The initial momentum against the al Houthis following the start of “Operation Golden Arrow,” appears to be waning as the al Houthis mount counter-offensives in southern Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) continue to benefit from the conflict.
Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government may use military force to regain control of al Mukalla city from AQAP after negotiations for its withdrawal stalled. On August 16, Hadi appointed Maj. Gen. Ahmed Saif al Yafa’i as Commander of the Second Military District, which is headquartered in al Mukalla, Hadramawt, and is currently under AQAP control. Yafa’i, whom Hadi had appointed to command the Aden-based Fourth Military District in July, discussed preparations for a future offensive to retake AQAP-held territories with a coalition of local militias. An August 20 deadline from Hadi’s government and the Hadramawt Tribal Confederation for AQAP’s withdrawal from al Mukalla has passed. A source close to AQAP reported that it preliminarily agreed to withdraw, but that it has not done so because there is now concern that new recruits would defect to ISIS’s nascent cell, Wilayat Hadramawt. It is not clear whether local forces could be cajoled into fighting AQAP in al Mukalla without significant external support.
AQAP is portraying itself as a force multiplier against the al Houthis in southern and eastern Yemen to continue to build legitimacy among local Sunni tribes. Jalal al Marqishi, the leader of AQAP’s insurgent arm Ansar al Sharia, highlighted AQAP’s role in fighting alongside local anti-al Houthi forces and Sunni tribes in southern and eastern Yemen and providing logistical support and military training for their fighters in an August 15 AQAP video. Separately, an August 20 statement from AQAP’s Security Committee offered general amnesty to the Yemeni security forces and collaborators and a reward for information on American spies in Yemen.
AQAP expanded its control in al Bayda. AQAP militants conducted a series of attacks against al Houthi positions, seizing parts of al Zahar district and al Sawma district. (Sources available upon request.) AQAP militants, including Saudis, Tunisians, and Somalis, reportedly established governance control in the northern area of Ja’ar in al Sawma on August 18. Separately, anti-al Houthi militias and Saudi-led forces consolidated their control of the al Bayda-Abyan border and attempted to weaken the remaining al Houthi forces in Mukayras with airstrikes on August 19 and August 21 in preparation for a ground assault. Southern Resistance Movement official Ali Salim al Hij reported that columns of armored vehicles and tanks traveled from al Dhaleh and Lahij to reinforce positions in Mukayras on August 18.
Saudi-led coalition forces are attempting to consolidate control and prevent al Houthi counterattacks in southern and eastern Yemen. In Ibb and Taiz, popular resistance groups cut off the al Houthi supply line by seizing the southern city of al Sayani in southern Ibb on August 17. Coalition airstrikes targeted isolated al Houthi positions in northern Taiz, and al Houthi forces countered the coalition-backed forces’ efforts to secure Ibb’s borders by retaking territory in western and eastern areas. Popular resistance groups seized the 35th Armored Brigade camp and the air base near Taiz city on August 18 and contested nearby al Houthi sites on August 20. The recent successes against the al Houthis in Ibb appear to have galvanized local support for the resistance against al Houthis in Dhamar, north of Ibb. The al Houthis responded to recent coalition gains in Lahij by mounting a counterattack from the western Kirsh area on August 16 and August 18 and shelling anti-al Houthi forces. Separately, a military source reported that an airstrike wounded an AQAP commander, Rashid al Saadi Yafa’i, also known as Abu Harun, in the al Anad area in Lahij on August 18. The al Houthis continued to withdraw forces from Shabwah, probably to consolidate strength in central Yemen, though they remain in Bayhan city.
Saudi-led coalition forces are attempting to cut off the al Houthis’ remaining maritime supply route. Saudi warships bombed al Houthi positions along al Hudaydah’s coastline on August 15, positions in al Hudaydah city on August 18, and al Houthi military sites on August 20. There are rumors of a planned ground offensive in al Hudaydah by the Saudi-led coalition. U.S. National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey expressed concerns that the airstrikes could exacerbate the deteriorating humanitarian situation on August 21.
Al Houthi militants increased attacks along the Saudi Arabian-Yemeni border in response to the Saudi assault on al Hudaydah. Al Houthi leader Abdul Malik al Houthi declared a state of emergency in the northern governorate of Sa’ada on August 17 and called for al Houthi commanders to increase al Houthi military attacks along the Saudi-Yemeni border. Al Houthi forces conducted a series of cross-border artillery strikes against Saudi military sites throughout the week and shot down a Saudi Apache helicopter in the Jaza region along the Saudi-Yemeni border on August 21. Separately, al Houthi spokesman Saleh al Simad described recent al Houthi withdrawals, particularly in Shabwah, as a tactical move to prepare for a strike against the “the head of the snake,” in reference to Saudi Arabia.
ISIS is exploiting Yemen’s ongoing chaos to increase its military resources and exacerbate Sunni-Shi’a tensions. An ISIS Wilayat Shabwah photoset from a claimed August 15 raid against the al Houthi-controlled Jardan barracks in Ataq, Shabwah, showed stolen military equipment and reported that ISIS militants killed and captured several al Houthi fighters. (Source available on request.) The al Houthis had withdrawn from many positions in Shabwah, including Ataq, by August 15. ISIS Wilayat Sana’a continued attacks on al Houthi targets in Sana’a, detonating an improvised explosive device near an al Houthi checkpoint on August 17. ISIS Wilayat Hadramawt, which had only claimed an April 30 attack to date, raided the Hazir barracks in Hadramawt’s northeastern Thamoud district near the Yemeni-Saudi border on August 19.
The al Houthis have signaled they are prepared to escalate the conflict directly with Saudi Arabia as they come under pressure in southern and central Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition forces will probably face an organized al Houthi counter-offensive in the coming week. AQAP and ISIS will continue to be able to expand as long as there is no force combatting their ground presence.