Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1260, (27 August - 2 September 2015 )
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1260, (27 August - 2 September 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

Yemen: The hard last mile

A push to Sanaa appears now an operational goal as the coalition’s successes in the south push a political solution to the Yemen crisis off the table. Nonetheless, it is unlikely to be smooth sailing, writes Hossam Radman

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Al-Ahram Weekly

With the horizons to a political settlement closed, the option of war prevails uncontested and strengthened by the coalition forces’ success in extending their full control over the southern areas of Yemen. Accordingly, vows to “liberate Sanaa” have assumed operational dimensions as new trains of coalition tanks and troops pour into the provinces adjacent to the Saudi border to the east. In addition, the flames in the central regions  especially Ibb and Taiz both known for their long antagonism to the authority of the north with its tribal Zeidi affiliation, confirm the intention of Arab and local forces on the ground to reach Saada.

The final resolution of the war militarily, which entails reaching Maran, the Houthi homeland and starting point for its campaign, may now be a tangible goal. But the means to attain it remain a matter for conjecture. A high level political source close to President Hadi has suggested the notion of diversionary tactics, which the coalition forces have used several times and which entails inflaming combat fronts from one direction and then attacking from another. The ploy was used, for example, in Lahij, in south Yemen, when resistance fighters and coalition forces stopped advancing from Al-Ind front and then suddenly attacked the Houthis from Al-Sabiha.

“This same circumventing strategy is being repeated again today with respect to Sanaa,” said the same high-level source in interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. “In this case, the Taiz and Ibb fronts are beginning to be enflamed, after which the assault will be carried out from the direction of Al-Jawf and Maareb, or what has recently come to be called the Saba region.”

The theory appears sound and finds justification in Yemeni topography. The road to Sanaa from Maareb is less rugged than that from Taiz and Ibb which, additionally, passes through Dhamar, a region that has been frequently described as a “population storehouse historically used to prepare fighters to defend the authorities in the north”.

 

Costly war, or picnic? The question of a march on Sanaa has stirred considerable speculation in terms of the potential costs of such a war. Will this be another “Aden campaign” or a repeat of “21 September” but in reverse? The latter refers to the date last year when Houthi forces marched into Sanaa without encountering any notable resistance. Perhaps this scenario explains the war of attrition the coalition is waging against the Houthis and the total blockade it has imposed on all the governorates that fall under rebel control, the idea being to erode and dismantle the pro-Houthi and Saleh tribal support base. This process involves, in tandem, purchasing the loyalties of tribal leaders and other social authorities, a stratagem that the Saudis have used often and successfully  in Yemen. Riyadh after all possesses considerable effective political capital, materially and in the form of prominent tribal, religious and military figures who currently reside in the Saudi capital (such as Sheikh Al-Shayif, Al-Zindani and Ali Mohsen).

But the ease with which the Houthis seized control of Sanaa in September last year had little to do with the nature of the tribes in the far north, which have always followed the sources of power and plunder. Rather, it had to do with the Armed Forces that, for the most part, were loyal to former president Ali Saleh. The implicit agreement between the Houthis and these forces, which has become overt today, had largely obviated the prospective violence that could have flared during the Houthi invasion of Sanaa. Therefore, now that Saleh and the instruments of social and state power that he possesses are an integral part of the camp opposed to the pro-legitimacy coalition, the idea that the liberation of Sanaa will be a “stroll in the park” is overly optimistic to say the least, as long as Saleh sustains his battle with the same blind obstinacy.

On the other hand, the recovery of Sanaa in its full glory would certainly add a bright star to the coalition’s moral and political assets. At that point, there would no longer be any need to sustain the strains of moving the capital to Aden, which would entail heavy political and social costs. The restoration of Sanaa to full legitimacy would also spare the coalition and Saudi Arabia in particular from having to bear the historical blame for paving the way to the partition of Yemen and the secession of the south.

Also, if it were possible to reconstitute the political class and centres of influence from inside Sanaa itself, instead of severing it from the rest of the Yemeni polity (as is envisioned by the six-region federal project), this would be more likely to meet the Saudi end of eliminating the Houthis and the Saleh camp and their political and social roots, without falling into the trap of 2011 and the problem of patchwork solutions.

On the other hand, a senior field commander in the Southern Movement that supports the coalition and President Hadi has seized on the notion of the invasion of Sanaa as a “walk in the park”, perhaps with the idea of revenge against Sanaa. To many in the south this may seem warranted given the rancour that has accumulated during the past two decades against Sanaa, or the “capital of the Yemeni occupation authorities” in some southerners’ eyes.

But what is new is the notion of annexing it to Taiz, furnishing additional fuel for retaliatory tendencies.

 

TAIZ: TRAP OR VICTIM? From the moment the Yemeni conflict began to assume the characteristics of a civil war, the politicised sector of Taiz began to exercise various forms of resistance, ranging from protest demonstrations in front of Central Security camps to armed resistance in support of Operation Decisive Storm. Yet the dedication the Taiz people showed in their fight against the Houthis and Saleh did not receive much military support during their campaign to liberate the city. The Taiz activist I met vowed to avenge the city.

As for the calculations of the coalition, they were perfectly clear and precise from the outset. “Aden and the south first, followed by the central region and Saba, and then Sanaa. But until the question of the south is settled definitively, the Taiz question needs to be kept pending.” This was how a military source close to the coalition command in Aden put it when speaking to the Weekly. He went on to explain: “Taiz is not capable of playing the role that Aden played for several reasons. One is the hazards of the road leading from there to Sanaa. Another is that the resistance movement there consists mainly of Islamist forces and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, which is repellent to the most important members of the coalition. While Saudi Arabia has turned a blind eye to that Muslim Brotherhood, UAE and Egyptian officials reject anything that might breathe new life into the organisation that they hold chiefly responsible for the terrorist crimes committed in their own countries.”

Lending weight to this contention, a senior military source in Taiz told the Weekly that the military council and popular resistance in that city had asked the coalition command for military aid, but only a few significant weapons have been forthcoming. “Until now, we have had no frank response with regard to military support for the resistance at a level that could resolve the battle, as occurred in Aden,” he said.

Unfortunately, whatever the coalition’s military calculations are, in this slow response they fail to take into account the human costs. Dozens of civilians, including women and children, are being killed and wounded during the relentless bombardment of residential quarters in the city. Mazen Aqlan, a journalist there, relates that the Houthis are meting out “bloodthirsty punishment” in response to the advances scored by the popular resistance forces on various fronts in the city. He observed that through their own efforts, these forces have neared the threshold of victory in Taiz, which “if achieved will resemble the Dalie victory, as opposed to the Aden victory, which was attained with the complete will of the coalition forces.”

He added that the coalition’s will was precisely what Taiz needed, but instead, “it looks today like it is being prepared to become a trap rather than a liberated city.”

There could be some validity in this, especially given that city’s capacity to perform this new role. There are reports of continuous influxes of dozens of fighters and military equipment to fortify Houthi and Saleh positions. At the same time, while President Hadi “issued instructions to the national army and popular resistance to complete the liberation of Taiz”, reports from the east relate that more than 120 armoured vehicles and truckloads of coalition ground forces have reached Maareb, which is located only 60 kilometres from the capital. Maareb already has a large population of trained fighters as it has the fortune of being near Saudi Arabia, which has been furnishing it with various forms of support during the past few months.

If the Taiz resistance is eying that abundance with envy, Maareb has been of little help so far in liberating Taiz. The likelihood is that Maareb is heeding the orders of the coalition command, which calls for sapping the energies of the Houthi enemy without inflicting a definitive defeat. On the other hand, a young fighter on the Jadaan front, the son of an influential tribal leader, made a surprising observation. Much has to do with the economic factor, he said. Warfare has become the sole source of income for the rural tribes, contrary to the more urbanised governorates where segments of civil society form the backbone of their resistance and for whom the perpetuation of warfare does not serve their interests. This was why the stars of Aden, Dalie and Taiz rose during this war. All of these are cities that have largely transcended the roots of tribal affiliations, which, in turn, has put paid to the myth of the invincible and predatory tribe.

It was the victories of civil society resistance forces in Aden and elsewhere in the south that gave rise to the remark among anti-Houthi circles in Aden that “The kids that we used to call sissies turned out to be braver than the men wearing daggers in their belts.”

This said, the new awareness has not eliminated the pull of the terrorist groups that are positioning themselves to fill the political and security vacuums in the liberated cities (including Aden) and to capitalise on the political frustration of young fighters in the non-liberated cities (including Taiz). Such challenges tell us that the coalition’s battle even if it manages to reach Sanaa  is far from over yet.

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