January 05, 2018
Yemen Frontlines: January 2018
Anti-al Houthi forces began an offensive in late December to recapture parts of central Yemen. This operation may inadvertently empower al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) because it distracts coalition resources from areas of AQAP presence and, more dangerously, could establish AQAP proxy militias as legitimate partners. Senior U.S. officials recently warned that AQAP remains a threat to the U.S. despite counterterrorism operations that have temporarily disrupted it over the past 18 months. Al Bayda governorate, the objective of the new offensive, is critical terrain because a vital roadway linking Sana’a, the capital, to Yemen’s southeast runs through it. AQAP has developed its base in the area since at least 2011. The al Houthi contest for al Bayda began before the civil war started, and AQAP has significantly expanded its support base by fighting the al Houthis alongside local tribal forces. The possible intermixing of AQAP fighters with coalition forces may limit America’s ability to attack AQAP in al Bayda. Locals will likely perceive U.S. airstrikes targeting AQAP as backing the al Houthi movement, moreover, fueling anti-U.S. sentiments and bolstering al Qaeda’s narrative that the U.S. is anti-Sunni. Coalition-backed forces, primarily from northern Yemen, crossed into central al Bayda from neighboring Shabwah governorate on December 26. Anti-al Houthi forces from Aden deployed to al Bayda’s southern border on January 1. The offensive has not yet reached areas where AQAP is strong, however. Similarly, AQAP members obtained coalition funds and took on governance roles in Taiz city by participating in the anti-al Houthi fight alongside coalition-backed forces. The recent focus on al Bayda is a positive step toward recognizing the governorate’s strategic importance, but any offensive against the al Houthis in al Bayda must also be designed to reduce and eventually eliminate AQAP’s influence.