MS Risk Blog

Yemen’s second front: examining the division between Yemen’s government and separatists in the south of Yemen.

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On the 19th of June clashes erupted between Yemen’s internationally recognised government, backed by Saudi Arabia, and the Southern Transitional Council, separatists in Yemen’s south backed by the United Arab Emirates, in the Island of Socotra for a second time this year as both sides battled for control over Hadibu, the islands provincial capital. The fighting occurred after the STC’s forces dispatched large military reinforcements to Hadibu in an attempt to wrest control of the Island from the government. According to reports the STC took control of the Socotra security directorate in the western area of the provincial capital. Figures regarding casualties have not been reported. The last clash between the STC and Yemeni government in the Island of Socotra took place on the 1st of May as an armed unit loyal to the STC fought for control of Hadibu. On the 14th of June, the STC seized a convoy carrying 64 billion Yemeni riyals or hundreds of millions of dollars. The large sum of money came from Russia, where the bank notes were printed, and was on its way to the central bank of the Yemeni government in Aden, the government’s interim capital. The STC commandeered the vehicle as it was leaving the port of Aden. Fighting also took place on the 11th may in the southern Abyan province and lasted for roughly a week as government troops launched an offensive to expel the STC from southern provinces. More than a dozen people were reportedly killed in the fighting. The division between the two sides is considered another front in Yemen’s multifaceted war. Both sides are members of the Saudi led coalition fighting the Iran-Backed Houthis rebels to the north of the country making them nominal allies. However, since 2017 their division has created tensions causing fighting between the two sides as each party seeks to dominate southern Yemeni provinces hindering coalition efforts to defeat the Houthis rebels.


The Southern Transitional Council (STC) is a successionist organization in Yemen’s south backed by the United Arab Emirates. It was formed by a faction within the Southern Movement which works towards the succession of the south from the rest of Yemen. The twenty-six-member council include governors of several provinces in the south of the country in addition to two government ministers. The STC was formed as a response to a presidential decree in 2017 given by the president of the internationally recognised government of Yemen Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi dismissing Aidarus al-Zoubaidi from his post as governor of Aden due to his close ties with the UAE. With the backing of the UAE, the STC was formed and al-Zoubaidi became its president. On the 28th of January 2018 forces loyal to the STC seized control of several government headquarters in Aden in a coup against the government announcing that the STC was starting the process of overthrowing Hadi’s rule in the south. At least ten people were killed and thirty wounded in the fighting. In August 2019, accusing the government of mismanagement and corruption, the STC took full control of Aden and Abyan provinces. On the 22nd of August the southern separatists clashed with government forces in the southern, oil-producing, province of Shabwa. By the 27th of August 2019 tensions continued to escalate in southern Yemen after the UAE backed Security Belt Forces (SBF) lost territories to Hadi’s forces. Government troops advanced on Aden but took positions outside of the city instead of engaging in street fighting to avoid civilian casualties. On the 29th of august 2019 the UAE carried out airstrikes targeting those Yemeni government positions to halt the advance of government forces. The UAE, a coalition member in the fight against the Iran backed Houthis, fell out with the Hadi government accusing Hadi of being aligned with the Islah party, a powerful party considered to be ideologically close to the Muslim Brotherhood.


In September 2019, Saudi Arabia brokered an agreement between the government and the STC in Riyadh which was signed on the 5th of November 2019. As per the agreement, the STC’s forces in Abyan, Shabwa and Aden were to return to their original positions prior to their advances into these provinces. Their places would be taken up by local security forces within 15 days. Military and security forces in Aden would be redeployed outside of the city of Aden. Most importantly, the STC’s forces in the south were to be unified and placed under the defence ministry’s control before being redeployed to fight Houthi rebels. The president would then appoint a prime minister who would form a cabinet that included  STC members. Essentially, this agreement was supposed to place the STC’s forces under the government’s control. But by late 2019, it was clear that the agreement was not being implemented on the ground. On January 1st 2020 Yemen’s southern separatists pulled out of the committees meant to implement the Riyadh agreement. According to a member of the STC’s presidential council Salim al Awlaqi, in an announcement on Twitter, that the withdrawal from the committees was in response to the violence in Shabwa province which the STC blamed on the Islah party whose forces are, according to Reuters, the backbone of the internationally recognised government’s forces. On the 26th of April 2020 the STC announced that a self-rule administration in regions under their control would be established. The group, in a statement, declared a state of emergency and said it would “self-govern” the key port city of Aden as well as other southern provinces accusing the Yemeni government once again of corruption and mismanagement. The government claimed that the move would have catastrophic consequences and that it amounted to a withdrawal from the 2019 Riyadh agreement. On the 18th of June 2020 Saudi Arabia proposed a framework to end the latest standoff between the nominal allies in the war against the Houthi rebels as violence surged between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis who currently control Yemen’s official capital Sanaa. The proposal is similar to the 2019 RIaydh agreement in that it calls for a ceasefire, particularly in Abyan province, and for a unity government to be formed by a prime minister appointed by Hadi which includes STC members. Saudi efforts yielded fruit. By the 22nd of June 2020 the Yemeni government and the STC agreed to a ceasefire and to begin talks to implement not the new Saudi framework but the 2019 Riyadh agreement.


The security implications resulting from fighting between the Yemeni government and the STC are significant particularly with regard to the Saudi-led efforts to defeat the Houthis in Yemen. Houthi cross border attacks via drones and missiles launched toward Saudi Arabia have only increased since the division between the government and the separatists started and are becoming more advanced. On the 23rd of June 2020 Houthis rebels claimed to have carried out their largest military operation ever against Saudi Arabia targeting the Saudi defence ministry and a military base in Riyadh. Houthi claims are corroborated by reports that the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen shot down a large number of missiles and booby-trapped drones fired from Houthi-held Sanaa. Furthermore, despite the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts, the Houthi group have only increased their territory since the start of 2020. On the 1st of March, already in control of Sanaa, Houthi rebels seized the city of Hazm, capital of the Jawf province after weeks of intense fighting in a major blow to the coalition. The fall of Hazm means that the group is drawing nearer to the central province of Marib approaching the south where the Saudi backed government and the UAE backed STC have been fighting for dominance. Houthis then captured strategic areas within Marib including SIrwah and Tabab al-Bara allowing a tighter control over the strategic Tala Hamra hills. Prior to this, on January 28th 2020, the rebels seized a key supply line linking Marib with Jawf located along the border with Saudi Arabia. Infighting within the coalition has only helped such strategic gains by the Houthis. Furthermore, the division between the Yemeni government and the STC have highlighted strategic differences and clashing interests between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Abu Dhabi withdrew the bulk of its forces from the conflict in Yemen in late 2019 after it ensured its local allies including the STC, are practically in control of most of the south allowing Abu Dhabi access to the area’s naval facilities essential for its strategic  plans to control bases from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Saudi Arabia is not only concerned about the withdrawal of a key partner in the conflict but also has to deal with the southern threat to the Yemeni government the UAE leaves behind and continues to support creating tensions between the two Gulf states which are not only allies in Yemen but on various fronts to contain Iranian influence in the Gulf and the wider Middle East. Yemen’s second front prolongs the continuing five-year multifaceted war in Yemen. The country has been embroiled in civil war since the capture of Sanaa by the Houthis in 2014. Over 100,000 people have been killed in the war and millions suffer from medical and food shortages creating the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.