Following a series of victories on the ground for forces loyal to ousted president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, Houthi forces and their allies have withdrawn from much of the south of Yemen, with Shabwah being the latest province to change hands. The military unification of the south of the country has led many to ask what a future Yemen will look like.
Forces loyal to Hadi have been backed by a coalition of Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia that have conducted air strikes against the Shi’ite Houthis.
This has led to a change in fortunes for the Iranian-sponsored group which swept to power across much of the country in September of last year. The fall of the key port city of Aden to Hadi loyalists a month ago signaled a weakening of the Houthis’ grip over the south.
Now, with the opposing sides in the civil war entrenched in different parts of the country, murmurings regarding a permanent division of Yemen are once again circulating.
Commentators see two possible options, a division of the country leading to the creation of the world’s newest state, or a federal system with north and south being run autonomously from each other.
Previously, Yemen was divided into two states, roughly along lines similar to the current division, and was unified in 1990 – a move that has proven contentious ever since.
“The new Yemen is going to be a federal state. So far, the number of regions has not been agreed upon. However, there is a unanimous agreement on the federal view,” Nadia al-Sakkaf, minister of information, told The Media Line.
“There are political tendencies to make Aden the capital of Yemen, for probably the next five years, [housing] the central bank... the cabinet and the entire political leadership.... This just might enable us to avoid the horror of separation,” Sakkaf said.
Establishing Aden as the country’s capital would have a large impact on the direction of the state and would undermine the Houthi power base in the current capital, Sanaa.
Sakkaf acknowledged that Hadi loyalist forces had stopped their advance on the edge of southern Yemen and had not pushed into the north of the country – a sign to some that a separation of the country is likely.
It was necessary for Hadi’s forces to remain in the south of the country in order to maintain security, Sakkaf said.
If these units were to press northward, other enemy elements would infiltrate into the security vacuum that was left behind in the south, she explained.
“Eventually, changes on the ground are what determines the course of action – something could come up and change all the political planning and solutions, and the final decision will be made by the south and the north. Politicians [can] only come up President Hadi has come out in favor of the continued unification of Yemen in a number of speeches and has taken several actions to demonstrate his stance, chiefly the formation of an advisory body aimed at countering the current political momentum toward division.
His decision to merge all elements of the Southern Resistance into the national army of Yemen, mixing elements from the north and the south into one structure, was also seen as a sign that the official government of Yemen intended to keep the country undivided.
Indications that the Sunni coalition supports the government’s desire for unity have come from Ahmed Assiri, the spokesman for Operation Decisive Storm.
Coalition troops on the ground in the south of Yemen are being viewed by the Houthis as an indication that the Saudi-led operation is supportive of Yemeni unity, a Houthi source who wished to remain anonymous told The Media Line. The source added that the Houthis’ withdrawal from the south of Yemen was agreed upon under a number of conditions, including that coalition troops ensure that the country not be divided.
However, despite such plans, what actually happens on the ground could be quite different.
The Southern Movement, which makes up an important part of President Hadi’s anti- Houthi alliance, has historically been in favor of the division of the country. The group’s rhetoric from its beginnings as a movement in 2007 has called for division from the north.
A number of southern politicians have added their voices to calls for separation, despite efforts by the president to persuade them otherwise.
“The Southern Resistance... [is] demanding separation from the north, which has brought about nothing but wars and destruction,” Abdulrahman al-Radfani, a leading figure in the Southern Resistance, told The Media Line.
“The Houthis are from the north, they have fought us and destroyed our hometowns, but we simply want to live in peace.” The Southern Resistance has fought against the Shi’ite group, not for unity, but to bring about a separate peaceful state, Radfani said.
The Southern Resistance would await the actions of the president, but ultimately will act toward separation, with or without Hadi, Radfani said.
In regions of Yemen were Houthi fighters have been pushed out, the flag of pre-1990 South Yemen – rather than of the modern united Republic of Yemen – was raised. Even government buildings are bearing the southern flag.
“We did not fly any of the unity flags – we fought for separation, and our flag is that of the Southern People’s Republic of Yemen and not that of the Republic of Yemen,” Majed al-Shuaibi, a media professional and an active member in the Southern Resistance, told The Media Line.
Some Southern Resistance fighters have taken efforts to establish de facto borders separating their provinces from areas to the north.
Checkpoints were set up to demonstrate the unquestionable will of Southern Resistance members to separate from the north, Shuaibi, who was present at the newly drawn perimeter, said.
Possibly the most significant indication that the country could divide is plans being overseen by Prime Minister Khalid Bahah, among others, to mediate a schism, if it were to happen, a source close to the president who asked not to be named told The Media Line.
Such a plan would be executed only under condition that the north of the country remains under the control of the Houthis in 12 months’ time, the source said. Then Bahah would petition the international community to recognize a division of the country.
Short of this happening, the government will push for a federalized system to replace the current deadlock, the source said, adding that therefore “the faster the northern provinces are liberated, the better it will be, [because] liberating the north will leave no reason for separation.”