Russia’s next role in South Yemen.. Dimensions of STC's visit to Moscow

Reports

Sat, 06-02-2021 02:01 Evening, Aden

Ayad Qassem (South24)

A Moscow-based American political analyst said that the international role of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) is "growing," and that “there aren't any of the international or domestic obstacles to the STC playing a role in the final UN-supervised peace process,” considering the southern delegation’s visit to Moscow "is important for both parties."

South24 center interviewed Andrew Korybko, an American political analyst and journalist based in Moscow, to discuss the dimensions of the visit of the Southern Transitional Council delegation headed by Major General Aidaroos Al-Zubaidi to Moscow last Sunday, which concluded on Thursday 4 January 2021, according to the statement of the council’s official spokesman.

Korybko is a member of the expert council for the Institute of Strategic Studies and Predictions at the People’s Friendship University of Russia. He specializes in Russian affairs and geopolitics. He recently wrote several contributions and analyzes discussing Russia's role in the Middle East, the Red Sea region, and the crisis in Yemen.

"Russia seems eager to revive Southern-Russian relations, but the exact form will depend on the ultimate outcome of the peace process," said Korybko to south24.

The American analyst considered that increasing the international role of the STC "could help promote the organization's goal of achieving autonomy as part of that solution with an eventual view towards using that as a steppingstone towards reviving its independence in the long run."

Korybko did not rule out Russia's ambition to expand its influence in international waters in the Arab Sea, and the possibility of establishing a military base for it in the Gulf of Aden or the coasts of South Yemen.

That "could be partially motivating Moscow's embrace of the STC," Korybko told south24.
Korybko ruled out that "Russia to unilaterally support South Yemeni independence if doing so would harm its relations with Saudi Arabia or especially the UAE in the event that one or both of them also didn't agree with that political goal."

The American expert believes that Moscow's growing diplomatic role in Yemen through the STC will help achieve the "balancing", "one of the contemporary grand strategic objectives of Russia" in the Middle east.

"Russia might try to broker an agreement whereby Yemen is ultimately federalized mostly along the North-South axis according to its historical regional division," said Korybko.


Andrew Korybko had written an article entitled "Welcome Back to the Map, South Yemen," after the STC took control of Aden in January 2018. (Image: Twitter)

1. There are three files that the delegation of the STC carried to Moscow, according to statements by council officials: the need for the council’s participation - as a representative of the people in the south - in the final peace negotiations in Yemen under the auspices of the United Nations; calling on Russia to strengthen its presence in the Yemeni crisis, and to revive the Southern-Russian relations (historical legacy); and convincing the Russian official position to support the cause of independence of South Yemen (the state - an ally of Moscow at the time - that existed until 1990). How do you particularly read the (expected) Russian position on these three files?

Korybko: The first two files have the greatest chance of success, while the third is a distant and indistinct possibility. Russia's diplomatic position tends to support the involvement of all legitimate stakeholders in resolving a country's crisis. This is evidenced by its approach to the Syrian conflict, where Moscow organized the Astana peace process which saw the participation of government forces alongside a wide array of anti-government ones. Some Kurdish groups did not participate because of Turkey's objections, but Russia insists that they should still play a role. This approach is applicable to the Yemeni conflict, particularly with respect to the STC, because it is already officially acknowledged as a legitimate stakeholder in the country by the internationally recognized Hadi government. The most important on-the-ground participants in the war, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, also recognize the STC's role, so there aren't any of the same international or domestic obstacles to the STC playing a role in the final UN-supervised peace process like there are with the Syrian Kurds for example. For this reason, Russia is expected to support the STC in that respect.

As for the second file, Russia seems eager to revive Southern-Russian relations, but the exact form will depend on the ultimate outcome of the peace process. As it stands, South Yemen isn't officially recognized as an autonomous entity within Yemen's internationally recognized borders with the automatic right to conduct legally binding agreements with UN member states. Some of them such as the UAE have such agreements on a bilateral basis, but Russia might be hesitant to conclude some of similar significance for fear of going against the Syrian Kurdish precedent that it previously condemned insofar as being against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces signing similar agreements with the American government. Nevertheless, pragmatic cooperation is still possible, but it would be ideal from Russia's perspective keeping in mind its regional sensitivities towards the issue in not wanting to appear hypocritical towards the Syrian file, if South Yemen was eventually recognized as an autonomous region within Yemen's internationally recognized borders just like Iraqi Kurdistan is within Iraq (which Moscow has very close ties with nowadays) before Russia formalized serious agreements with the STC on the level of those that the organization already has with the UAE

On the final topic of Russia supporting South Yemen's revived independence, nothing serious should be expected. Moscow's ties with the STC are officially independent of those that it has with any other political actor, but in reality, they're overshadowed by the Kremlin's improved relations with the GCC. For that reason, Russia isn't expected to unilaterally support South Yemeni independence if doing so would harm its relations with Saudi Arabia or especially the UAE in the event that one or both of them also didn't agree with that political goal. Rather, it should be expected that Russia will more closely side with whatever the official GCC position is towards this issue since that bloc is the most powerful foreign force operating in Yemen right now. Should there be a dispute between Saudi Arabia and the UAE over South Yemen's independence, then Russia would probably make some ambiguous statements in order to enable it to flexibly adapt to whichever the winning side may be but won't say or do anything to put pressure on either. There might be Soviet-era nostalgia for future relations between Russia and a revived South Yemen, but Moscow nowadays doesn't have the means to support the country like before and would probably not be Aden's primary partner in that scenario anyhow.

2. From your view, what did this visit mean for both sides?

Korybko: The visit is important for both parties. The STC is able to show its GCC allies and fellow Yemenis that its international role is growing as Moscow recognizes its importance to the UN-supervised peace process. This could help promote the organization's goal of achieving autonomy as part of that solution with an eventual view towards using that as a steppingstone towards reviving its independence in the long run. From the Russian perspective, the Kremlin showed the world that its diplomatic influence is spreading throughout the Mideast and that subnational parties such as the STC see it as an important player whose political support is much desired, especially because of its standing in the UNSC. More broadly speaking, Russia is signaling to Iran that it's establishing a rising political role in yet another country where Tehran regards itself as also having influence, which is part of the informal competition between the two throughout the region that persists in spite of their partial anti-terrorist coordination against ISIS in Syria. Over time, this might become another lever of influence that Russia could wield in pursuit of pressuring Iran to compromise on its military presence in Syria as part of a grander regional deal for resolving that long-running conflict.

3. Russia's role has recently evolved in the Middle East and the Red Sea region, for example, its extensive presence in Syria, as well as the establishment of the naval base off the coast of Sudan. You also published a report in November 2020, talking about the “Ummah Pivot”, in which you mentioned that Russia is now heading "southward". Do you think that Russia might aspire to expand its military influence in the region by working to establish a military base in the Gulf of Aden and the coasts of South Yemen?

Korybko: Yes, that is indeed possible and could be partially motivating Moscow's embrace of the STC. Russia cannot subsidize South Yemen (whether as a movement, autonomous state, or revived independent one) like it did during the Soviet era, but it can still provide some low-level economic support but also high-level military cooperation. It's this latter dimension which would be to the greatest interests of both parties. Russia is presently pursuing a very sensitive “balancing” act in Muslim-majority countries aimed at making itself an indispensable actor in the so-called “Greater Middle East” with the intent of replacing America's role there, but in a more positive, less violent, and stabilizing way.

The STC also has an interest in diversifying its security relationships in order to avoid an overreliance on any one partner, which is the UAE in this context. It is natural for any movement, autonomous state, or revived independent one to do this so nothing negative is being implied about the STC's strategic relations with the UAE. Be that as it may, the STC doesn't want to take any moves that could be perceived in an “unfriendly” way by its top international partner, hence the wisdom in seeking to “balance” relations with a UAE-friendly force such as Russia. It should be noted that Russian-Emirati ties have greatly strengthened over the past few years, so Moscow is the most natural “balancing” partner for the STC.


From a broader perspective, Russia is currently seeking to expand its influence in Africa and is aiming to do this by re-entering the continent through the Red Sea region. It already agreed to establish a naval base in Sudan, whose government it's traditionally supported through various ways both in the past and presently and is very militarily active in supporting the internationally recognized authorities in the neighboring Central African Republic. As the Red Sea-Gulf of Aden region becomes more important for international trade between Western and Eastern Eurasia, it is also becoming equally important for Eurasian-African trade too. A military presence in South Yemen would help solidify Russia's role as a serious player in this interconnected space.

In practical terms, it would not be used for any serious power projection capabilities, just like its planned one in Sudan won't either, but it will carry a very symbolic role which could easily elevate Russia's prestige as a Great Power. This is very important for the Kremlin, especially since many of those influencing its foreign policy are nostalgic about reviving Moscow's Soviet-era global glory. It might also facilitate a rapid response to regional crises in the future, whether to evacuate Russian and/or allied citizens or even intervene on a limited military basis at the invitation of internationally recognized authorities. The latter scenario could in turn be leveraged as it has been in Syria and the Central African Republic to obtain profitable economic contracts there in exchange.

4. According to many experts, Yemen has become a complex arena for the struggle of major international powers. In Yemen, Russia has good relations with the parties to the crisis, as well as with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. What crucial role could Moscow play in this context?

Korybko: One of the contemporary grand strategic objectives of Russia's Mideast “balancing” act is to position itself as the only player capable of credibly mediating between Iran and the GCC. Moscow's growing diplomatic role in Yemen through the STC helps advance that goal. Ideally, and it might sound a bit far-fetched at the moment but nevertheless should not be dismissed, Russia might try to broker an agreement whereby Yemen is ultimately federalized mostly along the North-South axis according to its historical regional division. There could be other federal divisions within each constituent half, but those two would be the most important.

That outcome would represent an equal compromise between all warring parties and essentially freeze the state of military-political affairs there. The North would continued to be ruled by the Ansarullah while the STC would be the most important political actor in the South. The internationally recognized Hadi government might remain symbolically in charge but would continue to have little power in reality, especially over the north, with its only real influence being through a continued partnership with the STC in the South. Each main part of the country would have broad autonomy, but some issues of national significance would be under federal writ.

For instance, these could include the domains of national defense, border security, and foreign policy, though each autonomous unit could in theory have very broad powers to ensure security within their own unit and conduct diplomatic relations with foreign parties. These, of course, are just suggestions, but represent what might be the ideal solution for Russia, especially if it helped broker such an agreement. It would be able to at least theoretically maintain “balance” between all foreign and internal parties to the Yemeni conflict, thus enabling it to benefit from its closer relations with each one as a result.

At the very least, this could be a starting point for more comprehensive negotiations on exploring the viability of these suggestions. Each party could then decide how comfortable they feel with each aspect of this plan, after which compromises could be made or some suggestions scrapped if a relevant side isn't willing to budge on certain issues. Russia's role throughout all of this process could be to mediate between the parties, suggest other proposals as a neutral observer, and provide support when needed to move everything to its next stage.

5. How do you read the conflict in South Yemen and in Yemen in general?

Korybko: The conflict has been a disaster for everyone and is a real tragedy. There are many multilayered disputes that were worsened through the intervention of foreign parties regardless of their intent in getting involved. The only lasting solution will be one which recognizes each domestic participant's core interests, compromises when necessary, but has credible mechanisms to enforce violations whenever they occur. The least costly outcome would be to freeze the existing state of political-military affairs in order to prioritize the shipment of aid to all Yemenis and focus on the entire country's reconstruction.

That said, it's understandable why some of the participants (both domestic and international) would prefer to continue the war in order to advance their respective objectives, but doing so at this point in the midst of the current stalemate might only prolong the country's collective suffering. It's for this reason why it would be best to immediately concentrate on a realistic political solution which takes everyone's interests into account as realistically as possible, especially the STC's.


Switzerland-based journalist and researcher, head of the South24 Center for News and Studies.

- This article was previously translated into Arabic (
here)

Southern Transitional Council South Yemen Russia Yemen