Over the past few weeks, forces loyal to the internationally recognised Yemeni government have been able to make rapid headway on three separate fronts. Rebel forces have been pushed back in the governorate of Saada, part of the Al Houthi heartland along the Saudi Arabian border; the district of Nahm, 70 km to the northeast of the capital Sana’a; and the historical port of Mocha. This last site was recaptured as part of a wide-sweeping ‘Operation Golden Arrow,’ which aims to restore the country’s Red Sea coast from rebel control.
Launched in January 2017, Operation Golden Arrow is an effort by Yemeni government forces working with a Saudi Arabian-led coalition that targets Al Houthi-Saleh forces along the Red Sea coastline. Pro-government forces have already captured 75 kilometres of coastline, including the two Red Sea ports of Mocha and Dhubab, in addition to the Al Omar military base.
The gains secured through Operation Golden Arrow have had a positive impact not only on the government’s military position, but should also bolster its negotiations abilities should the Yemeni peace process ever be re-started. Golden Arrow aims to secure the 442 km Red Sea coastline, which would cut off a key Al Houthi-Saleh alliance supply line. This would, it is hoped, force the Al Houthi-Saleh alliance to either agree to a political settlement based on the 2011 GCC Initiative, the Outcomes of the National Dialogue (2014) and UNSC Resolution 2216 (2015), or face a battle for Sana’a.
Maintaining maritime outlet
Operation Golden Arrow will next seek to capture the port of Midi, located near the Saudi border. A presumed success will be followed by a more significant battle to restore Hodeida, the vital maritime port controlled by the Al Houthi-Saleh alliance along the Red Sea. Given the strategic value of these ports, it is no surprise that the rebels have put up fierce resistance. They, it seems correctly, see that maintaining a maritime outlet to the Horn of Africa and its smuggling routes is the key to both political and military survival.
These latest military developments have come at a time of regional upheaval, bringing about mixed results for the combatants in the Yemeni conflict. Government forces have been heartened by the return of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi to Aden, and the makeshift seat of the Central Bank. In addition, the Hadi government has been strengthened by its success to secure the payment of civil servant salaries, which the Al Houthi-Saleh alliance had failed to deliver on for months.
Also impacting the conflict in Yemen were changes in the international environment. This was most clearly visible in the new US administration, which appears to be less tolerant of Iranian intervention in the Middle East, including in Yemen. This will likely influence future dealings with the Al Houthi-Saleh alliance. Indeed, the first signs of such a change were at the four-party Yemen follow-up group meeting. Formed in May 2016 by the foreign ministers of the United States, United Kingdom, UAE and Saudi Arabia, at the first meeting of the group post-US elections, the new US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made it clear that support was for President Hadi. This is a significant shift from the position of former US secretary of state John Kerry, who proposed a purely ceremonial role for Hadi.
The Hadi government has already started working to reap any possible rewards of the shift in political sentiment in Washington. The first move is to have the Al Houthi militia classified as a terrorist organisation by the United Nations. This will serve as a sort of test case for the new administration, since a similar move was shot down by the Obama Administration, which regarded the armed group as a legitimate party to an ongoing political conflict in Yemen, and even a potential ally in the war against Al Qaida and Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Yemen. If the Trump administration adopts the position of its short-lived national security adviser Michael Flynn, who believed the Al Houthis were a terrorist force answerable to Iran, then this will heavily influence on the trajectory of the conflict in Yemen.
While some of these developments will support the negotiations position of the Hadi government, more immediate concerns are the inability of loyalist forces to actually govern areas they regain control over. The current shifts may mean changes down the line, but for now the Yemeni government is unable to provide basic life necessities for the civilians in liberated areas. This, in essence, means Hadi forces are incapable of governing effectively.
Having said that, it remains unclear whether Operation Golden Arrow is part of a wider strategy to defeat the Al Houthi-Saleh alliance, or is it merely tactical retaliations to previous attacks by the Al Houthi militia on maritime movement in the Red Sea.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is a Syrian academic and writer.