Middle East Ticker

Saudi-Backed Forces in Yemen Near Strategic Houthi City

By J. Dana Stuster
Wednesday, May 30, 2018, 1:20 PM

War in Yemen Approaches Critical Port for Aid Deliveries

Saudi-backed troops in Yemen are approaching the strategic city of Hodeidah. Diplomats and conflict monitoring groups have warned for months that an assault on the city could disrupt aid entering the country through the port there, further jeopardizing access to food for Yemenis already on the brink of famine. Despite the warnings, the Saudi coalition began advancing towards the city, which is held by Houthi rebels, earlier this month. Over the weekend, Saudi officials said that their forces were just more than 10 miles away.

Fighting alongside the Saudi coalition is the Yemeni Republican Guard, the military branch commanded by Tareq Saleh, the nephew of the country’s former president. While in office, the elder Saleh was the recipient of Saudi patronage, but fell out with the Riyadh after popular protests led the Saudis to support a political transition that replaced Saleh with his vice president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Saleh, his powerful family, and a coterie of loyalists jockeyed with the internationally-backed government for power, and when a power play by the country’s northern Houthi movement turned into a coup and outright civil war, Saleh’s faction joined forces with the rebels. That lasted until last December, when Saleh broke with the Houthis and was promptly killed. Now, Tareq Saleh and his forces are back on the side of the Saudis after being coaxed into the fold by the United Arab Emirates. His forces are just one of many odd-bedfellow factions brought together by their opposition to the Houthis; Voice of America reports that southern Yemeni secessionists, Islamist militias, and Emirati and Sudanese troops are also participating in the Hodeidah offensive.

Tens of thousands of residents have already been displaced by the new offensive. Amnesty International published a report earlier this month based on interviews with internally displaced Yemenis who have fled to Aden. “We left because of the bombardment and the war around us. They would fire mortars over our head. Every day people would die, every day we would see ripped bodies around us, blown to smithereens. Can we stay there? We had to leave to escape alive,” one young man said. Others also said they feared landmines that had been placed near the city, and Amnesty’s Rawya Rageh cited “what appear to be indiscriminate attacks and other violations of international humanitarian law.”

The U.S. State Department has expressed concern about the fighting interfering with aid distribution. Though the Houthis have skimmed from and resold aid passing through the port for millions of dollars, damage to local infrastructure could make matters much worse for residents. Diplomats have tried to reach an arrangement in which the Houthis would concede control of the port to prevent a disruption in aid deliveries, but as the Project on Middle East Democracy’s Nadwa Dawsari told The National, the Houthis are unlikely to give up one of their most significant strategic assets without a fight.

Saudi coalition forces have also made gains in contested areas in and around the city of Taiz over the past month. Drone footage from the city obtained by CNN shows many buildings gutted by years of fighting.

With the stalemate breaking and the Houthis’ hold on power looking more tenuous, the Yemeni civil war may be approaching a new phase. The Saudi-led coalition is an alliance of convenience and could fracture as soon as the Houthis’ defeat appears imminent. Each group will be looking to maximize its leverage now. Some of that discord is already on display: Earlier this month, residents of the Yemeni island of Socotra protested the Emirati military presence and political maneuvering on the island, which has strained ties between the internationally-recognized Yemeni government and its Emirati backers. Though spared by the war, Socotra was hit with a natural disaster last week, Cyclone Mekunu, which killed five people and left 40 others missing.

Assad Tests Waters in Southwest Syria

With the Assad regime now in control of Damascus and confident about its prospects for continued rule, it appears to be looking to extend its authority back into the country’s southwest where fighting has been frozen by an internationally-supported “de-escalation zone.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported last week that the regime had moved forces south to the area and dropped leaflets in contested areas threatening a new offensive. That’s drawn a sharp rebuke from the de-escalation zone’s supporters—a group of countries that have rarely agreed during the Syrian civil war.

The de-escalation zone has been a qualified success. Though the war has continued elsewhere, the ceasefire has allowed aid to enter the area and create conditions for “a semblance of normal day-to-day life,” Shadi Martini and Nicholas Heras wrote recently for Foreign Policy. With international help, this pocket of the country has functioning hospitals and bakeries, and is returning to agricultural production.

The United States, Jordan, and Russia are worried that not only would a regime offensive reignite the fighting between rebel and regime forces in the country’s southwest and erase this relative calm, it would also draw Iranian proxies farther south and escalate conflict between Israel and Iranian forces in Syria. The United States warned last Friday that it would respond with “firm and appropriate measures” if the regime violated the ceasefire in the de-escalation zone. On Monday, Jordanian officials said that they were communicating with Washington and Moscow, and that all three governments agreed on the importance of maintaining the ceasefire. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on the regime to ensure that only regime forces are present in regime-held areas of the Syrian southwest. Israeli media reported that Lavrov’s comments were part of an agreement reached between Russian and Israeli officials to ensure Iranian proxies do not enter a buffer zone along the Israeli border, and the issue will be further discussed on Thursday when Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman will travel to Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu.

The Assad regime has pushed the envelope with its Russian benefactors in recent weeks, but it is unlikely to launch a new offensive that would alienate its patron. As Seth Frantzman wrote recently for the Jerusalem Post, “The regime has waited seven years to retake these areas and it can wait longer. It is testing the waters regarding an offensive and it doesn’t actually want to launch a brutally tough offensive that will anger Israel and the US and could lead to expanded conflict.” In the meantime, the regime will turn inwards to consolidate power in the territory under its control. As Reuters reports, last month the regime enacted “Law 10,” which will allow the government to seize property if Syrians cannot prove ownership within one month. The structure of the law, in effect, makes it a punishment targeting Syrians who fled the war. Given the scale of the destruction and displacement caused by the war, rights groups have warned that the law could prevent many Syrians from presenting their claims to their property; the regime would be allowed to take over large swaths of territory, especially in areas where fighting was the most devastating and anti-government sentiment was strongest.

Libyan Factions Agree to Elections in December

Talks with Libya’s political factions convened by France reached an agreement to hold elections at the end of the year. French President Emmanuel Macron said the plan is historic, and it does mark a rare moment of unity among the most powerful blocs in the country. The rival leaders who agreed to the elections included Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, Aguila Saleh Issa, the speaker of the parliament in Tobruk, and Khalifa Haftar, the ailing strongman who heads the Libyan National Army, among others.

But the talks, both going into discussions and now that elections have been announced, have been met with skepticism. As the BBC notes, the agreement was not a formal, signed document, only a verbal arrangement. It also did not include factions that chose not to attend the talks, and the plan could harden their opposition. Many experts, including Brookings’ Federica Saini Fasanotti and International Crisis Group, are warning that agreements for elections may be premature. "I believe that elections are a big risk in a country armed like Libya,” Fasanotti told Al-Monitor. But France has been consistent in trying to press for elections, even at the expense of other negotiating tracks supported by the United Nations and Italy and despite concerns that they’re rushing the process of political reconciliation.

A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the agreement was “a significant and welcome step forward in Libya’s political transition” and that he would work with the Libyan factions on its implementation. But December is still months away and the arrangement is tenuous at best. Last year, France pushed through a joint statement with Sarraj and Haftar committing to elections that still have not occurred, and at the time Haftar cast doubts on his commitment to the process. “I do not care about elections. I care about the future of Libya as a stable and civil state,” he told France24 Arabic last July. It is still unclear if this new, French-backed arrangement will fare any better.