Cautious Optimism: Could Shabwa Correct the Battles Path in Yemen?


Sat, 08-01-2022 02:40 PM, Aden

Farida Ahmed (South24) 

On the first day of the New Year, the Southern Giant Forces launched the first military operation in Shabwa under the so-called "South Tornado”.

The Giant Forces succeeded in regaining Usaylan district in Shabwa governorate. It is one of the three districts seized by the Iran-backed Houthis in September 2021 while the former local authority was holding their grip over the governorate, led by Mohammed Bin Adyo who has remained a highly controversial figure for more than three years.

The consequences of President Hadi’s appointment of Parliamentian and the prominent tribal leader, Awad Mohammad bin Al-Wazir, as Shabwa’s new Governor began to unfold. This, along with the Southern Giant Forces and Shabwa Defense Forces, contributed in adjusting the battle course again in favor of Shabwa. He is also the head of Shabwa’s Military and Security Committee as well as being the Governor. His predecessor, Bin Adyo, who is affiliated to Islah Party (Muslim Brotherhood) has been accused of involving in collusion between the “National Army Forces” and the Islah-controlled “Special Security Forces” to hand over the three Shabwa’s districts to the Houthis without any form of resistance. 

The current promising military changes in the governorate make the theory of Muslim Brotherhood-Houthi collusion more believable. 

These have not been the only accusations against the former Governor who was also accused of isolating Shabwa from Aden and Hadramout, and making it affiliated to Marib at all political and military levels. This occurred especially after the August 2019 events when some brigades, affiliated with the National Army and led by Northern military commanders tightened their control on the governorate. 

Moreover, there have been Northern figures who commanded brigades and security checkpoints in multiple district. 

This impacted the social relationship coherence in Shabwa due to the disputes between supporters and opponents of the presence of these forces. This particularly follows various violations committed by the local authority against its opponents, mainly the “Shabwani Elite Forces” whose members have been subjected to assassinations and arrests, and being largely disintegrated despite their former big role in maintaining Shabwa’s security and stability.  

Moving to other basic aspects, Shabwa’s economic richness has enhanced its strategic importance. It is considered the “balance knob” for the local and regional powers wrestling over it, as controlling Shabwa is the key for all eastern governorates as well as managing its revenues and oil exports which for years kept monopolized by corrupt elements according to its residents’. 

Furthermore, Shabwa is considered an important and fundamental cornerstone for Southern people. The former Governor tried to enhance his rule through marketing a basic plea different from Shabwa’s reality and by exaggeratingly bragging about trivial achievements. However, was this true plea? Observers said that it has been nothing in comparison with the scale of violations and divisions which have been deepened among the governorate’s residents, along with administrative and financial corruption and smuggling oil revenues to power centers affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Marib. 

The Giant Forces in the forefront

On Dec 27th, the Southern Giant Brigades, led by Brigadier General "Abu Zara'a Al Muharrami", and which work under the “Joint Forces” in Yemen’s West Coast, employed huge military forces in Shabwa. In a brief statement1, the Giant Forces said that they will take over the operation to liberate the three Shabwa’s districts controlled by the Houthis. 

The latest deployments came as part of widespread military arrangements which could later extend to Al-Bayda and Marib after the complete liberation of Shabwa’s districts. 

The Giants Brigades in Shabwa consist of four Brigades including  the 1st Giants Brigade, led by Brigadier General Raed Al-Habhi, the 2nd Giants Brigade, led by Brigadier General Hamdi Shoukry, the 12th Giants Brigade, led by Brigadier General Ammar Ali Mohsen, known as "Abu Ali Al-Dhalei", and Brigadier Al-Nakha'i Brigade. 

Those forces are expected to play a big role in liberation and securing crossings between Shabwa and the governorates of Bayda and Marib. It is likely that they will later head to Marib to reduce the Houthi pressure against the governorate and to reinforce the resistance there.

It is worth mentioning that the majority of members of the Giant Forces are Southern youth, mostly affiliated to Salafism. They have emerged as an influential power in the “Golden Spear” (Al Romh AL-Zahabi) Battle which aimed to restore the West Coast cities from the Houthi hands in Jan 2017. The UAE assumed the biggest role in leading this military operation. 

After the Giant and the Tuhami Brigades regained most cities overlooking the West Coast, the establishment of “Joint Forces” was announced in July 20192. this came after joining them paralleling by the “Republican Guards”, who are known today as “National Resistance”, led by Brigadier General Tariq Saleh. 

On the other hand, It seems that there are close relationships between the Giants’ leadership and the STC. The two parties agree about the nature of the existing conflict against the Houthis and the Muslim Brotherhood related to their mutual cooperation and collision according to military field assortments. 

Therefore, the Giant Forces are aware of the importance of STC’s political cover for them like other Southern forces including the “Backup and Support”, “the Storm” (Asifa), Security Belts,  and “Shabwani and Hadrami Elites”.

It is more likely that the Southern Giant Forces won’t return to the West Coast in the following stage amid possible military arrangements attributed with distributing the Coast’s fronts between the National Resistance and the Tuhami Forces as part of redeployment and reposition operations there.

The more important is that the presence of the Southern Giant Forces in Shabwa along with Shabwa Defense Forces in the governorate could threaten the existence of the military forces loyal to the National Army in  Abyan’s Shuqra city. They previously refused to head to Marib, in light of the Riyadh Agreement’s military aspect, and engaged in several clashes against the STC. 

Consequently, after the Southern Forces' control and the STC’s existence in Shabwa, it will be easy to defeat them in case of renewed tension with the STC forces. Currently, they are enclosed from both sides and could withdraw soon if they feel danger even if not engaging in direct operation confrontations against the Southern Forces, especially with the end of the support and protection they used to receive from Shabwa. Practically, they no longer have a grassroot incubator.

The Arab Coalition's strategy in Shabwa

It has been clear that Riyadh reconsidered its miscalculations in Shabwa after the heavy losses it has incurred because of the former local authority that contributed to the Houthi advances in Marib and Shabwa. 

It is well known that the KSA played a pivotal role in balancing August 2019 Events, as it supported the government's army  with troops and reinforcements from Marib.

Later, the KSA provided the governorate’s Muslim Brotherhood unlimited political and financial support. This was clear through the quality of weapons and equipment used by the Special Forces and other units affiliated with the army there.

In light of the Riyadh Agreement, it can be said that with the Houthi military threats against Marib and the lack of support from the 1st Military District or the troops' return from Shuqra to Marib to enhance them, it does not seem that the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement's military aspect is applicable at the short term, especially that the Arab Coalition used the Southern Giant Forces in Shabwa to complete the liberation task and could rely upon them in other Northern fronts. This comes amid frequent reports about the collision of the National Army, led by Ali Mohsin Al-Ahmar in handing over several fronts to the Houthis.

Moreover, it seems that there are attempts to curb the M.B's role in the army and security departments and relying instead upon alternative military forces which are more cooperative and credible to support the Coalition's operations in Yemen. 

 It is remarkable that the UAE restored its role in Shabwa through a clear wide scale coordination with Riyadh. This has been demonstrated through the latest changes in the governorate, whether by supporting replacing the Governor or by backing the Southern Giant Forces as well as activating the role played by the Shabwani Elite (Shabwa Defense Forces) in liberating its districts, especially that the UAE is the backers of those forces over years.

On the other hand, the "Special Security Forces" , which are accused of being affiliated with the Islah Party, could constitute a security and military tension hotbed in Shabwa. The governorate's authority can deal with that with the Coalition's support.

An official told "South24" that there are some possible scenarios related to that including changing their commanders or reformulating them in light of the goals of the new local authorities and its efforts to secure Shabwa. Those forces could be disintegrated through drying up their resources and the allocation they receive from the governorate's budget since bin Adyo's Era. The scenarios also include restructuring the forces as part of Shabwa Police. Finally, the worst scenario is to deliver military strikes against the forces to fragment them completely so as to ensure that they won't confuse the military and political scenes in the governorate.

Activating the anti-terrorism role

The Shabwani Elite Forces had  played a big role in eliminating AQAP members in Shabwa after launching the "Golden  Spear" (Alsahm Alzahabi) operation in Hadramout and "Al-faisal" in Shabwa between 2017-2018 with the Arab Coalition's support.

After the National Army forces took control of Shabwa in August 2019, AQAP regained its activity in some districts, and carried out some operations against security checkpoints and headquarters run by the Shabwani Elite Forces, before the latter’s presence was almost completely ended in the governorate. 

Informed sources told "South24" that AQAP has comfortably moved in the governorate during the past couple of years but the former local authority and Hadi's media outlets stopped short of mentioning that as this does not serve their interests.

After the Houthis' control over three of its districts, Shabwa could have turned into a new conflict epicenter among the three religious forces, AQAP, Houthis and the Muslim Brotherhood even if they transiently agree with each other. However, the continuous presence of them would pose a big future danger against the Southern governorates, the Arab Coalition's states and the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea region. 

Currently, it is important that the Elite Forces regain their role in Shabwa, as they have already proven reliable in countering terrorism, especially as they are a force trained in that. It also worked on several security reforms and curbed the spread of weapons and smuggling operations in the governorate.

In its annual report, the US State Department praised the pivotal role played by the pro-STC Security Belt Forces, backed by the Arab Coalition, in the war against terrorism in South Yemen. It added that the Security Belt Forces and the STC's combat units played an important role in counter-terrorism efforts, as they took control of large parts of Aden, Abyan and Shabwa. The fatal strikes they had launched across a number of Southern governorates contributed in curbing ISIS in Yemen which remained small in size and influence in comparison to the AQAP.

Accordingly, it can be said that it is necessary to give the military Southern forces the priority to secure their territories and to neutralize them away from the military conflict. On the other hand, the other non-Southern forces disappointed the areas in which they deployed, those economic Southern regions which have huge resources such as Shabwa or Hadramout.

It is highly likely that the latest changes in the political and military dynamics in Shabwa will lead to the following 5 main consequences:

First: correcting the governorate's administrative structure such as the executive authority and the districts directors as well as the abolishment of former appointments made by bin Adyo by which he installed his relatives or persons affiliated with the Islah Party.

Second: Rehabilitation of Security and Justice Establishments by abolishing the secret prisons, releasing un-condemned detainees and referring those who face charges to the Public Prosecution.

Third: Reunion of the governorate's people and reestablishment of their social and political relationships to correct the performance of the former authority ,described by several observers as "catastrophic". The relationship between Shabwa, as a Southern governorate, with Aden and Hadramout should be restored contrary to the previous hostile approach to these two governorates in particular.

Fourth: creating a good relationship between the Arab Coalition, the STC, the local authority and the tribes which will have a positive impact for Shabwa to keep the gains of the coming stage.

Fifth: Continuing anti-terrorism efforts in cooperation with the Arab Coalition's states and the international community. 

Resident Fellow with South24 Center, researcher and journalist in political affairs.

Photo: Southern Giants Forces heading to Ataq, the capital of Shabwa, Dec 30, 2021 (Giants Media)

South YemenShabwaAtaqCoalitionUAEKSAHouthiIslahMuslim Brotherhood