The Saudi-led coalition’s renewed focus on regaining territory from the al Houthi-Saleh alliance intends to set conditions that weaken the al Houthi-Saleh alliance’s position in political negotiations. The focus of operations has also moved away from operating against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is re-emerging in southern Yemen.
Forces aligned with the Hadi government seek to secure the territory from al Houthi-Saleh forces at the chokepoint for the Bab al Mandab Strait. The stated objective is to block further weapons imports to the al Houthi-Saleh forces; however, the position would also limit al Houthi-Saleh capabilities to launch attacks on vessels in the Red Sea. Al Houthi-Saleh forces, which receive direct support from Iran and its proxies, used the position to fire missiles at the Emirati HSV-2 Swift and the U.S. naval destroyer USS Mason in early October 2016. Hadi-aligned forces backed by Saudi-led coalition air assets and Emirati special forces launched Operation Golden Spear on January 7 to seize territory in southwest Taiz governorate and advance into al Hudaydah. The al Houthi-Saleh alliance attempted to preempt the operation by launching multiple missiles at Hadi government and popular resistance forces along the Taiz-Lahij border. Hadi-aligned forces seized a military camp from al Houthi-Saleh forces and advanced the frontline roughly 40 kilometers in five days before the operation stalled outside Mokha port city. The al Houthi-Saleh forces will probably be able to hold Mokha for the near term.
Hadi government forces have renewed efforts to advance the frontline in northern Yemen. Hadi government forces and allied militias from southern Yemen established a second foothold in northwestern Sa’ada governorate in early December, two months after securing al Buqa’ city in northeastern Sa’ada. They then seized the al Houthi-Saleh–held 101st brigade headquarters in northeastern Sa’ada in early January. Sa’ada governorate is an al Houthi stronghold and borders Saudi Arabia. Hadi-aligned forces also reinvigorated an offensive in northwestern Shabwah governorate in late December, seizing territory in Usaylan and Bayhan districts. Al Houthi-Saleh forces launched a counterattack, seizing some of the lost territory. Control over northwestern Shabwah would secure the Hadi government’s control over eastern Yemen.
International efforts led by the United States to agree to a cessation of hostilities and negotiate a political settlement have not succeeded. Hadi reiterated his rejection of the UN’s peace plan for Yemen in early December and added conditions that the al Houthi-Saleh alliance would need to meet before he would resume negotiations. Hadi’s statement followed hints from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that there had been a “small breakthrough” in the peace process. Members of the Saudi-led coalition and the international community expressed their support for the UN proposal and issued multiple statements calling on Hadi to engage in the peace process. Hadi claimed the UN proposal deviated too far from the original framework, which preserved Hadi’s position as a transitional leader. UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed publicly urged Hadi to begin talks following a private meeting with him in mid-January. The Hadi government claimed on January 19 that Ould Cheikh Ahmed revised the plan to allow Hadi to retain his powers, a stipulation to which the al Houthi-Saleh alliance would not agree. The al Houthi-Saleh alliance is seeking a political settlement under the current proposal in order to preserve its influence in Yemen. A power-sharing agreement under the current UN framework would be considered a win for the al Houthi-Saleh alliance but a loss for the Hadi government. Hadi’s government expressed a willingness to engage in proposed ceasefire negotiations in Amman, Jordan, in late December.
Russian diplomatic engagements in Yemen may be a means to contest American efforts to negotiate a political settlement. Prominent al Houthi-Saleh officials traveled to Russia on multiple occasions in December. Russia, unlike the United States, has a diplomatic presence on the ground in Yemen and maintains an acting embassy in Sana’a and a consulate in Aden. The Russian Charge D’Affaires in Sana’a met with al Houthi-Saleh officials at least seven times in a one-month period. Al Houthi-Saleh officials only announced one meeting with the acting Russian ambassador in November and two in October. Russia also printed money to end the Hadi government’s liquidity crisis.
AQAP is degrading local security forces to restore a permissive environment in its historic strongholds in southern Yemen. AQAP militants have maintained an operational tempo of one attack every two days against southern Yemeni security forces since December 1, an increase from previous months. AQAP primarily targets al Hizam security forces, an Emirati-backed counterterrorism force, in Abyan governorate, but has also carried out attacks in Lahij, Aden, Shabwah, Hadramawt, al Bayda, and Ibb governorates. AQAP militants repelled al Hizam security forces attempting to secure Shaqra area, a strategic crossroads in southern Abyan governorate where AQAP has strong tribal ties. AQAP attacks also compelled under-resourced al Hizam forces to withdraw from multiple checkpoints in Abyan governorate in early and mid-January 2017. An al Hizam commander warned in mid-January that security in Lawder in northeastern Abyan is deteriorating and may collapse without additional support. This would permit AQAP to move freely between its safe havens in al Bayda and Abyan governorate. (AQAP claims obtained through Telegram and SITE.)
The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) in Yemen resumed a campaign of high-casualty attacks in southern Yemen. ISIS Wilayat Aden-Abyan conducted two high-casualty suicide attacks in Aden city in mid-December 2016, an increase in ISIS’s recent rate of suicide attacks. The attack pattern is similar to attacks Wilayat Aden-Abyan conducted late 2015 and early 2016. Wilayat Aden-Abyan likely comprises small attack cells, which limited counterterrorism operations may have temporarily disrupted in January 2017. ISIS Wilayat al Bayda attacks significantly slowed in late December through January. The attacks Wilayat al Bayda claimed were small-scale attacks. (Statements obtained through SITE.)
AQAP continues to broadcast to both local and global audiences. AQAP tailored its media strategy to local concerns by emphasizing the anti-al Houthi fight in central Yemen and publishing several poems in a local style. AQAP directly responded to tribal grievances in January 2017 by criticizing ISIS attacks that targeted recruits from an AQAP-linked tribe. AQAP uses its media capabilities to position itself as a unifier in the context of both local and global jihad. AQAP significantly increased its calls for lone-wolf attacks against leaders in the West surrounding the New Year through a new media channel. (Statements obtained through Telegram.)
AQAP will probably continue outreach and support for anti–al Houthi-Saleh militias in southern Yemen as operations in southwestern and northern Yemen become primary efforts for the Saudi-led coalition and Hadi-aligned forces. AQAP’s current focus on the local war seeks to establish a strong base in Yemen from which to resume its external operations targeting the U.S. and the West.