Friday,20 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1255, (23 - 29 July 2015)
Friday,20 October, 2017
Issue 1255, (23 - 29 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Aden: The decisive battle?

While Yemen’s government was quick to exaggerate the victories achieved in the retaking of Aden from Houthi and allied forces, it could indeed prove a turning point after four months of war, writes Hossam Redman

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Finally, after four gruelling months of news reports on the defeats and setbacks sustained by the Popular Resistance forces in Yemen and the tragedies of death, destruction, displacement and the humanitarian disaster, there came five days in which the people of Aden could experience some relief and joy. During the last days of Ramadan, they celebrated the liberation of Aden International Airport and the city of Khormaksar from the grip of “the rebels”. This paved the way for a series of other victories that culminated in a tight siege around the forces of the Houthi-Ali Abdullah Saleh alliance in the areas of Tawahi and Mualla and Crater.

True, the Yemeni government, in its jubilation, exaggerated when it proclaimed that Aden had been “liberated”. Most of the people from Khormaksar who had hoped to return to their homes were shocked to hear the sounds of exchanges in gunfire between pockets of Houthi rebels and the militias of the resistance. A displaced person told Al-Ahram Weekly, “Those areas are still without water or electricity and they are in ruins. We are hoping that life returns to normal as soon as possible and we are waiting for the government to act.”

Still, government hyperbole aside, there is no denying the extent of the change in the lay of the arena in the Yemeni war following the decisive developments in Aden and the repercussions this will have throughout the country, up to Sanaa and Saada.

The official spokesman for the Popular Resistance in Aden, Ali Al-Ahmedi, confirmed that, “All areas of Aden have been brought under control.” In interview with the Weekly, he discussed some details of the battles that took place Monday. The resistance forces “entered Tawahi (the last stronghold of the Houthi-Saleh militias) at dawn today from all sides and established control over it. Now operations are in progress to purge the camps of Al-Fatah and Al-Maashiq, which are the last holdouts of the gunmen.”

He added, “Now there remain the northern areas, such as Jaula and Al-Khadraa city which are situated in Lahij governorate. We hope to attack and clear these areas in the coming stage as they lay at the back of the city of Aden.”

Aden, with the symbolic power it has in the Yemeni collective consciousness and its vital strategic importance as a port city overlooking the Bab Al-Mandeb straits, could mark the beginning of the end for the Houthis and the forces loyal to former president Saleh. Nevertheless, this prospect still remains far from certain in light of the weak performance of the Yemeni government and in view of the vast gap between its agenda and that of the political factions siding with President Hadi. While he and his government hope to turn Aden into a springboard for liberating the rest of the country, this clashes with the aspirations of the southern movement and its aversion to embark on any battles that do not serve its cause, which is confined to the boundaries of the “People’s Democratic Public of Yemen”. From the southern perspective, to take part in a campaign to liberate the Yemeni north from “rebel control” is to serve “an attempt to drag the south and its people once again into a battle that does not concern them with the aim of having them contribute to the liberation of those who had always conspired to oppress them,” as a citizen of Aden put it.

Such deeply-rooted rancour and resentment at “the northerners” and “pro-unification” advocates, did not prevent President Hadi from appointing Nayif Bakri as governor of “liberated” Aden. Bakri, the young man whose star rose with the Popular Resistance in Aden, is a member of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform Party, more commonly referred to as “Islah”, which is the political facade of the Yemeni chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Was this appointment actually Hadi’s decision? Or was it informed by Saudi recommendations? If the former, this means that Hadi’s presidency is not just a passing phase and that, contrary to the opinion of many analysts, he does not intend to set the stage for his replacement by Vice President Khaled Bahah, but rather aspires to power in Aden surrounded by his close associates.

On the other hand, if the second supposition is the case, this means that Riyadh has decided to bank on the Islamist camp which would be consistent with King Salman’s outlook, but which could augur infighting between the resistance factions in Aden if the southern drive suspects that it and its separatist demands are being sidelined.

 

FROM STORM TO RESOLUTION: The hypothesis regarding Hadi’s hidden agenda behind his recent decisions is weak, however, as the Gulf countries have never slackened their grip on the management of the war in Yemen, particularly in Aden. The hand of the Gulf manifested itself clearly in the “Golden Arrow” operation that turned the tables of the war so definitively as to stun both enemies and allies alike especially after the long months in which “Decisive Storm” remained confined to aerial strikes and was powerless to halt the Houthi-Saleh expansion into Aden.

From the outset of Operation Decisive Storm, everyone doubted that the option of a ground offensive was viable and with the success of the Houthi-Saleh forces in seizing control over Aden’s ports and maritime outlets that doubt became a certainty. However, the Gulf countries sustained their tight blockade around Yemen and that war of attrition sapped the energies of the rebels.

Meanwhile, an initially haphazardly formed resistance drawn from Aden civil society proved unable to withstand the Houthi-Saleh assault in the east of the city and civilians paid dearly for the defeat. Were it not for the intervention of jihadist Islamist fighters, with their combat experience, the city of Al-Bariqa, to the west of Aden, would have almost inevitably fallen into Houthi hands.

Nevertheless, the Gulf countries that were reluctant to send in their own forces spared no efforts in training, equipping and supporting young Yemeni fighters, some of whom were recruited during the early days of the war, as a soldier told the Weekly. Also, the Badr camp in Al-Bariqa soon began to produce successive classes of well-trained fighters and when these were mobilised they made rapid and stunning progress, from Ras Omran in the northwest of the city, to Al-Arish in the northeast, and finally to Al-Tawahi in the southeast, after severing the Houthi-Saleh supply lines.

However, what was delaying the moment of “resolve”? This was the perplexing question. It was clear from Washington’s closing statement at the recent Camp David meeting between Gulf and US officials that Uncle Sam had given Saudi Arabia a green light to do as it wishes in Yemen on the grounds that this issue was a matter of Saudi national security. However, the lightening strike kept being deferred until the Iranians became too preoccupied with the final phases of the nuclear agreement to lend a hand to their allies in Yemen as they had done on a number of occasions during the war (Iran had dispatched its naval vessels to Yemen thereby conveying messages to the fact that it would not stand by as its allies were being bombarded). This may explain why the Houthi-Saleh alliance suddenly agreed to the Ramadan truce, which was then violated by the resistance forces and coalition fighter planes, according to sources close to the Popular Resistance.

In May, sources from the resistance spoke of direct military supervision on the part of the UAE. Its military commanders were in charge of training and support, they said. On 15 July, when combat fronts flared into action, the resistance forces were being directed by commands issued by UAE officers. There were “at least five of them on every front,” according to one of the resistance soldiers. When the Weekly put this remark to the official spokesman for the Popular Resistance he refused to comment. The UAE today is not just involved in training and combat activities. An Emirati team has reportedly just arrived to repair Aden port in order to bring it back into operation as soon as possible. It is not difficult to explain this generosity. There is a very important reciprocal relationship between the ports of Aden and Dubai.

Saudi Arabia, too, has its economic calculations. Hadramawt is its easiest route to the Indian Ocean. Also there are the vital geopolitical and security considerations connected with that province that shares the longest border with Saudi Arabia and with the whole of Yemen.

Therefore, it is not in the interests of either country for Yemen to remain a hotspot forever. Or at least the south, if it proves too costly to restore calm to the rest of the country.

Not that this necessarily signifies that these parties will seek a political settlement. This applies, in particular, to Saudi Arabia that, after the “victory of Aden”, is thirsting more than ever to rout Houthi and Saleh forces and lay siege to them in their strongholds. Therefore, attention as now turned to Lahij. In this regard, sources from the resistance told the Weekly that its forces have gained control over Al-Anad junction near Al-Anad military base after fierce fighting. Should the forces from Aden, which are currently preoccupied with securing that city entirely, decide to take part in the battle of Lahij, that battle would most likely be resolved in the manner of the Aden victory which, in turn, would pave the way towards Taiz and then to Ibb, where the Houthi-Saleh alliance does not enjoy a popular base or social support.

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