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Did Al-Jouf fall into Houthi hands because of treason?

July 12, 2015 at 12:05 pm

The Houthi victory in the battle for the city of Al-Jouf, close to the border with Saudi Arabia, came as a shock to many of the supporters of the popular resistance in Yemen. There have been several interpretations of this victory. However, experts and witnesses interviewed by Arabi 21 believe that the defeat of the resistance was the result of mismanagement of the battle by the Arab coalition as well as the failure of President Hadi to support the tribes that have resisted the Houthis over the past four years in the city.

Following three fierce rounds of fighting between 2011 and 2015, Al-Jouf finally fell in June into the hands of the Houthis and their allies, the troops loyal to deposed President Ali Abdullah Salih. The Houthis considered this to be a grand victory that deserved to be celebrated and boasted about.

In an attempt to decipher the “enigma” of the unexpected fall of the city into the hands of the Houthis, Arabi 21 obtained testimonies from political and military analysts and experts that shed light on hidden aspects of the period immediately preceding the takeover. This was the period when the Houthis exploited the decision by President Hadi to hand over the war command inside the city to some of the leaders who were loyal to the People’s Congress Party of former President Salih. This is what enabled the Houthis to turn the successes of the popular resistance in Al-Jouf into a crushing defeat.

Al-Jouf Province is about 143 km to the north east of the Yemeni capital Sanaa. It is conterminous with the Saada Province (the Houthi stronghold) in the north and the Empty Quarter desert, which is shared with Saudi Arabia, in the east. To the south it borders parts of the provinces of Maarib and Sanaa; in the West, the provinces of Imran and Saada.

The fall of Al-Jouf: treason and conspiracies

The distressing defeat of the resistance in Al-Jouf was preceded by a number of events that prepared the ground for such an unexpected outcome. On 2 June, the Saudi-led Arab coalition bombed an advanced resistance position by mistake, killing 20 fighters. This incident played a major role in demoralising the resistance. At the time, the US air force was accused of carrying out the raid, but without any proper investigation. At least, this is what middle-ranking officials within the popular resistance in Al-Jouf have claimed.

These officials, who spoke to Arabi 21 on condition of anonymity, said: “Weeks before the battles intensified between the popular resistance and the Houthis and their allies on the outskirts of Saada, tribal leaders from within Al-Jouf, who are affiliated with the General People’s Congress Party, arrived and received generous support from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the name of the resistance, although none of that support ever reached the resistance.”

The sources added that those leaders who are loyal to Salih’s party, and who pretend in public to support the legitimacy of President Mansour Hadi, tried to mobilise their own fighters, sending them to the front of the raging conflict. “They did so by announcing the setting up of a fighters’ camp next to the government compound and the quarters of Brigade 115. Both are located in the centre of Al-Jouf, in Al-Hazm. Their pretext was protecting government premises and military installations against any Houthi invasion that might target them. However, they were nothing but sleeper cells used by the Houthis and the Salih forces in order to stab the resistance in the back while the resistance never anticipated a drama of this kind.”

Sleeper cells

These sleeper cells started mobilising in two stages. The first involved “evacuating all the families of their leaders from their homes in Al-Hazm and surrounding areas under the pretext that they had become targets for the coalition air force.”

The second stage started on Sunday, 14 June, when the resistance fighters, who were engaged in fierce fighting on the outskirts of Saada, in Ktaf and Al-Ytamah (located between Al-Jouf and Saada, to the north), were surprised to discover that the Houthis had already reached the steps of the government compound in Al-Hazm. Apparently, they were betrayed by tribal leaders from the tribe of Hamdan that is loyal to the Congress Party and which received generous support from the leadership of the coalition.

When they arrived in Al-Hazm, the resistance fighters felt that the battle was going to be very costly, especially given that it was going to take place in an area heavily populated by people considered by the resistance to be its own constituency. It is worth noting that in previous fighting in 2011 and 2014 Al-Jouf tribes managed to lure the Houthis into desert areas far from residential areas.

When the leaders of the resistance discovered that the Houthis had moved their families from their homes to unknown destinations prior to the arrival of the confrontation in Al-Hazm district, they decided to withdraw out of concern for the safety of the families.

Arabi 21 has spoken to a government official in Al-Jouf Province about the fall of the city. He stressed that the most important reason for the fall of Al-Jouf was “the reliance of the coalition on pre-paid tribal chiefs who acted as sleeper cells for the Houthis instead of dealing directly with the resistance that fought the Houthis for six years without support from any state.”

The official, who is now in Riyadh and who also asked for anonymity, added that he was “expecting the coalition to bomb a mechanised military column consisting of 20 armoured vehicles belonging to the troops loyal to the Houthis, which travelled along the highway towards Al-Jouf only days before the city fell into the hands of those forces.” However, this, according to him, did not happen. As a result, Yemenis grew suspicious about the reasons that prompted the Arab Coalition to allow a group of Houthi armoured forces to travel 400 km from the centre of Saada along the main highway, a stone’s throw away from the Saudi border close to Al-Baq’ (to the east of Saada), all the way to the heart of Al-Jouf Province without bombing them, except for one raid that targeted an armoured vehicle only one day before the fall of the city.

The hired gun

Ali Al-Dhahab, the strategic analyst specialised in armed conflicts, says that, “There was no real battle in which the two parties clashed to the death whereby those who defend their own territories (popular resistance) stood fast and remained entrenched to counter an attacker who mobilised its strongest fighters and unleashed its best weapons, spies and agents in this confrontation.

“Those defending the provincial centre were in two groups. The first was defending it without any intention of deserting it or fleeing. The other was fighting for the booty and contemplated fleeing once the fighting intensified. Yet, the sleeper cells were the most dangerous and they were the ones who facilitated the entry of the Houthis into the city through intrigue and deceit.”

Al-Dhahab explained further to Arabi 21 that some of the city’s residents were hired guns. They sold their stands in the market of those who pay a lot of money. Those “were the straw that broke the camel’s back in the battle for Al-Jouf which ended with the fall of the city to the Houthis and the forces allied with them.” This was a hint at the tribal leaders, who were associated with the deposed Ali Salih and who were accused of betraying the resistance.

The Yemeni expert said that there were other reasons, such as “the collusion of the Al-Shraf with the Houthis and the army allied with them, having an understanding that guarantees them a share of the financial as well as the political booty.” The Al-Shraf (“the honourable ones”) are a minority in Al-Jouf who, together with the Houthis, claim to be descendants of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. This explains why they were on the same side as the Houthis.

According to Al-Dhahab, the reasons also include the fact that the coalition was not satisfied with the Al-Jouf resistance because of the rumour that it included terrorist elements associated with Al-Qaeda or that it only represented the Islah Party.

The coalition’s disappointing support

Sources close to the popular resistance have said that one of the reasons for the defeat in Al-Jouf was the disappointing support given to the resistance by the coalition. Again insisting on anonymity, the sources told Arabi 21 that the coalition provided the popular resistance with military assistance twice. The first time included a truck load of old dismantled automatic Kalashnikov rifles, one hundred of which blew-up in the face of resistance fighters as they were trying them before going into battle.

The second dispatch of military assistance consisted of personal weapons which were excellent in themselves but not sufficient to fulfil the needs of the resistance fighting along five fronts against the Houthis. It was decided, in the end, to send these guns to the resistance in the Ibb Province.

Such support, said the sources, was “disappointing, despite the fact that the coalition had promised to send us quality weapons in order to win the battle decisively.” This analysis concurs with what was said by the leader of the resistance in the city of Al-Jouf, Al-Hasan Abkar, in a television interview with Al-Shar’iyah Channel, which belonged to the Yemeni presidency, just days before the city fell.

A setback with a profound impact

Commenting on the fall of Al-Jouf to the Houthis, Amer Al-Dmaini, managing editor of Al-Nas weekly newspaper, said that what happened is considered to be a political and military setback for the anti-Salih and anti-Houthi popular resistance. “The setback has had a negative impact on the morale of resistance factions and their leader, first in the province of Al-Jouf itself and then in the rest of the provinces in which the resistance is confronting the militias loyal to Salih and the Houthis.”

In an interview with Arabi 21, Al-Dmaini said, “What truly hurts is that this setback happened at a time when the steadfastness of the resistance should have been reinforced and its advance supported. But what happened was totally to the contrary, whereby the resistance was forced to retreat; as a result, it lost all the gains it had made over a period of three years.”

The journalist noted that Al-Jouf Province is unique in that in addition to its tribal weight it is conterminous with Saudi Arabia as well as with the oil-rich Province of Ibb. “In the past, the resistance front in the province was intact and was saved, for a while, from the sort of infiltrations that plagued other provinces,” he explained. “This enabled it to withstand and deter repeated invasion attempts and military onslaughts by the Houthis who were desperate to conquer it.”

Its fall dealt a strong blow to the resistance, he added, and frustrated its fighters. “This was especially so given that it occurred at the time when the president and the legitimate government moved to Riyadh and the coalition countries were providing support either as direct arms supplies or air strikes targeting the other side.”

What happened in Al-Jouf, insisted Al-Dmaini, was a setback caused not by the defeat of the resistance or due to its weakness or failure to defend the city, but rather because of the new strategy imposed by the powers that control what goes on inside Yemen. “Add to that the change with regard to taking away the task of defending Al-Jouf from the known resistance men and handing it over to certain influential personalities who enjoy no political or popular weight to enable them to safeguard the gains achieved by the resistance earlier. Such personalities have dubious backgrounds and are suspected of having had associations with those embroiled in the coup against political legitimacy in the country.”

Al-Dmaini believes that the fall of Al-Jouf Province was clearly the result of treason by some of those who make claims to legitimacy. “There were erroneous assessments that were linked to a series of treacherous acts suffered by the resistance,” as he put it.

Did Hadi contribute to the fall of Al-Jouf?

The three sources interviewed by Arabi 21 while preparing this report concurred that Hadi was indirectly responsible for the fall of Al-Jouf, or that he was somehow involved in a certain “conspiracy” that led to the Houthi victory in the city.

The Al-Jouf official now living in Riyadh believes that President Hadi was behind the fall of Al-Jouf to the Houthis who led the coup. “His objective was to hit the Al-Islah Party within Al-Jouf in conjunction with a grand regional conspiracy that rescued Abd Al-Malik Al-Houthi and prevented his fall in his own stronghold within Saada at the time when he was being dealt heavy blows by the resistance.”

According to Ali Al-Dhahab, neither Al-Jouf nor any other province in the north means much to President Hadi or to any of the southern military leaders who are only concerned primarily with the southern provinces. He cited as evidence what happened in the Wadi’ah border crossing between Hadramout (in East Yemen) and Saudi Najran when trained forces belonging to Hadi seized control of the crossing.

Al-Nas managing editor Amer Al-Dmaini concurs with both of these views. He told Arabi 21 that President Hadi and his cabinet members “were involved” in this incident “as a result” of their failure to support the resistance as well as “their betrayal” of its endeavours and sacrifices. “Instead of supporting it they sought to stab it in the back and offer it as a scapegoat to the Houthis and Salih’s troops who then inflicted the most brutal and ugly punishment on it.”

Translated from Arabi21, 4 July, 2015

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.