The Plan to Retake Sanaa

11 MINS READDec 21, 2015 | 23:18 GMT

Editor's Note: Though Yemen has always suffered from instability, its recent history has been especially violent. With the Arab Spring came protests in Sanaa that escalated the feud between former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. The fighting in Sanaa eventually devolved to open warfare, and Saleh was severely wounded in an assassination attempt in June 2011. To ease tensions within the country, in 2012 the Gulf Cooperation Council mediated an agreement under which Saleh was replaced by current embattled President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi. However, after launching a campaign to push back against rebels and secessionist forces throughout the country, it became clear that the military was not a unified organization capable of maintaining order within the country.

In 2014, Hadi began pursuing a federal system to better distribute power among Yemen's different political groups, but obstacles to the plan emerged. The country's Houthi rebel group wanted more power within the new system and stepped up its campaign against the government in Sanaa, advancing all the way to the capital and eventually forcing it into U.N.-brokered peace talks in August. Per the agreement, Yemen formed a new government to appease the Houthis. However, the group was unhappy with the terms of the new proposition for the country's constitution. Despite agreeing to a cease-fire Jan. 19, Houthi rebels stormed the presidential palace in Sanaa and surrounded Prime Minister Khaled Bahah's residence Jan. 20. Although on the surface the Houthis' actions resemble a coup, the militants are actually pursuing a different strategy. Their recent moves are aimed at demonstrating their strength — they are not interested in directly ruling Yemen. Instead, they seek to increase their influence within Yemen's federal system. Stratfor has been tracking the conflict in Yemen closely, and below is a routinely updated chronicle of the most recent developments.

Dec. 21

The operation to retake Yemen's capital city and liberate the mountainous north is well underway. Saudi-supported forces loyal to President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi are advancing from the direction of Marib, immediately east of Sanaa. The main offensive has split into three separate prongs, the first of which is centered on al-Hazm to the north. Loyalist forces retook the town Dec. 18, and reports of coalition armor and mechanized units arriving from Marib indicate that the coalition is consolidating its position. The second prong is advancing through Nihem district, the most direct route to Sanaa. Coalition forces succeeded in taking control of several strategic high features on the way to the capital and are believed to be 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the outskirts. Scattered reports indicate that resistance fighters may have risen up in smaller villages closer to Sanaa, possibly in anticipation of the arrival of coalition troops. The third prong is to the south, through Khawlan. Coalition forces have laid siege to the town, bombarding its occupants with punishing airstrikes.

In Sanaa itself, the Houthis are reportedly preparing for the defense of the city, though sources on the ground indicate an absence of forces loyal to Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This could be the result of continuous attrition inflicted by the Saudi-led air campaign, or because these forces have been relocated to the fighting in the south or pushed up to the Saudi border. In addition to the Marib offensive, two smaller incursions from the direction of Saudi Arabia are distracting Houthi and Saleh-aligned elements. As well as the push from the direction of Jazan province, a new attack occurred in the vicinity of al-Buqa, and the town has reportedly been captured from Houthi fighters. Similar to the Harad attack last week, the coalition forces held fast after completing their limited objectives, rather than pushing deeper into Yemen. Claims have emerged that the Saudis are leaning heavily on tribal elements to assist with the cross-border skirmishing, particularly those aligned with the Islah party. Though Riyadh considers Islah to be a terrorist group akin to the Muslim Brotherhood, the current crisis in Yemen prompted the Saudis to co-opt the group as partners in the fight against the Houthis.

The coalition push on Sanaa is making its influence felt elsewhere in Yemen. In Taiz, the intensity of fighting dropped to its lowest level in weeks — the Houthis might be relocating personnel to key positions in anticipation of severe fighting to come. In the meantime, Houthi and Saleh-aligned fighters are still attempting to inflict casualties on the coalition. Saleh loyalists continue to launch Tochka guided missiles at coalition forces staged in Marib, hoping to disrupt the forward positioning of troops in that area.

Finally, a ballistic missile was fired from Yemen into Saudi Arabia over the weekend, with another one launched today. The projectiles, surface-to-surface variants of SA-2 air defense missiles, were successfully engaged and destroyed by Saudi Patriot missile batteries. It appears that such attacks are more intended as an intimidation ploy than an actual attempt to inflict casualties — even if the Patriot systems had not intercepted the missiles, the retrofitted warheads on board have limited capabilities, diminishing any potential ground effect. 

Dec. 18

The push to retake Sanaa may finally be underway. Forces loyal to President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi, supported by the Saudi-led coalition, initiated a major military offensive Dec. 18, officially shattering a cease-fire that existed in name alone. Already strained peace negotiations in Geneva have stalled as Hadi's forces, bolstered by the coalition, finally move on Yemen's capital. Talks got off to a poor start when a seven-day armistice set to begin Dec. 15 never materialized; fighting and Saudi-led airstrikes simply continued as normal. But despite unrelenting hostilities, some progress was made Dec. 17, when 265 captured Hadi loyalists were exchanged for 360 Houthi prisoners. The detainee swap took place on the old border between former North and South Yemen.

Over the past 24 hours, two distinct thrusts were launched from Marib in Yemen and from Jizan, across the border in Saudi Arabia. These offensives are advancing rapidly, moving pro-government and Saudi-backed forces closer to Sanaa, in some cases just 64 kilometers (40 miles) from the capital. Despite the swift progress, any fight to close the final distance will be intense and costly for all sides. Because of the speed of the advance on Sanaa, there could be fighting on the outskirts of the capital as early as the weekend. Depending on the amount of combat power the coalition is willing to commit to these operations, and their willingness to accept casualties, the battle for Sanaa could finally be on the horizon.

That such substantial offensives were launched signifies the limitations of the peace talks, which have completely deteriorated. The lack of overall progress has forced a return to military options for the time being. The assault from Jizan has been long anticipated, and finally Saudi-trained and -equipped Yemeni forces have punched south, taking the town of Harad just across the border, establishing a toehold in the Houthi-dominated north.

From Marib, anti-Houthi forces are advancing northwest, clearing along the N5 road corridor toward Sanaa. The latest reports indicate that the Marib force has branched north to strip the town of al-Hazm of its defenders. This may be a move to protect the assault force's right flank, or a possible attempt to isolate the north of Yemen, linking up with the Jizan offensive to cut off Sanaa from Saada — the core of the Houthi presence in Yemen — and prevent reinforcements or exfiltration. Precursor attacks began yesterday, supported by heavy airstrikes, in an attempt to dislodge Houthi defenders. 

Regardless of the ultimate direction of these thrusts, they will have a potent effect on the battlefield. Houthi forces that managed to successfully bog down various offensives elsewhere will have to rapidly readjust their lines to address these new fronts. A priority will be to stage counterattacks in an attempt to retard the advance of the Saudi-backed coalition if possible. The question now is whether available Houthi fighters can react and relocate fast enough to mount a credible defense.  

Coalition air operations continue across the entirety of Yemen, supporting the new offensives as well as focusing on major hotspots, such as Taiz. Taiz city is still heavily contested and is currently being hammered with artillery fire in an attempt to dislodge the remaining Houthi defenders. 

Dec. 9

A desire for negotiation usually comes to the fore as military momentum grinds to a halt. This appears to be the case in Yemen, where the only notable development in its conflict this week took place on the diplomatic front. Once again attempts are being made to bring the various belligerents to the negotiating table. Under the guidance of the United Nations, talks are set to begin Dec. 15 in Geneva. The same day, a temporary cease-fire is expected to begin in an effort to facilitate the negotiations. How effective the cease-fire will be is another matter.

The stagnation of the front lines is the main factor driving the parties to talk in the first place. The various anti-Houthi offensives, directed and supported by the Saudi-led coalition, have captured the majority of the lowland areas beyond the mountainous core of Yemen. Further military movements, such as the push toward Sanaa, will likely impose an extreme cost — in casualties and materiel — on the attackers. The coalition and its Yemeni allies have been reluctant to launch a decisive push into the mountains because of the complex and difficult terrain. The Houthis and those fighters still loyal to Yemen's former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, know that the mountains protect their defenders. And those defenders have had ample time to establish strong defensive positions overlooking the narrow mountain passes, which will have been heavily mined or rigged with improvised explosive devices.

Despite its best efforts, the coalition has been unable to make gains elsewhere in Yemen. Intense fighting for the city of Taiz, as well as the failure to prosecute effective offensive operations from Marib, is a testament to the difficulties faced on the advance. While anti-Houthi forces were able to expand rapidly after winning the battle for Aden, they quickly ran out of momentum as they approached the mountains. The battle for Taiz has been raging for about six months with no end yet in sight. Despite a continuous surge of coalition reinforcements to Taiz, they have not been able to dislodge the Houthi and Saleh loyalists from their positions on the foothills that dominate the ancient, craggy city.

As much as the coalition forces are paying a substantial toll for their continued military operations, Houthi and Saleh-aligned forces have also suffered a significant deterioration of their forces and are equally unable to make gains on the battlefield. With both sides constrained on a military level, the emphasis has inevitably turned toward negotiations. While the Houthi rebels and Saleh's political allies each seek a guarantee of a continued role in Yemeni governance, the requirement for them to withdraw from Sanaa, or to put down weapons, is largely a nonnegotiable outcome from the perspective of the government. How and when these requirements coalesce into a sustainable agreement is uncertain.

As all sides attempt to translate their positions on the battlefield into currency for negotiating a long-term beneficial outcome, the impact from outside forces will also be very noticeable. As the most active members of the coalition that supports the government of President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will have a clear influence on the progress of talks. The Houthi movement could attempt to draw in some of Iran's political clout, and Saleh has been trying to develop a relationship with Russia — with a view to Moscow weighing in on his behalf. Saleh recently visited the Russian Embassy in Sanaa, and two of his nephews met with Russian officials in Moscow as well as the Russian defense attache in Yemen.

For the time being, negotiations will continue be intractable. Even though a temporary cease-fire has been announced, it is unlikely to completely end fighting on the ground. Coalition forces have the cohesion to enforce a cease-fire from their side, but a lack of direct control over many tribal and rebel units makes it difficult to immediately halt all fighting for a short, temporary cease-fire. If a longer-term solution is established in negotiations, however, more substantial efforts will enable both sides to force their units to disengage.

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