While the war in Yemen is often portrayed as having two sides---the Houthis aligned with GPC-San’a against the Saudi-led coalition and Hadi’s government forces--in reality, both sides are fragmented, with groups representing different political loyalties, often resulting in conflict among the groups within each alliance. A new report by Deeproot Consulting, “Caught in the Middle: A Conflict Mapping of Ta’iz Governorate,” examines how these conflict dynamics play out in Ta’iz, where various groups vie for control in a city that has become one of the epicenters of the war. The localized power struggles in Ta’iz pitch nominally-aligned parties against one another, exposing the complicated and factionalized nature of the conflict.
Ta’iz is one of Yemen’s most strategically important governorates because of its proximity to an important Red Sea maritime route, the Bab al-Mandab strait, and Ta’iz city’s location along the main road between San’a and Aden. In August 2015, the Houthis seized control of the two main entrances to the city which connect to these roads, effectively blockading the city and confiscating goods as people flowed in and out of the city. According to the report, the Houthis ”enjoy very little support from residents in Ta’iz” and their influence in the city is limited (23). However, they have gained control of other rural areas of the governorate, including along the west coast, where UAE forces have launched Operation Golden Spear to retake these areas from the Houthis.
The anti-Houthi groups are outlined in more detail in the report due to the researchers’ greater access to information about these groups than about the highly secretive Houthi-GPC alliance. The anti-Houthi forces are comprised of local popular resistance fighters, Hadi’s forces represented by the Ta’iz Axis, the Abu al-Abbas Brigades, Coalition forces, and armed groups aligned with political parties such as the Islah Party, the GPC, the Nasserists, and the Socialists. Of these political parties, the Islah Party wields the most influence, but does not enjoy a good relationship with the UAE, which is widely believed to want to weaken the Islah Party in light of its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. In contrast, the Abu al-Abbas Brigades, a Salafist group, has enjoyed the most support from the UAE, despite the fact that it was designated a terrorist organization by the United States and GCC member states in late 2017. The UAE has funneled funding almost exclusively to Abu al-Abbas rather than other local resistance groups, which the report suggests may have “emboldened the sheikh to refrain from integrating his forces into the Hadi military” (25). Other local popular resistance fighters, who rose against the Houthis as they approached the city, have been to some degree integrated into Hadi’s military and security forces, the Ta’iz Axis, but “continue to operate with varying degrees of independence” (23). The Ta’iz Axis is intended to consolidate these disparate groups under a common command, yet in-fighting, Coalition states’ funding of individuals such as Abu al-Abbas, and the conflicting political ambitions of long-standing political rivals have splintered the resistance against the Houthis.
As for the Coalition forces, there is a perception by activists and some officials in Ta’iz that the the Coalition has “only provided anti-Houthi fighters with enough weapons and money necessary to hold the frontlines in Ta’iz,” according to the report. This the activists see as a punishment for locals’ participation in the country’s 2011 uprising against Saleh, “which threatened Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s political stability,” as well as a strategy to to “draw out the conflict in Ta’iz so the Houthis exhaust their resources there and are in a weaker position overall.” This, along with the Houthis’ blockade on the city as well as the drawn-out in-fighting between anti-Houthi resistance forces, comes at the cost of Ta’iz’s residents, who are truly caught in the middle, as the report’s title suggests. Around 75 percent of Ta’iz Governorate’s residents are food insecure, and 85 percent are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance (8). As long as local, national, and international groups continue to compete for power in Ta’iz, prioritizing gaining the political upper hand over civilian lives, the disastrous impact on civilians will continue.
The report concludes with recommendations for national and international stakeholders:
• End the Houthi siege on Ta’iz city;
• Establish a stronger government presence inside the governorate;
• Hold a dialogue between local actors in Ta’iz;
• Complete efforts to restructure the military and security forces;
• Empower the local security forces and restore the justice system;
• Support civil society.
Events in Ta’iz have been somewhat fluid since the report’s publication. Following months of intra-coalition fighting, Abu al-Abbas announced on August 25 that his forces and their families were pulling out of Ta’iz and “leaving the city to the Islah Party.” It remains to be seen whether this will help to stabilize the situation there, or where the Abu al-Abbas Brigades will go next. But the unruly patchwork of groups that remains, and the Hadi government’s failure to establish its own authority over these forces, make it likely that Ta’iz will remain volatile, and civilians will continue to pay the price.