The Participation of Southern Forces in Liberating Shabwa: Motives and Guarantees


Sun, 31-10-2021 08:47 PM, Aden

Shabwa (South24) 

Coinciding with the withdrawal of the forces of the Saudi-led "Arab Coalition" from Shabwa governorate, South Yemen, there was much talk of an "agreement" for the participation of the STC's Southern forces in the battles to liberate the three districts of Beihan, west of the governorate.

The "Houthi group" had seized the three districts without a fight last September, which raised questions about the extent to which Southern forces can participate in the clashes, the possible motives for this, and what guarantees can be offered for such participation.

Shabwa is witnessing rapid developments, which began with the Iranian-backed "Houthi" seizing the two districts (Upper Beihan - Ain) and large parts of the (Asilan) district, on October 21, without a fight and within hours. (1)

The government forces affiliated with the Islamic "Islah" party (the Muslim Brotherhood branch in Yemen) were accused of handing over the three districts to the Houthis, which caused a wave of defections in the ranks of these originally divided forces, in addition to the outbreak of a broad popular and tribal movement calling for the return of the pro-STC "Shabwani Elite" forces and the accountability of Shabwa's authorities and the pro-Islah forces, and "liberating" the districts from the Houthis.

According to political sources who spoke to "South24", the UAE forces operating within the Saudi-led Coalition had left, at dawn last Tuesday, from "Al-Alam" camp in Jardan District, Shabwa. According to the same source, Saudi forces also suddenly left through Ataq Airport, after information about possible attacks on Arab Coalition forces sites in the governorate.

Pro-Islah forces surrounded Al-Alam camp after the Shabwani Elite soldiers refused to hand it over, for three consecutive days.

Elite soldiers backed by tribal fighters repelled an attack on the camp with medium weapons on Thursday. Before the local authority forces were able to take control of the camp, on Saturday morning, after a tank attack, according to "South24" field sources.

Local media sources said that a soldier from the pro-Islah forces was killed and two others wounded, while at least one soldier from the Shabwani Elite was wounded in the attack.

In addition, the Cabinet of Ministries called for stopping any escalatory actions in Shabwa and other governorates, unify efforts and focus them on the fateful battle of confronting the "Houthi militia."

These developments come in light of a large Houthi advancement in the neighboring governorate of Marib, where the group had announced the completion of its control over more than 11 districts in the governorate out of 14, the most recent of which was the districts of "Jabal Murad - Al-Juba", while the group continues its advancement on the city of Marib, the capital of the governorate, which includes gas fields, despite the continuous overflights of Coalition planes, and the ground resistance of the tribes.

Reason for withdrawal

It is not yet clear, officially, the background and motives for the departure of the Arab Coalition forces from Shabwa governorate, whether it is a routine framework for relocation or replacement, or for fundamental developments in the political and military scene.

However, observers point out that the increasing accusations of the local authority of complicity with the Houthis in handing over the Beihan districts, have reinforced the mistrust between them and the Saudi-led Coalition.

Meanwhile, local authority officials in Shabwa said that the withdrawal of UAE forces was part of an agreement to leave the camp, which was brokered by Saudi Arabia two months ago.

"South24" military affairs advisor, and the military expert, Brigadier General Thabet Saleh, considered that the motives for withdrawals may differ from Saudi Arabia to the UAE.

Thabet said, "It is true that the entire Arab Coalition forces in Yemen work under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, and coordinate with them in every situation, but every country and its forces have their own and distinct circumstances."

According to Thabet, the withdrawal may be "a message that expresses the lack of confidence and security between the Saudi forces and Shabwa's authority, which carries loyalty to the Muslim Brotherhood."

But he also did not rule out that "this step has something to do with Saudi Arabia's attempts to show more flexibility and good intentions to make the path of negotiations with Iran a success, which is sponsored by Iraq and working for it by Oman, and with the blessing of the United States." This applies, according to Thabet, also to the news about the withdrawal of Saudi forces from Al-Mahra Governorate, which borders the Sultanate of Oman.

As for the withdrawal of UAE forces from Al-Alam camp, Brigadier General Thabet explained that there are "serious security risks faced by these forces, given the hostile policy and violent campaign of incitement of the Shabwa authority against the UAE as a state, and towards its forces participating in the Coalition in particular."

Thabet considers that, eventually, the Arab Coalition has lifted its cover to protect Shabwa's authorities and their practices towards the people of the province, which makes the ball in the court of the people of Shabwa first and the Southerners in general, after the exposure of what he described as a "complicity" between the Houthis and the Islah party.

Motivation to participate

In mid-September, the STC President Major General Aidrous Al-Zubaidi declared a state of emergency in South Yemen, calling for a general mobilization to "defend South."

The declaration of a state of emergency and mobilization represented - according to observers and experts - early signs of the intention of the STC controlling Aden and the neighboring governorates to intervene militarily in Shabwa governorate, especially as it coincided with the progress of the Iran-backed Houthis in the oil-rich Southern governorate.

Observers considered the "lack of trust" between the STC and pro-Islah government forces in Shabwa, in addition to accusations and the increasing evidence of "complicity" by these forces with the Houthis, as the biggest motives and reasons that might make the STC resort to military options.

According to observers, the storming of "Al-Alam camp" by the government forces is likely to constitute an additional motive for the STC to intervene militarily in Shabwa, in light of the apprehension of a scenario similar to what happened in "Al-Alam" in the "Balhaf" oil facility.

A high-ranking military source in the Southern forces told "South24" that the Southern military command are "considering the recent accelerating developments, and the options are open."


However, experts believe that the participation of the Southern forces in the clashes in Shabwa is linked to guarantees and understandings with the government side.

In this regard, the military analyst, Brigadier General Mohammad Jawas Al-Adani told "South24" that "the military intervention of the STC in Shabwa is out of question in the absence of an agreement or understandings with the government forces."

Jawas pointed out that "there are no guarantees for the Southern forces to participate in the battle to liberate the Beihan districts in Shabwa." Until this is done, "a great stride must be made in implementing the military and security part of the Riyadh Agreement."

Regarding the threats posed by the Houthis to Shabwa, Brigadier General Jawas indicated that the Houthis "can easily advance to the capital of Shabwa, Ataq." He stressed that "the government forces must agree with the STC forces to formulate a kind of charter, and that they participate together."

Brigadier General Jawas explained that "it is not possible for the STC to advance towards Shabwa while the government forces remain in the Shuqrah, Abyan, and between Shabwa and Abyan." Jawas considered that something like this "cannot create any trust between the two parties who previously fought and are united by the Riyadh Agreement."

Jawas warned against embarking on a "preemptive war" that Southern forces might launch against pro-government forces. He pointed out that "the Yemeni government has not yet provided any guarantees to the STC, which is being pushed to fight pro-government forces as a stumbling block on its way to Shabwa."

The fate of pro-Islah forces

In August 2019, military forces supported by tribal members coming from the Northern governorates of Marib and Al-Jawf took control of Shabwa governorate, after limited battles with the Shabwa Elite Forces, which withdrew from the governorate to Aden and Mukalla, leaving only units of them in the “Balhaf” facility, along with UAE forces.

After the signing of the Riyadh Agreement between the STC and the Yemeni government in November of the same year, the government forces were supposed to return to their locations in Marib and Al-Jawf governorates, North Yemen, and the Shabwani Elite would spread again in Shabwa, South Yemen, which was stipulated in the military part of the Riyadh Agreement.

However, violent battles that took place between the two parties to the agreement over the subsequent months hampered the implementation of the agreement, while the STC accused the Islah party and figures in the Yemeni presidency, led by the Yemeni Vice President, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, of trying to disrupt and thwart the agreement in order for the forces affiliated to these parties to remain in Shabwa and Wadi Hadramiut, where they were stationed much earlier.

Divisions emerged clearly in the ranks of the government forces in Shabwa, which resulted in rounds of confrontations, last July, between the public security forces in the governorate, led by Awad al-Dahboul, and the "special forces" led by Abd Rabbo Lakab, who is accused of having ties with the Houthis. (2)

Analysts attributed these clashes, which left dead and wounded to the conflict between the wings of Yemeni legitimacy headed by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.

After the fall of the Beihan districts to the Houthis, the divisions in the ranks of these forces became wider, and a number of prominent officers publicly declared their defection, accusing the Shabwa authority of concluding a "hand-and-take deal" with the Houthi group, and "conspiring against Saudi Arabia."

Among these officers are Brigadier General Ali Al-Kulaibi (3), former commander of the 19th Infantry Brigade, Colonel Ateq Al-Aslami (4), te 30th Infantry Brigade Reconnaissance in Ataq, Colonel Nasser Al-Nassi (5), Director of the Ataq Axis Commander’s Office. A group of the axis' officers shared footage of their defection announcement. (6)

Following an attack by the pro-government forces in Shabwa on a peaceful sit-in camp in the Radhum district (7), last Sunday 24, officers from the Special forces, led by Abed Rabbo Lakab, announced their defection from the Special forces. (8)

It should be noted that the growing popular anger against the pro-government forces in Shabwa, where prominent tribal leaders accuse them of trying to restore the rebellions that were almost extinguished during the era of the Shabwani Elite. The governorate has already witnessed tribal conflicts over the past two years, in which all kinds of weapons were used and left dead and wounded, without interference from the pro-government forces, according to local sources.

Reports indicated the pro-government forces' relationship with members of the extremist AQAP network. Since its takeover of Shabwa in 2019, drones believed to be American have launched dozens of raids targeting extremist elements affiliated with the terrorist organization, some of which took place within the security control of government forces.

According to observers, these connections may prompt more regional and international desire to end the control of pro-Islah government forces over Shabwa, and to replace it with Shabwani Elite, which has a record in tracking and combating AQAP members between 2018-2019. The US State Department's report on terrorism has already indicated in 2019 that “the gains against terrorism were reduced with the dissolution of the Shabwani Elite.” (9)

Regardless of the Houthis battel outcome in Shabwa, the biggest concerns are focused on the renewed confrontation between Southern forces and pro-Islah government forces, especially since these forces are still recognized by the official authorities residing in Riyadh. 

Journalist and reporter at South24 Center for News and Studies

Photo: Al-Alam camp after pro-Islah forces took control of it on Saturday morning, October 30, 2021 (Al-Masdar online)

South YemenShabwaShabwani EliteSaudi ArabiaUAEIslah PartyYemeni GovernmentAl-Alam campSouthern forcesHouthisAbdrabbuh Mansur Hadi