Yemen’s next civil war, if there is one, will be a rerun 20+ years in the making

At, Thanos Petouris writes about one of the aspects of Yemen’s current civil war that has gone underreported, the issue of southern separatism:

A case in point is the Southern Movement (al-Hirak al-Janubi), which purports to represent the southern provinces of Yemen that were part of the former socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY, 1967–1990). The PDRY merged with the northern Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in 1990 to form the Republic of Yemen.

Al-Hirak’s involvement in the current conflict is fueled by a combination of historical grievances given new salience as a result of the civil war. Instead of appreciating this, however, news coverage on al-Hirak tends to depict it as merely a local protest movement. Since the Saudi-led intervention began, most reporting on southern Yemen has failed to comprehend the deep frustration and alienation in the South and the historical and political factors that created them.

Regular readers will note that the first time I ventured to write about Yemen, I wrote this:

Here’s the thing about The Republic of Yemen, wherein all this drama is currently taking place: it shouldn’t exist. Yemen was the first part of the Arabian peninsula to really develop civilization, thanks to its geographic importance at the entrance to the Red Sea and its close proximity to Ethiopia, but it’s also been incredibly resistant to unification. Even in the periods when Yemen has been controlled by larger empires, usually centered in Egypt, those larger empires have never had great control of anything apart from a few key cities. The geography of the area, with port cities and oases surrounded by vast stretches of mountains and/or desert, has never lent itself to unification.

The “Federation of South Arabia” and the “Protectorate of South Arabia” were essentially colonial administrative units for the Brits, not united political entities. But very quickly in the 1960s, a lot of things started to compress. The Yemen Arab Republic shoved coastal Sunnis into a polity with highland Zaydis and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen mashed together a whole bunch of disparate city-states. The two new countries naturally started fighting each other, because the PDRY went Communist and, you know, Better Dead Than Red or whatever, but a scant two decades later (in 1990) they not only reached a peace deal but decided to unify, with the Yemen Arab Republic taking the dominant position in the new combined government and its president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, becoming president of the new nation. Two countries that probably never should have existed combined to form one big country that had even less historical reason to exist than its two components. That the North and South fought a civil war only four years after unification was probably a sign that things weren’t going so well, but the North won and managed to sweep southern separatism back under the rug.

That separatist streak hasn’t gone anywhere, and by that I mean that it still exists and that it’s still under that same rug. I might quibble with the harshness of Petouris’s criticism of Yemen coverage for focusing too much on the Houthi-Saleh v. Saudi-Hadi dynamic (I mean, those are the sides currently fighting each other), but he’s not wrong that people, me included, should be paying more attention to these underlying dynamics. You should read his piece for a full accounting of the North-South Yemen dynamic going back to Yemen’s unification in 1990 and the civil war that broke out a scant four years later.

For now, the Southern Movement is more or less in Hadi’s camp. Hadi is from South Yemen (Aden, to be exact), but he doesn’t have a strong claim on South Yemeni loyalty–during the 1994 civil war he served as Saleh’s defense minister, after having fled factional strife in South Yemen (officially the PDRY) a few years earlier, and he didn’t do much to improve conditions in the south when he became president in 2012. But if the supporters of the Movement don’t want to be ruled from Sanaa, they certainly don’t want to be ruled by Houthis from Sanaa–or by Saleh again, since South Yemen really suffered under his rule after it lost its secession bid. Plus, the Houthis-Saleh didn’t do themselves any favors by sacking Aden and other parts of South Yemen when they captured them. So Hadi is the devil Southerners know, or the enemy of their enemy, or whatever.

The Federation of South Arabia, one of the two loose collections of principalities that were mashed together to form South Yemen (Wikimedia)

But many southerners were agitating for independence before the war began and they’ll still be agitating for independence whenever it finally ends, and that means the potential for another civil war to follow quickly on the back of this one is unfortunately pretty high (tensions are already periodically visible). And as Petouris notes in his piece, even the successful achievement of southern independence wouldn’t be the end of it; South Yemen, or the PDRY if you prefer, was itself a mashing together of several formerly autonomous (and then loosely aligned under British suzerainty) localities. It’s not clear that the people of those other regions, to the east, would be willing to be governed from Aden any more than they’re willing to be governed from Sanaa–and some may even prefer Sanaa to Aden when all is said and done.

The regions of the Protectorate of South Arabia, the other mash-up of South Yemeni principalities (Wikimedia)


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