Five years since a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states launched a military intervention against Houthi rebels in Yemen, the movement continues to make advances in the country’s north.
In recent weeks the group has taken control of territory in Jawf province including its main city of Hazm, which lies northeast of the capital, Sanaa, while it has also pushed into parts of the resource-rich Marib province, the last stronghold of Yemen’s internationally recognised government in the north.
Splits in coalition
The Houthi grip on Sanaa and the northern highlands appears fairly secure but the group has few domestic allies, having fought against most of the other major factions in Yemen, including Hadi loyalists, southern separatists, pro-Islah party militias, and loyalists of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saleh helped the Houthis take control of Sanaa in 2014 but was killed in December 2017 by Houthi fighters, who suspected that he was preparing to ally with the Saudi-led coalition.
His death marked the end of a brief period of fighting between the Houthis and forces loyal to the former leader, and perhaps the last real opportunity for the Saudi-led coalition to defeat the Houthis in their northern stronghold.
While Saleh’s death led to some coalescence of non-Houthi forces around the coalition Hadi’s government, the anti-Houthi alliance was weak and has since fractured.
When the coalition advanced on the Houthi-held port city of Hodeidah in the second half of 2018, it seemed likely to result in a military victory for the alliance, but international fears that the fighting would cause a humanitarian catastrophe allowed diplomatic pressure stopped the advance.
Since then, anti-Houthi forces have turned their guns on each other, as divisions between officially allied groups played out in.
The secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC), a UAE-backed group that has widespread support across southern Yemen, forced government forces out of its temporary capital of Aden in August 2019.
This led to the worst fighting between anti-Houthi forces since the beginning of the war, as clashes spread across southern Yemen. It also led to increasingly apparent divisions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who supported the government and the STC, respectively.
A Saudi-brokered agreement in November 2019 was supposed to bring the two sides back together, but has yet to be implemented fully.
“The anti-Houthi alliance on the ground has deep ideological differences that may not be easy to overcome,” said Fatima Abo Alasrar, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.
“Hadi’s government will have to quickly incentivise other factions to unite their efforts under one banner, but this might be too ambitious to expect at this stage of Yemen’s conflict.”
The STC itself is still adamant that it will not back away from pushing for southern secession.