The Houthis March South

The Houthis’ recent advances into southern and central Yemen reflect the country’s changing political landscape and the Yemeni government’s growing rift with the UAE.

The Houthis March South


After the Houthis won the battle of Hajour in March and fighting in Yemen’s coastal province of Hodeidah halted in early May, they have been on the offensive in central Yemen including Bayda province in the east, through Ibb province to al-Azareq district in Dalea province in the west. The Houthis’ southward push is a crucial breakthrough that exposed a strategic flaw in the Arab coalition’s plan in Yemen, particularly the growing tension between the Yemeni government and the UAE.

On May 1, the Houthis captured al-Husha district in the western part of Dalea, which links central Yemen with the southwestern princes of Ibb and Taiz. This came days after the Houthis took control of part of the strategic Oud mountains overlooking the road between Qaataba district in Dalea and Ibb province, and capturing Mount Nasa overlooking the town of Morais, north of Qaataba, which has witnessed fierce fighting. In Bayda province, the Houthis managed to capture the town of Dhi Naem and the strategic Mount Halmous in the southwestern Zahir district. 

These military developments come amid important political developments. In early April, the Yemeni parliament convened for the first time in four years in Hadramout province. Eighteen separate political entities subsequently formed the national Alliance of Yemeni Political Forces on April 13 in support of the internationally recognized government. However, the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) was notably absent from this new alliance and denounced its formation as an attempt to block southern separatism.    

On April 30, Aden hosted an unexpected conference announcing the creation of the Southern National Coalition (SNC), a pro-government organization whose founding body consists of 64 individuals, both independents and representatives from twelve political factions. Ahmed al-Issa, the deputy director of the Yemeni president’s office, was elected as the coalition’s president. The SNC is considered a rival to the STC, and Abu Dhabi had repeatedly sought to prevent the conference, even pressuring Egyptian authorities to ban it from being held in Cairo in early March. This step comes in the midst of growing behind the scenes intra-coalition conflict between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Abu Dhabi is seeking complete control over southern Yemen through the STC and influence over the north through the Houthis and the Sanaa wing of the General People’s Congress (GPC) party—blocs that do not recognize the internationally recognized government. Riyadh, however, is looking to keep the internationally recognized bodies weak and under its complete control. 

Meanwhile, the Sanaa wing of the GPC appointed Ahmed Ali Saleh (the son of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh) currently living in Abu Dhabi, as the party’s second vice-president. The appointment sends a message that Ahmed Ali Saleh does not recognize President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s custody over the GPC. The move also signals a warning to Saudi that the erstwhile alliance between the Houthis and the GPC can be revived if Riyadh continues to support the expanding influence of the internationally recognized government into areas controlled by Abu Dhabi’s allies.

Militarily, the Houthis have been winning on the battlefield since the beginning of 2019, benefitting from the truce imposed by the Stockholm Agreement in Hodeidah. On March 8, after a two-month battle, the Houthis took control of the Hajour region in the Hajjah province in the northwestern corner of Yemen. The Houthis mobilized extensively to win the battle, as the Hajour abuts the Houthi heartland in southern Saada province and sits only 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of the city of Houth, which lies along the one road linking Saada to the capital, Sanaa. 

This victory encouraged the Houthis to set their sights on central Yemen. They launched an assault on Dalea province, whose nine districts are divided between the Houthis and the internationally recognized government, with the latter controlling five districts including the city of Dalea. The Houthis control the districts of Juban, Damt, al-Husha, the outskirts of Qaataba, and large sections of al-Azareq. The government, meanwhile, controls the cities of Dalea and Qaataba and the districts of Jahaf, Shuayb, and al-Hussein. Despite government troops making progress from Taiz northward toward the town of Rahida in southwestern Ibb province, the Houthis have doggedly stayed on the offensive on the central Morais and Qaataba fronts, which include the road linking Ibb with Dalea province. In Bayda, only four of the province’s 20 districts are not under Houthi control: the eastern districts of al-Sawmaa, Maswara, Numan and Natea. The Bayda districts of Zahir in the south, al-Qurayshiya and Walad Rabia in the northwest, and the outskirts of al-Malagim and Numan districts in the northeast have all seen sporadic fighting between Houthi militants and pro-government troops. 

In contrast to the battle of Hajour, which aimed to secure the Houthi heartland, the battles in central Yemen (in Ibb, Dalea, and Bayda) seek to strengthen the Houthis’ influence and draw a border with the pro-Emirati STC. Both campaigns highlights Houthis’ efforts to strengthen their sway and increase the chances of establishing their de facto authority. Despite the Houthis’ negligible popular support in Dalea and Bayda, their military arsenal was clearly superior to that of the tribal resistance forces—who lacked and are not meant to have heavy weaponry—a factor that played a major role in the Houthi advance. 

However, the Houthi advance in the cities of central and southern Yemen is not only a result of own capability. Their advance has been aided by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s conflicting objectives and agendas, and their relationships with some of the groups backing the internationally recognized government. Notably, the coalition did not allow pro-government fighters to open up new fronts, such as in Qaniya (on the border between Bayda and Marib provinces) and in the Nihm district (northeast of Sanaa), which would have alleviated the pressure on forces in Bayda and Dalea. Instead, they only allowed some skirmishes in Saada province near the Saudi border. 

Similarly, coalition aircraft did not carry out airstrikes to disrupt the Houthis’ supply lines after their withdrawal from Hajour and Hodeidah fronts and move to Bada and Dayda and Dalea. This, and the coalition’s denial of requests to integrate resistance fighters within the national army have prompted the director-general of the Bayda province police force and the security director of al-Zahir district to resign in protest.  

Escalating tensions between the Yemeni government and Abu Dhabi also played a significant role in the Houthis’ military victories. The UAE apparently viewed the new parliament (which convened in Hadramout under the protection of Saudi troops), and its announcement of the National Alliance of Yemeni Political Forces, and the creation of the Southern National Coalition as a threat to its proxy forces—and even to the legitimacy of its intervention in Yemen. In addition, several government ministers have recently been critical of the coalition’s actions. On May 5, Minister of Interior Ahmed al-Maysari (a member of the new SNC) described the Arab coalition as a partner in the war against the Houthi “revolutionaries,” but not a partner in administering liberated areas. Minister of Transportation Saleh al-Gabwani (likewise a top-ranking leader of the SNC) tweeted that the Arab coalition was refusing to grant permission to increase the number of flights from India to Yemen, even though all seats are being reserved by international organizations, saying, “What is left for us, coalition of brothers?”    

Ultimately, the Houthis’ victories reflect their political wrangling with Riyadh over the Saudi border issue, with Abu Dhabi about southern Yemen and the fate of the GPC in Sanaa, and Iran support. The Houthis’ have secured a rapid strategic victory in the central and southern regions that masks a more complicated geographical, sectarian, and tribal reality. These complexities raise the question of whether the Houthi victory will be sustainable. As long as power players such as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi continue to fuel the Yemeni conflict, clashes are likely to continue. 

Ateq Garallah is a researcher in Yemeni politics. Follow him on Twitter @AteqGa.

The article was translated from Arabic. 

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