Saudi-Backed Yemen Forces Make Gains as Houthis Fortify Capital

Rebel Houthi forces in Yemen are fortifying defenses in the capital Sana’a after suffering a string of military reversals in southern parts of the country.

The Houthis and fighters loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh were driven out of four southern provinces after government troops re-took the port city of Aden last month. In Abyan province, the last pockets of Houthi resistance were being cleared, Ali Eidah, a leader battling the rebels, said by phone.

The victories show the impact of added firepower, sophisticated weapons and advisers provided by the Saudi-led coalition during its four-month offensive to restore an ally to power. Most successes, though, have been confined to Yemen’s south. Pushing further north into Houthi strongholds may be harder, according to John Jenkins, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Middle East.

“Although the Houthis have been set back by the reverses they have suffered, they remain defiant in public and may be regrouping to protect their core territory around Sana’a,” Jenkins said in an e-mailed response to questions Tuesday.

The Houthis have increased patrols and set up more check points in Sana’a in recent days, according to Hussein Mufareh, a resident of the capital.

The Houthis seized Sana’a in September, and forced President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi’s internationally recognized government to flee to neighboring Saudi Arabia earlier this year. The Saudis responded by leading a bombing campaign aimed at rolling back Houthi advances and reinstating Hadi.

The Saudis say the Houthis, as Shiite Muslims, are backed by Iran, a claim the rebel group denies. Yemen is also important to Saudi from an economic standpoint, as it lies adjacent to key shipping routes.

Southern Gains

Coalition gains to date have been mainly in southern areas where the majority of people are Sunni Muslims, also the dominant sect in Saudi Arabia, and where the terrain is relatively flat and open along the coastal areas. That will change if fighting shifts to the Shiite-dominated north.

Taking Sana’a will be a “a difficult task,” and the Saudis will need to win loyalty in order to capture the capital “smoothly,” Majed al-Mathhaji, a Sana’a-based independent analyst, said by phone. “It isn’t just the question of Sana’a, but also about the tribes surrounding the area.”

Pro-government forces seized four districts in Ibb province in central Yemen on Tuesday, and are attacking the district capital, according to spokesman Abdulwahid al-Haudari. They seized six districts in the past two days, he said.

Fierce fighting continues in the city of Taiz, according to residents.

Nearly 1,900 civilians have been killed in the fighting and more than one million displaced since Saudi Arabia formed the coalition, according to the United Nations. Yemen is also suffering from a major food crisis, Hilal Elver, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, said in a statement Tuesday.

“The deliberate starvation of civilians in both international and internal armed conflict may constitute a war crime,” she said.