Saudi-led offensive in Yemen faces dangerous new phase

Riyadh is pushing to extend the conflict into key areas of the country where Houthi rebels will offer much resistance

Supporters of the Houthi rebel movement at a rally to protest a military offensive by the Saudi-led coalition supporting Yemen’s ousted president, Aug. 24, 2015, in Sanaa.
Mohammed Huwais / AFP / Getty Images

ADEN, Yemen — When young garage mechanic Aidaroos Saleh heard the familiar ping of his smartphone, he could never have imagined the journey on which the incoming message would take him. In a matter of weeks, Saleh, 22, went from fixing cars in his adopted country of Saudi Arabia to the battle front of his southern Yemen homeland.

The message was an official communication, a call to arms for Yemenis in Saudi Arabia to join a fighting force that would “defend Aden” — the southern Yemeni city that descended into civil war in mid-March. Four months after he responded to the message in April, the young fighter sat cradling an AK-47 assault rifle between his knees in the scorching heat of Aden.

“They promised us salaries and medical care abroad if we got injured in Yemen,” he said, wearing glasses, sandals and a mawaz, which is like a sarong. He and his cohort received neither.

Those who joined up were sent to the Saudi border town of Sharurah — in the Empty Quarter, the world’s largest sand desert — where they should have received military training to prepare them for deployment in Aden.

This desert camp of some 6,000 Yemeni volunteers was the origin of the kingdom’s Operation Golden Arrow, a ground offensive launched in Yemen in July that now looks set to move in on the capital, Sanaa. This latest phase of operations in Yemen follows consecutive aerial campaigns carried out since March as part of the Saudi-led coalition of nations bid to restore Yemen’s President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi after he fled to Riyadh earlier this year.

But in order to bring Hadi back, the coalition has first set itself the task of removing the Houthis and military units loyal to his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who seized control of the capital almost a year ago.

Aidaroos Saleh is one of 477 men in the Decisive Salman Battalion, named by their Yemeni commander, Col. Ali al-Houthari, in honor of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. Although perhaps a more apt name for the band of southern Yemenis would be the WhatsApp Battalion, after they were enticed to join up via the social media platform.

Crucial to the successes of Operation Golden Arrow has been the United Arab Emirates. Along with some 3,000 troops, the UAE shipped in Apache attack helicopters and sparkling new military hardware — including scores of tanks and armored personnel carriers that rattle through the streets of Aden and stand in neat rows on the tarmac at the city’s ruined airport.

Although the immaculately turned-out UAE soldiers provide the heavy weaponry, the ground troops at the forefront of the coalition’s offensive to retake territory from the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh’s forces have been Yemenis. Since landing in Aden, Aidaroos Saleh has fought in six hard-won battles. 

But Saudi Arabia’s plan to send Yemenis rather than its own soldiers in to fight hit a major setback almost immediately. In a direct reflection of Yemen’s political rifts, which trace back to country’s north-south civil war of 1994, the hundreds of southerners earmarked for the battle of Aden refused to take part in training with their reviled northern countrymen.

“They were all Ali Mohsen’s men,” said Saleh, in reference to Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who was once one of Yemen’s most powerful military commanders, until he was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia in September when the Houthis overran his military base and seized control of the capital. Ahmar is identified by his association with the Islah Party, Yemen’s equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood and a foe of the Houthis and of the southern movement’s calls for renewed independence from the north.

After the initial plan to send the southern battalion into Yemen over the border by land was abandoned, the men were relocated to the Red Sea coastal town of Jizan, where they boarded an oil tanker. 

In a prime example of the kingdom’s paranoia over Iran, which Saudi Arabia claims is supporting the Houthis with weapons, instead of heading south to Yemen, the vessel went north to Egypt in a bid to outwit the ever-watchful eyes of Tehran.

What could have been an eight-hour trip to Yemen turned into four grueling days with 500 men living, eating and sleeping in the scorching heat on the tanker’s open deck.

“It was horrible,” recalls Saleh of his first experience at sea. “Many got very sick.”

The missing training became evident as the tanker traveled to the Suez Canal and back, when one rookie recruit inadvertently shot dead a fellow soldier and injured another.

After arriving in Aden during the holy month of Ramadan, the men were sent to the front lines. “Our training was on the battlefield,” said Saleh, chuckling, now a veteran of numerous battles in Aden, Lahij and Abyan provinces. But almost five months after signing up, the men have yet to receive a salary. “Sometimes I’ve even had to buy my own bullets.” 

Despite the lack of pay, he said he would do it all again. “We came to defend our city and the south, and we won.”

In recent days the remaining 5,000 northern Yemenis who stayed in the Saudi desert for training have crossed the border. Amid much anticipation of the next chapter in this war — the coalition’s attempt to push the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh’s forces out of Sanaa — Yemeni troops, once again supported by coalition tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters and heavy weapons, are amassing in the province of Mareb, to the east of the capital.

But the battle-hardened men of the Decisive Salman Battalion say they will never cross the boundary that separated North and South Yemen until unification in 1990. The southern fighters share a hatred for the north and the Houthis, whom they see as little more than a front for the former president. The blood that has been spilled in the current conflict has cemented that animosity and provided their motivation for fighting.

None more so than for Mohammed Haider and his two brothers, who signed up in Saudi Arabia after their elder brother, at home in Aden, was killed in the first days of the conflict. Dressed in an array of military fatigues and with black shawls bound around their heads, the three men are now the close protection team for Houthari, following him around in a bashed-up Toyota pickup truck looted from the retreating Houthis, with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher poking out the front passenger window.

“It is our mission to free this side of the country,” said the colonel, who graduated from the navy academy of the former socialist state of southern Yemen. “It is the northerners’ mission to free their side,” he said, referring to the fighters in Mareb preparing for battle. “Even if I gave them orders to fight in the north, they would not go.” The three brothers nod in agreement. Houthari refused to comment on whether he supports Hadi but admitted that he views separation as the only future for the south.

This is the challenge being faced by Saudi Arabia and its allies, as preparations mount for an apparent push to take the capital. The thousands of men in Mareb lack the fervor that has driven the unpaid southern fighters.

In addition, any offensive in the mountains of the north will not be as straightforward as the recapture of the south. Houthi support is entrenched in Yemen’s highlands, and the terrain is familiar to the rebels, having fought six prolonged guerrilla wars there.

The crumbling ruins of Aden — more than 830 buildings were damaged during more than four months of fighting in the city, according to satellite imagery gathered by the U.N. — lie as a small indication of what is to come if the conflict fully subsumes the streets of Sanaa.

Political reconciliation is perhaps the only hope of preventing what would be a catastrophic escalation of the conflict in the city, home to some 2 million people. But that hope looks increasingly distant. Despite previous talk of a 10-point peace deal brokered by Oman and seemingly continual, vertiginous shuttle diplomacy by U.N. special envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, representatives from the Yemeni government who have trickled into Aden from their exile in Riyadh see no prospect of a Saudi compromise or a peaceful settlement. As one government minster in Aden ominously predicted, “War will decide [the Houthis’] fate.”

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