What is Happening in Yemen's West Coast?

Analytics

Fri, 03-12-2021 04:38 PM, Aden

Jacob Al-Sufyani | South24

The Yemeni arena has recently witnessed accelerating military moves and field transformations, for the first time since signing on the Stockholm Agreement in 2018. The Iran-backed Houthis made advances in Al-Bayda and Marib in North Yemen, and penetrated the border districts in the Southern governorate of Shabwa, while the UAE and the KSA pulled out a big number of their troops. In the Western Coast, the Joint Forces declared withdrawing from areas around the city of Al-Hodeidah, which enabled the Houthis to hold control over them, and opened new fronts east of the governorate and west of Taiz.

These developments stir many questions about the reality of the current events on the ground, and the reasons behind the latest moves by the Saudi-led “Arab Coalition” and the local forces backed by it which largely move according to its instructions. 
 
On November 12th, The Joint Forces (the Southern Giants Brigades, the Southern Infantry Brigades, the National Resistance, the Tihami Resistance) announced their withdrawal from a number of areas south of Hudaydah, in the Western Coast. (1)

The “Joint Forces” said that those withdrawals came in light of the redeployment plan, determined by the Stockholm Agreement (2018) regarding Al Hudaydah, and to feed other fronts against the Houthis. They believe that it is a “mistake” to continue their presence in those areas governed by an international agreement.

The United Nations and its mission dedicated for supporting the Hudaydah Agreement announced that they are not aware of nor played any role in those withdrawals (2). This comes after reports about a UN role in the wake of a short visit by the UN Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg to the city of Al-Makha in Taiz on Nov.10th, during which he met with Tareq Saleh, the Commander of the National Resistance(part of the Republican Guards). The Yemeni Government’s team in the Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) denied any knowledge of these withdrawals, adding that they were implemented “without any coordination”. (3)

In Mid-November, the Arab Coalition claimed responsibility for those withdrawals. Its Spokesman, Turki Al-Maliki, said that; “the redeployment plan and the positioning of the Joint Forces came as part of a military plan by the Coalition’s commanders so as to match the military strategy that supports the Yemeni Government in its war against the Houthis”. (4)

Al-Maliki added that the repositioning operation “was characterized by discipline and flexibility as planned, and in light of the Coalition’s future plans”.

The Houthis controlled large areas south of the city of Al Hudaydah after those withdrawals, and the group opened the international line that connects Al Hudaydah with Sana’a after controlling the "Kilo 16" area, “Al-Tuhayta” and “Al-Durayhimi”.
 
However, the Joint Forces quickly opened several fronts against the Houthis, similar to counterattack, and penetrated several areas west of the governorates of Taiz and Ibb, as well as regaining their control  over Hays District in Al Hudaydah, and moving forward to the outskirts of Al-Garrahi District. (5) 

Those military events came in conjunction with a continuous Houthi advance in the central governorate of Marib, as the group controlled 12 of 14 of its districts since the beginning of the comprehensive attack in June 2020, and keeps advancing towards the city of Marib, the governorate’s capital which is the last bastion for the Yemeni Government in North Yemen.

Moreover, this coincided with the withdrawal of the Emirati and Saudi Forces, which are part of the Arab Coalition, from the Southern governorate of Shabwa, in a move that observers deem as reflecting the rift in the relationship between the Coalition and the forces affiliated with the government that controls the governorate and which are accused of handing over three of western Shabwa districts to the Houthis. 

Pressure on the Houthis

The Stockholm Agreement regarding Al Hudaydah in December 2018 constituted a milestone in the military Yemeni conflict as it halted the violent battles for controlling the coastal city, and put an end to the heavy defeats incurred by the Houthis who were about to lose the city and its strategic port.

Practically, the Agreement managed to neutralize “the Giant Brigades” and the “Infantry Brigades”, the spearhead of the comprehensive military operation in Al Hudaydah, in addition to Tareq Saleh’s Forces and the National Resistance which constitute together “the Joint Forces”, one of the most anti-Houthi military formations on earth. 

The Agreement reduced the presence of these forces into a limited geographical area, and isolated them from the rest of Yemeni geography that witnessed the beginning of the Houthi advantage in the Northern fronts against the Government’s Forces which largely affiliated with the Islamic “Islah” Party, and their ability to bring down the governorates of Al-Jawf and Al-Bayda to control most of Marib.

On the other hand, in the face of the Houthi shift from defense to attack, Saudi Arabia, which leads the Coalition, kept its usual reliance upon the forces affiliated with Islah, while backing them with air cover, in parallel with bigger focus on the diplomatic side and cease-fire negotiations related to Riyadh’s talks with Tehran, which represents the Houthis' ideological, political and military depth.

In March, the KSA announced a negotiation about an all-out solution for the Yemeni crisis, including a cease-fire. However, the Houthis quickly refused while passing through their best time. A day later, the Houthis insisted on demands of opening the Sana’a Airport and the Al Hudaydah Port as well as halting the air strikes before reaching any cease-fire agreement. 

Those Houthi demands became the rock on which the international efforts, by the former UN envoy, Martin Griffiths, and the US envoy, Tim Lenderking, in addition to Hans Grundberg, the former head of the European Union Delegation to Yemen, and the current UN envoy, after he officially assumed his duties in September of this year, collapsed. 

The Houthis intensified their air strikes using drones and ballistic missiles on Saudi Arabia. These attacks threatened global energy sources in the Kingdom, and some of them damaged civilian airports in the south of Saudi Arabia. The Houthi threats have also increased in the Red Sea through booby-trapped boats and sea mines.

The international efforts and the negotiations with Iran have largely reduced the Saudi military response. The KSA has stuck to a military approach which is based on launching airstrikes in the areas in which the Houthis try to control, while avoiding carrying out direct raids against Sana’a. 

Recently, in light of the apparent lack of progress or real achievements in the talks with Iran, through which the KSA sought to pressure the Houthis to stop attacking its territories, amid decreasing bet and reliance on the international role, the KSA resumed its raids on Sana’a and Sa’dah, the bastion of the Houthis. 

On Nov. 26th, the Coalition released photos of the operation targeting the Presidency Palace In Sana’a, and revealed a “Houthi secret facility” south of it. Two days later, the Coalition fighter planes launched raids against the Sana’a Airport, saying in a statement, that it hit “pivot centers related to specific targets in the Dailami Air Base, which is connected with the Sana’a Airport”. (6)

The Houthis sounded the alarm by knocking the doors of South Yemen from Shabwa concurrently with their comprehensive campaign against the strategic Marib. It seems as if the group reaps the harvest of years of Saudi flexibility through which the KSA has not made any significant gains amid ongoing Houthi attacks against the Kingdom’s sky.

The latest moves by the “Joint Forces” can be attributed to the Saudi evaluation of its policy towards the Houthis, and the possibility of relying on those forces which proved success in confronting the  Iran-backed group. Consequently, the KSA could put pressure against the Houthis, restraining their threats, as well as achieving the Saudi endeavors which couldn’t be attained by the flexible policy based on the kingdom’s talks with Tehran. 

Indeed, the Joint Forces made several advances on the ground in the governorate of Al Hudaydah, Taiz and Ibb over a short period since their withdrawal. 

Those advances revealed the gap between the fronts of the Islah-affiliated forces, and those related to the “Joint Forces”, as well as the fronts on the borders of South Yemen governorates in Abyan, Lahij and Dhale’.

It is likely that the Joint Forces could play a forthcoming role in other fronts, especially the governorate of Shabwa, as part of the Saudi military rebalancing and weakening the Houthis strategy.

Risks

Obviously, the Saudi reliance on the Joint Forces for pressing the Houthis reveals Riyadh's state of frustration towards the forces affiliated with the Yemeni Government. This could justify why the Kingdom and the UAE pulled out their forces from Shabwa, which has in turn witnessed unprecedented internal movement against the Islah-affiliated authority. 

Additionally, it is worth mentioning that the State of Emergency and Public Mobilization declared in Mid-September, in a televised speech by Aidarous Al-Zubaidi, the President of the STC seeking for South Yemen independence, in which he called for “correcting the path of the battle against the Houthis” can be considered one of the causes behind the latest military moves.

However, there are emergent risks related to the participation of the Southern Forces (the Giants Brigades and Infantry Brigades, led by Haitham Qassem) in the Al Hudaydah and Taiz battles without Saudi guarantees. The risks are also related to the possible incursion of those forces into Northern areas while the forces loyal to Islah control Shabwa and Wadi Hadramout in South. 

Those risks enhance the possibility that the KSA could secure its skies through reaching understandings with Iran, this means that Riyadh won’t need continuing its new military approach by pressing the Houthis through the “Joint Forces”. This invokes the risks of a similar scenario in Al-Bayda, which witnessed disastrous setbacks in favour of the Houthis after battles in July that included forces from the “Giants Brigades” and the “Tribal Resistances”. 

The Houthi control over Al-Bayda opened several fronts through which they made advances in Shabwa, and threatened the middle areas in Abyan, in addition to Yafa’ fronts in Lahij that sometimes witnessed clashes between the group and the Southern troops. 

Some make a connection between those military developments and the visit by STC’s President and a high-level delegation from the Council to Riyadh under a Saudi invitation. Al-Zubaidi met with active Saudi and international actors including the Ambassadors of The Five Permanent Members of the Security Council. However, the fears about making the STC preoccupied in the Riyadh Agreement’s details while the military and human stock of the Southern Forces being exhausted in the Northern battles are still dependent on the scale of the political guarantees the Southern Transitional Council could secure through this visit. 

Journalist and reporter at South24 Center for News and Studies

- Photo: Fighters of the 2nd Brigade, the Giants Forces , during their progress in "Wadi Saqm" in Maqbna District in Taiz Governorate, November 27, 2021 (Giants Media)

West Coast Arab Coalition Saudi Arabia Houthis Southern Forces Joint Forces