Taiz: Yemen’s forgotten battlefront

Manuel Almeida
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The highland city of Taiz, in Yemen’s southwest, is renowned for many things. Five hundred years ago it was the political capital before that shifted to Sanaa, yet it continues to be the country’s cultural capital, home to many of Yemen’s most prominent writers, poets and artists. On top of the cultural legacy, there is also the city’s history as a commercial hub, which gave rise to an educated and cosmopolitan mercantile class. Taiz sits close to the Red Sea’s Mocha port, once part of a major trade route and from where the famous coffee beans were exported.

Since 2011, the city also gained the epithet as the birthplace of the Yemeni revolution. It was early that year that the local youth started to organize protests against the disastrous 33-year rule of then President Ali Abdullah Saleh. With security forces employing gradually more violent methods to disperse the increasingly large crowds, local tribes and militias intervened and started attacking government forces.

Events in Taiz have gone somewhat under the radar. But the violence, death and destruction there has reached unparalleled levels.

Manuel Almeida

The conflict between local militias and government forces escalated in the following months and it only ended with a ceasefire brokered by the governor of Taiz, Hamoud al-Soufi, weeks after Saleh signed the GCC deal that involved a transfer of power to his vice-president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Today, however, Taiz and its people continue to suffer greatly from the indiscriminate shelling carried out by the alliance of Saleh loyalists and Houthi rebels, who stormed the city in March this year as part of their military offensive following last year’s coup.

The local resistance

Having been expelled from much of the city in the summer by a combined offensive from local resistance militias, pro-Hadi military forces and coalition airstrikes, the Republican Guard units loyal to Saleh and pro-Houthi forces have taken up positions in the outskirts of the city, mostly in the north and northeast. From there, supplied via Ibb governorate just north of Taiz, they have been indiscriminately shelling residential areas with tank and mortar fire.

The local resistance against the Saleh-Houthi alliance is made up of various groups which include liberals, seculars, socialists, Islamists and Salafists. Among them, two stand out. In the northwest of Taiz, the self-made Sheikh Hamoud al-Mekhlafi leads a powerful militia (of Islamists mostly) that played a central role in expelling pro-Saleh forces from the city centre in 2011, before their return during the current conflict. Al-Mekhlafi, who carved for himself the role of informal police chief and arbiter of local disputes, is an Islamist loyal to the al-Islah party, a coalition of tribal and Islamist groups of various kind in which Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood plays a prominent role.

Then the military units loyal to the Yemeni government are located in the northern front, south of the city and in its southern suburbs, all coordinated by a military council headed by Brigadier General Sadek Sarhan. Other important pro-government military commanders are Brigadier General Yusef al-Sharaji and Brigadier General Adnan al-Hamadi, the commander of the 35th Armored Brigade that early on in the conflict declared its allegiance to the Yemeni government.

What next for Taiz?

With much of regional and international media focused on the government-led counter-offensive in Marib, the coalition’s aerial campaign in the capital Sanaa, and the return of the Yemeni government in exile to Aden, events in Taiz have gone somewhat under the radar. But the violence, death and destruction there has reached unparalleled levels, with the civilian population and key infrastructure such as hospitals taking a heavy toll.

Amidst this seemingly senseless brutality from the Houthi-Saleh alliance, what is the alliance’s strategy in Taiz? As an alien force with virtually no local support, it is practically impossible for it to regain control of the city. The goal instead seems to be to protect Sanaa’s southwestern flank. Now on the defensive in Marib governorate east of the capital, the Saleh loyalists and pro-Houthi forces are apparently trying to ensure the government-led offensive toward the capital does not gain further momentum on another front.

Unless there is a major shift in the current power balance, Saleh loyalists and pro-Houthi forces will eventually have to withdraw from their positions on the outskirts of Taiz toward the north to Ibb. In fact, current events in Taiz are following a similar pattern to the occupation and gradual withdrawal of pro-Saleh and Houthi forces from the former southern capital of Aden in July.

Preparations are already under way by the Yemeni government and local authorities to distribute much-needed food and medical supplies, restore all basic services and repair key infrastructure, as soon as Taiz ceases to be a constant target. Most likely, the city will also be used as a strategic point to build up the pressure on the Houthis further north.

One existing concern within Yemeni government circles and among the Arab coalition is the alleged presence of dozens of al-Qaeda members among the local militia fighters. This raises worries about the challenges that the post-conflict scenario in Taiz will pose to the re-assertion of the central and local government’s authority and the control over local militias. In any event, the Taizians’ plight seems to be drawing closer to an end.

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.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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