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Southern Resistance Forces (SRF) Southern Transitional Council (STC)

Yemen's southern separatists announced plans 26 April 2020 to establish a self-ruled administration in regions under their controlin a move the country's internationally-backed government said would have "catastrophic consequences". The Southern Transitional Council (STC) declared a state of emergency and said it would "self-govern" the key southern port city of Aden and other southern provinces. The council accused Yemen's Saudi-backed government of corruption and mismanagement. The STC is supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). "The Southern Transitional Council announces a self-administration rule in the south, as of midnight Saturday, April 25th 2020," the council's statement read.

Alkhader Sulaiman, a spokesman for the STC based in the United States, told Al Jazeera the separatist group was forced to take matters into its hands because of the government's failure to provide basic services. "This is not an event that just sprung out of nowhere. This is a pile-up of mismanagement, misgovernance, especially in south Yemen, which has been Houthi-less for four years now. Unfortunately, things have deteriorated humanitarian wise. The situation, in terms of basic services, is minimal," he said. "In the past few days, there has been a complete shutdown of electricity, water and sewage services." He went on to accuse Hadi's government of failing to deliver on the Riyadh agreement and said: "We are still calling for a ceasefire, de-escalation on all fronts. We want things to go smoothly and we want to be able to deliver aid, battle this pandemic across the country and we want to be able to contain the situation."

The division between the two supposed allies is another facet of the country's complicated civil war. On one side are the separatists and on the other are forces loyal to exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Both have fought together in the Saudi-led coalition's war against Yemen's Houthi rebels. The coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 to restore power to Hadi's government after it was removed from the capital Sanaa by the Houthis the previous year. But the separatists, who sought self-rule in the south, turned on the government in August 2019 and seized the interim capital of Aden. The fighting stopped when the two groups reached a deal in November 2019.

The Southern Transitional Council (STC) was formed in 2017 by Aidarous al-Zubaidi, a 51-year-old militia leader. The UAE, a major patron of the STC, has invested millions of dollars in the group and pro-autonomy Salafis in a bid to secure its interests in the region. With a sizeable budget, the STC has been able to rally a number of tribes to its cause and develop a large following in the coastal cities of Aden and Mukalla, as well as the provinces of Dhale and Lahij.

Despite hailing from the south himself, Hadi's support has been restricted to the provinces of Abyan and Shabwa following bloody events that rocked the south in January 1986. Shallal Shayae, Aden's security chief and a senior commander of the SRF, has had a long and personal grudge against the president after his father was assassinated by forces close to Hadi. Hadi was aligned with then President Ali Nasser Mohamed, whose bodyguards carried out the killing. Most of Hadi's power comes from Saudi Arabia, where he has been based since 2016. The Saudis formed an Arab coalition and launched attacks against Houthi rebel forces in 2015 and Riyadh supports Hadi's forces with military assistance and financial largesse.

The UAE is believed to be sponsoring southern Yemen's secession to advance its interests in the region. The Gulf emirate entered Yemen's war in March 2015 as part of the Saudi-led military coalition after Houthi rebels - traditionally based in the northwest of the country - seized Sanaa, the capital, and claimed they were the legitimate government. The UAE considers Hadi and his circle as corrupt and incompetent and was angered by Hadi’s alliance with the Emirates’ nemesis, the Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Yemen, known as the Islah Party.

Despite having a relatively small army, the UAE sent a significant number of ground forces to Yemen. In contrast, Saudi Arabia was cautious to deploy troops; the Saudi National Guard and Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF) play minimal roles in the conflict. The UAE's interest relates to the security of the Bab el-Mandab strait, one of the world's busiest oil and gas shipping lanes. Protecting the flow of oil and gas shipments in the Red Sea and Egypt's Suez Canal is vital for UAE's ability to trade with Europe and North America.

Since the outbreak of the current war, it was obvious that the UAE has focused much more on southern Yemen than the northern areas. The UAE's military and economic interests lie in the strategic location of Aden and its port near the Bab al-Mandab Strait.

The UAE viewed Yemen as a three-way struggle between secular forces, Sunni militants and Iran-backed Houthi rebels. This perception differed markedly from Saudi Arabia’s perspective of the Yemen war as a geopolitical struggle between the GCC and Iran. The UAE provided military support for former President Ali Abdullah Saleh before his death in December 2017, because Abu Dhabi viewed Saleh’s history of pragmatically balancing Yemen’s numerous factions as a precedent for Yemen’s eventual political reconstruction. Since Saleh’s death, the UAE attempted to unite Yemen around a secular nationalist coalition led by the country’s internationally recognized President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.

The UAE used military forces to carve out enclaves in Yemen. The UAE’s ties to south Yemeni nationalist movements and rapidly strengthening presence in Yemen’s oil-rich Hadhramaut region gave it an independent power projection base in Yemen. Emirati ground forces are able to provide direct logistical support for secular nationalist forces in Yemen and conduct targeted strikes against al-Islah and Houthi militants.

The weakening of Hadi's government has gone hand-in-hand with the UAE's growing power. According to Maysa Shuja al-Deen, a non-resident fellow at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, the Emiratis seem disillusioned with Saudi Arabia's plan for the country. "The Saudis believe any talk of secession will de-legitimise the war effort, which they have repeatedly claimed is about restoring the government of President Hadi. Meanwhile, the Emiratis don't want to see any party close to Hadi and Islah anywhere near power. "The coalition is divided and no longer knows what they want," she said.

Separatists had long campaigned for the secession of southern Yemen, which was an independent country before 1990. Less than four years after merging with the north, the south tried to split away in 1994 citing economic and political marginalisation, but it was crushed after a short-lived but bloody civil war. Since 2007, southern groups have been rallying for greater autonomy, and those calls intensified after the 2011 Arab spring uprising and the outbreak of the 2015 Yemeni civil war.

In April 2017, forces loyal to President Hadi clashed with armed men supporting UAE-backed Aden Governor Aidarous al-Zubaidi at the city airport. Hadi responded to the incident by sacking the governor. In May 2017, al-Zubaidi announced the establishment of the STC which he claimed would represent "the will of the people of the South". The fact that both Hadi and bin Dagher are southerners and Aden has been the seat of their government (Sanaa still being under Houthi control) has not been enough to curb al-Zubaidi's secessionist ambitions. Al-Zubaidi is backed by the STC's de-facto military wing known as the "Security Belt", which the UAE supplies with military equipment and financial resources.

In January 2018 Yemen's southern coastal city of Aden was gripped by fighting after armed separatist forces - backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - moved against the internationally recognised government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, backed by Saudi Arabia. Fighters from the Southern Resistance Forces (SRF), the armed wing of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) - a political movement demanding secession for southern Yemen - clashed with the Yemeni army. Both sides in this conflict have been fighting alongside the Saudi-led coalition against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels for the past few years now.

The STC precipitated the crisis by handing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi's government an ultimatum last week to either dismiss Prime Minister Ahmed bin Dhagr and his cabinet or face an overthrow. The group accused Hadi's government of "rampant corruption" resulting in a "deteriorating economic, security and social situation never before witnessed in the history of the south". Hadi's prime minister, Ahmed bin Dagher, accused the STC of staging a "coup". In the past few months, tensions had been growing between the Yemeni government, based in Aden, and the STC, as the latter became more vocal about its secessionist ambitions.

Yemen's southern separatists pledged 29 July 2020 to abandon their aspirations for self-rule and implement a Saudi-brokered power-sharing agreement with the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The Southern Transitional Council's (STC) announcement marked a big step towards closing a major front in Yemen's chaotic war, and came hours after Saudi Arabia presented a plan to "accelerate" the stalled peace deal's implementation. Signed in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in November 2019, the agreement set the stage for the end of a long-running rivalry between the Saudi-supported Hadi government and the UAE-backed southern separatists. Both sides are supposed allies in the Saudi-led military coalition's war against Yemen's Houthi rebels, who control the country's capital, Sanaa. The Riyadh agreement stipulated the formation of a new unity government within 30 days and the appointment of a new governor and security director for Aden, an STC stronghold and the interim seat of Hadi's government.

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Page last modified: 05-08-2020 18:41:55 ZULU