Reading the Military Developments in light of Shabwa's Battles


Sun, 06-02-2022 05:38 PM, Aden

Thabet Hussein Saleh (Anlaysis file 4-6)

Initial throes

For a wider understanding of the current military map and the transformations that happened in the past years and anticipating the future developments on the ground, there is a need to return to a pivotal point which is restructuring the Armed Forces in light of what has been adopted between 2012-2013.

This is based on the Restructure Committee ratified by President Hadi in the Presidential Decision No. 104 in 2013 which divided the Yemeni Republic into 7 military districts as follows:

1. The First Military District:  Its headquarters is located in Seiyun, and its area of control is in the entire Wadi Hadramout (the valley and the desert).

2. The Second Military District: It is located on the coast of Hadramout and Al Mahra (the First and the Second Military Districts used to form one Military Region under the name of the “Eastern Military District”
 before the restructuring process.

3. The Third Military District: is based in Marib, Al Jawf and Shabwa.

4. The Fourth Military District: based in Aden, Lahij, Al Dhale, Abyan, Taiz and Ibb; Almost to the middle of Ibb Governorate.

5. The Fifth Military District: Al Hodeidah and Hajjah.

6. The Sixth Military District: The scope of its control is Sanaa - Saada.

7. The Seventh Military District: Its headquarters is located in Dhamar and extends to Al Bayda.

It is worth mentioning that the military zone of Sanaa, and specifically the north-western zone up to Hodeidah and Saada, led by Major General Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar was called the "Northwest Military District '' before restructure. 

The Special Forces and the Republican Guards were also restructured and attached to the military districts, and part of them were called the Reserve Forces. The Presidential Decision No. 105 created new units including “Special Operations” “Missile Forces” and “Presidential Protection”. The Air Force and the Navy, remained marginal forces that lack sufficient equipment and high technologies. This has been demonstrated during the past years of the war since 2015.

The military map after 2015

After the coup launched by the Houthis who seized North and reached Maashiq, the headquarters of President Hadi after he fled Sanaa to the city of Yemen, the military power balance on the ground has changed completely. While the Fourth District maintained the scope of its spread in Aden and other Southern areas, the two axes of Taiz and Ibb remained out of their operational control range. The 1st and the 2nd districts in Hadramout kept their geographical range (the valley and the coast). 

It is worth mentioning that the 1st Military District did make zero participation in the war amid accusations that it backed the Internationally-Recognized Government (IRG)’s forces against the STC in Shabwa during the August 2019 Events. The 3rd District maintained its locations in Marib and Shabwa. The domination of Marib over Shabwa increased after units affiliated with the Islah Party seized Shabwa. This situation didn’t change until Shabwa was recently liberated from the Houthis. 

As for the other military districts including the 5th, the 6th and the 7th districts, they practically became under the Houthi control, even though they nominally remained affiliated with the “IRG”. They are mere structural nomenclatures like those governors of the governorates under the Houthi control. 

In addition to the former official military forces, new formations have emerged in most areas. The Taiz Axis was formed, which is affiliated with the Islah party.  Under its framework, new units were established, mostly consisting of graduates of religious institutes (known as Scientific Institutes) and the University of Faith (the Iman University).  All of those are centers supervised by the hardline religious leaders of the Islah Party, in which their followers are being prepared. 

After the Houthis assassinated their ally, Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the latter’s nephew, Tariq Saleh, the former Commander of the Special Forces and the President's Guards resorted to the liberated areas and formed new forces under the name of “the Republican Guards”. Most members of the new unit are remnants of the “Republican Guards” established by the former President, in addition to the Tihami Resistance. Those forces participated in the confrontations against the Houthis in Al Hodeidah in which the Southern Giants Forces acted as striking power. 

The current balance of power

Currently, South Yemen is militarily subjected to the Southern Forces represented by the 4th Military District and forces which were formed after the war including the Security Belts, the Shabwani and the Hadrami Elites, the Southern Giants Brigades, Commandos and Security Forces. 

Apart from Wadi Hadramout and, to some extent, Al Mahra, Hadramout is still controlled by the 1st Military District whose affiliation is divided between the Islah Party and the Houthis with a tangible impact of the “terrorist” groups. 

The same thing applies to the governorate of Al Mahra which still has not a clear status. The Islah Party attempts to be active there through a wing led by former Brigadier General Ali Salem Al Huraizi, as well as some brigades loyal to President Hadi, including those that are still militarized in Shuqrah, Abyan. However, they are weak, meaning that we can’t say that the IRG’S Forces including the “National Army” in Marib, Taiz and Hajjah are much more affiliated with the Islah Party than President Hadi, After the latest developments in Shabwa, there have been some changes in the deployment of the military forces as Shabwa became again under the control of the Southern Forces as well as Harib District in Marib.

The military option in the next stage

The Houthis enjoy a comfortable position in North Yemen as they are in the defensive mode. Their strategy on the ground is based upon two directions: Sticking to the areas they control, then fortifying them by tightening comprehensive control over them. The second one is making expansion by completing their control over the remaining Northern areas, such as the Marib city complex, the Western Coast and the Taiz Axis, if we exclude - from a military perspective in managing battles - the lack of secret coordination and cooperation between the Houthis and the Islah, which are explicit accusations previously made by military leaders.

Furthermore, The Houthis try to benefit from their other options in order to achieve victories on the ground to make negotiation and media gains represented in launching ballistic missiles and drones towards Gulf states which lead the Coalition to pressurize them to stop providing cover for the forces on the ground. This may be accompanied with acts of sabotage, and targeting their opponents within the liberated areas, especially against South Yemen. 

The IRG’s options are in fact the Coalition’s options as the latter is the one which leads the war. The IRG actually has no options by itself, as the seven years' experience didn’t qualify it to have its independent choices because it lacks an influential presence on the ground, as it didn’t make victories nor maintained the areas controlled by its forces. 

The available options for the Coalition and the “IRG” include continuing military airstrikes against Houthi sites and bases, targeting their senior leaders, or by moving the fronts such as the Al Hodeidah front. The forces in the western coast, including the “Southern Giants, can be directed to reopen the front and take over Al Hodeidah. This is the first option.

One of the important options against the Houthi escalation is represented in moving fronts in Marib, Taiz, Al Jawf and Hajjah. However, all these options are depending on the position of the IRG-affiliated forces (the National Army) and how they match the Coalition’s strategy and the other forces which can support those operations (pro or against).

This means that the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement will be a top priority by compelling all military forces to return to their previous locations as in 2019. In other words, the forces based in Shuqrah, Wadi Hadramout and Shabwa will have to move to other fronts, at least to the nearby governorates of Marib and Al Bayda.

The possible scenarios of ending the war

After the latest developments in Shabwa and defeating the Houthis in their areas of control in a record time until liberating Harib District in Marib, some call the Southern Giants Brigades to liberate the remaining areas in Marib, at least its southern part including Al Abdiyah and Al Juba. However, this remains tied with the map of forces and positions there, especially that the National Army’s stance towards the battles is still vague and revealing much evidence, complications and loss of confidence. 

Based on previous war experience against the Houthis, the military confrontations are the only language they understand. The military scenario requires incurring the Houthis a heavy defeat or at least to initially make full control over Al Hodeidah, Marib, Taiz and Ibb. 

Reaching this level of control could push the Houthis towards a reasonable political settlement. In other words, the anti-Houthi coalition and forces, especially in South Yemen won’t make a political settlement without a position of strength not from a position of weakness. The military move will certainly remain connected with the political decision while war is another political tool and has to reach and end. 

The constant big questions are how long will the confrontations last? What are the subsequent options? What are the expected scenarios to end the war and wrap off the crisis?

The indicators and the experience during the last 7 years in the political and military fields concluded that if the Coalition remained relying upon the same previous policies, mechanisms and tools, the war would remain open. This means that it will be a prolonged war of attrition, a war of exhaustion, weakening, impoverishment and misery for all.

The international political scenarios still have an important role in impacting the military decisions. They are basically connected with the US stance and their ups and downs generally vary according to it. 

The American position has passed through a lot of transformations and shifts during the past years [1].  During the Trump era, the US aids to the Coalition focused on providing intelligence, media and diplomatic support as well as not making unjustified pressure against it. However, the situation changed completely after Biden took office as he made big pressure against the Coalition to end its operations. The Houthis exploited this by making military escalations, pushing some to believe that the US gave the Houthis the green light to continue the war. However, after a series of futile attempts to convince the Houthis by peace initiatives, it seems that the Coalition took the American green light to resume striking Houthi targets everywhere. 

Accordingly, the Yemeni file again became a low priority for the United States after the enthusiasm of the new administration dimmed due to its big complexities and Washington’s preoccupation by what it deems as more important issues such as the Iranian nuclear file, the Korean and the Ukrainian crises and other issues making the Yemeni file a secondary one for it. Ultimately, the matter is still dependent on a strict political position adopted by the US to pressurize Iran, and Implicitly the Houthis, to end the war and find a political solution in Yemen, especially if it comes within comprehensive political settlements for the region.

We believe that the political settlement opportunities remain existent in such a case, but it won’t be drastic or comprehensive if it ignores the core of the conflict and the main issue which is the disputes between South and North over the Unity issue. The conflicts between Iran vs the KSA, The Houthis vs Saudi Arabia, the Houthis vs Islah, and the Houthis vs the IRG are still secondary issues which could be solved if compared with the main issue which is the chronic conflict between South and North amid endeavors for dodging around any initiatives or efforts to highlight it.

Thabet Hussein Saleh
Brigadier General Thabet Hussein Saleh is a political and military strategist and South24's Member of the Council of Consultants.
- Photo: Houthi fighters (Reuters)

ShabwaSouth YemenUAEAbu DhabiHouthi AttackSouthern Transitional CouncilSouthern Giants BrigadesYemen