After a months-long stalemate, the Saudi-led coalition is finally making progress on the ground against Yemen’s Houthi rebels. In December, the coalition – which has been criticized for the rising civilian death toll – launched 67 percent more air raids than the month prior. Backed by Saudi air power, Yemeni forces are advancing on a number of critical fronts including Yemen’s northern border and western coast. The capital remains under Houthi control, but is increasingly isolated as the coalition severs essential supply lines.
The Northern Offensive
The Yemen Army has made significant progress in Yemen’s north with the help of coalition air support, particularly in the Houthi stronghold of Sadaa, where the plurality of December airstrikes occurred. Earlier this week, the coalition announced that it recaptured a strategic mountain range in the governorate, cutting Houthi supply lines while recovering large weapons caches.
Not only is Sadaa in the heartland of the Houthi movement, it is also along the Yemeni-Saudi border and is the likely launching point of missiles directed at Saudi Arabia. Thus progress on this front serves the dual purpose of upsetting a key Houthi center of gravity and disrupting Houthi missile strikes on the Kingdom.
The Coastal Offensive
The coalition continues to advance along Yemen’s western coast towards its largest port, Hodeidah. The Houthis have controlled Hodeidah since Oct. 2014, forcing the coalition to walk the fine line between targeting the Houthis and preserving humanitarian access. In November, Saudi Arabia came under fire for its blockade of the port, which exacerbated Yemen’s famine and cholera epidemic.
Immediately after former President Saleh’s assassination at the hands of his former allies, the Houthis, the coalition reinvigorated military operations aimed at Hodeidah. Within the week, they captured Khoukha, a coastal town between the coalition-controlled Mocha port and the Houthi-controlled Hodeidah port. Despite Saleh’s death, two battalions of his loyalists joined the coalition’s offensive.
Last week, Yemeni forces backed by UAE ground troops further consolidated these gains, capturing critical terrain south of Heys district, severing Houthi supply lines between the port of Hodeidah and Yemen’s third largest city, Taiz.
Not only does the breakthrough in Heys contribute to the coastal offensive, it also positions the coalition to break the Houthi siege of Taiz, a city which has long evaded the coalition. Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, Islah, maintains a clear stronghold in Taiz. The United Arab Emirates was historically loathe to support Islah, given its regional policy of pushing back the Brotherhood, even as its militias mounted meaningful resistance to the Houthi advance on the city.
In recent weeks, the UAE has changed its approach to Islah. In mid-December, Saudi Arabia hosted a “fruitful and positive” meeting between Islah’s leaders and Abu Dhabi’s crown prince. The coalition is now providing air support to Islah-aligned army units, according to the Economist.
In the Capital
While the Houthis maintain control of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, the group’s grip appears to be under increasing strain. The Houthis have begun confiscating phones to search for any opposition material and are reportedly recruiting school children as fighters.
Although President Hadi called for an offensive on Sanaa immediately following Saleh’s death, it appears that the coalition will first isolate the Houthis with northern and coastal offensives.
The coalition has nonetheless set conditions for future offensive operations on the capital, conducting 118 airstrikes in the city and surrounding governorate last month and clearing areas northeast of the capital.