Shabwa Battle: Possible Scenarios


Thu, 23-09-2021 05:07 PM, Aden

Jacob Al-Sufyani | South24

Rapid military developments have recently taken place in Shabwa Governorate, South Yemen, in which this oil-rich governorate is threatened by the Iranian-backed Houthi militias that rule Sanaa and most of North Yemen.

The Houthis were able to extend their control on Tuesday without a fight, to the districts of Beihan and Ain in Shabwa, the two border areas with Marib, the last stronghold of the Yemeni government in North Yemen, of which the Houthis also control large areas, and they also took control of the Harib district, in the same governorate.

The advance of the Northern militias coincided with the withdrawals of pro-Islah government forces from Beihan and Ain, similar to what happened on the fronts of the strategic al-Bayda governorate during the past weeks, which became a launching base for the Houthis to attack South Yemen.

Islah forces seized Shabwa after battles with the "Shabwani Elite" of the STC in August 2019, with the support of Saudi Arabia, the Arab Coalition leader, aiming to Support the Yemeni government, and with the participation of Northern military units and tribal members, after a series of military events in Aden, the STC's headquarters, and in Abyan.

The STC accuses the Yemeni government and the Islah party, which has extensive influence in it, of "serving" with the Houthis to hand over Shabwa governorate. The two parties had signed an agreement sponsored by Saudi Arabia, known as the "Riyadh Agreement", in November 2019, which included the redeployment of the Shabwani elite in the governorate, and the withdrawal of military forces to their barracks in Marib.

This agreement has not seen the light yet except in forming a parity government which had failed to perform its tasks, and the extrication of South Yemen’s governorates from the unprecedented economic collapse and the steadily increasing deterioration of services, in addition to the STC’s withdrawal of a large part of its forces from Abyan and Aden.

In addition to all this, multiple scenarios of the battle of Shabwa loom on the horizon, which can be discerned depending on the stations that this governorate has recently gone through, which is experiencing a multi-level and multifaceted conflict, extending to the region and the world, where it embraces the interests of major countries through its companies operating in the oil and gas sectors.


First scenario: The fall of Shabwa

Since 2014, and the Houthis began to expand outside their sectarian and tribal stronghold in Zawiya in North Yemen, Saada Governorate, the character of surrender has prevailed without resistance or with slight resistance over the group’s battles with the military forces affiliated with the Hadi government, most of whom are loyal to Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, Hadi’s deputy.

The Houthis overthrew Amran, adjacent to Saada, to be the first governorate in North Yemen in the hands of the group, then Hajjah and Sanaa, in turn, after the alliance with Ali Abdullah Saleh's forces, who was killed by Houthi gunmen at the end of 2017.

While the group expanded in most areas of North Yemen, South Yemen was liberated from the Houthis and Saleh forces in 2015, at the hands of the Southern resistance, most of which consisted of the Southern Movement, in addition to fighters of the Salafi movement, with direct support from the Coalition, and mainly the UAE.

This resulted in a distinct reality in North and South, where the Houthi victories were concentrated on the fronts where the government forces were fighting, while the group failed to make any progress in South, and also experienced heavy defeats in the areas of the Western Coast and Hodeidah, where the Southern Giants Brigades and local fighters were linked, before to be suspended by the Stockholm Agreement in 2018.

From Nihm in Sanaa to Al-Jawf and the districts north-east of Marib, the Houthis’ victories were without real battles with the Yemeni government forces, despite the unlimited support the latter received from Saudi Arabia.

These victories were like “deals” under the table, and behind the scenes of the battles, which reinforces the claims of local parties, including the STC, of the existence of a secret alliance that brings together the Islah Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Yemen, and the Tehran-backed group, the Houthis.

Today, the scenarios of the Northern fronts return to the fore, with the events of Shabwa, which may witness a similar scenario, in which it is handed over without a real fight to the Houthis, by pro-Islah forces, which will continue to withdraw back, and join the rest of the party units in the 1st military region Hadramout Governorate.

In the event that the Houthis were able to control Shabwa, the group would have effectively separated South Yemen into two parts, the first being controlled by the STC (Aden, Lahj, Al-Dhalea, Abyan and Socotra), and the other in which the Islah forces are stationed (Wadi Hadramout, Al-Mahra).

It seems that the STC is ready for this possibility and scenario, as its president, Aidrous Al-Zubaidi, had declared a "state of emergency" and a general mobilization in the governorates of South Yemen to "fight the Houthis and the terrorist forces allied with them", in reference to the Islamist Islah party.

Second scenario: Limited Extension

This scenario remains the most likely after the first, although it does not go beyond the scope of the supposed "Brotherhood and Houthi alliance", and is represented by Islah handing over a number of areas in Shabwa (particularly areas where there are Hashemite families who believe that there are lineages linking them to the Houthis), without allowing the group to extend full control on the province.

Among the most important potential areas in this scenario are the districts of Upper Markha, Lower Markha, and Beihan, while Asilan may be the supposed front and field of skirmishes between the two parties, which contains the important Jannah oil field.

Islah seeks to exercise military “blackmail” against Saudi Arabia, by indirectly threatening to hand over the areas under its control to the Houthis. Forces loyal to the party control the Yemeni oil triangle (Marib, Shabwa, Hadramout), which are the provinces that are extremely important and the decisive factor in the equation of the Yemeni crisis.

Indeed, the party maintained its control over the oil areas in these governorates, while it did not fight much for other non-oil areas. The Houthis took control of a number of districts in Marib, the most important of which were Rahba, Mahlia, and Harib, which it seized recently along with the districts of Beihan and Ain in Shabwa. The group also shares other regions and directorates.

Islah’s blackmailing of Saudi Arabia comes in the context of the party’s agendas and its regional backers in South Yemen, as it seeks to pressure Riyadh against the STC, through the policy of “either us or the Houthis.”

It should be noted that this scenario may be what is actually happening in Shabwa. It is important to point out the Omani role in forming this alliance between Islah and the Houthis, especially with the frequent visits of personalities from Oman and the meeting with the local authority. These moves came after the visit of Sultan Haitham bin Tariq to Saudi Arabia last July.

However, it cannot be excluded that the advancing of the Houthis in Shabwa comes as a result of the fragility and weakness of the Yemeni government forces, for the group to reinforce its siege on Marib from all directions (south, north and west).

Third scenario: The failure of the Islah alliance and the Houthis

Shabwa's tribal and sectarian composition makes it difficult for any Houthi control, as it is not Amran, Sanaa, or Al-Jawf, where the "Zaydiyah" to which the Houthis belong is based, tribally and sectarianly, and its Southern identity also makes it a serious challenge to the supposed Brotherhood and Houthi alliance.

In neighboring Marib, the tribes played the largest role in confronting the ongoing Houthi advancement, for the same reasons that would prompt the Shabwa tribes to fight the group. The tribal movement in Shabwa, along with the possibility of Southern forces entering the battle, can be considered the main spoiler of any secret deals on Shabwa, of any kind.

The governorate's tribes proved their presence on the ground, even if not within a specific political framework. The "Belharith" tribes, one of the most prominent tribes of Shabwa, fought the Islah forces under the leadership of Governor Bin Adyo, to control the oil fields in Asilan, the tribe's main land, in evidence of the influence of the tribal role on the course of events, and the formulation of the military map of Shabwa.

In addition to the tribes, comes the possibility of the STC pushing military forces to Shabwa (after agreeing with the government forces loyal to Hadi in Abyan, or defeating them), which may thwart any supposed plans for Islah and the Houthis, taking into account the UAE presence in the Balhaf gas facility, Which is not expected to be delivered easily by Abu Dhabi and Riyadh as well.

The Houthis’ control of Shabwa oil will represent a severe blow to the Saudi-led coalition, and the group has shown increasing hostility after every piece of Yemeni land it drops, and its drones and ballistic missiles continue to threaten Saudi airspace, and even cause damage in many cases, which raises the possibility of Saudi support for the Southern forces against the Islah alliance and the Houthis, albeit indirectly, is not excluded.

STC President had implied a failure to direct the war against the Houthis, and at the same time called for a "correcting the course of the battle" against the group, which is supposed to be North towards Sanaa, and not towards Aden in South.

Journalist and reporter at South24 Center for News and Studies
Photo: Wikipedia

South YemenConflictIslahHouthisSTCAbyanMaribOman