In late February, the beleaguered President of Yemen Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi escaped from Sanaa, where he had been held under house arrest for a month by Houthi rebels who had taken over the capital.
His destination, the southern port city of Aden, was a natural and almost inevitable choice: as the former capital of South Yemen until unification in 1990, it was immediately suitable for the government to set up shop and to serve as alternative to Sanaa as the capital of Yemen.
Plus, Hadi is originally a southerner, which he probably hoped could help bolster support for his government. That fact by itself does not particularly impress many southern separatists, who see Hadi as part and parcel of an old regime that since unification favored the north and discriminated against the south.
A fragmented movement
However, the pro-independence al-Hirak (the Southern Mobility Movement) has been quite a fragmented movement. It was also clear then that the Houthi movement and the military and northern tribal forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh could take their offensive all the way to Yemen’s southern shores. In the face of an inevitable war, al-Hirak leaders naturally opted to side with the Hadi camp backed by the GCC states.
The brutal tactics used by the Houthis and Saleh’s forces in Aden and Taiz...has guaranteed that they will always face fierce resistance from local groups supported by the Saudi-led coalitionManuel Almeida
In March, al-Hirak suspended its long-standing campaign of protest and civil disobedience, despite the remaining ambition of many of those southerners fighting in the Popular Committees against Houthis and Saleh’s forces to eventually break away from the north.
It did not take long for heavy fighting to erupt in Aden between the pro-Hadi camp and the Houthi militias and military forces loyal to former president Saleh. Aden’s airport has changed hands a few times since March.
Today, although Hadi and his government have fled to Riyadh, Aden remains one of the key battle fronts in the current war, as the scale of death and destruction confirms. The significance of the former southern capital for the Houthi fighters and the military forces loyal to Saleh was evident last week, when they took advantage of the five-day humanitarian truce to move many of their forces in the surrounding governorates towards the city. In Abyan province, the coalition responded with airstrikes against a Houthi military convoy making its way to Aden.
But what exactly do Saleh and the Houthi leadership want to achieve with their offensive in Aden and much of the Yemeni territory south of Sanaa, which in the case of the Houthis is quite far away from their strongholds?
In some provinces, it is fairly easy to recognize what their goals are. For example, the value of Marib as an energy-rich province makes it a key strategic target. There, the Houthi-Saleh coalition has been met with fierce resistance from thousands of heavily armed local fighters.
The Houthis’ goal to control Hudaydah in the West coast, which has an important port and is one of Yemen’s largest cities, also makes sense from a strategic point of view. With the intention to hold regular flights between Sanaa and Tehran frustrated by the Saudi-led coalition, Iran is now testing its own ability to continue to send supplies to the Houthis by sending a cargo ship expected to arrive in Hudaydah on Thursday, although the ship may be forced by U.S. and Saudi navy to head instead the U.N. hub in Djibouti.
Yet the Houthi-Saleh strategy regarding major cities such as Aden or even Taiz (once part of the northern Yemen Arab Republic), where it was obvious that the local population would be openly hostile to their presence, is slightly more puzzling.
Surely among their goals is the attempt to prevent the internationally recognized Yemeni government, led by Hadi or any other figure, to re-establish its presence within Yemen. Without a government with a physical presence in Yemen, the Houthi leaders and Saleh can more easily claim to be Yemen’s main political force, however illegitimate that claim may sit with a great number of Yemenis.
Control of as much territory as possible, especially in the perspective of the Houthi leadership, can also offer them more leverage in any future negotiations aiming to reach a political solution to the current war.
In the case of Saleh, he might have thought before the Saudi-led intervention that by using the military forces still loyal to him to support the Houthi offensive, re-gaining control of the whole country would be within reach.
But the brutal tactics used by the Houthis and Saleh’s forces in Aden and Taiz, as well as Lahj, Abyan or Shabwa, including the intentional and systematic targeting of civilian lives and property, has guaranteed that they will always face fierce resistance from local groups supported by the Saudi-led coalition. They will never be able to exert full control and win-over local populations.
This means that the maximum the Houthi leadership and Saleh can hope to achieve in much of the south is a prolonged stalemate that can prevent the presence of a government in Aden or the organization of a counter-offensive. That will likely prove too costly, for Yemen and themselves.
Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.SHOW MORE