War's next major front takes shape in al-Hudaydah

The Red Sea coastal city of al-Hudaydah, in western Yemen, is bracing for a major battle, similar to the fight that occurred last month in Aden, as local resistance fighters and coalition forces drove out pro-Houthi troops. Earlier this month, a local group—calling itself the Tihamah Popular Resistance (TPR)—publicly stated that “it will soon start to liberate” al-Hudaydah Governorate from the Houthi presence. Headed by the former governor of al-Hudaydah, Sakhr al-Wajih, the TPR group indicated in a press statement on August 10 that its plan for the “final stage” of liberation has already been established and will be activated shortly. Saudi airstrikes have intensified in and around al-Hudaydah over the past week, a move seen as an attempt by the Saudis and their allies to support this local resistance group, as well as a prelude to deploying ground troops from the Saudi-led coalition’s own forces. But while the airstrikes aim at supporting the local resistance, they have also killed scores of civilians in the area. The airstrikes have also damaged the Hudaydah seaport—Yemen’s second-largest—closing a main import hub for aid supplies to the country’s north.

The TPR includes pro-Islah members and affiliates of the Peaceful Tihami Movement (al-Hirak al-Tihami al-Silmi), also referred to as the Tihami Hirak. The Movement emerged after Yemen’s 2011 popular uprisings, in response to a number of long-term local grievances. Since its inception the Movement has included members from a number of political parties and factions, united by their regional identity. At present the Tihami Hirak and the Islah Party share a common goal: the expulsion of pro-Houthi forces.

The Houthis and their allies, in turn, have intensified their presence by erecting and manning more checkpoints in and around Hudaydah. Checkpoints with armored vehicles can be seen on several streets downtown, and on the roads leading to the neighboring governorates of Taʻiz to the south and Hajjah to the north.

Al-Hudaydah is believed to be of great importance to the Houthis as “it provides them with means of access to cities like Taʻiz, Ibb and Aden,” where resistance fighters have recently gained ground, according to local analyst Alallah Sumam. “It is also a rich source of earnings and supplies through the second largest seaport in the country,” he added.

But most of the local people live below the poverty line, and are struggling to make a living amid the catastrophic situation. Months of airstrikes and low-intensity ground fighting, in addition to the blockade imposed on all the country’s ports, has taken its toll.

“We don’t need fighting [in Hudaydah]; we don’t want to suffer like the Adeni people,” Ahmed Hassan, a 35-year-old local resident who works on motorcycle to make a living for his family, told the YPP. “We are suffering already from the fuel shortages and electricity outages in this heat-scorched city.”  In August the average daily temperature in al-Hudaydah is 91̊ F.

On October 14, 2014, the Houthis entered Hudaydah and seized the main government buildings, over three weeks after they captured the capital, Sanʻa. Three days after they entered the city, a small group of fighters from the Tihami Hirak took up arms to fend off the Houthis when they attempted to capture the Hudaydah Castle, which the Hirak has used as a base since 2012. But the Houthis  swept Hirak members out of their bastion in a matter of hours. Although Hirak fighters have tried to regain the castle, they have each time either driven away or held captives in it.

Since then, the Houthis have maintained a firm hold on the city, while the resistance fighters, who have limited weapons, have been struggling to force them out. According to several observers in al-Hudaydah, the Houthis far outstrip the resistance fighters militarily.

“They grabbed heavy and medium weapons from several depots of military bases in Amran and Sanʻa before they entered Hudaydah,” political analyst and lawyer Ahmed Buraih said in an interview. Buraih also indicated that the Houthis have captured weapons from bases of the land and naval forces in al-Hudaydah since their arrival.

Over the past six months, the Hudaydah resistance has resorted to the hit-and-run approach, while covertly mobilizing more fighters. Resistance fighters have, every now and then, pounced on Houthi checkpoints and trucks in and around Hudaydah, through roadside attacks. Local anti-Houthi activists, however, have often criticized such an approach, which they say echoes al-Qaeda’s tactics.

The Houthis have responded by arresting pro-Islah figures and members of the Tihami Movement as well as local activists and journalists. During the last week, more than a dozen leading members of Islah were abducted in al-Hudaydah, according to an insider and eyewitnesses.

Soon after the TPR statement was issued, resistance fighters increased their attacks in al-Hudaydah Governorate, as the Saudi-led coalition intensified air and naval strikes. Just four days after the statement’s release, Coalition warships bombed pro-Houthi artillery bases in al-Durayhimi town to the south of Hudaydah city, on the road to Taʻiz. Clashes have sporadically taken place outside the town and in other areas nearby.

On August 12, Houthi figure Taha al-Mutawakkil was killed along with his driver in an ambush by resistance fighters to the east of Hudaydah, as they were coming from Sanʻa. Al- Mutawakkil was the Imam of Hashush mosque in Sanʻa, which was attacked in April by the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed group in Yemen.

On August 18, resistance fighters attacked two trucks carrying Houthis in Hudaydah city, while another truck was attacked in Bajil town to east of the city. Several Houthis were reportedly killed and wounded. Meanwhile, fighters fired rockets on a Houthi checkpoint to the south of al-Hudaydah. Four Houthis were killed while five others were injured.

On August 23, resistance fighters attacked a Houthi checkpoint some 45 km north of the city on the road to the town of Haradh in Hajjah, killing three and wounding four others.

On August 25, clashes between resistance fighters and Houthis resumed near the towns of al-Durayhimi and Bayt al-Faqih on the southern road to Taʻiz, as coalition airstrikes provided cover for the resistance.

A local source said that the Houthis were using the road to send reinforcement to Taʻiz, where Houthis and their allies seem to have retaken a number of positions. “But tribal fighters from the Zaraniq tribe, headed by Shaykh Yahya Munassir, intercepted them and clashes ensued,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous, fearing reprisal.