General Nasser al-Dhaybani, a senior commander for Yemen’s internationally recognized but deposed government, predicted in an interview with Sky News on Monday that the government is winning the brutal four-year Yemeni civil war and could recapture the capital city of Sanaa from Iran-backed Houthi insurgents very soon.
Dhaybani spoke from Mount Nmeh, where his forces recently took ground from the insurgents. He explained that, while air support from Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners is “excellent” and “helpful,” the only way to retake Sanaa without bombing it to ruins and inflicting unimaginable civilian casualties was to capture the mountains around the city.
Given that the conflict has already caused an estimated 10,000 deaths, displaced 20 million civilians, and unleashed a humanitarian hell of disease and starvation, the notion of the conflict growing worse during an all-out attack on Sanaa is chilling. A U.N. official told Sky News the situation in Yemen has become the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
The Sky News team witnessed this first-hand, as the Royal Saudi Air Force arranged for them to become one of the rare foreign news teams to visit the country since the civil war began, presumably to continue the good press flowing from Saudi Arabia’s recent announcement of a billion-dollar humanitarian aid program for Yemen. The reporters saw a horrifying number of civilians with missing limbs, many of them reportedly maimed by Houthi landmines.
There was speculation the Yemeni civil war was entering a terminal phase after the killing of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in December. Saleh was a crucial early ally of the Houthis against his successor, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, but the relationship turned sour when Salen was seen talking to the Saudis and looking for a way to end the conflict, and the Houthis murdered him as a traitor. The loss of Saleh and his supporters was seen as a possibly mortal blow to the insurgency.
Instead, the civil war ground on, but if anything it became even less civil. It is increasingly clear there are more than two or three sides to the conflict. Beyond the widely understood battle lines between the Hadi government, the Houthis, and terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIS, there are also factional disputes that have a way of erupting into violence at inopportune moments.
For instance, there is a separatist faction nominally allied with Hadi that actually wants to carve out an independent southern state. The separatists denounced Hadi’s government-in-exile as corrupt and demanded he fire his entire cabinet. When he missed a deadline to comply with their demands, the separatists turned on their former partners and briefly seized control of the city of Aden, where the Hadi government is nominally based.
Hadi himself is more likely to be found in Saudi Arabia, which is committed to restoring his government. The United Arab Emirates strongly backs the southern separatists, though UAE is Saudi Arabia’s coalition partner in Yemen. The fighting in Aden stopped when Hadi and the UAE convinced both sides to stand down, leaving dozens killed and hundreds wounded.
The battle in Aden was not a minor scuffle between a few hotheads—the separatists and Hadi’s forces were blasting away at each other with tanks and artillery pieces.
The UAE wants to split Yemen to create a southern state firmly in its diplomatic and economic orbit, opening trade routes to Africa and checking the growth of the hated Muslim Brotherhood along Emirati borders. The southern separatists, in turn, are a collection of tribes with longstanding grievances and a history of fighting among themselves. Some of the factional divisions reflect tensions between different sects of Islam. If a new southern state were formed tomorrow, a good deal of it would be under the control of al-Qaeda.
“The narrative of a ‘legitimate government’ fighting the ‘Iranian-backed Houthis’ obscures a complex local reality, and it hinders efforts to achieve peace,” analyst April Longley Alley of the International Crisis Group told the Washington Post over the weekend.
Despite General Dhaybani’s optimism about slowly building up a commanding position in the mountains around Sanaa and preparing for a knockout punch to end the Houthi insurgency, the Associated Press called the war a stalemate on Monday, comparing it to America’s 16-year operation in Afghanistan.
The rebels have enough artillery to make further movement toward Sanaa extremely difficult; it took months for government troops to clear out sniper nests and secure the territory they now hold. Some individual provinces of Yemen are so heavily militarized that it is difficult to tell civilians from irregular fighters, especially since the use of child soldiers is prevalent. The forces in a single city are often divided between several different factions with different international backers.
Not only does a decisive military defeat for either major side in the Yemeni civil war remain elusive, but it’s not clear how many sides there truly are, or what sort of peace process could possibly bring them all to the same negotiating table.