Following the fall of Sana’a to the Houthis, President Hadi relocated to Aden, the southern port city of Yemen and the center of the Southern Mobility Movement. Deciding that, since part of the agreement with the Houthis that led to Hadi’s abdication as president (followed by his entire cabinet) had been violated, the entire agreement was void. Hadi relocated to Aden and declared that he was still the president of Yemen.
There had been a great deal of speculation that former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was involved with the Houthi uprising. As Hadi established himself in the south, Saleh openly declared that he was going to “drive Hadi into the Red Sea.”
In early March, Hadi attempted to dismiss Brigadier General Abdul-Hafez al-Saqqaf, a commander of the Yemeni Army Special Forces. Al-Saqqaf was known to be, or at least Hadi suspected him of being, still loyal to Saleh. Clashes had occurred between al-Saqqaf’s special forces and militias loyal to Hadi, but on March 19, matters began to come to a head.
In the early morning of March 19, al-Saqqaf’s SSF attacked the Yemen airport. Passengers who had already boarded their flights had to retreat to the terminal to avoid gunfire. The pro-Hadi militias deployed tanks and APCs into the streets of Aden, driving al-Saqqaf’s forces out of the airport after a four-hour firefight that saw three of al-Saqqaf’s men killed, and two of the militia.
That afternoon, an airstrike reportedly launched from Sana’a attempted to bomb Hadi’s palace in Aden. The bombs missed, striking the nearby mountain, while anti-aircraft fire attempted to hit the plane.
The next day, March 20, two suicide bombings occurred in Sana’a, striking Shi’a mosques right at prayer time (Friday is the Muslim holy day, just as Saturday is for Jews and Sunday for Christians, so the mosques would have been full). A total of 137 people were killed, and ISIS, or, more likely, the branch of AQAP that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, has claimed responsibility.
On March 21, ostensibly following an AQAP strike on the town of Houta, the remaining U.S. SOF forces were pulled out of Al Anad Airbase, leaving no U.S. personnel in Yemen to partner with what is left of the Yemeni government in order to fight AQAP. And what is left has been shrinking rapidly. On March 26, President Hadi, who had gone into hiding but had not left the country after the attempted bombing of his palace, fled Yemen to Riyadh. The Saudis have long backed Hadi, and immediately took steps to keep the Shi’a Houthis from taking control of the country.
At midnight, March 26, Saudi warplanes began bombing suspected Houthi positions across the north of Yemen, to include Sana’a International Airport, the Dulaimi military base, and the same Al Anad airbase that had hosted U.S. SOF and had reportedly been taken by the Houthis the day before. As many as 85 aircraft were reported to have been involved, including birds from the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan.
Houthi forces have pushed south rapidly since the fighting on the 19th, and have begun shelling Aden, the last real holdout of Hadi loyalists. In response, Egyptian warships offshore have begun shelling Houthi forces near Aden. Meanwhile, cross-border clashes between Saudi troops and Houthi fighters have intensified. Houthi fighters, now backed by al-Saqqaf and his forces, have been making strides across the country, including seizing a coastal military base on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait on the Red Sea.
Hadi’s Foreign Minister, Riyadh Yaseen, has called for Arab ground troops to intervene. However, at the moment, while Pakistan is sending ground troops to support the Saudis on the border, no such operation is, at least publicly, on the table. Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, Saudi military spokesman, has said, “There could be a limited ground operation, in specific areas, at specific times. But don’t expect there to be an automatic resort to a ground operation.”
In other words, either the Saudis are not interested in broadcasting their military plans to the Houthis and their Iranian backers (there have been extensive reports of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force advisors helping the Houthis), which would be wise, or they are hoping that pounding from the air will bring the Houthis to the table.
The latter option seems unlikely. The Houthi coup began about six months ago, and the Houthi spokesmen said they simply wanted a greater presence in the government. It has since turned into a full-scale civil war and takeover of the country. The Iranian involvement renders peace in the near term even less likely.
Yemen has turned into another front in the regional Sunni-Shi’a proxy war going on in the Middle East. Iraq and Syria have been the primary front, but the number of players now engaged in Yemen show how strategically vital it is. The Saudis do not want an Iranian proxy on their southern and northern border (southern Iraq is already Shi’a-controlled, and largely held by Iranian proxies already). They can’t afford to let Hadi be overthrown and the Houthis take over the country. Whether they have the force to counteract the Houthi offensive, however, remains to be seen. Airstrikes alone have never won a war, and with Houthi strength on the ground growing, sooner or later the Saudis and their allies are going to have to commit to sending in ground troops or give Yemen up as lost.
(Featured image courtesy of Reuters)