Difficult Decisions for Student-Soldiers in Taiz

A recent report from Middle East Eye focuses on the struggles of students trying to complete their university degrees in the embattled city of Taiz. Taiz is Yemen’s third-largest city and has been under siege for nearly two years; the constant conflict has caused many factories and private companies to close, while government employees have not been paid since August of last year. In an economic environment that leaves locals with few options, many residents, including students, are taking up arms to support themselves and their families.

"No longer just a year"

Today marks the one-year anniversary of Saudi Arabia's entrance into Yemen's war. The war takes different shapes in different parts of the country, and all parties to the conflict have committed horrible acts of violence against Yemeni civilians. For residents of the capital, San‘a, the past year has been defined by daily airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition. This post was sent to us by a special guest contributor, Fatima Noman. Fatima is 17 years old, and in her fourth year of high school. 365 days are no longer just a year

Tell me how did you spend the last 365 days? Did you end up getting that job offer? Did you get that scholarship you were working so hard to get? Did you graduate high school/university or perhaps you just got your PhD! Whatever you achieved I congratulate you! Well I'd like to speak of my 365 days. You know how we always chant the phrase day by day it all seems the same but looking back it's so different. I aged a life time within 365 days. I have experienced so much from fleeing my home to running down a set of 70 stairs in fear of a jet blowing up our third floor. Crying for nights and nights feeling death encircling me to laughing to the sound of explosions. Yes, I have lived some of the worst days of my life but I wouldn't change them for the world. Only now have I realized what an enormous amount of pride comes with being Yemeni.

I am now in my senior year and I have broke down into fits of tears more times than I can count in school due to the sudden air raids but my friends support me with a jolt of strength I've never experienced before. This year everything is so different. once I was crying in class from a mix of fear and stress then suddenly the whole class surrounded me with a group hug and I don't remember feeling so loved in my entire life. This coalition has done and is still doing damage that seems irreparable at time but one thing that no one but them has managed to do is unite this country into one.

I feel so complete. Now I know I am capable of facing anything life throws at me, I know I am strong enough. I will always have a constant reminder of my strength the blood of the martyrs who sacrificed everything for me to be able to live a life, a life worth living. It's truly quite peculiar how even though death has the key to my back door I sleep safe and sound. I still do get grounded and I still am clumsy you'd think death would make me a bit more graceful but nope! I still am the same girl who runs around tables and makes weird faces at my mom to make her laugh cause oh boy does her laugh make me feel five again.

365 days are enough to change people's perspectives, their ideologies. 365 days of undeniable strength, of determination. 365 days are no longer just a year.

You can read more of Fatima's reflections on life during wartime on her blog, here.

October 20–November 2: New talks expected, fighting continues, cyclone takes a toll

The civil war entered its eighth month on October 26, as the airstrikes and ground combat continue to rage on, mostly in central Yemen. That day, Saudi-led airstrikes destroyed an MSF-supported hospital in the northern governorate of Saʻdah, leaving the entire governorate with only one health facility. “At least 200,000 people now have no access to lifesaving medical care,” said an MSF press release. A new round of UN-sponsored peace talks aiming to end the drawn-out conflict in Yemen is expected to take place in Geneva on November 15, after being postponed last month. Meanwhile, fighting on the Saudi side of the border continues to intensify in the areas of Najran, Jayzan and Asir. 

Last month, the UN envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, tried to talk the warring parties into holding a new round of talks based on a seven-point proposal put forth during previous talks in the Omani capital, Muscat. Both the Houthis and their ally former president Ali Abdullah Saleh have assented to the negotiated implementation of UNSC resolution 2216, which requires them to hand over their weapons and withdraw from occupied cities. Yemen’s Saudi-backed government-in-exile, however, has insisted since the peace talks began on the Houthis’ full implementation of 2216 as a precondition to talks. Now, after many quibbles over the time and place of this new session, the UN envoy expects the talks to be held in Geneva on November 15.

In the meantime, the frontlines in the central governorates of Taʻiz, Marib, al-Baydha, and Ibb have seen clashes intensifying as Saudi-led warplanes provide aerial support for local resistance fighters. Sporadic clashes are also taking place in the southern governorate of Lahj, just north of Aden.

In Taʻiz city, clashes between local resistance militias and pro-Houthi/Saleh forces escalated over the past two weeks. Coalition war planes have been targeting the positions of Houthi/Saleh forces and airdropping weapons to the resistance. Over the weekend, local resistance fighters were able to secure a route into Taʻiz through the Houthi blockade, and smuggle a number of armored vehicles into Taʻiz amid the weeks-long siege imposed by the pro-Houthi forces.

Also in Taʻiz, a group of salafi militants, calling themselves “Humat al-ʻAqidah” (Guardians of Faith), have recently emerged and are fighting alongside the local resistance fighters. While the expected “decisive operation” for liberating Yemen’s third-largest city hasn’t yet began, the city may soon witness even fiercer fighting.

In Marib city, fighting for control over the western district of Sirwah continues to intensify, although parts of this district have already been “liberated” by Maribi tribes and coalition forces. Early last week, clashes broke out all over again, when the coalition-trained Maribi forces along with local tribal fighters made a push further into Sirwah, a district seen as the key area leading to the capital, Sanʻa. They were able to gain another position in the Mashjaʻ area of Sirwah, as pro-Houthi forces retreated under heavy airstrikes and artillery barrages. However, clashes are still taking place in other parts of Marib.

In al-Baydha, intermittent clashes between pro-Houthi forces and local tribal fighters took place mainly in two areas of the governorate, while Saudi-led warplanes provided the local resistance with air support. Airstrikes hit the provincial security building in downtown al-Baydha, while others targeted a number of positions of the pro-Houthi forces on the outskirts of the city.

In Ibb city, clashes have escalating over the past two weeks, especially after the Saudi-led coalition decided to supply the local resistance fighters with arms and provide them aerial support. The fighting has been taking place in the eastern areas near al-Dhaliʻ governorate. Some local observers, however, opine that the “liberation” of the neighboring cities of Taʻiz and Ibb should begin simultaneously.

On Monday, November 2, Cyclone Chapala swept over the Yemeni island of Suqutra, killing three people and injuring many more. The storm, which meteorologists called the most powerful to hit Yemen in recent history, made landfall on Yemen's southern coast the following day, flooding the city of al-Mukalla and other coastal towns. Recent reports say that more than 40,000 citizens have been displaced by the storm, which has dropped as much as a decade's worth of rain on some parts of the country already. Emirati and Omani authorities have already dispatched aid to Suqutra; al-Mukalla, which has been under the control of al-Qaeda for several months, has yet to receive outside assistance.

Wedding airstrike shatters families, and a village's sense of safety

An aircraft hovered in the sky of a small village in Yemen’s central highlands, as three brides were being driven to a multistoried house where three brother-grooms were celebrating and waiting for them one night early this month. It wasn’t long after the brides were received, around 10:00 p.m. local time, when a missile hit the house, just a few minutes after the bridal caravan of more than 20 cars from two neighboring villages had arrived. That was on October 7, when the family of Mohammed Saleh Ghawba was celebrating the wedding of three sons—Moayad, 25; Ayman, 23; and Abdurrahman, 21—at their three-story house in Sanaban village, 33 kilometers east of Dhamar City, the provincial capital.

This aerial attack on the brother-grooms wedding, the second airstrike to hit a wedding in just 10 days, claimed the lives of 43 people, mostly women and children from the grooms’ and brides’ families. According to a list of civilian deaths provided by relatives of the victims’ families and verified by the YPP during a recent visit, 13 women and 15 children were killed by the strike, which also caused great damage to the house.

The ruins of the Ghawba family home, with the wreckage of a car from the bridal caravan in the foreground
The ruins of the Ghawba family home, with the wreckage of a car from the bridal caravan in the foreground

Thirteen members and relatives of the Ghawba household were killed, including the youngest of the grooms and their parents. One of the brides was also killed along with a dozen of her relatives. While her father who came along from al-Kharbah village, some two kilometers south of Sanaban, survived the aerial attack, he couldn’t escape the devastating shock that left him in a grim mental state, along with the families of the two other brides from al-Jamimah village, less than a kilometer north of Sanaban.

As customs go in rural areas of Dhamar and other places in Yemen, the bride’s family carries out marriage ceremonies for their daughter at their home for a couple of days; the family of the groom does likewise. But usually, the wedding banquet for men is held the next day after receiving the bride. On the wedding day, the groom’s family sends a group of delegates in a convoy to the bride’s family to escort the bride to the groom’s house. In return the bride’s father comes along with a convoy twice as large, as a matter of courtesy. This is why the bridal convoy from the villages of al-Jamimah and al-Kharbah included nearly 30 cars.

“At least ten cars from each village were escorting the three brides to Sanaban,” said Abdussalam al-Sanabani, 40, a relative of the brother-grooms who was in the bridal convoy.

He said that at 9:30 pm on Wednesday, October 7, the convoy approached the grooms’ house in Sanaban, where the three brides were then welcomed, while the brides’ relatives of men and women in addition to their children who came along with the convoy were also received accordingly.

“Just a few minutes later, a huge explosion took place and flames engulfed the house,” Abdussalam said.

According to several eyewitnesses in Sanaban, a warplane was seen circling overhead about 15 minutes before the arrival of the bridal convoy.

“The warplane was circling noticeably as the bridal convoy was approaching the village [Sanaban], and I heard it flying at low latitude to the northwest as the missile struck the house,” said local resident Maher Mohammed Saleh, 30, who was some 10 meters away from the house. “I even heard the missile whizzing before it hit the house.”

That night the survivors from the Ghawba family, together with their neighbors, began searching for bodies in the rubble; they continued into the morning. A large part of the house, which was originally built of red bricks, was totally demolished. A number of vehicles from the bridal convoy had caused secondary explosions, increasing the damage.

“Most of the bodies were either badly charred or ripped apart,” said Abdurrahman Saleh Ghawba, 50, a paternal uncle of the brother-grooms, who lost three sons in the blast. Among them was Mohammed, 25 who had been married five days prior. Abdurrahman could hardly identify the remains of his newlywed son.

“We could only recognize him through his wedding ring, which had his wife’s name etched on it,” said Abdurrahman during an interview. Abdurrahman was on the way to Dhamar city when the airstrike hit the house. His only two brothers, including the grooms’ father, were killed in the aerial attack.

Mohammed Jamal Saleh Ghawba, 35, a paternal cousin of the brother-grooms, lost his 5-year-old daughter, Jood, along with both of his parents, a brother, a nephew, and a niece. He described the horrible scene to the YPP.

“Women and children were burning in front of me while crying and screaming for help,” he said. “It’s even more terrible when you see your father cut in half.”

Moayad, 25, the eldest of the three brother-grooms, spoke to the YPP a week after his wedding party was hit by the airstrike about the need to move forward.

“The blast was big; I saw bodies scattered and burning all over,” Moayad said. “We have lost many of our family members and relatives, but we need to move on in our life.”

He now lives along with his wife from al-Jamimah village at a house he rented in the Sanaban village. He owns a grocery there, while his brother Ayman, 23, who also survived the attack, was working at a store selling construction and building tools, which their father used to own.

Ayman, in contrast to his brother, still couldn’t believe what had happened. He seemed to be greatly affected, and never went out of the house his eldest brother has just rented.

“I lost my wife, my parents and several others of my relatives; how is life going to be after all that?”

Ayman’s wife was from al-Kharbah village, while the wife of Abdurrahman, the youngest groom who was killed by the airstrike, survived and now living in al-Jamimah village with her family.

This aerial attack was the first in the Sanaban village and one of the deadliest attacks since the Saudi-led coalition began its air offensive in late March to roll back the gains of the pro-Houthi forces, and restore to power the exiled government of President ‘Abdu Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. After seven months of bombing, the coalition, which receives logistical support and materiel from the US and UK, has not yet achieved any of its stated goals, while UN-backed talks have thus far failed to bring the warring parties closer to a political solution to the conflict in Yemen. According to UN figures, more than 4,500 people have so far been killed, including more than 500 children. Alongside the aerial offensive, ground fighting is raging on several fronts across the country, displacing more than two million Yemenis from their homes.

Saudi military spokesman, Ahmad al-Asiri, has denied that the coalition is responsible for the strike in Sanaban. "Not every time an explosion or an attack takes place, it is committed by the coalition. We do not target civilian areas, " al-Asiri told Al Jazeera after the attack.

There is no clear reason as to why the wedding party in Sanaban village would be hit. The village is situated near rocky hills, 20 km northwest of Rada‘ City in al-Baydha Governorate. Only one military post could be seen 15 kilometers south of Sanaban, on the way to Dhamar City.

The presence of the Houthis could be hardly seen in the village; the Houthi movement’s slogans were hard to find anywhere in Sanaban. The locals seemed to have refrained from taking a side in the ongoing conflict. Even with the Houthis advancing on Rada‘, ostensibly to fight al-Qaeda there, the elders in Sanaban were keen not to have the locals involved in the fighting. Before the wedding airstrike, Sanaban village was thought to be somewhat safer than most other places in Yemen.

Adnan Hussein Ali al-Sanabani, a relative of the brother-grooms, whose family was present during the wedding party, decided to leave the capital, San‘a, over a month ago.

“I decided to bring my family here to Sanaban and stay until the conflict is over,” said Adnan during an interview with him at his house in the village. In San‘a, he was living along with his family in a house near the Presidential Palace, near Nahdayn Mountain, a place the Saudi-led warplanes have been heavily pounding for months now.

“I thought the village [Sanaban] would be a safe place to live, away from the conflict. Now I have lost daughter, Reenad; she was just five years old.”

Reporter Saif AlOliby accompanied Mohammed Ali Kalfood to Sanaban and contributed to this report.

Correction: an earlier version of this post referred to the home village of one of the brides as al-Kharab. The village's name is al-Kharbah.


Senate hearing showcases America's ambivalence

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing today titled "The U.S. Role and Strategy in the Middle East: Yemen and the Countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council." Chaired by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), the hearing featured Stephen Seche and Mary Beth Long as expert witnesses. Seche served as the US ambassador to Yemen from 2007-2010 and currently serves as the VP of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, a think-tank funded by GCC governments but staffed by some credible DC thinkers. Long served for several years in the Department of Defense, and is now the head of a private security firm with a Middle East focus.  The senators present started out with questions on the current war in Yemen, the nature and purpose of American support for the Saudi-led coalition, and the role of Iran in the conflict. From there the hearing flailed into a discussion of Russia's relationship with the GCC states, with both committee members and witnesses undecided as to whether the GCC is wooing Russia to replace the US as their Most Important Ally, or planning to go to war against Russia in Syria. There was much talk of the "Russia-Iran alliance" as well. In fact, in some ways this was actually a hearing on Iran and what the US can and should do about Iranian influence in the region.

Those parts of the hearing that focused on Yemen were worth watching, however. Senator Corker and others on the committee pressed the witnesses on whether the US actually has any interests that are served by bombing Yemen, or whether America's involvement is purely motivated by Saudi/GCC interests. The eventual concensus seemed to be that the US was dragged, largely unprepared, into this conflict by Saudi Arabia, but that it is in America's interest to limit Iranian influence in Yemen. The witnesses disagreed on the actual extent of that influence, with Seche expressing the conventional wisdom of Yemen-watchers--that Iran isn't in charge of the Houthi-Saleh campaign for domination, or in his words, that "the Houthis are their own boss," but that Iran would benefit from a Houthi victory--while Long claimed that the Houthis are an outright Iranian proxy. Moreover, according to Long, Iranian, Russian, and Hezbollah fighters are already on the ground in Yemen (she at one point said, with a straight face, "we don't know how many there are, but we know it's increasing.").

Ms. Long's testimony was essentially a set of Saudi-authored talking points, with her Main Point being that, if the US wants to see this war come to a positive conclusion with decreased civilian casualties, it needs to hurry up and sell Saudi Arabia a lot more smart bombs, OR ELSE. Seche's testimony was much more balanced, without a clear political or economic agenda, which was refreshing.

Toward the end of the hearing, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) raised quite forcefully the issue of Yemen's humanitarian catastrophe, and the fact that the Saudi-led bombing campaign and naval blockade have contributed to it, a point to which Seche agreed. Senator Markey went on to say that "our silence is complicity" in Saudi Arabia's violations of international humanitarian law. He further pointed out that US law forbids military assistance to military entities that have committed "gross violations" of international law and human rights, and suggests that KSA's actions in Yemen put it within the bounds of such prohibitions.

If Senator Markey defined one end of the spectrum of arguments presented at today's hearing--the empathetic, humanitarian, reasonable end, Mary Beth Long positioned herself firmly at the other. According to Long, the fact that Houthi-Saleh forces used a Russian-made missile against coalition forces proves that Russian and/or Iranian military advisors are on the front lines in Yemen, and that Iranian weapons shipments are practically pouring into Yemen on a daily basis. This disregards the fact that the missile in question was, as far as anyone can tell, part of the arsenal of the Yemeni army, and that the pro-Saleh military includes units trained in the use of such missiles.

The take-away: though both witnesses represent institutions with ties to GCC powers, Ambassador Seche offered thoughtful and earnest opinions based on his own experience, while Ms. Long parroted propaganda. When forced to boil down their recommendations for US policy, Seche urged US policy makers to make sure that any further arms transfers to Saudi Arabia come with "significant strings" in the form of commitments to engage productively in peace talks. Long, on the other hand, urged the US to deliver more and better munitions to Saudi Arabia as quickly as possible.

And one final exchange that I found very interesting: Senator Markey asked the witnesses if the US administration should be making more of a fuss about Saudi violations of international law. Seche said no; calling out the Saudis in public would be counterproductive, but the administration should speak to KSA "privately" about this. Markey then asked if the Senate, and specifically the FRC, should speak out publicly on the issue since the administration can't. Seche enthusiastically said yes, that a vocal Congress could be helpful in international negotiations. He even said that he had used the "help me get this pesky Congress off my back" approach in his own dealings with intransigent foreign governments in the past.

You can watch the full video of the hearing, or download the witnesses' written testimony, right here.

Below I've Storified just some of the livetweeting of the hearing, by myself as well as Beka Feathers of PILPG and Kate Kizer of ADHRB.


The Marib offensive, three weeks in

On the surrounding rocky hills some four kilometers to the west of Marib City, pro-Houthi forces have been holding positions since early this month, while the Saudi-led coalition’s own forces along with local tribal fighters fight to sweep them out of the way to the capital, Sanʻa. The coalition’s ground offensive in the oil-rich governorate of Marib, in central Yemen, is part of a larger strategy to take control of Sanʻa, some 175 km to the west of the governorate. The ongoing battle in Marib, though, seems to have produced a standoff so far, two weeks after the ground offensive officially began on September 13, hours after the exiled President Hadi and his government in Riyadh backed out of UN-sponsored talks to end the months-long conflict in Yemen.

According to several sources in Marib, however, clashes between tribal fighters and pro-Houthi forces were already taking place more than a week earlier. The coalition-trained Maribi fighters and coalition armed forces were “sent as reinforcements.”

“The fighting broke out late in August in Sirwah district [northwest of Marib], when the Houthis attempted to make a push toward Marib City,” a tribal elder in the city told the YPP via telephone, indicating that the clashes between the warring parties were escalating day by day.

Coalition forces based in the Safer area, to the east of Marib City, have been reportedly preparing to mount a ground offensive as part of their larger campaign to “liberate” Houthi-controlled Sanʻa, in what was allegedly dubbed “Operation Sweeping Current.”

Meanwhile, pro-Houthi forces were able to advance on the rocky hills outside Marib, after fierce clashes along three fronts there killed dozens on both sides, according to local tribal and military sources.

On September 4, Houthis also fired a short-range ballistic missile from Bayhan district of the neighboring Shabwah province, killing 67 Emirati, Saudi, Bahraini soldiers as well as an unknown number of local tribal fighters at a camp in Safer.

By September 8, four days after the ballistic missile attack, hundreds of trained tribal fighters along with a number of coalition’s own forces were seen heading for Marib city, coming from Safer.

“At least 700 local fighters, who were trained in Saudi Arabia along with troops from the coalition forces, have arrived in the headquarters of the 3rd Military Region and a military base in Sahn al-Jin area,” military sources in Marib told the YPP, pointing out that the military base in the area is used as a training camp for the local fighters.

The military sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that these allied troops were “sent as reinforcements on Tuesday [September 8],” after the pro-Houthi forces took control of three positions near the rocky hills.

Despite those reinforcements, the pro-Houthi forces “started to carry out heavy missile attacks using Katyusha and Uragan BM-27 rocket launchers, targeting both the HQ of the 3rd Military Region and the training camp,” said the sources, adding that several coalition troops were killed, and a number of armored vehicles destroyed.

On that day, the UAE government officially stated that one Emirati soldier was killed in the Marib fighting. There had been no official comments from the other Gulf States participating in the current ground offensive, but Houthi-affiliated media outlets claimed that two Qatari soldiers were killed, and that a score of armored vehicles were totally destroyed. Those figures could not be confirmed independently.

In response, the tribal fighters fought their way back to the western areas of al-Jufaina, Edat al-Raa’ and Tabbat al-Masaryah, where pro-Houthi forces are holding their positions. Coalition fighter jets and Apache helicopters provided the Maribi fighters with air support, according to both military sources.

On September 12, the Saudi-led coalition officially announced the ground offensive in Marib, hours after the exiled government in Riyadh announced it would not participate in the UN-backed peace talks, which were expected to be held in few days later.

On Friday, September 25, at least 1,000 local fighters, who had been trained in Saudi Arabia, crossed through the town of al-Abr in Hadhramawt governorate, and headed for Marib aboard military armored vehicles and tanks.

The military sources said that these troops arrived at the HQ of the 3rd Military Region and the military base in Sahn al-Jin area. “But this time, the troops advanced under an air cover and after heavy airstrikes” on Houthi positions. According to several tribal sources in Marib, the fighters aboard military armored trucks pushed into the western fronts under heavy aerial cover on Saturday, indicating that al-Jufaina and Tabbat al-Masaryah fronts have seen the most brutal fighting.

On Sunday, a weapons depot in Tabbat al-Masaryah was bombed by airstrikes and flames were seen rising above this rocky hill front, according to the sources. The airstrikes have also targeted a Houthi checkpoint in Harib area of Shabwah, on the border with Marib, killing a number of Houthi fighters including their leader, who was identified as Abo Malek al-Khawlani.

On Monday, the tribal fighters closed in on the pro-Houthi forces at the Tabbat al-Masaryah front in the northwest, and were poised to drive them out from two positions, said a local tribal source, indicating that the push uphill was preceded with the heaviest airstrikes and the artillery shells yet seen. However, the Houthi-affiliated TV channel al-Masira said that Houthi forces were making "a tactical retreat," and that "the aggressors were using internationally banned missiles".

The fighting is not over yet in Marib; on Sunday the convoy of one of the Yemeni military commanders in charge of “liberating” Marib, Brigadier al-Qumayri, hit a landmine planted by the pro-Houthi forces. Four of al-Qumayri's body guards were killed, including his son, Hamza, and several others were injured, while he survived the bombing unscathed, according to a tribal source.

Update: Yemen Press reported on Tuesday that tribal and coalition forces had gained full control of Marib Dam, as well as Tabbat al-Masaryah. The YPP's sources confirmed those reports.

Communities in Hajjah count the cost of indiscriminate airstrikes

Abdullah Hadi, 39, returned to the water bottling facility outside his town around 3:00 a.m. to make the final checklist for the laborers working overnight, before ending his shift. Half an hour later, the chief coordinator and a dozen of his workers were killed by an airstrike. In the northwestern areas of Yemen, near the border with Saudi Arabia, scores of civilians have been killed while hiding in their homes, working at farms and factories, or while visiting popular markets, which are vital sources of income, food, and other necessities for most of the populace in the Tihamah coastal region and elsewhere in Yemen. Thousands of people in the northwest have also had to abandon their home towns, seeking safety elsewhere.

Haradh and Abs districts of Hajjah Governorate in particular have been continuously pounded since the first Saudi-orchestrated airstrikes on March 26. The coalition’s air campaign was originally billed as “quick and sharp,” aiming to roll back forces loyal to the Houthi movement and former president ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh, and restore the exiled government in Riyadh to power.

To those ends, warplanes from Saudi Arabia and its allies started to bomb pro-Houthi military bases and weapon depots. Moreover, the Saudi-led coalition imposed a naval and land blockade with the aim of preventing arms shipment from reaching the Houthis.

But the Saudi-led coalition, which receives logistic support and materiel from the US and UK, has also targeted Yemen’s civilian infrastructure, taking a heavy toll on noncombatants, while blocking all commercial imports to Yemen and stalling much-needed humanitarian and medical shipments. According to the United Nations, at least 80% of the population needs some form of humanitarian assistance. Widespread power outages and fuel shortages have forced dozens of hospitals to shut down, while others have had to reduce their operation to the emergency units.

Despite the warnings of impending famine and the dire humanitarian situation across Yemen, the coalition has continued for six months now to bomb residential areas and ravage the country’s infrastructure. Targets of the airstrikes have included government buildings, health facilities, educational institutions, stadiums, seaports, heritage sites, IDP/refugee camps, factories, gas stations, and water storage and processing facilities.

During the past six days alone, at least 90 people have been killed in the capital, Sanʻa, as warplanes target densely-populated areas, including the UNESCO-listed Old City of Sanʻa, where an entire family of 10 members was buried under the rubble of their house this week. More than 70 people were reportedly killed on Sunday as coalition warplanes bombed a local market in Munnabih village of Saʻdah governorate, according to local health officials.

According to the international NGO Oxfam, at least 25,000 airstrikes have hit  Yemen since late March. The organization, one of the aid agencies in the country that has been affected by the aerial attacks, has also said that more than two thirds of the population lack access to clean water, which increases the risk of life-threatening diseases such as malaria, cholera, and diarrhea.

In rural areas of the Tihamah coastal plain, where tropical diseases are seasonally rampant, 41% of the local clean water supply systems—which Oxfam was supporting—have shut down.

In Abs district of Hajjah Governorate, some 30 km away from the town of Haradh—where Abdullah Hadi and most of the local water plant’s workers lived, the water tanks, the vocational training institute, the cultural center, and the central prison were among the public facilities hit by airstrikes, according to local residents .

“The Saudi warplanes appear to strike anything in here and in the neighboring areas as well,” Hafiz Makin, a 36-year-old resident, told the YPP. “A number of houses have even been targeted in particular.”

When the Saudi-led aerial campaign was launched in March, Hafiz was hopeful that the Houthis and their allies would soon be forced to withdraw from the areas they have occupied. “But after more than five months now, we have lost a lot of our loved ones, and virtually lost the life in our hometown,” he said.

Thousands of families in the district of Abs have been forced to leave their homes in search of safety elsewhere. Ali Yahya, a resident of Abs who works as a volunteer for aid agencies in the district, said that the situation in both Abs and Haradh is catastrophic amid daily airstrikes and artillery barrages.

“Most of the basic infrastructure in Abs and Haradh have been bombed; life has become difficult here,” said Yahya, noting that at least 17,000 local residents have been internally displaced. “There are two camps for IDPs in Bani Hassan area, some three kilometers from Abs”

According to several local residents, the water factory shelling was one of the most egregious examples of indiscriminate airstrikes they have seen since March 29, when the Saudi warplanes began to strike in and around Abs district, three days after the start of their aerial campaign in Sanʻa.

Al-Sham Factory, which used to produce large amounts of drinking water bottles, was totally destroyed by a predawn airstrike. “The entire factory was set on fire, engulfed in flames for several hours,” said the owner of the factory, Ali Rozoum.

“It is an overwhelming disaster to almost everyone in the area; thirteen local workers have just been killed all at once.”

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.

Southern resistance turns the tables in Aden

Resistance fighters in the southern city of Aden--which has been facing the brunt of pro-Houthi/pro-Saleh aggression since March--launched a major counteroffensive on Tuesday, retaking Khor Maksar district and Aden International Airport and reportedly pushing Houthi/Saleh forces out of parts of Aden's lower districts as well. According to reports that have circulated quietly in recent days, the Saudi-led coalition has been bringing heavy weapons, vehicles, and coalition-trained Yemeni fighters into Burayqah Port for several weeks in preparation for this assault. Along with these assets, the coalition also provided air support to resistance fighters as they advanced across northern Aden.

Five important things to note about today's events:

  1. Though Adenis and people throughout the south are celebrating, I expect there's still a lot of fighting to come in this part of the country. Even if the Houthi/Saleh forces are driven out of Aden completely (they haven't been, yet), there are several factions in the area that don't all get along. They're all armed now, and there's still no central Adeni leadership to which they all answer.
  2. No matter what you read in the papers, the resistance fighters in Aden are not "pro-Hadi" or "pro-government" or "loyalists." They are mostly pro-independence, and some will resist any attempt by the Hadi government or Saudi Arabia to take control.
  3. Fighters aligned with AQAP and/or IS are present in Aden. They are by no means the leading faction there, but they are in the mix, and they have their own agenda.
  4. A victory for the resistance won't mean an end to the humanitarian catastrophe in Aden. According to the World Food Program, even the Saudi-controlled ports weren't open for aid deliveries today. Furthermore, as long as the Saudi blockade continues to shut out commercial traffic, Aden and Yemen will not have enough food or fuel to survive.
  5. I don't have anything definite or insightful to say about Yemen's relevance to larger geopolitical events, but it might not be a coincidence that this offensive started just around the time the US and Europe announced the conclusion of a political deal with Iran.

I've set up a Google map of Aden and its environs, marking a couple of important locations. The map is edit-able, so please feel free to add your own notes and markers:

YPP and House of Light on KPFK

I appeared on yesterday's episode of Middle East in Focus, a radio show broadcast on KPFK here in southern California, to talk about the current situation in Yemen, US foreign policy, and the work of the YPP. Also featured on the show was Sahar Nuraddin, co-founder of the House of Light Foundation in Aden. For the last couple months we've been helping House of Light raise money for their initiative to provide clothing and hygiene kits to women displaced by the war.  You can find the episode here (it's the July 12 listing). I think my interview is worth listening to, but I really encourage readers to listen to Sahar's interview, which follows mine at about 16:30. Aden is under a near-total state of siege now, and residents have only sporadic internet and phone service, so it's very valuable to to hear a first-hand perspective on the situation there. Sahar's perspective, as a full-time NGO worker and aid provider with contacts all throughout Aden Governorate, is particularly informative.

And don't forget to support the very important work Sahar and House of Light are doing. You can learn more and donate here.

EU Parliament condemns violence by Houthis, Saleh, KSA

The plenary session of the European Parliament adopted today a resolution on the current conflict in Yemen. Beyond the standard "expressions of concern" and calls for restraint, there are a couple of clauses in this resolution that are particularly noteworthy. Overall, it's a more impassioned and strongly-worded document than we usually expect to see in such cases.  The most striking thing about this resolution is that it positions the EU, as a body, outside the conflict. It does this by criticizing the Saudi-led coalition as well as the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Here's a key paragraph (#3, emphasis mine):

[The European Parliament] Condemns the destabilising and violent unilateral actions taken by the Houthis and military units loyal to ex-President Saleh; also condemns the air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition and the naval blockade it has imposed on Yemen, which have led to thousands of deaths, have further destabilised Yemen, have created conditions more conducive to the expansion of terrorist and extremist organisations such as ISIS/Da’esh and AQAP, and have exacerbated an already critical humanitarian situation;

Compare that to, for example, the UN Security Council's Resolution 2216, which condemns the Houthis' actions, but implicitly approves of the Saudi-led intervention. What makes the paragraph above really interesting is that a number of EU member states--specifically the UK, France, and Belgium--are involved in the Saudi bombing campaign in one way or another. In fact, the voting record for today's resolution shows a very interesting amendment, which will be added to the finalized version of the text:

[The European Parliament] Expresses its concern regarding the intensive arms trade of EU Member States with various countries in the region, as in the case of the United Kingdom, Spain, France and Germany; calls on the Council in this connection to verify whether there have been breaches of the EU Common Position on Arms Export Controls and to adopt measures to ensure that this common position is fully respected by all the Member States;

You can find a provisional PDF copy of the full resolution here.


Marib: Yemen's perpetual front line

Mafraj Blog contributor Mohammed Ali Kalfood reports on the conflict in Marib. For more on this issue, listen to our interview with Nadwa al-Dawsari on episode 18 of Mafraj Radio. In five encampments spread along three sides of Marib city in east Yemen, local tribal fighters have been holding their ground against forces loyal to the Houthi movement and former president ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh since last September, when the Houthis took over Yemen’s capital. Following the fall of Sanʻa, pro-Houthi units advanced on Marib, as well as other strategically important parts of the country.

Since then, sporadic clashes have taken place in Marib Governorate, where crucial elements of Yemen’s energy sector are located. Thousands of armed tribesmen, who hail from five key tribes in the province, have mobilized their local fighters to repel the Houthi fighters advancing on their fatherland along with pro-Saleh forces.

The Houthis and their allies claim that the Marib tribes are harboring elements of al-Qaeda in Yemen, a justification that has been disputed by several local observers.

“We have solid evidence of an al-Qaeda presence in Marib, as tribes have provided refuge for its elements,” Tawfiq al-Himyari, a member on the Houthi movement’s ‘Revolutionary Committee’ in Sanʻa, said in an interview.

Four months after the Houthis’ seizure of the capital—days before the now-exiled President Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi was placed under house arrest—the movement’s leader, ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, issued four demands in a televised speech. One of those demands was that President Hadi act immediately to secure Marib, where, al-Houthi said, al-Qaeda elements and allied saboteurs continued to carry out attacks on an important oil pipeline and the national electricity grid. Back then, al-Houthi also accused both Hadi and the Islamist Islah party of empowering al-Qaeda.

Soon after the Houthis siezed power and placed Hadi under house arrest, Marib’s major tribes “openly expressed their support” to President Hadi. On the day the Houthis announced their “constitutional declaration” in the capital, Marib tribes announced their “autonomy” from Sanʻa as their fighters established their encampments, effectively closing all entrances to Marib province.

But ‘Ali al-Qibli Namran, Chief of the Tribal Federation in Marib, argues that there is no presence of al-Qaeda in the province, and that is just “an excuse” the Houthis like to make.

“Al-Houthi always raises and makes up excuses that are, as a matter of fact, issues of concern to the public and the international community in order to gain acquiescence and overlook his expansion into the cities and provinces he wants to control,” Namran said.

"If there is anyone suspected of belonging to al-Qaeda, then the government, with the cooperation of the people of Marib, have the sole responsibility to fight and arrest him, and if al-Qaeda had a presence in Marib, it would have attacked oil and electricity facilities as well as army camps.”

But al-Qaeda has carried out sporadic attacks in this oil-rich province, and its presence there is believed to pre-date the first US drone strike in Yemen in 2002.  According to local experts, the Houthi expansion into other parts of Yemen may also increase rivalry with the local branch of al-Qaeda in Yemen.

“The expansion of the Houthi group into several areas has ratcheted up rivalry with the extremist factions, and paved the way for such factions to be recruited as fighters,” said Ahmed Arami, a writer and political analyst from Radaʻ district of al-Baydha, which the Houthis entered last November “to fight al-Qaeda there,” before they turned to the neighboring province of Marib.

The Houthis also used the phenomenon of attacks on oil and power installations to justify their invasion of Marib. Such attacks became common after the May 2010 killing of Marib’s deputy governor, Jaber al-Shabwani. Al-Shabwani, who was negotiating with AQAP on behalf of the Yemeni government, was allegedly killed by an American missile strike based on intelligence provided by then-President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh.

Clashes have chiefly been taking place in the western districts of Marib since September, although lately the pro-Houthi/Saleh forces have tried to advance on the city from the northern, western, and southern sides, according to local tribal sources.

“Five tribal encampments have been set up: in Nakhla of al-Wadi district to the north of Marib; in al-Suhail of Sirwah district to the northwest; in al-Washamah of Jouba district, and Najd al-Majma’ah of al-Rahabah district to the southwest; as well as al-Labanat of Sirwah district to the northwest,” one of the tribal elders of the Jihm tribe, ‘Abdullah Bin Tayman said.

“We will defend and protect the province at any cost,” said Tayman, indicating that all tribes have vowed, “Marib will never be captured by the Houthis, who are backed Saleh and Iran.”

While the Houthis were seeking to mobilize tribal support on their side, other tribes from the neighboring provinces of al-Jawf, al-Baydha, and Shabwa have sided with the tribal fighters of Marib and joined the battle as well, according to local sources.

According to tribal elder Tayman, “clashes have lately intensified in Sirwah district and nearby areas,” adding that “the tribal resistance has lost at least 50 tribesmen while scores of Houthis and their allies [pro-Saleh forces] have been killed.”

Analysts in Sanʻa say that the Marib frontline has been “slowly but surely escalating,” although since President Hadi was forced to flee his provisional capital of Aden, the fighting has become more focused on the southern part of Yemen.

“The fighting in Marib, as in several Yemeni cities, is merely politically motivated, and gradually increasing and becoming a real threat to the entire country, especially when half of the 800 megawatt of power, which the country produces, in addition to the majority of oil derivatives, come from Marib,” said Ahmed al-Hasaani, a political analyst in Sanʻa.

According to Saeed al-Youssifi, a local activist in Marib, the five-day “humanitarian pause” agreed to by Saudi Arabia and Ansar Allah did not include a cessation of combat in Marib.

“After the ceasefire began [on Tuesday, May 12], clashes broke out again and lasted for about 12 hours,” said al-Youssifi, adding that “the Saudi warplanes have been providing air cover for the tribal fighters.”

However, fighting on the Marib frontline over the past seven months seems to have produced a standoff, although fierce clashes have spread to three bordering provinces, al-Jawf, al-Baydha and Shabwah, where the pro-Houthi/Saleh forces have apparently gained ground, according to several local activists in Marib.

While the Marib battle has not been a major topic in ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi’s recent speeches, Revolutionary Committee member Tawfiq al-Himyari argued that “the battle in Marib has yet to begin to purge the city of al-Qaeda and its partners.”