Yemen’s war has always had many sides. It may now be the case that the fight for the future of the country has begun between forces that want militarily either to occupy or liberate South Yemen.


In early August 2019, the Security Belt Forces loyal to the Southern Transitional Council (STC)—a collection of secessionist groups seeking autonomy or even full independence for South Yemen—evicted the internationally recognized government of Yemen from the southern city of Aden. The Yemeni government had declared Aden its temporary capital following the occupation of Yemen’s capital Sanaa by Houthi rebels from the North in September 2014 and the eventual flight of Yemen’s President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to Aden in 2015, where Hadi’s government was formally based until it was evicted by the southern forces in August. The Saudi-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 against the Houthis.

Thousands of supporters of Yemen’s southern separatists rally in Aden to show support for the United Arab Emirates, September 2019. Fawaz Salman/Reuters

The attempt by Hadi’s troops to retake Aden after its eviction triggered a full-scale war in the South. Although Saudi Arabia backed Hadi’s government, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) provided airpower in support of the STC troops, which they had trained. Alarmed by the crack in its coalition against the Houthis, Saudi Arabia invited the STC and Hadi to Riyadh in October to patch up their differences. The talks produced the Riyadh Agreement, signed on November 5. Celebrated by the UN and Hadi’s Western allies as a step toward stability in Yemen, the agreement’s only tangible outcome thus far has been international recognition for the STC.

On the surface, fighting in the South is not unusual. The war in Yemen that started in 2015 comprises a multitude of separate struggles in which tactical alliances have been forged despite long-term disagreements.[1] The STC was formed in 2017 to unite diverse secessionist groups across the South. The latest war in the South marks the fourth time that the sometimes partners of Hadi and southern independence forces have fought each other. The southern party has thus far emerged the winner each time. The Riyadh Agreement required the STC to withdraw from its new positions and allow Hadi’s government to return to Aden, but negotiations on that issue continued after the signing ceremony.

The August fighting signaled the growing capacity and desire over the past year among many southerners, led by the STC, to move toward independence. In early 2019, for example, Hadi was forced to hold a meeting of the Yemeni parliament in Sayun, a prominent town in Wadi Hadhramaut, after pro-independence Adenis refused to host the “occupying force” as they called the Yemeni parliament. While Hadi resides in Riyadh under Saudi patronage, his coalition inside Yemen suffers from internal divisions that go far beyond just the conflict with southern forces. Hadi’s own party, the General People’s Congress, is fractured into Houthi-allied and Hadi-allied camps. The Hadi-camp is allied with the Yemeni Reform Congregation (known as Islah), of which Vice President Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar is a member. Islah, however, has made its own advances in the governorates of Marib and Ta’iz—the former an oil-rich region and the latter Yemen’s largest city and key agricultural area. Hadi’s own government has been ousted from Marib, even as the area remains controlled by its ally, Islah.

Hadi’s problem, despite the Riyadh Agreement, is that southerners and their Emirati partners-in-war both view Islah as not only representing the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen—which they oppose—but also as working with jihadist groups such as Al-Qaida. While Islah and southerners both recognize Hadi as Yemen’s legitimate president, southerners have opposed the presence of Hadi’s government or troops in the South since the start of the war. The August fighting only strengthened southern resolve to begin their bid for liberation. The Riyadh Agreement seeks to undo the crack in the Saudi-Emirati coalition by bringing Southerners back into the coalition against the Houthis but it may also be the case that the fight for the future of the country has begun between forces that want militarily either to occupy or liberate South Yemen in a repeat of the 1967 independence struggle in which former partners turned against each other.

From South Arabia to South Yemen and Back Again

The southern coalition’s ousting of Hadi’s forces in August 2019 marked a culmination of North-South tensions that in 1994 had escalated into a civil war. Although North and South Yemen unified in 1990, the leaders of those states retained control of their armies. Tensions escalated around both the assassination of hundreds of southerners in the lead up the 1993 elections and the outcome of the elections, which saw Islah replace the southern leadership as the junior partner to the North’s General People’s Congress. As the northern electorate was five times larger than the southern one, the result was no surprise. A war between the two armies broke out a year later, with the North emerging as victors. What ensued was a northern takeover of southern land, properties, industries and natural resources, which were looted and used to reward those who had secured the North’s victory. But just as threatening for many southerners was that Aden was effectively handed over to the conservative Islah to govern.

From 1994 to 1998, the Islah-led administration in Aden attempted to impose a policy of top-down “Islamization.” Public music, theater and dance were banned, and people who previously socialized publicly retreated to their homes. While Islah enjoyed little popular support in the South, its rule in Aden attracted hardline preachers who turned the city into a territory of fear. Mosques taken over by salafi and Wahhabi preachers broadcast nightly prayer calls and sermons from loudspeakers, including messages of intolerance in a city known for its cosmopolitanism. Adeni schools were forced to adopt a conservative curriculum designed in Sanaa with Islahi influence. Moreover, while Sanaa’s “privatization” scheme proceeded apace, the reality in the South was that industries were destroyed. Air raids during the 1994 war had already damaged many factories, and the few still operating, such as the Seera Beer Factory, were demolished with bazooka fire. While the government blamed “religious extremists” for those actions, Adeni people believed that the importers of foreign beer, with Sanaa’s indifference if not their blessing, had commissioned the factory’s destruction.

It is time to take a fresh look on the ground and develop a new framework for a sustainable and legitimate peace in Yemen.

Islah never managed to get the Adeni administration running and in 1998 gave up its efforts. A reinstated southern government enjoyed wider support, but Adeni civil society remained unable to regroup or mobilize for years. By the turn of the millennium, women’s and human rights movements were among the first to reengage and express local grievances. In 2007, a group of dismissed army officers and unemployed youth established the Southern Movement, or Hirak. Less an organized movement than a network of activities, the Hirak became a source of inspiration for those who viewed the 1990 unification as a mistake of epic proportions. By 2008, southerners were joining mass rallies calling for southern reconciliation over past internal conflicts. At issue was the 1986 fighting in Aden, in which thousands of southerners lost their lives to intra-party violence.

When Yemenis nationwide began protesting as part of the Arab uprisings of 2011, the call for southern independence gained momentum, particularly after the Gulf Cooperation Council intervened in Yemen’s domestic affairs by brokering—some say imposing—a deal to end the uprising in which Salih stepped down but was allowed to remain in politics. Since 2012, men from across the South have joined milliyuniyyas (million-man rallies), while most women watch the rallies at home on television. The war that dragged the South into fighting in 2015 further strengthened southern resolve to secede, and they rallied regularly expressing that demand.

Following the early August 2019 attacks on the South, some half-million southerners assembled in Aden’s parade square on August 16 to support the STC and the ousting of Hadi’s forces. Among the demonstrators was a 90-year old woman from Abyan, the governorate east of Aden, who declared to other participants—leaning on her cane with a sharply hunched back—that she only wished to see her country again. Southerners chanted “Independence or death!”—revamping former president Salih’s ultimatum, “Unity or death!” With the unprecedented support of the milliyuniyya, the STC published a political program claiming all southern territories under STC control and identifying Bayhan, Dhal’a and Wadi Hadhramaut as next regions to be liberated from “terrorists.” The program details the tasks for providing services to the people, including alleviating poverty and reducing youth unemployment. Foreign and domestic companies, both public and private, may operate freely in order to revive the southern economy. Northerners running businesses and working in the South may operate only with licenses. The program says nothing about elections or how the STC will legitimate its rule.

The Troubled Coalition

Hadi and the southerners have been uneasy partners in fighting the Houthi militia. The first major conflict took place in 2017 over control of Aden airport. In late 2018, the STC pressured Hadi to remove his prime minister, whom it accused of embezzling public funds. The events of August 2019 compelled southerners again to call for the resignation of the government after the terror strikes in Aden and Shabwa killed dozens, including the beloved Southern military commander, Brig. Gen. Munir al-Maslahi (aka Abu Yamama) at a military graduation ceremony on August 1. While the Houthis claimed responsibility for the strike, the STC brought evidence that the missile attack that killed Abu Yamama had been orchestrated by forces aligned with Hadi. The STC accused Islah of facilitating the attack and demanded that Hadi sever contact with the party.

Other tensions in the Hadi coalition against the Houthis emerge from the diverse objectives of the foreign coalition members. Since the 2011 Arab uprisings and the brief rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt, Riyadh has escalated its campaign to establish itself as the leader of the Sunni world—an effort the UAE supports. That campaign included the 2017 boycott of Qatar in response to Doha’s broad support for Brotherhood groups and their allies across the region. Like the UAE, the STC views Islah and Islah-allied forces as sponsors of jihadism and as a threat to the South. But Riyadh, despite its anti–Brotherhood stance, has overlooked Islah’s own Brotherhood roots to secure a powerful ally against the Houthis. Like Saudi Arabia, Islah opposes southern independence. Meanwhile, the STC has accused Hadi of fraternizing with Islah-allied jihadi forces. Southern rhetoric closely echoes the language used by the UAE, which has been training the southerners to defeat al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS).

While Hadi luxuriates in Riyadh, inside Yemen Vice President Ali Muhsin has exploited the loyalty of Islah’s militias and other army troops to promote his personal agenda. Ever the opportunist, Ali Muhsin switched sides during the 2011 uprising from being Salih’s right-hand-man to supporting the uprising, a move most protesters saw as self-serving. In 2014 he advanced himself as a candidate (as did many others) to replace Hadi; the broad power struggle at that time set the stage for the ensuing civil war and Saudi military intervention in 2015.

The new accusation that Ali Muhsin was behind the August strikes on STC-forces echoes what most Yemenis long believed about Salih—that he was using an alliance with Islamists to promote his personal interests and power. Salih had for years allowed Saudi-funded “scientific institutes” to spread Wahhabi salafism and jihadi ideas, and he gave a green light to Yemenis to join the Afghan war on Saudi sponsorship. Many Yemenis also believe that Salih allowed or directly ordered jihadi groups to mount terror attacks against his rivals. At the very least, he was unconcerned when unidentified gunmen, believed to be Islamists, assassinated hundreds of leftist southerners in the early years after unification. When faced with calls to step down during the uprising in 2011, Salih warned that jihadist groups would take over if he were forced to resign, and indeed various jihadis took over major cities in the South in 2012. He and Ali Muhsin had both for years also manipulated anti-terrorist military aid, using the funds to equip units such as the Presidential Guard, commanded by Salih’s family members, with the latest military technology. When IS joined al-Qaeda in claiming responsibility for some of the attacks in the South, southerners quickly drew the connection to Ali Muhsin and Islah.

The Houthis drove Ali Muhsin to exile in Riyadh in 2014, but he re-emerged two years later when Hadi appointed him vice president. Since the outbreak of the war in 2015, Ali Muhsin has been active in the eastern front securing the oil fields of Marib. While the economy in the rest of the country has collapsed, Marib has prospered, largely by keeping fighting out of the area and attracting businesses from the rest of the country.[2] The governor is a local man, but Marib’s administration and economy, according to locals, is run by Islah; although Islah remains Hadi’s ally, his forces wield no authority there.

Southerners vs. Islah

The STC leadership viewed the August attacks in Aden and Shabwa as a campaign to prevent southern control of expanded territories. In early August, the Security Belt Forces took control of military bases, the Ministry of the Interior and the presidential palace in Aden, renaming the latter Abu Yamama Palace. Southern troops then cleared a military base of Hadi’s troops in the Abyan governorate east of Aden, anticipating that Ali Muhsin might seek to launch an attack from there. Ali Muhsin’s troops moved instead into Wadi Hadhramaut—Yemen’s other main oil field and home of the spoilers of southern unity—but quickly launched a counter-offensive on Abyan and Shabwa. That campaign was accompanied by terrorist attacks in Aden attributed to al-Qaeda and IS. Because Abyan is Hadi’s home region, the STC viewed it as key to safeguarding its military positions. When Hadi’s troops then took military control of Ataq, the center of Shabwa, Saudi Arabia called for a ceasefire and invited the parties to negotiations.

To support Hadi’s military campaign to control the South, the High Ulama Council of Yemen issued a fatwa that endorsed fighting southern forces. The leading southern member of ulama, al-Habib al-Jifri from Dar Mustafa center in Hadramaut, rushed to condemn the fatwa, calling it an abuse of Islam for political purposes. Southerners remembered well the fatwas issued by northern members of the ulama in 1994 aimed at legitimizing Salih’s war against the South.

The August 2019 campaign to evict Hadi’s troops—declared as an effort to cleanse the South of terrorists—was led by STC vice-president Hani bin Breik, a former salafi preacher who had studied in the Dar al-Hadith salafi institute in the Houthi heartlands of Saada. Bin Breik now poses as a reformed puritanist, posting photos of bare-headed young women on his Twitter account as part of an STC media campaign. The visible role given to men of religion such as bin Breik in STC’s local and national bodies illustrates southerners’ sensitivity to defamation campaigns from religious conservatives with fatwas and media entries charging that southerners are not good Muslims.

The competition for power in Yemen is now largely between the Houthis, Islah and the STC. But elder Adeni residents recall Islah’s rule over the city in the 1990s as one of the most troublesome eras of its history. For the STC, the struggle against Islah’s influence in the South makes it one of the most steadfast advocates of the Saudi and Emirati-led anti-Brotherhood campaign. Islah lost any remnants of support in the South when it organized a pro-unity counter-rally against a mass demonstration for southern independence leading to clashes among demonstrators that claimed several lives.

Whether the STC has evidence of Ali Muhsin’s role in masterminding the August attacks remains unclear, but his military advance was supported by terrorist attacks attributed to al-Qaeda and IS. The STC used the slogan, “against the terrorist elements of the legitimate government,” to rid the South of forces that manipulate Islamic rhetoric in politics that have been so detrimental in their history.

Avoiding a 1967 Redux

For the half-million protesters who flocked from across the South to the August victory rally in Aden, the taking of the symbolic capital of the independence movement was a major step on the road to re-establishing a sovereign southern state. But while the rally demonstrated the popularity of the STC, not all southerners view the group positively. Some are concerned about its close alliance with the Emiratis, while others are appalled by the violent practices of the Security Belt Forces. These practices include arbitrary arrests, torture of opponents, secret detention centers and threats toward anyone who criticizes its actions. Human rights activists, as well as many whose families have been targeted, have raised grave concerns. If such violent and illegal practices continue, the STC may begin to lose support.

The STC has surpassed the Hirak in popularity, but southerners are more committed to regaining their rights than they are to any single group. Older southerners recall events in the 1960s and the years of fighting to end British colonialism. Following Britain’s withdrawal in 1967, two separate anti-colonial groups—the National Liberation Front and the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen—turned their guns on each other rather than share power. In Yemeni historical terms, the STC political coalition—representing rural peasants and sultans to urban entrepreneurs and socialists—reflects a far greater compromise than any yet seen in the South’s history. Still, the divisions on the ground mark possible hostilities between people whose long-term aim is the same.

The Riyadh Agreement declared the STC the legitimate ruler of the entire South, which shocked other southern political forces invited to Riyadh to participate in the signing ceremonies. The STC also agreed to join Hadi’s government—the very regime it long criticized as corrupt. Anticipating negative reactions from separatists more eager for independence, the STC argued that official recognition ensured that the southern cause would be on international and regional agendas. But as Saudi troops entered Aden for the first time in the city’s history, many residents viewed both their advance and the agreement negatively. But the STC is now a party in the UN-led peace process alongside the Houthis and the Hadi government, and that seat gives southern aspirations long-sought international recognition.

The reality is that the Houthis have consolidated their rule in large areas of the northern highlands, and Hadi’s forces—with Saudi and US military support—have been unable to evict them by force after more than four years of trying. It is time to take a fresh look on the ground and develop a new framework for a sustainable and legitimate peace in Yemen. As for southern independence, the time may not be right given the political work that remains to be done. But the Riyadh Agreement gives the southern cause the voice it deserves on both the regional and international platforms.



[1] Anne-Linda Amira Augustin and Susanne Dahlgren, “The Multiple Wars in Yemen,” Middle East Report Online, June 18, 2015.

[2] Christoph Reuter, “In a Devastated Country, One City Is Thriving,” Speigel Online, November 15, 2017.

How to cite this article:

Susanne Dahlgren "The Battle for South Yemen," Middle East Report 292/3 (Fall/Winter 2019).

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