Over the last four years of the conflict in Yemen, gains by separatist forces have magnified significantly. Aden, Dhale, Lahj, Socotra, and Abyan provinces are all under the control of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a military and political body seeking to secede from northern Yemen.
The council did not earn these gains diplomatically or politically. Instead, bloodshed and violence had preceded any advances on the ground.
Early this month, ferocious armed clashes between UAE-backed separatist forces and government soldiers accused of being linked to the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen lasted four days in Shabwa.
The fighting left deaths and injuries in Attaq city, the provincial capital. It culminated in military victory for the separatists, with opposing forces retreating.
This development demonstrates two realities: the separatists’ military preparedness to extend their presence in all southern provinces, and the pro-secession vision of the Saudi-led Arab coalition, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Today, only two southern provinces remain outside the control of the STC: Hadramout and Al-Mahra. The STC has supporters there but has not subdued these two regions militarily.
“Like Shabwa, Hadramout is rich in oil and would be a vast revenue-generating source. As a result, a separatist military push towards Hadramout is likely”
Hadramout at present accommodates anti-secession military forces. This is a concern for the STC, which deems weeding out the threat there a prized aim. Like Shabwa, Hadramout is rich in oil and would be a vast revenue-generating source. As a result, a separatist military push towards Hadramout is likely.
On Thursday, 18 August, the STC branch in Hadramout said that the defeat of the First Military Region forces in Hadramout is a matter that cannot be postponed. This declaration came after the local authority in Hadramout brought down the former southern state flags hoisted by STC supporters.
“Similar to what happened to the [anti-secession] elements in Shabwa, the elements in Hadramout will be kicked out,” said the STC’s statement. It added, “With God’s help, the southern flag will soon be raised on the headquarters of the First Military Region, just as it was raised on the headquarters of the Shabwa Special Forces”.
Besides their military muscle, the separatists enjoy substantial political power represented by Aidrous Al-Zubaidi, the chief of the STC and deputy head of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), which has been the UN-recognised authority in Yemen since April this year.
When the separatist movement began in 2007 it did not appear to threaten the country’s unity. Peaceful rallies calling for secession were staged, and the police could step in to disperse the participants.
However, the movement has accumulated stronger political and military influence across various southern provinces, particularly after the 2011 popular uprising and after the formation of the STC in 2017.
The formation of the STC saw the light with military and financial support from the UAE. The support paid off, and separatist forces fully controlled Aden by August 2019 after defeating pro-government military units. The government’s loss of Aden was a big stride toward secession.
Aden’s fall at the time perplexed and disappointed millions of Yemenis. A common question was: would the coalition that intervened in 2015 to defend the Yemeni government back secession? The victory of southern secessionists in Shabwa made it clear that the coalition favours ending Yemen’s unity, which came into being in 1990.
“Practically speaking, Shabwa no longer belongs to Yemen, and it has fallen to the STC with the military support of the Arab coalition that seeks to control the entire south before engaging in any talks with the Houthis,” said Abdulsalam Mohammed, the head of Abaad Studies & Research Centre.
According to Mohammed, the PLC formed in April based on Gulf-sponsored talks does not seem keen on merging the armed groups under the Defence and Interior ministries. “Instead, the mission of this council is to legitimise the presence of these armed groups,” he added.
“These regional powers had the scheme to hand over the southern provinces to armed militias just as happened in northern Yemen,” explained Adel Dashela, a Yemeni political researcher and author, to The New Arab, adding that the strategy of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi has been evident since the beginning of the war.
In 2014, the Iran-backed Houthi group seized Sanaa and kept expanding their dominance in other northern provinces. Currently, they hold control of Yemen’s north except for some districts in Marib and Taiz. The separatists have applied the same approach and have not given up on ruling the entire south.
“What is happening does not serve the interest of Yemen or its people. It only serves the foreign powers that seek to maintain their hegemony over this country,” Dashela said.
“The victory of southern secessionists in Shabwa made it clear that the coalition favours ending Yemen’s unity”
Any military and political developments in Yemen have a significant impact on civilian life. The separatists’ takeover of many southern provinces is an example. As secession deepens, the fear of northern civilians in the south magnifies.
In 2019, separatist fighters unexpectedly deported hundreds of northerners from Aden. Those that were not deported were made to feel unwelcome. Abdulrahman used to work in Aden in 2019 as a waiter. When separatists tightened their grip on the port city, he moved to Shabwa.
“I worked in Aden for two years and was happy with my job. When the STC took over the city, I felt unsafe. I immediately travelled to Shabwa. Unfortunately, Shabwa has recently entered a turbulent phase,” Abdulrahman told The New Arab.
In September last year, a fighter at an STC-manned checkpoint in the southern Lahj province murdered a Yemeni-American citizen, Abdul Malik Al-Sanabani, when he was on his way to Sanaa in northern Yemen to visit relatives. The checkpoint personnel accused him of being a Houthi member, and he was tortured, robbed, and shot dead.
With the fall of Shabwa this month, civilians from the north living in separatist-controlled provinces feel they are further vulnerable and could be accused of being spies or fighters.
“When I see the southern flag flying everywhere, I lose hope about Yemen’s unity. I feel as if I am an expatriate in the south. Only those who have lived or visited separatist-controlled cities can understand the magnitude of the divide between the south and north,” Abdulrahman said.