Developments in the Yemeni battlefield have yet to show signs of a definitive shift in favour of either of the two sides. Observers, moreover, do not foresee a major turning point in the near future, unless the Saudi-led coalition and its allies on the ground can score a breakthrough either in the direction of the capital, Sanaa, or southwards in the vicinity of Taiz, which has been under siege by Saleh-Houthi forces for 10 months.
On the other hand, some see hope for significant changes in the management of the battle with the return of General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar. For decades, General Al-Ahmar was considered the other face of the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime in Yemen, but the two men fell out during the revolution, with Al-Ahmar siding with the revolutionaries in the “freedom squares” of Sanaa and Taiz. When regime forces opened live fire on demonstrators in Sanaa and burned the tents of protestors in Taiz, Al-Ahmar took a place in the square and lashed out against Saleh.
The strategic significance of Al-Ahmar’s return to the office of chiefs-of-staffs cannot be overstated. The general has a long career in the army. With the absence of Defence Minister Mahmoud Al-Sobeihi, who is still being held by the Houthis, and with Al-Ahmar’s promotion to lieutenant general, Al-Ahmar has become the highest ranking officer in charge of the administration of the military establishment as the war approaches the critical battle for control over the capital.
“The return of Lieutenant General Al-Ahmar to the theatre of events is a strategic step in and of itself,” Khaled Alian, a journalist with the Yemeni president’s press office in Riyadh, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “This is not just at the military level.
The man had actually managed a part of the battle before he was appointed deputy to the supreme commander of the armed forces. He served in the Midi area on the Red Sea coast, which serves as a major arms and munitions supply conduit to Saleh-Houthi forces, and he achieved extensive progress there.
But to this we should add to other extremely important points. The first is the nature Al-Ahmar’s relations with the tribes in Sanaa. That relationship is good and his return to the field will win many tribes in favour of the legitimate government. The other point is that he knows how Saleh thinks and how he manages the battle militarily.”
Many in Sanaa were more interested in Saleh’s reaction to his former associate’s promotion. Social networking sites filled with images of Saleh without the beard that had distinguished him for over a year, in response to Al-Ahmar’s appointment that Saudi Arabia had forced on Hadi and the Bahah government. Alluding to Al-Ahmar’s defection from his regime, the former Yemeni president said that the Hadi government is now a government divided against itself.
One observer, in interview with the Weekly, said that with Al-Ahmar’s promotion the equations are different now. Salah all be conducting the battle for Sanaa for his side, as he himself has declared. Al-Ahmar will assume the same position as his adversary. Then, “either the battle will be resolved through bloodshed of through diplomacy.
Both men know the language that it takes to settle the outcome of this battle and between them the Houthis will be the target.” The source noted that Al-Ahmar had led six battles against Houthi insurrections in Saada and that he could have put paid to the Houthi factor had Saleh not intervened in order to retain the Houthis as a pressure card to use in a regional game between Riyadh and Tehran.
But there are additional factors in these equations. When, in civilian garb, Al-Ahmar took the oath off office administered by President Hadi, he said that he “extended his hand for a possible settlement”. Behind the scenes, according to informed sources, he is seen as the one who will settle the military battle and then settle the political power battle — not just in Sanaa and Saada, but at the level of the Yemeni government abroad.
The current government, which consists chiefly of southerners, does not know the political and military language spoken in Maareb, Al-Jawf, Saada and the environs of Sanaa. Al-Ahmar, by contrast, was born in the Sanhan directorate, where former President Saleh was born, the two bound by kinship bonds. In fact, many believed that the two were brothers by the same mother because of the many half brothers they share.
These two men know the language of the tribes and social components in the north. But Al-Ahmar will be driven by a thirst to settle personal scores with the Houthis who proclaimed their control over Sanaa after having seized the grounds of the First Artillery Division that Al-Ahmar had regarded as his personal military headquarters.
Yet, the question remains as to whether he will receive genuine support from the government in exile, namely from President “Field Marshal” Hadi and Prime Minister Bahah. Some suspect that rancour from old political rivalry will resurface. After all, Hadi had tried to eliminate Al-Ahmar from the scene before the Houthis reached the capital on 21 September 2014 and had plans to turn the First Artillery Division grounds into a park.
A high ranking Yemeni political official who spoke to the Weekly from Sanaa on condition of anonymity, said: “We need that man now, even if only temporarily. The main aim is to settle the battle for Sanaa and dismantle the Saleh-Houthi tribal-sectarian nexus. He is from the same region and thoroughly familiar with the intricacies of social relations and the patterns of regional and tribal loyalties from Dhamar to Saada.
Given the situation and the demographic composition of those areas, no government can attain stability without incorporating their interests into the system of government. That was the best-governed Yemen and it would be difficult at this point to suddenly turn it from ruler to subordinate. There has to be a form of inclusion that guarantees a minimum degree of partnership in government.”
On Al-Ahmar’s most likely plan, the source said: “He will begin by taking advantage of his social influence and contacts among local tribal sheikhs and leaders. In this he will be backed by Saudi coffers to win their loyalty. By the way, the moment his new position was announced, he began to send his delegates to the tribal elders, especially those in the vicinity of Sanaa, such as the Khulan to the south east of the capital and the Beni Hashish to the north. Those who most appreciate the danger of General Al-Ahmar’s presence in an official position are Saleh, himself, and the Houthis.”
With regards to military developments on the ground, coalition forces report that they have regained control over Al-Misrakh area to the south of Taiz. As important as this gain may be, Abdel Aziz Al-Majidi, a journalist and editor-in-chief from that beleaguered city, told the Weekly that the coalition’s progress on the Al-Misrakh front is still minor and of limited impact in clearing that front of the militias that are still bombarding the city.
On the other hand, the Houthis have succeeded in opening a new front in the direction of the Jebel Habashi directorate to the west of the city. It appears that the purpose is to circumvent the national army in that area and to strike at the Al-Dabab front and the road leading to Taiz from the south (via Al-Turba, Najd, Qasim, Al-Dabab).
In sum, therefore, there has been no tactical or strategic shift in the battle. Meanwhile, coalition forces are sustaining aerial bombardments of arms depots with the purpose of wreaking attrition on the Houthi-Saleh militias, which in turn are bombarding civilians in Taiz.
*This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly.