Bab el-Mandeb and The West Coast of Yemen: The Changing Dynamics of Influence


Wed, 02-06-2021 06:32 PM, Aden

Farida Ahmed (South24)

During several years of Yemen war, especially when talking about the Western Coast and Bab el Mandeb, the control alogrithms and the dynamics of influnce have changed drastically.

On the 7th of January 2017, the operation titled “the Golden Spear" was launched under the command of Major General Ahmed Saif Al-Yafe.

It was a strategic military operation with the participation and the support of the Arab Coalition, in particular, the UAE. 

The liberating operation was conducted by Southern military units (The Backup and Support Brigade – led by the 3rd Brigade Hazm under the command of Brigadier-General Omar Al-Subaihi, 1st Brigade Hazm under the command of Brigadier-General Abdulghani Al-Subaihi, Giants Forces and other forces led by former Minister of Defense, Haitham Qasem Tahir).

The forces and military formations played a major role in commanding as they share the main target of retrieving Bab el-Mandeb and western coast cities that oversee the Red Sea from the Houthis. 

No Northern forces participated except after liberating al-Makha (Mocha), restoring control over "Khalid Bin Alwaleed" camp and the arrival of Southern forces to Al-Khawkhah as the first populated area in Hodeidah which was liberated with the support of the Tuhami Resistance which fought their first battles in Al-Khawkhah shortly after their formation and training.

The "Golden Spear" operation succeeded in retrieving western coast areas from Bab el-Mandeb to Makha (Mocha), Al-Khawkhah and then the coastal road between Hodeidah and Aden and reaching inner parts of Hodeidah city the capital of the governorate in 2017 and late 2018. 

In populated areas on the opposite road the connect Taiz with Hodeidah – except for Hais city -, forces avoided the fight. 

The Stockholm Agreement has come as a truce between the Yemeni conflict parties, the legitimate government and the Houthis. It was signed on December 13, 2018, under UN auspices at a time when Southern Giants Brigades and the Tuhami Resistance backed by the Arab Coalition were intending to continue liberating the remaining parts of Hodeidah city until reaching its port and continue north towards As-Salif port and other districts.

The occurrence of such developments happened in parallel to the "Navy Arrow" operation launched by the legitimate government forces to purge the coasts of Midi and their dependent islands from naval mines. 

However, neither Stockholm Agreement succeed nor  the repositioning arranging committees (arising from the agreement) achieved any progress despite the flexibility expressed by the Yemeni government in dealing with the Hodeidah file even with Houthi's constant violation of the agreement and continued obstinacy to amplify the humanitarian crisis.

It should be added that the operation to libereate the western coast and islands opposite to it, starting by Mayun island on Aden's administrative strait until the city of Hodeidah up north is of a great startegic importance to secure the most important shipping routes in the region.

 Liberating and controlling the route will close one of the main smuggling doors that supplies the Houthis from Yemen's side of the Red Sea as well as cutting the battlefront supply for the Houthis and to resume coastal liberating operations.

 Yemen's side of the Red Sea before being liberated from the Houthis was posing a major threat to international routes of trade and transportation. Houthis were launching attacks by anti-armour missiles on passing ships towards Bab el-Mandeb strait which is believed to be supplied by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran.

 Former U.S. Navy HSV-2 Swift and later owned by the UAE in 2015 [1] was one of the damaged ships by those attacks in addition to Saudi owned ships that witnessed similar attacks like this which targeted a Saudi frigate  by three suicidal boats, one hitting the frigate's rear.

 Consequently, the Arab Coalition saw such attacks as a threat against the security of navigation. Before that, another attack was conducted against the US navy destroyer "USS Mason" in 2016 in conjunction with sporadic attacks against civil Yemeni oil tankers that pass the strait.

The general position for the Houthis was difficult as they just measurably lost the coastal round, something which made them intense their missile attacks with very precise military operations one had led to the death of Major General Ahmed Saif Al-Yafei who took the lead in the "Golden Spear" operation and several his accompanies in Bab el-Mandeb. 

Before that, a sniper bullet took out Major General Omar Al-Subaihi near Bab el-Mandeb as well. Al-Yafei's killing caused a fierce controversy and accusations that brought up the possibility of leaking his location to the Houthis to conduct a missile attack which was performed with very high accuracy against his residing tent rather than his military vehicles.

The Essential Lifeline of Trade

The focus on the importance of Bab el-Mandeb strait was no coincidence. Its significance comes from being one of the most important and busiest shipping routes which link the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden which 25,000 ships per year pass by which account for 7% of global navigations. 

Its importance increases due to its connection with the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz [2]. In reality, Bab el-Mandeb is one of the main linking points in the route of global trade especially with the increasing importance of Gulf state oil. 

The estimated number of ships and giant oil tankers that pass by both ways is more than 21,000 ships per year (57 ships per day) [3]. In the heart of Bab el-Mandeb strait, Perim Island or (Mayun) lays. They divide the strait into two water channels, one is a very narrow eastern channel with a width less than 4 km and the other is western with an estimated width of 23 km. The strait passes two sea banks starting from the tip of Bab el-Mandeb east to Ras Sayan in Djibouti to the west by almost 30 km.

"Southerners dealt with Mayun island from a historical, geographical and political perspective"

On top of that, the strait maintains a major military and security interest and had been previously closed by Egypt in front of Israel during the 1973 war. A US force has also worked on securing the strait in the wake of 2001 September's attack in the United States to combat AQAP and pirates in the region.

The control over Bab el-Mandeb strait is a strategic advantage to Yemen since they own (Mayun) island which was previously affiliated with South Yemen “the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen" before declaring the unity agreement in 1990.

Southerners dealt with Mayun Island which opposes strategic importance for overseeing Bab el-Mandeb strait in a historical, geographical and political perspective for their affiliation with South Yemen before the unity in Yemen. This reflected on the shaped dimensions that emerged after the beginning of the civil war in Yemen in 2015, and most importantly their desire to retrieve it from Yemen as part of the state retrieving project which is the reason that made them lead military operations in areas overseeing Bab el-Mandeb against the Houthi's presence early 2017.

Southern Forces Imposing Itself

The narrative to accuse Abu Dhabi of controlling Yemeni islands kept going on the latest of which was accusations in leveraging from Mayun island in the heart of Bab el-Mandeb strait which was denied shortly after by an official source in the Arab Coalition led by Saudi Arabia. 

Clearing those forces located within Mayun are under the control and command of the Coalition. Their presence, as they put it, is in the interest of empowering the legitimate government forces and the Coalition in combating the Houthis as well for securing global navigation and supporting the west coast forces [4]. Despite indications which have been narrated above on the liberating operation at Bab el-Mandeb regions from the Houthis through the "Golden Spear" in 2017, the presence of Arab Coalition forces on Mayun island come in line and accordance with the Southern military forces that spread on the extent of the strait and island, which in turn liberated the strategic area and continuing to protect it.

Bab el-Mandeb is a military axis. The overall forces present across it and in security depth are Southern military forces where there are not any other forces in surrounding districts, for example, Tur Al-Bahah district under the 4th military region led by Major General Fadhl Hasan.

 For that, it seems that Southern military presence across Bab el-Mandeb reduced military pressure on the most strategic region. 1st Brigade Hazm, 3rd Brigade Hazm, Giants forces, Security Belt forces and the Rangers forces l formed a military joint force working as a single defending team for Bab el-Mandeb and the global navigation route. As a result, all these different military forces received different levels of support from the Coalition, particularly from (Saudi Arabia and UAE) which generally enforced their role in protecting the region.

"It is more appropriate for the Coalition to sustain support for reliable military forces that clearly proved their positions which align with regional and international approaches"

The competitive nature of this important and strategic location allowed members of different fronts – affiliated with the Islah Yemeni Party – to sneak towards Lahj governorate and coastal districts which are fronts dominated in stress with Southern forces wherein the latter respond due to the traditional hostility by the Islah which some describe as the military arm of the Muslim Brotherhood group.

Therefore, the Islah-affiliated presence is limited to mountain areas southern Taiz and in hanging camps in the heights of Al-Hujariya and other minor forces on the edges of Tur Al-Bahah, all in turn are of irrelevant impact against opposing Southern forces on the other side – according to a field military source -.

In light of this reality, it seems more appropriate to the Arab Coalition policies' and as a strategic ally to the STC and Southern Armed forces which some belong to the STC, to sustain support for reliable military forces that clearly proved their positions which align with regional and international approaches. Those approaches ensure the safety of global navigation routes and secure Bab el-Mandeb and the Red Sea from regionally and internationally destabilizing forces, especially with the Iranian-backed Houthis that previously controlled the strait's littoral areas before they were forcibly evacuated.

 In addition, military forces attempted to control it, some are under the command of the Turkey-affiliated party, the Islah party with a target of reaching the strait after their control on significant heights that oversees it.

West Coast Challenges

Southern Giants forces alongside Hirak forces and Tuhami Resistance had the priority in leading the Hodeidah battle on the ground. Although the major role was to the Giants forces led by Abo Zarah Al-Mahrami, Tuhami Resistance had an increasing role since the beginning of the west coast battles in parts inside Hodeidah governorate. 

The motives to fight against the Houthis spread widely starting from Al-Khawkhah and reaching Hodeidah city due to the local incubator in the geographical region that existed in the forces' members.

The Tuhami Resistance started with 5 brigades with complete support, training and weaponization from the Coalition as well for financial provision. Abdulrahman Hejri, the commander of the Hirak and Resistance, also the supervisor of the brigades, oversaw the weaponization and preparation of these 5 brigades which had formed before initiating Al-Khawkhah liberation operation with full support from the Coalition and later got engaged in the liberation operation. Hejri was known as the commanding leader for the Tuhami brigades and had to recommend brigades leaders to be assigned by the Coalition.

After Brigadier General Tareq Saleh entered the military scene in mid-2018 with the “Republican Guard" that he commanded. The Arab Coalition supported Tuhami brigades by other channels than the Tuhami Hirak after the Hirak leadership expressed their discomfort to Tareq Saleh's participation in the western coast. 

As a result of funding cuts from the Tuhami Hirak, many activists left to work with Tareq Saleh's forces and crews. Criticism started to emerge by Hirak activists to their leadership and the Tuhami Resistance to not engage politically in the military developments within the coast. Something which split activists to a group that remained in support to the Hirak leadership and others moved to support Tareq's forces and attacking Hirak leadership but continued to recognize their loyalty to the Hirak as a body. So it is no surprise that Abdulrahman Hejri forces' in the Hirak and Resistance have shrunk after they were redistributed financially and operatively to the Republican Guards or the Tuhami forces which later formed and attached to the Giants forces.

Although the 3rd brigade in the Tuhami Resistance was scattered, some of its forces were taken over operatively by the 2nd brigade Tuhami Resistance led by Brigadier General Fouad Bagadhi and became part of the Republican Guards while some were transformed under the leadership of the 2nd brigade Zaraneq which belongs to the Giants forces. The 1st brigade Tuhami Resistance led by Ahmed Al-Koukbani managed to avoid joining the Giants or the Republican Guards, with continuous accusations to him for affiliation with the Islah party.

Queries spring to mind here: Why the Arab Coalition kept supporting forces to form with a Tuhami body and leadership despite his termination of support to the Hirak? And why didn't these brigades join Tareq Saleh forces when they were formed later and attached with the Giants forces?

It is obvious that attaching Tuhami forces with Tuhamian leadership from the region is a privilege that forces under the "Joint Forces" in the western coast chase, all of which are backed by the Arab Coalition which include forces led by leaderships related to the Brotherhood organization, or Salafi leaderships or Tuhami leaderships from the military institution.

Tareq Saleh earned the privilege of including the remnants of the Tuhami forces which was directly under the Hirak while the 1st brigade remained administratively independent and were accused of being closely related with the Brotherhood. Forces which was created after the withdrawal of the Hirak from the military scene was incorporated with the Giants, those 4 brigades are; the 7th brigade Giants led by Brigadier General Ali Al-Kanini, 9th brigade Giants led by Brigadier General Yahya and Haish, 11th brigade Giants led by Colonel Mamoun Al-Mujhami and the 2nd brigade Zaraneq led by Brigadier General Madyn Qubaisi which later joined to the Giants after apologizing to the 1st brigade's leadership of forming a unified command for the 1st and 2nd brigades Zaraneq.

The two Zaraneq brigades are also counting on the Tuhami cover in their naming, formation and commanding. Zaraneq tribe is a well-known tribe for their fight against the Mutawakkilite Kingdom Imams before the September 1962 revolution. The tribe controls most of the territories south of Hodeidah city.

Tuhami sources indicate that the 1st brigade Zaraneq led by Brigadier General Sulaiman Monasar apology for forming a unified command between them and the 2nd brigade Zaraneq is due to the closeness of Sulaiman Monasar – a son of the Islah Yemeni party leading member Yahya Monasar – with the Muslim Brotherhood, while the 2nd brigade Zaraneq are affiliated with the Salafi current.

Depending on the variety of Tuhami brigade’s leaderships and their different affiliation within the Joint Forces, Brigadier General Tarq Saleh has received more than two brigades and less than two Tuhami brigades (the 2nd and a fraction of the 3rd). The increasing media activity was also notable for Tareq's forces on the account of other participated forces in the western coast, as well for the change in the media approach especially channels funded by him by changing their forces name to the "National Forces" instead of the "Republican Guards" in replication to the "Tuhami Forces" which got off from the control of Hirak. This new naming was increasingly taking over the "Tuhami Resistance" which had previously been widely popular and could not be replaced by changing the "National Resistance" to the "Republican Guards" especially that the Tuhami brigade does not constitute a major part of its forces.

Giant’s forces include 4 Tuhami brigade, "7th Giants", "9th Giants", "11th Giants" and the "2nd Zaraneq" and two other brigades remain with separate commands and closely related to the Muslim Brotherhood (1st Tuhama, 1st Zaraneq.

In regards to the dynamic military spread, Tuhama affiliated forces are distributed as follows:

Al-Khawkhah city islands across it: The 4th and 5th brigades Tuhami Resistance led by Colonel Murad Sheraie spread on Al-Khawkhah and Hanish, Al-Tair and Zoqr islands. 

Al-Tahita front: The 1st brigade Tuhami Resistance and the forces of the 9th bridges Giants.

Hais fronts: The 7th and 11th brigade’s forces control most of the sectors and the battle-axes, and the 2nd brigades Tuhama forces control the northern sector of Hais city.

Hodeidah front: The 3rd brigade Tuhami Resistance station in the Monthar sector and Al-Saleh city on the northern and southern edges of Hodeidah city. The 1st brigade Zaraneq spread in Kilo 17. The 2nd brigade Zaraneq is in Kilo 17 and relatively close to Al-Saleh city. In Al-Saleh city, only one squad of the 1st brigade Tuhama exist, and several squads of the 4th and 5th brigade Tuhama.

Al-Duraihmi front: 4th and 5th brigade Tuhama.

The strategic dimensions for each force of the Joint Forces

Overall, the Joint Forces in the western coast can be subdivided into three forces each with its own different goals but share a single operation scene and a single command room. The appearance and effectiveness sequence was first by the Giants forces, then the Tuhami Resistance brigades, the Republican Guards which emerged as a result of the military clash between the Houthis and the supporters of the previous president Ali Abdallah Saleh in Sanaa.

It is possible to say the sensitivity that erupted with the Tuhami Hirak from the entrance of Brigadier General Tareq Saleh's forces – which reformed – to the operation scene on the western coast. The map of influence changed there after the arrival of Tareq's forces again and the impact they did after the Giants forces which led by Brigadier General Abo Zarah Al-Mahrami while the Tuhami Hirak withdrew from the scene which led to the appearance of a new player which was hard to witness earlier. The new players are represented in the Islah Party (Brotherhood)-affiliated brigades who came third in influence.

Although it carries strong influence, Giants forces have fewer motives to remain long on the west coast without a political settlement or after resolving the Hodeidah battle militarily and liberate it from the Houthis. This is due to their Salafi affiliation to the Higher Giants leadership and their territorial affiliation to South Yemen. This is in the opposite to forces accused of affiliating with the Islah that might stay committed to the national and regional organizational political goals or it might even be with forces of Tareq Saleh who's rebuilding his inherited presence from his uncle and former president Ali Abdallah Saleh but without qualifications, neither politically nor militarily to do so except in the western coast. This is shaped in his formation of the Political Bureau for the National Resistance which is politically connected to the geographical domain of the coast, and perhaps could be faded out in its political value if it exited this domain.

"Overall, the Joint Forces in the western coast can be subdivided into three forces each with its own different goals but share a single operation scene and a single command room"

The question remains: Since the Southern Giants forces ensured on establishing 4 brigades with a Tuhami structure in leaderships and members as compensation for the withdraw of the Tuhami Hirak from the political scene. What is the fate of these brigades if Giants forces other than the Tuhamis' decided to fight the Houthi in South's fronts or far north North Yemen in Sa'dah for example?

Previous data outweigh the return of the Arab Coalition to support the Tuhami Hirak created in 2011 and still represent the Tuhami Resistance even after losing control on major parts of military Tuhami brigades which were spread to other entities that participated in the Joint Forces. Republican Guards or Giants forces even if they were managing Tuhami fighters in their ranks, it is unlikely to gain Tuhami popularity in the same amount the Tuhami Hirak had because of the role the Hirak had for the Tuhami cause which is a strong common element in favour of the Tuhami Hirak with fighters and civilians from Tuhama share.

The Tuhami Hirak sent strong signals for his permanent holdings to the Arab Coalition on the west coast as an ally in the latest interview for its commander Abdulrahman Hejri on Al-Arab London Newspaper.

In light of this, it can be said that although of the constant change in military dynamics in Bab el-Mandeb and western coast, there is one fixed agenda for Yemeni powers, which is restoring other territories from the Houthis' grip even with changes in strategic goals for each party.

Researcher on political affairs, fellow with the South24 Center for News and Sutdies

- Photo: Bab el-Mandeb, 
Archives (AFP)
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