On Oct. 14, the Shiite Houthi rebels who have posed a challenge to Yemen’s central government made sweeping military gains in the country, seizing the significant port city of Hodeidah on the Red Sea coast as well as the central city of Dhamar. These gains come less than a month after the Houthi’s swift seizure of Sana’a on Sept. 22 following days of massive protests in the capital.
Arabic media sources claimed that the Houthi rebels took over the coastal city of Hodeidah without any resistance from the Yemeni authorities. Hodeidah, located abot 220 kilometers west of Sana’a, is the fourth largest city in the country as well as a strategically significant port city on the Red Sea. The city is also home to the country’s largest oil refinery. Some Arabic sources speculated that the takeover of Hodeidah strengthens suspicions that the rebels are in need of a port city presumably to ensure access to more weapons and supplies.
The takeover reportedly began the previous day, on Oct. 13, when Houthi fighters wearing military uniforms began spreading out into the city and its surrounding areas. By Oct. 14, Houthi fighters could be seen consolidating their power along all of the main roads in the city. The rebels also managed to seize control of the city’s airport and main military base and were seen concentrating their forces in these vital locations. Some reports also suggested that the Houthis besieged an ammunition storage facility close to the city and captured it prior to launching their advance.
Eye witnesses in Hodeidah claimed that the Houthi fighters set up checkpoints at the main entrance to the city as well as on its main streets. Reports also emerged that the rebels have raided the residence of Brigader Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, a prominent Yemeni military figure who has been outspoken about his opposition to the Houthis.
In conjunction with their takeover of the Hodeidah, Houthi rebels also reportedly increased their presence in the city of Dhamar in central Yemen, manning at least 6 military checkpoints, including at the entrances to the city and in front of government buildings. As was the case in Hodeidah, no resistance from the Yemeni authorities was reported.
With the increased Houthi control over Hodeidah and Dhamar on Oct. 14, the rebels control large swaths of the Yemeni north. They have successfully extended their control south from their strongholds in Sa’ada and Amran to Sana’a in late September, and their increased checkpoints in Dhamar brings them even further south. The Houthi advance west to Hodeidah effectively cordoned off a lion’s share of northwest Yemen.
The Houthis, who have been at war with the Yemeni government since 2004, have been strongly opposed to one of the central tenets of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference that concluded in January 2014. Namely, the Houthis reject a federal system in Yemen which would divide the country into six regions and would also link Sa’ada province, the Houthis’ home base and stronghold, with Sana’a. By increasing their influence in large sections of northwestern Yemen, the Houthis are attempting to redraw the regional borders to their liking and creating facts on the ground to bolster their argument for the Yemeni north to be designated its own region.
While the Houthis have been on the advance, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been capitalizing on the security vacuum and increasing its operations in the country. Only a day after the Houthis staged a lightning-fast sweep of Sana’a on Sept. 22, AQAP released a scathing sectarian diatribe, declaring an open war against the Houthis and calling on fellow Sunnis to take up arms. Since then, AQAP has escalated its terrorist activity throughout Yemen. The group has carried out attacks in nearly half of Yemen’s 21 provinces, targeting both the Houthis and the Yemeni military, which AQAP accuses of collusion with the rebels. AQAP is even using the term “the Houthi-turned-army” (al-jaysh al-mutahaweth) in its propaganda, in a bid to galvanize popular support against the Yemeni military.
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