The military campaign to restore legitimacy in Yemen appears to have scored its most crucial strategic shift since Saudi-led coalition forces recaptured the country’s southern capital, Aden, in July 2015.
Last week, the National Army and Popular Resistance forces, backed by the Saudi-led coalition, took control of the strategic northeast axis of Nehem, adjacent to the borders of Sanaa governorate, bringing them to within 50 kilometres of the capital. This is a major setback for the Houthi-Abdullah Saleh alliance.
It is also the second-to-last step in the drive to recapture Sanaa city, which has been under Houthi control since 21 September 2014. Nevertheless, that next step — the march to liberate Sanaa — will require special military preparations to ensure a decisive victory in that important battle.
In addition to the tactical edge on the battle terrain, which was won by gaining control of a crucial juncture at the northeast gateway to Sanaa governorate and the capital city itself, securing Nehem was also a strategic success in terms of morale. After five months of fighting, defeating the rebel alliance at this critical point boosted the morale of pro-government forces to sustain their efforts on this and other fronts.
At the same time, this victory marks a high point in the coalition force’s strategy of attrition, which aims to sap the energies of rebel forces and sever their supply lines. The fight to liberate Nehem was waged in tandem with an expansion in the strategy of attacking on several fronts simultaneously, by means of aerial strikes, severing lines of reinforcement and destroying major military facilities and sites.
In addition to forcing the rebels to spread their energies over several fronts, the multi-front approach in the advance toward Sanaa has succeeded in destroying a considerable amount of the insurgents’ military infrastructure.
Pro-legitimacy forces have taken out three Katyusha multiple rocket launchers in Jabal Mahjar, a rebel training camp at Al-Jarr farms, which are owned by former president Saleh, along with weapons depots and military machinery and personnel in Khiran in the governorate of Hajja and in Razeh, Baqem, Hidan, Majzar, and Sahar in the governorate of Saada; and military supply lines along the Harad-Midi line. They have also destroyed an army reserves camp in Haziz area, south of Sanaa.
In conjunction with this progress, there has been clear success in investment into the role of tribes in the war. In October 2015, tribal leaders in the governorate of Jawf and Sanaa announced the creation of an armed popular resistance tribal coalition to contribute to the liberation of the capital. This contribution was instrumental in the recent battle in Jawf and increases the prospects that this model will be repeated in the battle of Sanaa.
However, for this strategy to succeed, the legitimate authorities must open channels of direct communication with influential tribal leaders who have leverage to convince tribal militias to join forces with the popular resistance. Such a tribal coalition will also create a powerful wedge with which to cleave tribal alliances in the Houthi-Saleh camp.
Despite the recent strategic gains, there are potential difficulties that could arise with regard to the decisive step — the anticipated battle of Sanaa. It should be stressed that military action has become the primary option in the drive to restore stability in Yemen, now that the Geneva track has run aground on the policies of the rebel forces who have refused to fulfill their political, military, and humanitarian obligations.
This course will not be easy, however. The battle will ultimately usher in the end of the war and victory for the forces of legitimacy, the rebel forces will put all their energies into it and use all available techniques of war to wreak the greatest possible amount of destruction and loss to prevent the retaking of Sanaa.
Above all, rebel forces will take advantage of the topography around the capital, the chains of mountains that form a massive natural barrier that is difficult — if not impossible — to traverse. The mountainous terrain conceals numerous camps belonging to the Republican Guard and their abundant weapons depots. Conventional aerial bombardments of this area will not produce quick results. There are also many major supply routes, especially those leading to the vicinity of the capital from Hodeida.
Undoubtedly, the nature of the battle for Sanaa will be totally different from the other battles. The rebel forces and the Houthis in particular are well trained and have extensive experience in the art of mountain warfare. Under the cover of the Houthi-Saleh military camps, the conflict could easily turn into a widespread guerrilla war.
The nature of Houthi warfare, and especially that of the religious extremists among them, is a factor that will increase losses among civilians who they will use as human shields.
It is important to factor in the possibility of political manoeuvring used by Saleh since the beginning of the civil war. In tandem with fighting, Saleh has sought recourse to the negotiating track on the basis of the claim that he and the Houthi rebel forces are part of the Yemeni people and therefore cannot be eliminated, regardless of the results on the battlefield.
This is among the last cards they can play in the hope of maintaining some military balance. Another card, when all else fails, will be to use various military tactics to threaten the stability of the state after legitimacy is restored.
It is only a matter of time before the outskirts of the capital and surrounding areas are recaptured. Militarily, this process requires a different perspective, one that sees the need for contingency planning and that sees the ruggedness of the terrain and the snares lurking within, one that considers innumerable details to ensure victory in the decisive battle.
It means that pro-legitimacy forces must hold onto and consolidate their gains from previous battles, and they must sustain the tactic of multi-front attrition against the insurgents, whether in Saada, Taiz, Al-Dalie, Abyan or elsewhere. Above all, they should not be too hasty to launch a ground invasion of Sanaa before the most advantageous conditions possible are in place.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly