On Yemen’s front lines, Saudi intervention leads to chaos and confusion

With the civil war raging on six fronts, anti-Houthi forces try to take back Aden and reinstall exiled president

ADEN, Yemen — Surrounded by sandbags, sitting cross-legged on a roof under a makeshift awning to shield from the sun, the young gunman stares down the sights of his high-caliber weapon.

Glancing over his shoulder he gestures for silence from those around him, in a bid to avoid detection from his hidden counterpart, apparently in another high building a few yards down the street. He points into the middle distance before firing off a few rounds that reverberate through the deserted street of crumbling buildings, battered by weeks of shelling, airstrikes and heavy gunfire.

This is the frontline of Yemen’s civil war that began here in the southern port city of Aden on March 19, days before the country’s president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, was forced to flee the escalating battle by boat. These are the men that the country’s now-exiled government, along with their Saudi hosts, portray as the pro-Hadi force that they say are fighting to restore Yemen’s president in exile.

But the reality on the ground does not reflect the depiction and rhetoric coming from Yemen’s far-off leaders and their foreign backers in Riyadh.

Mohammed Hussein Omar, previously a captain in the army of the formerly separate southern state of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) is now leading a group of Southern Resistance fighters who are battling to regain control of one of the crucial supply routes into the city. When asked about his support for Hadi and the government-in-exile, he pauses thoughtfully as sporadic gunfire rattles behind him.

“We are fighting to protect our homeland from the Houthis. We don’t care about the politics, the rest, who is in charge,” he says in reticent reference to Hadi who, although a southerner by birth, supported then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh in his war against the south in 1994 before taking up his post as vice president after the northern army crushed the southern uprising. Captain Omar was one of thousands of southerners subsequently sacked from the army.

Another fighter standing at his elbow mutters under his breath in Arabic: “I hope she doesn’t ask me whether I support Hadi,” before wandering off.

The Southern Resistance is a ragtag force, predominantly made up of men defending their homes — the older generation of which is former members of the PDRY army. Others are from neighboring southern provinces that have joined the fight to defend Aden from the Houthis, who they see as fighting for their long-reviled foe, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Another faction battles for religious reasons to, as they say, defend their Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam from the predominantly Shia Houthis. On the fringes are Yemen’s notorious Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants, who members of the Resistance quietly acknowledge are in their ranks, albeit in small numbers.

Although their reasons for going to war may not correspond, for now AQAP and the separatists share a common enemy. But the PDRY flag, with its distinctive red star set in a blue triangle fluttering from checkpoints and tanks behind the lines of the Resistance, hints at the conflicting goals of those who fight and their sponsors.

While the green standard of Saudi Arabia is also intermittently displayed on makeshift flag poles wedged into rusting oil drums, the Kingdom’s apparent hesitance to throw its full weight behind the secessionist-leaning Resistance indicates their aversion to the separatist cause.

Meanwhile, the Resistance complains of lack of support from their Saudi patrons, including a shortage of weapons. On the frontlines, local commanders stand among their men — who share one automatic rifle between three soldiers. The heavy weapons they’ve seized are few and unreliable.

“It wasn’t working yesterday. We couldn’t move it,” says field commander Saleh al-Umri, gesturing towards the aging tank with its muzzle pointing down the street. “As a result, we lost two men here.” A bloody handprint on a blown-out white wall provides a memorial to the previous day’s casualties.

“Saudi has remained very supportive of Hadi's legitimacy as president. This has left them in a tight spot — particularly in the south — as many key anti-Houthi factions reject Hadi,” says Yemen analyst and visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Adam Baron. “Funding and significantly empowering key southern resistance factions risks building new rivals to Hadi and the exiled government.”

However, foreign support has been renewed in recent weeks. Fresh shipments of weapons arrived by sea under the cover of darkness earlier this month.

While Special Forces from the United Arab Emirates, a member of the Saudi-led bombing campaign, were said to be among the sparkling new anti-aircraft guns and the Howitzer artillery piece that appeared on the streets in the following days.

Yet, so far the occasional influx of weapons has only provided the Resistance with just enough to keep them fighting, without giving them enough to gain the upper hand against their opponents.

Two-thirds of the city is now in the hands of the northern Houthi militiamen who have teamed up with the heavily armed military units loyal to the country’s former president of 33 years, Saleh. The renegade units of Yemen’s former standing army, alongside battle-hardened Houthis who previously fought six wars against the Yemeni government between 2004 and 2010, have proved their resilience in the face of the nearly three months of airstrikes against them across the country.

Saudi has remained very supportive of Hadi's legitimacy as president. This has left them in a tight spot — particularly in the south — as many key anti-Houthi factions reject Hadi.

Adam Baron

fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations

Not only has the Saudi-led aerial campaign that began on March 26 failed to push back the Houthis as intended, but it has also been unable to prevent the group's continued expansion in a conflict that is now being fought on at least six fronts across the country.

General Saif al-Dhale, Hadi’s appointed military commander in charge of the anti-Houthi fighters in Aden and the surrounding provinces, concedes that the men under his charge are still only in the early stages of being able to put up an effectual army. “We are at the beginning of the road,” he concedes.

Time is against them in this city. There is a sense of inevitability about the Houthis' continued advance into the few remaining districts behind the frontlines of the Resistance, and the capture of the strategically important oil refinery and its stock of vital fuel that sits alongside the seaport. The adjacent western suburb known as Little Aden is currently surrounded, and this week saw the first artillery assaults against that area, home to the majority of the anti-Houthi forces and General al-Dhale’s headquarters in a former social club.

Despite the bleak outlook, the Resistance fighters remain defiant. “Of course we will beat them,” says field commander Saleh al-Umri. “We will defeat them and force them to retreat in a couple of days.”

But disharmony may also impede their progress. “All signs point to escalation,” warned Baron. “Rather than coalescing, anti-Houthi forces appear to be growing even more divided, being split on both means and goals.”

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