October 06, 2016

Yemen Frontlines: October 2016

The frontlines of Yemen’s civil war have remained relatively fixed because neither side has the military strength to extend its influence significantly beyond the borders of its support base. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) adds complexity to the civil war. AQAP is fighting against the al Houthi-Saleh alliance and is attempting to prevent the internationally recognized government under Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi from consolidating control over southern Yemen.

The al Houthi-Saleh alliance in northern Yemen continues to control historical strongholds for both the al Houthi movement and former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

  • The al Houthi movement includes prominent Zaydi-Shia families and tribes and an armed faction that has been fighting the Yemeni government (previously Saleh’s government) since 2004. Al Houthi strongholds include Sa’ada governorate and parts of Hajjah and al Jawf governorates in northern Yemen.
  • Ali Abdullah Saleh has the loyalty of units that had been part of Yemen’s Republican Guard, an elite armed group that Saleh’s son commanded. He also has a vast patronage network through his political party, the General People’s Congress (GPC). GPC leaders have called up tribal militia forces to fight for Saleh. Saleh’s strongholds include Sana’a and many of the governorates in central Yemen. 
  • Iran has provided limited support to the al Houthi-Saleh alliance.[1]

Internationally recognized Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi does not have a strong constituency and instead depends on the support of other Yemeni factions and international actors.

  • President Hadi relies on Lieutenant General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, his vice president, for support in northern Yemen and for the Yemeni military forces Ali Mohsen brings to the table. Ali Mohsen had commanded Yemen’s strongest regular army unit, the First Armored Division, which Hadi disbanded during security sector reforms in 2012.[2]
  • The Southern Movement, a southern umbrella group with secessionist leanings, supports Hadi over the al Houthi-Saleh alliance, which it sees as a northern occupier. Southern leaders seek to resolve the current conflict in a way that sets conditions for a more autonomous or possibly independent southern state.
  • Tribes in southern Yemen have also allied with Hadi to oust al Houthi-Saleh forces and, in some cases, to remove local powerbrokers linked to Saleh. Tribal leaders who are members of the Islah party, an Islamist opposition party, have also fought behind Hadi because of targeted actions the al Houthis took over the past few years to degrade the party’s influence.
  • Salafi militias mobilized against the al Houthi-Saleh alliance and are increasingly gaining power and influence in southern Yemen.
  • The Saudi-led coalition, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, intervened military on Hadi’s behalf and has provided support to Ali Mohsen, southern militias, and Salafi militias.

This map of Yemen’s frontlines simplifies the area of operations of major factions in Yemen’s civil war. Media reporting tends to report all forces operating under the al Houthi-Saleh alliance as “al Houthi” forces, which makes it difficult to assess where al Houthi or Saleh forces are operating and whether they are under a single command structure. Locations that are heavily contested are marked, though there is active fighting along the frontline between the al Houthi-Saleh forces and the Hadi coalition. The majority of Yemen’s population is concentrated in the country’s northwest and western terrain; eastern Yemen is sparsely populated and primarily desert.

[1] Katherine Zimmerman, “Signaling Saudi Arabia: Iranian Support to Yemen’s al Houthis,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, April 15, 2016, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/zimmerman-signaling-saudi-arabia-iranian-support-to-yemen-al-houthis-april-15-2016.
[2] Katherine Zimmerman and Sasha Gordon, “Yemen’s Military Restructuring: Removing Saleh’s Network,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, December 20, 2012, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/yemens-military-restructuring-removing-salehs-network-december-20-2012
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