Yemeni pro-government forces gather on the eastern outskirts of Hodeida, as they continue to battle for the control of the city from Huthi rebels on November 9, 2018. Image Credit: AFP

Cairo: Recent high-ranking defections among erstwhile allies of Al Houthis signal further such splits as the Iran-aligned militia suffers setbacks at the hands of the Saudi-led coalition, experts said.

This week, Abdul Salam Jaber, who had served as the information minister for Al Houthis, defected from the militia and fled the Al Houthi-controlled capital Sana’a for Riyadh. He said the rebels were “breathing their last”.

His defection came days after Abdullah Al Hamadi, who used to serve as deputy education minister in the so-called Al Houthi government, defected and also escaped to Saudi Arabia.

“The growing defections in Al Houthi ranks show their allies are jumping from the militia’s sinking ship,” said Adnan Mansour, a Yemeni analyst living in Cairo. “In fact, Al Houthis started losing trust among their allies inside Yemen after they killed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh,” Mansour told Gulf News.

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Last December, Al Houthis gunned down Saleh after he fell out with them and switched alliance to the Arab coalition.

“Since then, Al Houthis have gradually lost political covering, which is exposed with every new defection,” added Mansour.

“Another reason behind these defections is the realisation among many senior supporters inside Yemen that Al Houthis’ days are numbered, in view of their successive defeats on the ground — especially in their strongholds of Hodeida and Saada,” Mansour added.

This month, Yemeni government forces, supported by the coalition, started a major operation to liberate the strategic port city of Hodeida in western Yemen from Al Houthis. They have since made swift advances there and are inching closer to the port, a lifeline for Yemen.

“The recapture of the Hodeida harbour will deal a crushing economic blow to the [Al Houthi] militia as the port constitutes the main resource for them to obtain money, weapons and humanitarian assistance,” Mansour said. “Likewise, the complete defeat of Al Houthis in Saada [in northern Yemen] will mark a highly symbolic loss as the province is the birthplace of Al Houthi movement and its leaders’ hometown. The developments on the fronts of Hodeida and Saada in particular make us expect more top-level defections in the ranks of Al Houthis in the coming days,” he added.

Government forces said this week that they were in control of about half of Saada near the Saudi border as part of a multi-front military campaign against the rebels.

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At a press conference he addressed in Riyadh on Sunday, defector Jaber cited “escalating” conflicts among Al Houthi leaders. “The repercussions of these conflicts will be further reflected on Al Houthi performance on the battleground,” he said. “Al Houthis are breathing their last and are living their final days,” added Jaber, a Yemeni southerner, long linked with Al Houthis and their Lebanese Hezbollah ally.

Yemeni writer Nasser Al Shalili told pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat that Jaber’s defection is a “clear sign of major cracks” inside the Al Houthi house.

In recent months, several senior officials have defected from Al Houthis and fled Yemen, seeking exile in other countries, according to media reports. Unlike Jaber, those defectors have opted to keep a low profile for fear of being targeted by Al Houthis’ agents, the reports said. The defection trajectory has reportedly prompted Al Houthi militias to tighten control over leading officials and allies from Saleh’s General People’s Congress Party for fear of disloyalty.

Last month, Nasser Baqzuk announced his resignation as tourism minister in the unrecognised Al Houthi government, citing threats and illegal interferences from the militants. Baqzuq has since suffered Al Houthi harassment after he failed to leave Sana’a.

Al Houthi activists have recently questioned intentions of several officials in their self-styled government. “The current government in Sana’a is ineffective, paralysed and a heavy burden on the people,” Hamid Rezq, a member of the rebel politbureau said on Facebook. “A mini-cabinet of competent and experienced members should be formed instead,” he suggested.

Mohammad Ali Al Emad, an Al Houthi activist, warned in a Facebook post that “there are dozens like Abdul Salam [Jaber] from the head down to the tail of the institutions”.

Several Yemeni government loyalists have called for taking advantage of the plunge in Al Houthi morale to encourage more defections. The loyalists have, however, voiced dismay after a shoe thrown at Jaber by an angry detractor at his press conference in Riyadh.

“The state system and all its supporters should treat well each defector from Al Houthis,” tweeted Saleh Samih, the governor of Yemen’s province of Mahwit. “The defector takes the risk and faces great trouble only because he is convinced of the soundness of his decision to break away from the [previous] hellish situation. He should be judged on this basis. As for his intentions, they should be up to God.”