Over the past few weeks, the Yemeni national army and local resistance forces have made strategic advances in the central province of Taiz. They were successful during the first few days of 2017, as they recaptured the town of Dhubab, situated on the Red Sea coastline, from Houthi and Saleh rebel forces.
Being situated in such a strategic location, many have considered this a game changer in the battle for Taiz, the eponymous provincial capital which has been besieged by the rebels for nearly two years. Understandably, though, the memory of last March, when the Yemeni army and resistance broke the siege for just a fortnight lingers in the minds of sceptics.
The current strategy vs the March 2016 strategy
Many rejoiced when the Beer Basha district of Taiz city was liberated from the rebels in March for it signified the breaking of the siege. For the first time in a year, food, water and medical equipment entered freely. Food prices fell significantly, with 1kg of tomatoes, for example, costing 150 Yemeni riyals compared to 500 during the siege. The army and resistance gained control of the 35th Armoured Brigade base and it seemed like the ordeal was over for half a million civilians. However, just before the end of the month, Houthi and Saleh forces managed to recapture their most significant losses and the siege was re-implemented. The quality of life for people in Taiz deteriorated as rapidly as it had improved, and hopes for a fully liberated Taiz fell away.
There are, though, a number of differences between the operation last March and that which is happening at the moment. Last March, the resistance and national army sought to liberate the city from Houthi and Saleh forces and started on the outskirts of Taiz to break the siege. Now, the aim of the operation is to secure the coastal areas of Taiz province, starting with Dhubab.
There are two main reasons for this change in strategy. First, if the local resistance and national army take control of Dhubab, it would be significantly easier to deter illegal arms shipments to the Houthis from the Red Sea coast. By weakening their flow of weapons, the Houthis’ military strength and capabilities will be hit and, as the fighting continues, they will find it increasingly difficult to hold on to their gains. Liberating Dhubab will lead eventually to the liberation of the port of Mokha and the securing of the whole of the Red Sea coastline, including Bab El-Mandab Strait.
Furthermore, the nature of the current operation means that although the gains made by the resistance and national army might take longer, they will be more substantial. When the siege on Taiz was broken in March, the surrounding areas still had a large Houthi presence, which explains in part why the siege resumed within a matter of weeks.
Rather than liberating pockets on the outskirts of the city to break the siege, apart from the fact that the Houthi and Saleh forces are expected to withdraw, the securing of strategic gains on the coastline and expanding into the city means that the government and resistance troops will be able to make slow but steady gains and weaken the overall effectiveness of the rebels.
Is there a risk of an “Al-Qaeda Taiz” after liberation?
One of the main problems post-liberation of Aden from Houthi and Saleh forces in July 2015 was the power vacuum into which Al-Qaeda and Daesh could step. Car bombs and suicide attacks are now a regular occurrence in Yemen’s temporary capital city. The government led by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi was too slow to secure the province after Aden was liberated.
Because of this, there has always been a fear that Taiz will go the same way as Aden, with an Al-Qaeda and Daesh presence inciting instability. However, this is a very simplistic way of analysing the situation. Al-Qaeda and Daesh tend to thrive under conditions of political instability and military insecurity. This explains how they have managed to infiltrate and taint a portion of the local resistance fighters in various parts of Yemen. The general lack of support for the local resistance from the national army and the Saudi-led coalition meant that some local groups in Taiz turned to the better-armed terrorist organisations which also wanted to oust the Houthi and Saleh forces. In some cases, Al-Qaeda and Daesh offered fighters much-needed money, medicine, food and security in exchange for loyalty. Some people joined them out of sheer desperation.
Nevertheless, at this stage, the capabilities of Al-Qaeda and Daesh in Taiz are usually exaggerated and in the midst of the fear of the expansion of the two terrorist groups, many forget that the Houthi and Saleh forces are the main perpetrators of violence against civilians in the province. The extremists do have a presence in the city, but to say that they are the main group of fighters facing the Houthis and Saleh’s troops there is inaccurate. However, if the Hadi government does not deploy its own security forces to sustain law and order in Taiz after the defeat of the rebel forces, Taiz will be “Aden II” and the militant groups in the province will increase in size and power.
There are other signs pointing to the success of the operation in Taiz in comparison to what took place last year. The main anti-rebel strategy, which is evidently going to be carried out on a long-term basis, looks more coherent and aims to weaken the Houthis’ ability to obtain weapons, as well as eventually break the siege on the city. However, room for error remains, and the Hadi government needs to ensure that Taiz is properly secured militarily and economically post-liberation if it wants to prevent the growth of terrorist activity.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.