Deadlock or Political Acceleration: What After The Military Development in Sanaa?


Thu, 30-12-2021 01:05 PM, Aden

Farida Ahmed (South24) 

The pace of the intensified airstrikes against Sanaa has increased for over one month as the Saudi-led Arab Coalition's jet fighters resumed their military campaign against Sanaa on Nov. 23rd after more than 3 months of halt due to the international pressure seeking to reach a cease-fire. Most of the airstrikes focused on the Sanaa International Airport and other targets such as legitimate military sites according to the Coalition (1) which called on civilians not to gather  or approach the targeted locations.

The resumption of the airstrike against Sanaa is attributed to a video published by Saudi channels after being declassified by the Coalition hours before the strike. The video shows Houthis elements while training and testing a missile aerial system using UN planes as a moving target in a simulation of interception and destruction scenarios (2). The Coalition’s airstrikes succeeded in neutralizing the Houthis in terms of attacking the Saudi depth. Despite the "Houthi Declaration" about “the 7th of December Operation” after more than two weeks of the Coalition’s intensified strikes, its effectiveness has been less than their Houthi expectation. 

Evaluating the current events in Sanaa leads to one result that the Arab Coalition’s intelligence activities became more extended and accurate this time. This could be attributed, according to observers, to American logistic participation with an aim to press Iran regarding its nuclear program amid Tehran’s continuous procrastination for reviving the 2015 Nuclear Deal to alleviate the severity of sanctions against it. This complicates the status of the negotiation and apparently paves the way for the outbreak of US-Iran Conflict, especially if Israel enters the confrontation line. 

No doubt that the latest military escalation towards Sanaa was a prelude for removing the legal immunity of its airport which remained under protection based on the International law. The Coalition probably waited for the proper moment to prove its claims about the Houthi use of the airport and civilian facilities as military barracks and platforms to launch ballistic missiles and drones. For example, the Arab Coalition gave the Houthis a 6 hours-deadline to move specific weapons out of Al-Thawra Stadium in Sanaa and to restore the natural status of the civilian facility. Indeed, it was confirmed that the Houthis moved the qualitative weapons from the stadium to Al-Tashrifat Camp. However, Hours later, the Coalition bombed the camp and other targets in which the Houthis keep specific arms including those affiliated with civilian elites. 

In a press conference on “Sunday”, The Saudi-led Arab Coalition released a video which reveals the involvement of Hezbollah’s leaders in targeting ships in the Red Sea accusing it of training the Houthis on operating and bombing drones. (3)

Mysterious death

On the other hand, it is not clear yet how the Iranian Ambassador to Sanaa “Hassan Erlo” died, and whether the reason behind this is an airstrike or Covid-19 infection. The latter is the formal Iranian account according to the obituary statement issued by Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran (4). Earlier to that, Iran's Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian threatened to officially present a complaint against the KSA for its delay in making a decision about moving the Ambassador to Iran to receive medical treatment after being infected by Covid-19 and his subsequent death (5). However, political analysts and bloggers circulated that “Erlo” was killed in an air strike along with a group of experts affiliated with the “Iranian Revolutionary Guards” (IRGC),  Hezbollah and the Houthis against one of the military sites monitored by the Coalition. The whole reactions suggest that the second account is more true, especially that Erlo’s funeral ceremonies suggest that he didn’t die of dangerous pandemic such as Covid-19 as its usual to bury its victims in a more precautionary measures and less gathering circumstances to avoid infection (6). Moreover, The obituary of the  late Ambassador dubbed him as “martyr”, and he was described by Iranian activists as being Yemen’s “Qassem Soleimani. In a tweet (7), his daughter “Fatma Erlo” also said that her father “was martyred “and that his “martyrdom will lead to Bin Salman’s misery, referring to the Saudi King and his Crown Prince, similar to the misery incurred by trump after Soleimani’s death according to her. 

It is worth mentioning that the Wall Street Journal said on Dec. 17th that the Houthis asked Saudi Arabia to allow the Iranian Diplomat “Erlo to immediately return to Iran, and that the KSA and a number of observers initially believed this as signs of disputes and tension between Tehran and the Houthis in spite of the latter’s denial. However, this appeared as an attempt to evacuate the Ambassador from Sanaa by any way. Two days later, this was confirmed by another way through the Iranian demand that claimed he is infected by Corona and has to be quickly moved to Iran because of his health deterioration. Indeed, he was moved through Omani-Iraqi diplomatic mediation less than 48 hours after reporting about his health conditions despite the Iranian Foreign Minister’s accusations against the KSA of procrastination in taking the decision. 

Generally, “Erlo” didn’t enjoy any grassroot sympathy in Sanaa and other Houthi areas of influence due to accusations against him of involvement in many military acts that bombing several sites in Sanaa that killed civilians. He also played a basic role in training and planning for managing the latest battles in Marib and other liberated areas in South Yemen, according to accusations by the Yemeni government and the Arab coalition. Moreover, he has a major role in launching missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia. In December 2020, the US Treasury blacklisted Erlo and said he was an official in the Quds Force, the IRGC's overseas arm (8).

In this regard, it is important to point out to the doubts raised after Erlo's death about his real identity, especially after the official Iranian News Intelligence “IRNA” reported, on Twitter, that “Erlo” is himself “Abdulreza Shahlai” before deleting the tweet. Shahlai is the military figure that survived US Intelligence’s aerial raid on Sanaa on Jan. 3rd 2020 in conjunction with the strike that targeted Qassem Soleimani in Iraq. Many analysts believe that “Shahlai”, the IRGC’ Officer, is the “pseudonym” of “Erlo”. This could be deduced through the large media coverage by the Iranian outlets about his death, in addition to the presence of high-ranking figures and IRGC’s officers during his funeral. This strengthens the important role he had played in Yemen and other areas; as such a big degree of attention won’t go to a normal diplomatic figure in normal conditions.

Deadlock or political acceleration

Over the second half of the year, the military situation has been dominant while the first half witnessed intensified diplomatic and political activities. The Houthis have mobilised their power and seized control on different sites in Marib and Al-Bayda. Three districts in Shabwa in South Yemen were handed over to them by the Islah Party which had controlled the local authority in the governorate according to accusations by Yemeni Army’s Commanders before recently replacing the governor with another one who enjoys consensus. However, the unexpected military operations in Sanaa and the areas under the Houthi control have been less sharp and concentrated. This suggests that there are carefully studied goals through the accuracy of the strikes which affirmed the existence of arms depots which were proved by consecutive explosions.

It can be said that although the tension of the military situation in Sanaa, the mutual statements between the Houthis and the Arab Coalition have not reached the expected strength that could be assessed as a status of political deadlock between the disputing areas. It could be described as a military operation prior to a political act and the determination of a clear starting point before the resumption of the political process that has been slowed and declined. It is likely that the military action came to move the stagnant political waters and accelerate their pace. 

It is more important to mention that The UN Envoy "Grundberg" has not yet visited the Houthis in Sanaa. This indicates that he adopts a different strategy towards the Houthi in comparison with his predecessors. He expects that all parties would engage in the political process "without preconditions," as he always states (9). This demonstrates that the man will not comply with the Houthis' conditions to open Sanaa Airport because of his position first, and because of the air strikes on the airport and the lifting of its legal immunity secondly.

Those shifts could push the Houthis to deal with the UN Envoy and reduce their specific weapons losses, as the continuity of aerial bombings would make them lose much of their arm stock, especially after tightening control on smuggling outlets. For example, the “Giant Forces”, which have recently redeployed in Shabwa, seized a shipment of drones at a security checkpoint in Radum district while it was on its way to the Houthis (10). On Sunday evening, the Backup and Support Forces, affiliated with the STC, announce detecting  a container loaded with various types of drones at the Jabal Al-Arr camp point in Yafa'a, on its way to Houthi-controlled areas (11). On December 20th, Ships, affiliated to the US 5th Fleet, seized about 1400 AK-47 assault rifles and 226600 ammunition bullets in  a stateless fishing vessel originated in Iran,  according to the a US statement,  and led by 5 Yemenis as it after crossing the  international waters that are used to .smuggle weapons illegally to the Houthis (12)

Accordingly, it can be said that there is a real indicator about tightening grip on the Houthis regarding smuggling weapons, as well as targeting weapon assembly workshops. This would render the arms strategic weapon upon which the Houthis have relied in recent years to be less influential. It is likely that the Houthis will have no choice but to respond to the UN Envoy and engage in a political operation to avoid more losses and to preserve the gains they previously achieved on the ground. 

Resident Fellow with South24 Center, researcher and journalist in political affairs.
Photo: Mourners carry the coffin of the Iranian ambassador to the Houthi rebels, Hassan Erlo, during his funeral in Tehran, December 21, 2021 (Iranian media)

Arab CoalitionKSAIranTehranRiyadhHouthisHassan ErloSanaaAirport