Options for the STC after the fall of Marib, North Yemen

Analytics

Wed, 24-02-2021 10:02:41 Evening, Aden Time

South24 (Ayad Qassem)

International diplomatic efforts are escalating, at the present time, led by Washington, with the aim of pushing for a political solution that may end the bloody conflict that has been going on in Yemen for six years, coinciding with the expansion of regional and international concerns about the consequences of the fall of the entire Marib Governorate, North Yemen, under the grip of the Iran-backed Houthi militias.

On the ground, various factions loyal to the legitimate government, including some Salafists and Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood organization from some areas under the control of the Yemeni government in South Yemen, are mobilizing to fight against the Houthis in Marib. (1) Even the joint forces on the western coast of Yemen, which do not formally follow the government, and are led by the son of the brother of the former Yemeni president, Tariq Saleh, sent a convoy of supplies to support fighters from the pro-government tribes there. (2)

With large air cover from the Saudi-led coalition warplanes, the battles that have been renewed for more than two weeks, intensify on more than one front in the north and west of the Marib Governorate. Hundreds of people were killed, according to sources in the Arab coalition and sources in Sanaa and Aden governments.

The International Crisis Group has warned of devastating consequences and widespread violence if the Houthis take control of the city. The group hinted that the Houthis might expand their fight to the Shabwa oil governorate in South, where the residents reject them. (3)

Before the outbreak of the recent fighting, the forces controlled by Yemeni Vice President Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar resorted to handing over a number of strategic military sites, including the entire "Nehm" front, in January of last year to the Houthis. The "National Army" said at the time that what had happened was a "tactical withdrawal." Large stores of weapons and modern Saudi military equipment fell into the hands of the Houthis.

Results of South's War

Instead, the military forces affiliated with the internationally recognized government of the Yemeni president, until the 11th of last December, were busy fighting the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and its military forces that were trained and supported by UAE.

A mixture of tribal fighters coming from North Yemen, jihadi members belonging to the Islamic "Islah" party, and local fighters loyal to the Yemeni president, participated in the fighting of the STC's forces in Abyan Governorate, east of Aden.

At the same time, Riyadh was holding secret talks with the Houthis, with the aim of reaching a ceasefire deal on its territory. (4)

In April 2020, the Saudi-led coalition declared a unilateral ceasefire, before government forces in Abyan and Shabwa governorates in South Yemen launched a massive battle for control of Aden in May 2020.

Saudi Arabia was leading, at this time, mediation between the two parties to implement the Riyadh Agreement signed in November 2019. Informed political sources indicated that the Saudi-led coalition agreed to continue fighting in the hope of resolving the battle in favor of Hadi's government, which did not happen. This prompted Saudi efforts to declare the Yemeni president a 50/50 government between the north and south on December 18th.

Both sides lost dozens of high-ranking military commanders and hundreds of fighters, in battles. Likewise, hundreds of modern military vehicles and huge heavy and medium weapons were destroyed in that war, which sought to eliminate the STC. At this time, the Houthis strengthened their positions on the fronts in North Yemen, and took control of most of Al-Jawf Governorate and large strategic areas in the Marib Governorate.

The STC’s Next Step?

With the likely Houthi control of Marib, the last stronghold of the internationally backed government in North, the geography of North Yemen will become, according to the international border division that existed between the countries of South and North until 1990, under the control of Houthis.

This would end the legitimacy of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, would eliminate the Riyadh Agreement signed between his government and the STC, and push for a new scenario that "strengthens the feelings of independence in South", according to the International Crisis Group.

"Already controlling the southern governorates of Lahj, al-Dhale and Aden, the STC aspires to expand its reach across the territories of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yeme". "Such sentiment would likely grow were the government to fall in Marib and seek to shore up its position in the south.," the group said in a report, on Monday. (5)

It is not clear yet the possible steps for the Southern Transitional Council, which has become an official partner in the new government, if the Houthis control the last stronghold of the Yemeni government in North Yemen.

The STC's Presidency called, on Sunday, "the necessity to move forward in implementing the remaining provisions of the Riyadh Agreement, in a way that contributes to enhancing security and stability in South and uniting efforts to confront the Houthi militia, terrorist organizations and common dangers." (6)

While the STC monitors developments in Marib, with caution, its military forces are simultaneously waging armed battles against Houthi fighters in the northern Al-Dhalea governorate, which borders North Yemen. The battles have escalated remarkably in recent days on more than one front, coinciding with the efforts being mobilized by the Saudi-led coalition to limit the capabilities of the Houthis.

STC does not seem to have any intention of opening an anti-government military front in Abyan or Shabwa governorate, but if Marib falls to Houthis, the STC will be primarily responsible for protecting the southern territories. Most of the local residents in Shabwah support the demands adopted by the council for the independence of South.

Although its forces were expelled from Shabwa in August 2019, the council has a wide popular and tribal base there. In addition to its presence in the government as a major partner, the political and military responsibility of the Council will double, in defending the state supported by the Arab coalition. However, such a move would clash mainly with the forces that are under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood, which may turn against the government and form an alliance with Houthis.

"Soon we will find ourselves in one rank with the Islah party militants to maintain unity and expel the last occupier from the southern provinces," a prominent leader in the Houthi group, Mohammad Al-Bukhaiti, said on Twitter. (7)

Therefore, the International Crisis Group considered "the influx of pro-government forces into Shebwa would also likely trigger tensions between local allies of President Hadi and the pro-independence Southern Transitional Council (STC)".

Borders of the two states

Unusually, the Saudi media accused the Houthis of dividing Yemen according to the historical geographical borders between the countries of South and North Yemen. The prominent Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya channel and Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper broadcast reports indicating the Houthis' efforts to open administrative centers for the areas under their control in North, and to imposed customs operations and financial transactions of its own. (8)

While observers saw these media reports as a provocation to the North Yemenis to fight the Houthis in Marib, under the straw of "Yemeni unity," others considered them a catalyst for the residents of the south, and at the same time a recognition of the "Houthis to rule North." (9)

"Now that the militias have pushed all their forces towards the Ma'rib governorate, the pursuit of completing the drawing of the territorial borders is not far from this adventure, in which it also hopes to control the oil and gas sources, the main electricity station, and reach the former border areas in the Hadramout and Shabwa," Al-Sharq Al-Awsat said. 

However, despite Saudi reports, there are international reports that reinforce the long-term possibility of a two-state scenario in South North, even if the Houthis do not control the city of Marib. Perhaps the fall of Ma'rib will accelerate a "permanent political solution" to the Yemeni crisis.

This "permanent political solution" was referred to by the US special envoy to Yemen Timothy Lenderking and US ambassador Christopher Hanzel during their meeting, on Tuesday, with Yemeni Foreign Minister Ahmed bin Mubarak, to discuss the US two-track approach to ending the conflict in Yemen.

According to the official page of the US Embassy in Yemen, Washington’s approach "includes finding a permanent political solution and providing humanitarian relief to the Yemeni people." [10]

In this regard, Al-Ahram newspaper said last Saturday that "the Houthis fully understood Biden’s messages, and their attacks on Saudi Arabia and South Yemen escalated." "Thus, the future of Yemen in the Biden era is evident in establishing - and perhaps recognizing - the authority of Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi over what is under his control from the lands of Yemen, and the return of South as it was before 1990, separated from North." (11)

Since the inauguration of the new US President Joe Biden on January 20, and the departure of the STC delegation to Riyadh, there have been no official meetings between the council and  US officials. Instead, a high-ranking  STC's delegation headed east on a second visit to the Russian capital, Moscow, where they held official meetings with Russian officials, including the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and a representative of President Putin.

Whether the Southern Transitional Council is on the schedule of visits of the US special envoy to Yemen, as part of Washington's efforts to reach a "permanent" solution, is not clear until now.

Ayad Qassem
Head of South24 Center for News and Studies, Journalist and researcher on political affairs in Yemen, the Middle East
- South24 Center for News & Studies (Arabic)

Southern Transitional Council South Yemen Marib Riyadh Agreement South Yemen North Yemen USA Saudi Arabia Houthis