Sunday,15 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)
Sunday,15 July, 2018
Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Bleak prospects for Taiz

Reeling under war and siege, the humanitarian crisis in Taiz, Yemen’s cultural capital, is increasing by the day with little to suggest imminent reprieve, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Ahram Weekly

The civil war in Yemen still rages with no sign of an end in sight. The major battle over Sanaa is still in its planning phase while the only battle that has been resolved so far is that for Yemen’s second capital, Aden, which is now struggling to reconstruct itself after months of devastation. Elsewhere, hostilities, if anything, are intensifying. In Taiz, the “cultural capital” of Yemen and the cradle of the Yemeni uprising against the Ali Abdallah Saleh regime, the local resistance is struggling to fight off the siege by Houthi insurgents. Taiz, perched over the Bab Al-Mandeb and located halfway between Aden in Sanaa, is seen as a strategically critical area and many military experts and local sources in Yemen maintain that the battle for Taiz will determine the fate of Sanaa. This, they add, is why the Houthis have pitted all their energies into it.

The Yemeni government proclaimed the beginning of the battle to liberate Taiz from the Houthi-Saleh grip on 5 August. So far, operations there appear to have followed the opposite trajectory of those in Aden. Rather than progressing in driving off Houthi-Saleh forces, the latter have tightened their siege, which has now entered its fifth month.

While the people’s resistance brigades and the national army —or more accurately regiments loyal to the internationally recognised president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi — coordinated action with the international coalition forces that have provided air cover, according to sources on the ground the tug-of-war continues with neither side able to gain a definitive upper hand due to logistical impediments.

Meanwhile, coalition forces announced that they have resumed bombardment of the Dailami Air Force Base in Sanaa, which rebel forces use as one of their main staging points.

On the progress of the operations, Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri, advisor to the Saudi minister of defence and spokesman for the Arab coalition, explained that operations are currently focused on Maareb and Taiz. These battles “will be settled soon” and “Sanaa will be reached too,” he vowed.

The Yemeni state owned news agency, citing popular resistance sources in Al-Jahmaliya district in Taiz, reported that last week brought one of the fiercest rounds of fighting in the city, killing 30 Houthi soldiers and seven resistance fighters from Taiz.

Abdel-Aziz Al-Majidi, a founder of the Taiz-based Rafd (Rejection) Movement, which opposes the Houthi-Saleh presence there, told Al-Ahram Weekly by phone that the dengue fever epidemic has compounded the humanitarian crisis in the city, which is reeling beneath the ravages of war and blockade. The potentially fatal disease has infected around 22,000 people, according to the local health authority. The deteriorating healthcare infrastructure has hampered healthcare workers’ ability to combat the disease and prevent its spread, a tragedy aggravated by the fact that the Yemeni Red Crescent has been forced to withdraw from the city due to Houthi attacks.

Al-Majidi also reported that large numbers of Taiz residents have fled for safety into the mountains and rural areas, but that even this option has become difficult due to the recent tightening of the siege. Inside the city, it has become difficult to produce enough energy to fuel water and electricity generating stations. In fact, these crucial facilities are being systematic destroyed, he said. In his opinion, the battle is a long way from being resolved. He also believes that the Houthis have been luring coalition forces to Taiz in order to distract them from Sanaa, where the Houthis need more time to strengthen their fortifications in the capital. He fears that Taiz will be “totally destroyed”, adding that coalition forces are still in the tactical phase with regard to Taiz and have yet to mount the major confrontation.

Early last week, the Houthi movement announced that the chairman of the Houthi revolutionary committee, Mohamed Ali Al-Houthi, had headed southwards to inspect the movement’s forces encircling Taiz. The movement had increased the number of its troops around the city, bringing in around 2,000 more fighters to take part in the siege. Following the visit, the troops opened random fire against government buildings and residential quarters, causing dozens of civilian deaths, according to local sources in Taiz that added that reinforcements of more than 20 armoured vehicles and 20 Houthi units had arrived from the direction of Al-Mokha to complete their encirclement of the city.

According to another local source from Taiz, the fact that this city had been the cradle of the revolution against the Saleh regime generated a spirit of vengefulness among pro-Saleh forces against the people of the city. He suggested that the spirit among the attackers might have also been fuelled by disdain and hatred displayed by the people of Taiz towards the Houthis when they passed through their city on their way to Aden last March. In Taiz, the Houthis were regarded as northern “cavemen” to had come to lay waste to the Yemeni “cultural capital”. According to this source, the Houthis are now focussing on Taiz as a means to compensate for their losses in the battle of Aden, especially that the Yemeni president and his government have returned to Aden and the road to negotiations has been blocked. Negotiations were due to be held in Muscat but, according to this source, they could not convene because the Houthis refused to abide by their conditions, which were to lay down their arms, end all forms of warfare and withdraw from all cities, including Taiz.

According to local activist Ahmed Al-Dawaimani, there is evidence that the Houthis have also engaged mercenaries from abroad as part of their reinforcements for this battle.

In a telephone interview with the Weekly, Ahmed Al-Hamiqani, a popular resistance commander from Al-Beida, echoed the Saudi military spokesman’s remarks regarding the need for the coalition to focus on Mareb and Taiz in their capacity as the key route to Sanaa. He added: “Taiz also signifies consolidation of the victory in the south. If Taiz falls, that would constitute a major setback for the crisis that would return to the south in a more intractable way than before.” At the same time, he said, coalition forces are under pressure from the Security Council to return to the negotiating table and cease the war. “Therefore, the countries of the coalition are trying as much as possible to handle things from all directions.” Al-Hamiqani, who is close to the internationally recognised Yemeni government, added that President Hadi has been holding talks with various parties in New York, on the fringes of the UN General Assembly meeting, in order to discuss various details concerning the situations in Sanaa and Taiz.

In sum, the humanitarian situation in Taiz is growing increasingly dire due to the siege and intense fighting. While the Yemeni government, which is currently seated in Aden, claims the victory of Taiz is around the corner, eyewitness testimony from that city tells an opposite story — that the fighting has intensified and is likely to drag on much longer. Still, there is no disputing the fact that the critical battle on the route to Sanaa for which the coalition will have to prepare itself better.

While the coalition has claimed partial successes in Maareb, where they regained control over the Maareb dam, the same cannot be said for Taiz. Not only are resistance forces there still waiting for pledged support and supplies, one cannot discern the features of a clear strategy to liberate the city as was the case with Operation Golden Arrow that was put into effect in Aden.

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