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Parts of Yemen Are Now Threatening to Secede After the Houthi Rebel Takeover

Officials and former separatists in southern Yemen have announced their intentions to secede following President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi's abrupt resignation last week.
Photo by Hani Mohammed/AP

Yemen's rapidly deteriorating political and military crisis showed no signs of abating Sunday, as the country's parliament again postponed sessions amid continued reports of southern moves toward secession.

The Yemeni parliament, which hasn't been elected since 2003, was set to meet Sunday to discuss last week's resignation of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Hadi, who technically is unable to leave office without the consent of legislators, stepped down last Thursday after Houthi rebels fought his personal guards and stormed the presidential palace in Sana'a.


The Houthis — named for Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, their leader until his death in battle in 2004 — hail from Yemen's northern Zaydi Shia minority. Zaydis make up about a third of Yemen's population and have pushed for decades for greater representation in a national political dialogue dominated by Sunnis. From 2004 to 2010, the rebels fought a series of wars with the government of autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Saleh was forced out power in 2012 after ruling for 33 years, part of sweeping regime changes in the region during the Arab Spring. The former strongman — who retains significant power in the country via supporters that still dominate parliament and remain in state institutions — later reached an alliance of sorts with the Houthis.

If Hadi's resignation becomes official, the presidency would revert to Yahia al-Rai, the parliament speaker and Saleh's close ally.

The rebels first took Sana'a in September, but they agreed to step back following a UN-brokered peace agreement. The deal, however, never formally resolved the crisis. On January 17, rebels kidnapped Hadi's chief of staff, setting off a cascading series of events that ended with Hadi's resignation.

Thousands protest Houthi takeover as Yemen teeters on the brink of chaos. Read more here. 

On Saturday, thousands marched in Sana'a against Houthi control, but also against al Qaeda, which has alienated many in the country with its brutal attacks on civilians. In the south, officials and former separatists have announced their intentions to secede.


Yemen's north and south were separate countries until 1990. A 1994 civil ended with Saleh's defeat of southern secessionists, but their simmering discontent was never completely ameliorated.

This weekend, security forces in Aden, previously the capital of South Yemen, said they would ignore any instructions from Sana'a.

Charles Schmitz, a Yemen specialist at the Middle East Institute, says the current situation may present more of a threat to cohesion than even the 1994 conflict.

'This cannot be solved politically. The country needs technical and financial assistance that the Houthis do not have.'

"In the civil war, there were a lot of southerners who fought for unity and the secession movement there was not as widely supported," Schmitz told VICE News. "Most of the victories took place in back rooms where a lot of southerners agreed to fight or to join the north."

That push for national unity is not happening now, Schmitz said. "This is the biggest crisis I've seen Yemen face," he added.

American officials, speaking anonymously, told several outlets that in light of the change in control in Sana'a, the US had ceased or decreased some of its anti-terrorism operations, including drone strikes, aimed at al Qaeda bases in Southern Yemen. The affiliate there, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), took credit for the recent attack in Paris on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.


Speaking in India, President Barack Obama denied the reports, saying the US campaign against AQAP "is not neat and it is not simple, but it is the best option we have."

Al Qaeda in Yemen releases video claiming responsibility for Charlie Hebdo attack. Read more here.

Like other Sunni extremist groups, AQAP considers the Zaydis, and, more generally, Shia Muslims, to be apostates. The Houthis are sworn enemies of al Qaeda, and have proven perhaps the group's most potent adversary in Yemen.

But in light of Iran's perceived backing of the Houthis, the US has until now been unwilling to lend support. Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia has also been unnerved by their growing sway, and has begun supporting tribes in the province of Marib, where fighting was reported last week.

Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and a longtime observer of Yemen, says labeling of the Houthis as a mere proxy in Iran's regional tussle with the Saudis is misleading.

"Iran has backed them financially and to some extent militarily, but they would have gotten help from anyone, because they were really besieged by the government in Sana'a on the one hand and the Saudi's on the other," Haykel told VICE News.

"This is not a proxy of Iran like Hezbollah is," he added, referring to the Lebanese militant group that Tehran heavily supports.

The rebels, who have long been seen as less corrupt than the national government, may have overplayed their hand last week in Sana'a. Hadi, previously viewed by some as an American stooge, has been overnight reinvented as a symbol of resistance to Houthi power.


"One of the reasons the Houthis took over in September was the incompetence of the interim government Hadi was leading," said Schmitz. "Since then, it's more and more apparent that they want to be able to call the shots."

In Sana'a, where the Houthis have set up checkpoints and military blockades, tensions are high. With Hadi's resignation still unresolved, many Yemenis are watching to see how much further southern leaders will move toward secession, and whether al Qaeda will seek to capitalize on the chaos to seize further territory.

Yemen's president resigns during standoff with Houthi rebels. Read more here.

Schmitz says the conflict could worsen considerably if the Houthis move with greater force into oil-producing Marib province, where local tribesman, some with assistance from the Saudis, have taken up arms against them.

After the September seizure of Sana'a, Saudi Arabia cut off desperately needed funding for the central government. The current crisis has only worsened the plight of some two-thirds of Yemenis who require humanitarian aid, according to the UN.

"The country has very severe problems that are ecological, demographic and economic," said Haykel. "This cannot be solved politically. The country needs technical and financial assistance that the Houthis do not have."

Jamal Benomar, the UN's envoy to Yemen who worked to negotiate an accord in September, has met in recent days with Hadi and the Houthi leadership. It is unclear if he has any chance of repeating his work of last year towards a deal — an agreement that is now all but obsolete.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford