Yemen Warning: Sana'a Offensive

A soldier guards the site of a meeting between U.N. special envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed and Houthi movement officials in Sanaa, Yemen July 14, 2016. (Reuters)

Key Takeaway: A Hadi government offensive to regain Sana’a may be imminent. An offensive is unlikely to proceed rapidly or to generate a decisive military victory that will end the war. It would instead draw on limited security resources, creating opportunities for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to strengthen.

Yemeni military forces loyal to President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi will likely launch an offensive to seize control of the al Houthi-Saleh—controlled capital, Sana’a, in the coming weeks. The aim of this offensive, in President Hadi’s view, would be to compel the al Houthi-Saleh alliance to surrender unconditionally by regaining control of the capital. Such a decisive military victory is unlikely, however. An offensive to seize Sana’a would instead establish a new frontline and mobilize a significant portion of Yemenis against the Hadi-aligned forces, extending the civil war. It would also create opportunities that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) could exploit. AQAP in particular would be able to further strengthen its relationship with local groups by providing pragmatic lines of support against the al Houthi-Saleh forces. The absence of a decisive military victory would additionally erode support for Hadi’s government and probably fracture his loose alliance.

The Opposing Sides

The Yemeni civil war pits two potentially-fractious coalitions against one another, with neither side capable of imposing a complete military victory on the other. The Zaydi Shi’a al Houthi movement has received Iranian support and has a stronghold in the northern Sa’ada governorate. It is allied with former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who retains a powerful patronage network through his party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and loyalist military units, like the former Republican Guard. This alliance is a pragmatic partnership to secure power in the future Yemeni state that would dissolve should Hadi’s government make certain concessions to either Saleh or the al Houthis.

The internationally-recognized Yemeni government under Hadi is effectively a small group of cabinet members without a real ground constituency. The military component of the coalition is fractious. Hadi’s vice president, Lieutenant General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, commands reconstituted Yemeni army units based in the northeast. The forces in the southeast and southwest include local tribal and popular militias opposed to the GPC or the al Houthis, southern secessionist elements, and Salafi militias, among others.[1] These forces receive materiel support from the Saudi-led coalition, which includes a large Emirati ground contingent and Saudi air campaign.

The factions within the al Houthi-Saleh and Hadi alliances each aspire to disparate goals. Groups formed these alliances based on practical rather than ideological motivations. The Southern Movement, a political movement that calls for greater independence for the south, has historically opposed the central government for its perceived northern favoritism, but is presently allied with President Hadi in order to defeat the northern al Houthi-Saleh alliance. The Southern Movement supported the al Houthis until early 2015 when the al Houthis advanced into southern territory, sparking pushback against a perceived northern invasion.[2] The al Houthi-Saleh and Hadi alliances only remain united as long as overriding interests align. Both sides have fought conservative campaigns, with fighting fixed largely along a frontline that follows the north-south divide in Yemen’s human geography. An offensive on Sana’a would change the frontline and likely cause interest groups to realign as the fight for the capital protracts.

Indications of an Impending Operation

Hadi government officials’ remarks and recent military developments suggest that an offensive to seize Sana’a will occur within the coming weeks as long as present negotiating conditions hold. The latest round of peace talks between the al Houthi-Saleh delegation and Hadi’s delegation ended on June 29 without progress toward a negotiated settlement.[3] The al Houthi-Saleh delegation demanded a greater political role in the central government, and the Hadi delegation demanded that the al Houthis abide by UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which stipulates that the al Houthi-Saleh forces must disarm and withdraw from all seized cities before any political negotiations begin.[4] Hadi and his military advisers reiterated between July 9 and July 13 that the Yemeni military under Hadi’s command is prepared for an assault on Sana’a.[5] Military commanders loyal to Hadi visited bases in Ma’rib governorate, directly east of Sana’a, to inspect troops for battle readiness.[6] Troop deployments to Ma’rib occurred on July 10, reinforcing those already stationed in the governorate.[7] Coalition forces also provided armored vehicles to Hadi government troops in Ma’rib city.[8]

Shaping operations began in early July. Ground fighting and Saudi-led coalition airstrikes targeting al Houthi-Saleh forces have escalated in the eastern suburbs of Sana’a and in neighboring al Jawf governorate to the north. Hadi’s military and allied popular resistance forces have gained ground on several mountaintops in Nihm, northeast of Sana’a, which overlook the main road entering Sana’a from the northeast.[9] Saudi ground forces have also mobilized near the northwestern Saudi-Yemen border adjacent to al Houthi strongholds in Yemen.[10] The Saudi army’s mobilization may be a defensive action to protect its border should al Houthi-Saleh forces attack Saudi Arabia in retaliation for an attack on Sana’a. Saudi Arabia may also fear that Saudi tribes along the border, which include Yemeni-Saudis, would side with the al Houthis in the event of an al Houthi-Saleh attack.

Hadi’s refusal to accept the terms for Yemen’s peace talks may indicate that he has abandoned the diplomatic course. The peace talks are scheduled to begin on July 15 in Kuwait. Hadi refused to resume negotiations in Kuwait that are based on the framework UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed developed, in a July 13 statement.[11] Hadi asserted that the framework legitimized the al Houthi-Saleh forces’ positions and the coup that had ousted him from power.[12] Abdullah al Alimi, a member of Hadi’s delegation, stated on July 15 that the delegation would not return to Kuwait on July 15 to resume talks, but asserted that the delegation might return to negotiations in the future if the al Houthis accept UNSCR 2216.[13] The al Houthi-GPC delegation returned to Kuwait for the talks on July 14.[14] The June 2015 Geneva talks collapsed in a similar manner. Delegates promised to return, but the talks were repeatedly delayed until the delegations walked away from the talks in mid-January 2016.[15]

The present levels of military rhetoric, troop mobilization and ground fighting, in conjunction with a breakdown in talks, have not occurred simultaneously before. This combination of indicators makes the announced offensive probable. The offensive would likely begin northeast of Sana’a from Nihm district. Hadi’s military forces would probably advance along the road that runs from Ma’rib, through Nihm, to the northeastern entrance of Sana’a city. It is unlikely that there will be a coordinated advance on Sana’a from another direction because al Houthi-Saleh forces control the roads in the other directions. The coalition air campaign destroyed key bridges on major roads leading to Sana’a from the north and west in summer 2015 as part of shaping operations for a similarly planned offensive that never began.[16]

The fight will not culminate quickly. Al Houthi-Saleh forces control most of the strategic sites on the mountains overlooking Sana’a and will use whatever remains of the weapons defense systems arrayed around Sana’a to defend their positions. The population in northwestern Yemen, which has largely remained neutral in the civil war, would probably perceive an offensive on Sana’a as a Saudi-backed invasion or an affront to Yemeni sovereignty and mobilize in support of the al Houthi-Saleh faction, further adding to the al Houthi-Saleh forces’ strength. It is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will deploy significant forces to aid the ground campaign, and the United Arab Emirates has signaled that it is focused on stabilization and counterterrorism operations in southeast Yemen.

Hadi will probably give the order to advance on Sana’a in the coming weeks unless the international community is able to apply enough leverage to induce him to return to the negotiating table. Hadi military troop deployments, civilian displacement, and an al Houthi-Saleh mobilization in response serve as key indicators that the offensive is near. Continued airstrikes against al Houthi-Saleh positions in the vicinity of Sana’a, especially along the road to the northeast, and destroying the roads to the north and west, as well as the advance of Hadi military forces in Nihm, are indicators that the offensive is on track to occur. The movement of civilians from Sana’a or a mobilization of al Houthi-Saleh forces around Sana’a would also indicate preparations to respond to the offensive.

The offensive would draw on limited Hadi government and security resources, creating governance gaps in critical areas. The prioritization of Sana’a over other battlegrounds will create an opportunity for AQAP to assert itself as a vanguard force in support of Yemenis fighting the al Houthi-Saleh alliance. AQAP may also exploit the diversion of resources by refocusing its efforts in Abyan governorate. AQAP negotiated its withdrawal from Abyan in early May 2016, but continues to build popular support among the local population.[17] ISIS may also take the opportunity to accelerate its own campaign against Hadi’s security forces in Aden and al Mukalla.[18]

 
[1] Sasha Gordon, “Map: Popular Committees in Abyan and Shabwah,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, July 25, 2012, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/map-popular-committees.
[2] “Southern Movement Yemeni closing streets of Aden, pursuant to an invitation to disobedience,” al Masdar, December 8, 2014, http://almasdaronline.com/article/65157
[3] “Ould Cheikh officially announced the postponement of Kuwait consultations until after the Eid al Fitr,” al Masdar, June 29, 2016, http://almasdaronline.com/article/82723.
[4] ”Security Council Demands End to Yemen Violence, Adopting Resolution 2216 (2015), with Russian Federation Abstaining,” UN, April 14, 2016, http://www.un.org/press/en/2015/sc11859.doc.htm.   
[5] “Hadi: We will not return to negotiations if the UN tries to impose their vision,” al Masdar, July 10, 2016, http://almasdaronline.com/article/82907; “Al Maqdashi: We seek to spare Sanaa the scourge of destruction,” Barakish, July 5, 2016, http://barakish.net/news02.aspx?cat=12&sub=23&id=418083; and “Military leader: Tribes in Sana’a area are supportive of freeing operation,” Akhbar Yemen, July 14, 2016, http://www.yemenakhbar.com/yemen-news/391865.html.
[6] “In a strong message … al Maqdashi leads Eid al-Fitr prayers in Furdhat Nihm,” Barakish, July 6, 2016, http://barakish.net/news02.aspx?cat=12&sub=23&id=418128.
[7] “President Hadi and his deputy al Ahmar accompanied by a number of ministers arrive in the city of Ma’rib,” al Masdar, July 10, 2016, http://almasdaronline.com/article/82906.
[8] "Military reinforcements reach Ma’rib- Photos," Barakish, July 12, 2016, http://barakish.net/news02.aspx?cat=12&sub=23&id=418296.
[9] “National Army controls the Mt. Dhahab east of the capital Sanaa,” Barakish, July 13, 2016, http://barakish.net/news02.aspx?cat=12&sub=23&id=418335.
[10] “Saudi military reinforcements to the border with Yemen,” al Arabiya, July 13, 2016, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/webtv/reports/2016/07/13/Saudi-military-reinforcements-to-the-border-with-Yemen.html.
[11] “Government conditions for return to the Kuwait talks,” Barakish, July 13, 2016, http://barakish.net/news02.aspx?cat=12&sub=23&id=418328.
[12] Ibid.
[13] "Dr. Alimi: Government delegation informed the UN envoy that it is not going to Kuwait to resume consultations," al Masdar, July 15, 2016, http://almasdaronline.com/article/83000.
[14] “Yemen peace talks in Kuwait to resume on Saturday” al Arabiya, July 14, 2016, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2016/07/14/Yemen-peace-talks-in-Kuwait-to-resume-on-Saturday-.html/.
[15] “Yemen government says peace talks may be postponed beyond mid-January,” Reuters, January 9, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-talks-idUSKCN0UN0J520160109http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-talks-idUSKCN0UN0J520160109.
[16] Joshua Koontz, “2015 Yemen Crisis Situation Report: September 14,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, September 14, 2015, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/yemen-crisis-situation-reports-september-14-2015; Joshua Koontz, “2015 Yemen Crisis Situation Report: September 22,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, September 22, 2015, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/yemen-crisis-situation-reports-september-22-2015; and Joshua Koontz, “2015 Yemen Crisis Situation Report: September 29,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, September 29, 2015, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/yemen-crisis-situation-reports-september-29-2015.
[17] “Full details of the al Qaeda withdrawal agreement from Abyan,” Aden Ghad, May 4, 2016, http://adengd.net/news/203724/#.V4jZiOsrLcv.
[18] Katherine Zimmerman and Jon Diamond, “Challenging the Yemeni State: ISIS in Aden and al Mukalla,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, June 9, 2016, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/zimmerman-diamond-challenging-yemeni-state-isis-in-aden-al-mukalla-june-9-2016.