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Any Political Solution To The Yemeni War Must Restore South Yemen’s Independence
It would be praiseworthy if newly reconciled Iran and Saudi Arabia symbolically bury the hatchet by coming together to politically resolve the Yemeni War, but only if they guarantee South Yemen’s UN-enshrined right to independence as one of the outcomes of whatever deal they mediate. Anything less than that could lead to this interconnected civil-proxy war morphing into another form that could be every bit as destabilizing as its present one, if not more in the worst-case scenario.
“The Chinese-Mediated Resumption Of Iranian-Saudi Ties Is A Remarkable Development” in and of itself, one which might also catalyze progress on a political solution to the Yemeni War. That conflict has always de facto been an Iranian-Saudi proxy war, which is why it’s reasonable to expect that these former rivals might seek to symbolically bury the hatchet by finally ending that dimension of their regional competition as well. That outcome would be applauded in principle, but with a crucial caveat.
Namely, any political solution to the Yemeni War must restore South Yemen’s independence otherwise there’s a very real risk that this interconnected civil-proxy war could morph into another form. At present, the latest phase of the conflict is more complicated than just the Iranian-backed Houthis versus the Saudi-backed UN-recognized Yemeni government. It now also importantly includes the Emirati-supported Southern Transitional Council (STC) that represents South Yemen’s legitimate interests.
This former country has the UN-enshrined right to restore the sovereignty that it was misled into ceding to North Yemen in 1990 and which it regretted just a few short years later in 1994, which led to the brief civil war that ended with the North’s total occupation of the South. The proceeding three decades didn’t crush the South’s separate socio-cultural and political identity, however, which remained strong and eventually reasserted itself with gusto in recent years throughout the course of the latest conflict.
In the scenario that Iran and Saudi Arabia come together to politically resolve the Yemeni War that’s being fought most directly by these two’s Houthi and UN-recognized Yemeni government partners respectively, then they must absolutely include the UAE and its STC allies in this process. Failure to do so for whatever reason, whether due to misguided “political convenience” or perhaps something more sinister, could transform and thus perpetuate this conflict instead of decisively end it.
The STC isn’t expected to accept an outcome that leads to their hated Houthi enemies from the North obtaining any sort of influence over South Yemen, and they could possibly count on their Emirati allies to oppose any joint Iranian-Saudi decision in that direction. In the worst-case scenario, this interconnected civil-proxy war could morph from being between Iranian-backed Houthis and the Saudi-backed UN-recognized government to being between those two and the Emirati-supported STC.
A less dramatic and comparatively more likely scenario that also can’t be ruled out at this time is that the Iranian-backed Houthis sit on the sidelines while the Saudi-backed UN-recognized government fights the Emirati-supported STC, whether across all of South Yemen or just its eastern regions. Regarding that second-mentioned sub-scenario, the Saudis recently leveraged their influence over the “Presidential Leadership Council” (PLC) to assemble the “Nation Shield Forces” (NSF) centered on Hadramout.
This militia is considered to be the Kingdom’s proxy force for retaining influence in that resource-rich coastal region and its two adjacent ones, de facto or even de jure control over which could present Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) with a “face-saving” exit from this conflict. Whether Yemen remains “united” as the North’s mini-empire over the South (which is unsustainable and could lead to another war) or South Yemen regains independence, the NSF would safeguard Riyadh’s influence there.
The Huffington Post cited two unnamed US sources in their report from late last month warning that “Americans Are Quietly Supporting A Saudi Land Grab In Yemen”, arguing that Washington might support Riyadh possibly exploiting its NSF proxies to make claims to South Yemen’s eastern regions. According to a university researcher from Harvard cited in their report, the Kingdom already has “more than a dozen military bases ... estimates range from 5,000 to 15,000 Saudi troops” in Mahra alone.
It therefore isn’t without reason to wonder what Saudi Arabia’s end game is in that part of the country, which increasingly appears predicated on employing a combination of its own troops as well as its NSF proxies to carve out an exclusive “sphere of influence” in South Yemen’s eastern regions. Absent their withdrawal and the dissolution of the Kingdom’s newly formed militia, it appears to be a fait accompli at least in the short term that Riyadh will rule the roost there even if it’s unsustainable in the long term.
Considering this, the most likely forecast for the future of Yemen is that the country is on the verge of trifurcating into the Iranian-backed North, the Saudi-backed East, and the Emirati-supported South. In a sense, this mirrors the impending trifurcation of International Relations between the US-led West’s Golden Billion, the Sino-Russo Entente, and the Global South. In each case, three poles of influence are emerging in systems where there used to be one or two, and each can be divided even further too.
International Relations would arguably become more stable in the scenario of complex multipolarity (“multiplexity”), but the Arabian Peninsula would become less stable in the scenario of Yemen “Balkanizing” into three or more countries, whether de facto or jure. It’s therefore imperative to ensure that this country simply bifurcates back into North and South Yemen, with the latter remaining united and not informally divided due to the end game MBS compellingly appears to be plotting to “save face”.
Objectively speaking, his attempt to trifurcate Yemen by weaponizing the NSF to carve out an “exclusive sphere of influence” for his Kingdom in South Yemen’s eastern regions is counterproductive from the perspective of Saudi Arabia’s national interests. It risks provoking violent a national liberation struggle and thus embroiling him in yet another interconnected civil-proxy war, this time one that might be fought against his nominal Emirati ally and its leader, MBS’ mentor Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ).
It's unrealistic to expect that a unified South Yemen wouldn’t be a Saudi ally either since this newly restored country would surely apply to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and clinch a wide array of deals, especially economic ones, with its northern neighbor that helped it beat the Houthis. Considering this, the only explanation for MBS’ alleged plot to trifurcate Yemen is either misguided ego and/or him being misled by advisors who don’t have his Kingdom’s objective national interests in mind.
With a view to the future, it would be praiseworthy if Iran and Saudi Arabia symbolically bury the hatchet by coming together to politically resolve the Yemeni War, but only if they guarantee South Yemen’s UN-enshrined right to independence as one of the outcomes of whatever deal they mediate. Anything less than that could lead to this interconnected civil-proxy war morphing into another form that could be every bit as destabilizing as its present one, if not more in the worst-case scenario.