The Hodeida withdrawal

Ahmed Eleiba , Sunday 21 Nov 2021

Al-Ahram Weekly keeps up with the latest developments in Yemen.

The Hodeida withdrawal
A Yemeni pro-government fighter is pictured during fighting with Houthi rebels on the south frontline of Marib (photo: AFP)

While the fighting rages on in Marib, where the Ansarullah (Houthi) forces mounted an offensive to seize the northeastern province from the Arab coalition-backed pro-legitimate government, an unanticipated development took place at the opposite end of the country. Pro-government forces suddenly withdrew from their positions on the coast in and near the strategic port city of Hodeida, for no obvious or logical reason, and the Houthi militias quickly moved in to replace them. Yemeni sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Houthis hesitated at first, thinking it was a trap, later advancing in large numbers from Dhamar and Ibb provinces.

Contingents of the pro-government forces – which are made up of the Amaliqa (Giants) Brigades, the Tihama Resistance, the Republican Guard and the Haitham Qassem Brigade – have offered conflicting and controversial explanations for the withdrawal. The Giants, for example, described the withdrawal as a “redeployment” consistent with the Stockholm agreement of 2019, keeping those areas “governed by an international agreement demilitarised and safe for civilians,” they said in statement. Observers found this justification odd because government forces had strongly opposed the Stockholm agreement which obliged them to halt their advance on Hodeida at a time when the balance of power on the ground was in their favour. For their part the Republican Guard, or National Resistance as they are now known, said, “the aim is to redeploy in order to avoid the mistakes made by the politicians in the Swedish agreement.”

According to local press reports, the Haitham Qassem Brigade returned to Aden in southern Yemen to take up its positions on the fronts in Dhali, Karsh, Thura and Bayhan. Four regiments of the brigade handed over their positions at Kilometre 16 in Hodeida to the Republican Guard, commanded by Tarek Salah. Also according to these sources, two more regiments from this brigade withdrew together with troops from the Giants. All returned to the south in order to redeploy at the fronts in Abyan and Shabwa provinces.

The withdrawal of forces from Kilometre 16 opened up the main highway between Hodeida and Sanaa, which gives the Houthis a great strategic advantage. This development might herald the reopening of the port for commercial shipping which would serve the capital and other northern cities falling under the Houthis’ control.

If the withdrawal came as a surprise to them, it may pave the way for some political arrangements. Nevertheless, the coalition command issued no explanation for the withdrawal or “redeployment,” although Saudi Arabia stressed that the coalition was not about to withdraw militarily from Yemen.

One possible explanation may be that the redeployment is intended to secure the southern provinces from a Houthi advance in that direction. Many observers believe that this is the Houthis’ plan in the event of them gaining control of Marib. However, this conflicts with the announcement by the coalition command that the Houthis deployed in Hodeida after the aforementioned forces have now withdrawn from that area.

Some have wondered whether the UAE was behind the withdrawal of the southern forces from the vicinity of Hodeida. The UAE is known to be close to forces affiliated with the Southern Movement, such as the Giants and the Haitham Qassem Brigade. However, Abu Dhabi issued no statement concerning the withdrawal of these forces or the reason for their redeployment.

Some attention focused on the UN Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg. His visit to the western coast shortly before the withdrawal led some to speculate that a deal was in the works regarding arrangements at the port or at a larger scale. The UN quickly denied any connection between the envoy’s visit and the movement of forces on the ground.

But clearly something is afoot what with the return of the Southern Movement forces to the south, Tarek Salah’s forces taking over from them on the western coast, and the Tihama Resistance apparently left furious. The Tihama forces are closer to Saudi Arabia, especially given that the Tihama province in northern Yemen borders that country. With this in mind, some observers suggest that the pro-government ground forces might be undergoing a restructuring process based on whether they are sponsored by Saudi Arabia or the UAE.

This still gives no reason for the withdrawal. Protecting the south from a possible Houthi advance following a possible Houthi victory in Marib seems premature. The hypothesis that the vacancy in Hodeida was intended to divert Houthi forces from the battle in Marib does not hold since, as mentioned above, the Houthis brought in forces from neighbouring Dhamar and Ibb provinces and these encountered no resistance to speak of.

Although no one has a clear upper hand yet in the fighting, the Houthis are now better off with control over the port and the Hodeida-Sanaa highway. On the other hand, the coalition forces continue to check the Houthis through air strikes against their positions in the vicinity of Marib as well as strikes against their positions on other fronts, such as Sarwa and Bayda, which the Houthis recently took from pro-government forces.

Meanwhile, no breakthrough is in sight yet on the political front. The Houthis have not taken a single step in the direction of a peace initiative, even though the Saudi foreign minister reiterated this week that the peace offer was still on the table. It could be that Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan’s remarks were pitched not at the Houthis, who were unlikely to take up the offer since they are clearly bent on achieving a definitive military victory in Marib, but at a Western audience, especially given that the essential formula of the Saudi initiative stemmed from a Saudi-US understanding. If so, this could signify that the Saudis are on the defencive in the battle for Yemen.

In all events, whatever the causes of the withdrawal from Hodeida, the ambiguity is unlikely to last for long. Another sudden development, perhaps in the south, will help put the pieces of the puzzle in place.

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