Yemen's rivals jostle for influence as a power vacuum emerges
A new phase in Yemen’s conflict is beginning to emerge. After humiliating losses by forces from the internationally recognised government to Houthi rebels in al-Bayda, Marib, and Shabwa this summer, rival powers have positioned themselves to fill the authority and security vacuum created by the retreat.
An agreement between the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the National Resistance Forces led by Tareq Saleh, or Joint Forces, aims to set aside differences to form a new cohesive front to defend southern provinces from a Houthi advance.
However, the security vacuum emerging from major territorial losses to the Sana’a-based Houthi rebels has raised new concerns over the limits to their ambitions. The Houthis are now threatening to advance into Abyan, a province at the core of STC support, and further into the oil-rich province of Shabwa.
"After humiliating losses by forces from the internationally recognised government to Houthi rebels in al-Bayda, Marib, and Shabwa this summer, rival powers have positioned themselves to fill the authority and security vacuum"
The pace of the Houthi advance throughout Marib and western Shabwa has been blamed on the weak leadership of military commanders aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah party and governor Mohammed Saleh bin Adio.
Junior officers of the government-allied Ataq Axis Command blamed the withdrawal of government troops from Bayhan and Shabwa on an agenda by the Islah party to influence military commanders. The new agreement between the Joint Forces and the STC also aims at countering the political agenda of Islah in Shabwa in order to halt the Houthi advance.
This new phase of the conflict comes as parties to the war sound the alarm over the failures of the Stockholm Agreement in December 2018. Since then, Houthi rebels have advanced across three northern provinces and western Shabwa with ease.
The recent redeployment of the Joint Forces under Tareq Saleh, from areas south of Hodeidah to the Red Sea coast, comes at a time when southern forces aim to avert further territorial losses to the Houthis, fill a vacuum created by al-Islah affiliates, and present a cohesive alternative to the fractured forces within the government as the new UN Envoy Hans Grundberg pushes for peace talks.
The growing vacuum
In the three years since the UN-led Stockholm Agreement, Houthis have advanced and strengthened their hand in preparation for UN-led peace talks with the government of President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
The failure to halt the Houthi advance has created a growing vacuum in authority and security across areas liberated in the summer of 2015. The agreement between the STC and Tareq Saleh aims to fill that vacuum and halt the Houthi advance in areas like Shabwa.
However, losses in al-Bayda and Marib by government troops in recent months have empowered the Houthis by allowing them control over new territory and access to tribal forces. The retreat by government troops aligned with the Islah party has not only contributed to an increasing landmass under Houthi control, but has also reduced confidence among the general population in areas now threatened by the rebels.
Protests against governor Bin Adio in Shabwa have grown from demonstrations against deteriorating economic conditions to blame over the loss of Bayhan and other areas along the Shabwa/al-Bayda border. This area along the mountain range linking Shabwa’s coastline to southern Marib lies alongside a primary smuggling route that has helped the Houthis smuggle commercial goods as well as weapons over the past seven years.
Security along Shabwa’s western mountains is also vital to southern forces as this smuggling route begins along the Abyan/Shabwa border on the Gulf of Aden coast. Southerners fear the Houthis could march into eastern Abyan from the mountains in Shabwa or south from al-Bayda to expand their access to the Gulf of Aden.
The agreement between Tareq Saleh and the STC could strengthen reinforcements to counter a Houthi advance, as well as coalesce popular support on the ground. Houthis have also targeted Mocha Port, a base for Saleh’s Joint Forces, making it urgent to form a coordinated front that sends a clear message to the Houthis, something government troops have failed to do since December 2018.
Positioning and timing
As events on the ground outpace diplomatic efforts to halt the Houthi advance or the political conflict in Shabwa, the agreement between Saleh and the STC aims to confront this new phase in the conflict. The alliance hopes to produce an alternative to the collapsing political establishment and agreements holding together the coalition government of President Hadi.
"It has been three years since the Stockholm Agreement, with no progress on the handing over of Hodeidah port by the Houthis, the opening of roads into Taiz city, or a comprehensive prisoner exchange"
Three milestones are at risk of collapse. It has been three years since the meeting in Stockholm, with no progress on the handing over of Hodeidah port by the Houthis, the opening of roads into Taiz city, or a comprehensive prisoner exchange.
Tensions in southern Yemen are on the rise two years since the Riyadh Agreement between president Hadi and the STC. The premise of the agreement negotiated by Saudi Arabia was to strengthen forces fighting the Houthis, something southerners say Islah affiliated forces have failed to fulfil.
Lastly, the departure of Martin Griffiths, the third UN Special Envoy to Yemen, has created a vacuum in diplomacy among Yemeni actors and regional powers, and now, three months since Hans Grundberg began his term, the new UN Envoy faces tremendous obstacles in efforts to organise a new round of talks with help from Qatar and Oman.
The urgency to fill these vacuums across southern Yemen following Houthi gains this year extends to presenting a viable alternative to the current political equation.
While the STC have established themselves as the representative of the south since May 2017, the establishment of a political office by Tareq Saleh in March began work to present alternatives to the coalition government formed in December 2020, which has begun to collapse amid growing fragmentation.
The coalition government shared cabinet posts among parties supporting president Hadi and the STC, but only Islah and the STC deploy military forces along battlefronts against the Houthis. Forces under commanders affiliated with Islah have lost territory in al-Bayda and Marib to the Houthis, while pro-STC forces have held their ground in Abyan and al-Dhale.
The agreement between Tareq Saleh and the STC offers an alternative to the current power-sharing equation, along with military forces able to deploy, including tribal allies, to confront Houthi forces.
The viability of this alliance, and its relevance to the current environment, were made clear this month as Hans Grundberg met with STC president Aydarous al-Zubaydi and Tareq Saleh during his most recent visit to Aden and Taiz.
Under the Riyadh Agreement, the STC has a seat at the table when UN-sponsor talks begin, but now Saleh’s group has positioned itself as an actor with a major role to play in the coming weeks.
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