planned talks on the country’s future had to be reconfigured to meet that new reality, including by putting the issue of a separate southern state at the foreground of discussions. The talks are largely under the control of Saudi Arabia, which wants to find a way to extricate itself from a war that is estimated to have caused more than 250,000 deaths.

Zoubaidi also tried to assure the west that the sea lanes, ports and oilfields in strategically critical southern Yemen would be secure under an STC-led state, saying: “We will apply all UN rules and international law.” He warned the alternative was Iranian-backed Houthis controlling the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, a critical waterway for international trade.

He also vowed to hold a UN-supervised referendum before the south went independent: “We are committed to abide by all international laws and UN charters for referendums. We can prepare the voting lists for this now.” He added he would cooperate with an international criminal court to investigate war crimes.

The STC would like to revert to the period between 1967 and 1990 when Yemen was divided in two with a separate socialist state in the south. That state, he said, “had its pros and cons, but then you would have never found anyone in basic need and the state respected human rights. We used to be branded as extremist socialists, but we are open-minded civilians. We are moderate nationalists – neither Islamists nor secular. We are in the centre. We do not embrace any religious-based political movement.”

A former army commander and governor of Aden, Zoubaidi has survived car bomb attacks, and been strongly backed by the United Arab Emirates since he formed the STC in 2017. He said the STC was the most structured organisation across the eight governorates in the south including Aden, and the dominant military force capable of combating the Iranian-backed Houthis. “The new reality is that the Houthis control the north and the STC governs in the south,” he said.

His visit to the UK, including a talk at the Chatham House thinktank and meeting with the Middle East minister, Tariq Ahmad, represents his most concerted effort yet to convince the west that he and a separate southern Yemen state can unlock an elusive peace.

Saudi Arabia is reluctant to embrace the STC partly because it would imply Riyadh had invested eight years of war in Yemen only to lose control of the north to the Houthis and the south to the Emirati-backed STC. The Saudis, increasingly at odds with the UAE in Yemen, are actively working to reduce STC influence in the large oil-rich Hadramout region in the south-east. The west until now has bet on an integrated country in which the Houthis share power with the UN-recognised government.

It had been expected that a peace in Yemen would be one of the first fruits of the Saudi Arabia-Iran rapprochement in April, but despite unprecedented direct talks between Riyadh and the Houthis and a continued de facto ceasefire, there has been no breakthrough.

Riyadh did not include the UN-backed Yemen government and the STC in its talks with the Houthis, even though a government negotiating team has been formed. Zoubaidi said the peace process had stopped and anyway was based on old assumptions about the ability to change a united country. “The UN talks have to be redesigned. They have to deal with the new realities of the Houthis in the north and the STC across the south. We have to be involved and the southern question be discussed from the start.”

The STC in May moved to consolidate its influence when it completed a lengthy political dialogue about a vision for the south that culminated in two members of the eight-strong presidential leadership council, the executive body for the UN-recognised government, joining the STC. Three of the eight seats are now held by the STC. Zoubaidi denied the move was a power grab. “It was necessary to strengthen the cohesiveness of the south and prepare for any Houthi attacks. The Houthis are reinforcing themselves and could attack anytime.”

Zoubadi is deeply unhappy that the UN-recognised Yemen government still does not adequately reflect the STC’s strength, and says it is not a functioning body. “It is time for a change in the government since it is helpless and incapable to deliver the required key services,” he said. He added it was wrong that no government members were women.

He expressed sadness that the Ukraine war meant attention on Yemen’s humanitarian crisis was fading. “Yemen needs world attention more than ever. The devaluation of the currency has hit hard. There is poverty, outbreaks of cholera, and power cuts.”

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