Do Houthi military parades jeopardise Yemen's fragile truce?
Efforts to de-escalate the conflict in Yemen over the past five months have yet to achieve significant gains. The Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) established in early April continues to struggle to unify rival factions to counter threats posed by the Sana'a-based Houthi rebels.
All the while, the rebels are strengthening their capabilities and demonstrating their readiness to continue the fight.
The Houthis have utilised the period of the UN-sponsored truce to crack down on dissent, redeploy military assets, and expand recruitment and training across northern territories.
They have boldly demonstrated their disinterest in an expanded truce with the PLC or the Saudi-led coalition through a dozen or so military parades displaying new missile capabilities, manpower, and domestic manufacturing of weapons and military vehicles.
A military display by the Houthis outside the port city of Hodeida has raised the most concern among observers, including the UN Mission supervising the implementation of the Stockholm agreement of 2018.
"The Houthis have utilised the period of the UN-sponsored truce to crack down on dissent, redeploy military assets, and expand recruitment and training across northern territories"
Houthi military readiness on full display
The Houthis have also launched propaganda campaigns across northern territories to demonstrate their military readiness.
In early April, just after signing an agreement with the UN to withdraw all child soldiers from the front lines, the group launched a campaign to highlight recruitment programmes for students of all ages. During the summer months, the focus shifted to military parades in Sana’a and every province under their control.
As UN Envoy Hans Grundberg shuttled across the region to expand support for his ceasefire initiative, the Sana’a rebels brazenly published propaganda videos raising concerns among rival factions, UN agencies and diplomats.
While it is difficult to prove the effectiveness of Houthi recruitment efforts among tribes and the population in general, the propaganda videos and parades appear to demonstrate enhanced capabilities.
The locations chosen for each of the parades sent a clear message to opposing forces. The Houthis went so far as to build new locations to host some of these parades. The locations of camps in Amran, Dhammar, Hodeida, Ibb, and Sana'a say as much as the units participating and individuals attending the parades.
In Amran, the camp hosting the graduation parade lies along an intersection linking the province with al-Jawf and Sa’dah. In Ibb, the camp hidden in a green mountainous area lies along a highly strategic road leading to al-Dhale, where southern forces have held Houthis from advancing further toward Lahj.
In Dhammar, the parade was supervised by General Abdullah Yahya ‘Abu Ali’ al-Hakem, chief of military intelligence. Other major Houthi figures were also in attendance, with a noticeable absence of the fire-brand governor Mohammed al-Bukhayti. A number of smaller parades in Sana’a appear to serve more as a show of force to deter dissent within their centre of power.
The most recent military parade held by Houthis on 1 September took place along the Red Sea coast just outside the port city of Hodeida. This overt display of military power immediately raised concern with the UN Mission to support the Hodeida Agreement (UNMHA). Weapons experts noted two new missiles displayed by Houthis during this particular parade.
Houthi forces appeared to introduce the Faliq-1 and Robeih missiles. While there is no evidence of their operational deployment or accuracy, these missiles illustrate potential Houthi manufacturing of weapons systems and their intention to continue targeting regional neighbours.
The Saudi-led coalition has justified multiple airstrikes in and around the city of Hodeida through information on possible Houthi missile factories, which the Houthis continue to deny.
The Faliq-1 missile resembles the Iranian 4CL rocket, pointing at continued collaboration between Tehran and Sana'a. The Robeih anti-ship missile resembles a P-15 Termit from the Yemeni naval forces. It remains unclear where Houthis may deploy these weapons or the quantity available at the moment.
"While it is difficult to prove the effectiveness of Houthi recruitment efforts among tribes and the general population, the propaganda videos and military parades appear to demonstrate enhanced capabilities"
Taiz, breaking the truce
Houthi military displays of force raise concerns over the potential scale of fighting when the truce ends, but incidents in Taiz have clearly exhibited complete disregard by Houthis for the UN peace track. The Sana’a rebels have failed to comply with UN demands to lift the siege on the city of Taiz since April. Houthi violations of the truce have led to dozens of crimes against civilians within the city.
Throughout the five months of the UN-sponsored truce, Houthis have continued launching rockets on residential areas, with snipers targeting children. The most egregious of crimes by the Houthis continues to be the blocking of roads and taxation of commercial and humanitarian goods along the roads from Aden and Mocha.
While humanitarian organisations and Western governments have condemned Houthi violations, there has been no coordinated effort to pressure the rebels in apparent efforts to preserve the fragile truce. In addition to targeting civilian areas, Houthis have launched strikes on military camps since late August.
Attacks on military camps around Taiz aim to cripple government capabilities, such as air defences. New videos posted on social media indicate the Houthis have retrofitted a number of attack helicopters, seen conducting exercises over Ibb. The possible air exercise came days after Houthis targeted government Air Defence bases in Taiz.
Another reason for increasing military activity around Taiz by the Houthis may involve instigating clashes while fighting continues in the Abyan and Shabwa provinces.
The Houthis could engage government forces in Taiz in order to further divide their rivals, opening new opportunities to consolidate their control over the last government stronghold in northern Yemen.
Fernando Carvajal served on the UN Security Council Panel of Experts of Yemen from April 2017 to March 2019 as an armed groups and regional expert. He has nearly 20 years of experience conducting fieldwork in Yemen and is a specialist in Yemeni politics and tribal relations.
Follow him on Twitter: @CarvajalF