A Saudi military spokesperson has told Middle East Eye that the coalition in Yemen has not given up on capturing the city of Taiz, where a brutal battle is raging between Houthis and Islamist tribal fighters backed by factions said to be linked to al-Qaeda and other hardline groups.
Neither side in the conflict has been able to maintain a grip on the strategic southwestern city in months of fighting, with thousands reported killed and residents and activists accusing Houthi units of carrying out indiscriminate shelling.
But the growing presence of al-Qaeda and Islamist elements among tribal forces loyal to the exiled President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi has also sparked fears of infiltration of the city by fighters said to be affiliated to the Islamic State group.
Last month, following the premature announcement of the “liberation of Taiz” by a local resistance leader, pictures emerged of bloodied bodies of Houthi supporters who had been lynched and left hanging upside down in the streets.
Speaking to MEE, Brigadier-General Ahmed al-Asiri said the Saudi-led coalition had not abandoned the resistance in Taiz but hoped to avoid further mass civilian casualties in the city.
“We will not give up on Taiz; we haven’t given up on the resistance but there is a military tactic and a plan for each city. Taiz is different from the rest of the cities,” Asiri said.
But many local officials, observers and analysts believe that fears about casualties are not the only reason for the coalition’s reluctance to recapture Taiz, which was the birthplace of the uprising in 2011 that toppled former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Popular resistance leader
Taiz’s resistance leader, Sheikh Hamoud al-Makhlafi, is believed to be loyal to the Islamist Islah party, the military branch of Yemen’s arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its military commander Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who is in exile in Riyadh.
Makhlafi, a popular figure in the city, is also seen as sympathetic to hardline clerics such as Abdel-Majed al-Zindani, who is designated as a terrorist by the United States.
Officials close to Hadi say the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and part of Hadi’s government oppose any empowerment of Islah and Makhlafi.
Nasser al-Sherif, a member of Yemen’s National Dialogue, told MEE that Hadi had refused to allow Ahmar access to the coalition’s operations room because the pair were on bad terms. Hadi had also disapproved of Makhlafi’s declaration of Taiz’s liberation in August, he said.
“That angered Hadi and since then he has made no contact with al-Makhlafi,” said Sherif.
But Makhlafi still carries support in Saudi circles, with Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi defence minister, reportedly phoning him last month to discuss the situation in Taiz.
Complicating matters further, an official told MEE that Hadi and his vice president, Khaled Bahah, were at odds over Taiz and courting support from different Arab nations.
“There is big competition between Bahah and Hadi in the Gulf and each has their own supporters and backers here and outside,” the official, who is close to both, said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
'No conflict' within resistance
Some activists there believe fears of Islah seizing control of the city have been exaggerated.
Abdel-Rahim al-Samei, the head of the transitional justice body in the city, told MEE that the resistance forces included secular, Islamist and Salafi elements and said Makhlafi was popular because he was moderate and supported army units with weapons, ammunition and fighters.
“There is no conflict between the tribal civilian fighters and the army units,” he said.
The resistance in Taiz is formally coordinated by an umbrella military council headed by Brigadier-General Sadek Sarhan, who was appointed by Hadi and now leads an army unit positioned on the city’s northern front.
Another prominent pro-Hadi army officer, Adnan al-Hamadi, commands a brigade on the western front and is reportedly training forces outside of Taiz to secure the city when it is recaptured.
Taiz’s strategic position near the border that once separated northern and southern Yemen prior to unification in 1990 and its importance to separatists in the south may also have contributed to the military standoff.
“We have suspicions that the coalition stopped the support after the liberation of the south in order to emphasise the split of the south from the north,” said analyst Gamal al-Harazi.
Meanwhile, Houthi forces were fighting hard to hold onto the city to use it as a possible “bargaining chip” for the secession of the north, said analyst Maged al-Madhaji.
He added that the coalition’s reluctance to recapture the city may also be partly explained by the presence of al-Qaeda fighters among the resistance and fears that its weapons could fall into the wrong hands.
“The continuity of the battles in Taiz, serves the extremists and chips from the resistance. This is the source of danger,” Madhaji told MEE.
'Sons of the city'
Al-Samei said there were about 200 local fighters loyal to al-Qaeda among the resistance who had been blamed for the recent killings of captured Houthis.
“These are sons of the city who returned from the war in Afghanistan to join al-Qaeda here. We know them well,” he said. “You can recognise them by their Afghan dress and their talk about Sharia. They are fighting alongside the resistance and they get support from al-Makhlafi, including weapons and ammunition.”
Ali Al-Bukhaiti, a well-known former Houthi politician, painted a grim picture of the threat to the city posed by hardline groups in a lengthy posting on his Facebook page. Quoting a resident, he said Makhlafi was under heavy pressure from both al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates and did not enjoy free will.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation gets worse by the day, with just three of Taiz’s 21 hospitals still functioning, much of the city devastated by shelling, and residents facing an outbreak of dengue fever. For political activists, recent kidnappings are a further reason for fear.
On 5 August, Abdulkader al-Guneid, a well-known physician and activist, was seized by eight Houthi fighters, with his final update on Twitter describing his abduction.
His daughter, Nagwan, told MEE her father had no political affiliation but was a vocal advocate for a civil and a democratic system “where everyone is subject to the same rule of law – something we never had in Yemen”.
“My father has been vocal against Houthi indiscriminate attacks and the meaningless loss of innocent lives,” she said. “The message is clear: dissent is not accepted and it will be dealt with by force.”