In the beginning of March, Houthi rebels intensified their conflict with local tribes and government forces backed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s north, gaining ground in the critical Jawf governorate. The capture of Jawf’s capital, Hazm, changes the balance of power in the Houthis’ favor. It also threatens to trigger a domino effect that would allow the Houthis to control vital nearby cities south of the Saudi border. This rapid advancement into government-controlled areas sparked countrywide concerns about the complicity and complacency of Yemen’s government forces that failed to protect this territory. However, Jawf was plagued with internal divisions among powerful rival military commanders allied with Yemen’s U.N.-recognized government, which the Houthis exploited to their advantage.
The capture of Hazm, located less than 100 miles from the Saudi border, is significant due to its political proximity to and alignment with the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Saudi led-coalition. Jawf has always been linked to its oil-producing sister governorate, Marib, which shares the same tribal culture. Both governorates were considered among Yemen’s most lawless areas before the war (even by local Yemeni standards). They were also known as a bastion for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But the governorates have experienced a transformation during the conflict due to multiple factors, chief among them economic opportunity and support from Saudi Arabia. Marib, with its population of 350,000, became a safe zone for almost 2 million displaced Yemenis from across the country who fled after the Houthis’ takeover of their cities. It is also home to some political adversaries of the Houthis, including the Islah Party, which is loosely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Houthis’ success in Jawf could not have occurred without their takeover of the Nihm district a month prior. This gained them control over a chain of mountains overlooking Jawf, Marib, the Yam Mountains, and Hadi’s 312th Armored Brigade camp at Fardhat Nihm. But these northern areas are unlikely to be the Houthis’ final stop, as they seek to control critical resources and access to all Yemen’s oil resources and seaports, including the southern oil refineries of Shabwa, port of Aden, and Bab el-Mandeb strait. The Houthis have already been fighting relentlessly in the city of al-Dhala, control of which would allow them to carve a path toward Aden.
Given the significance of these areas to the Saudi-led coalition, there was an expectation that they would be less vulnerable to Houthi attacks, and more equipped to resist incursions. And although the Saudis have conducted airstrikes, they also have faced their own set of challenges, such as when the Houthis downed a Saudi fighter jet. To date, however, no combination of resources or strategies has been sufficient to stop the Houthis, who have benefited from Iranian support to develop more advanced military weaponry, which greatly supersedes the capacity of local tribes.
Currently, there is widespread blame directed at the Saudi-led coalition for its inability to prevent the Houthis’ advancement into Jawf. Some analysts pointed to secret negotiations between the Saudis and the Houthis as the reason behind the Saudis’ lackluster interest in protecting the governorate. However, the situation in Yemen is more complicated, given the tribal nature of these locations and the difficulty of enforcing effective command and control in an informal system.
Local reports suggest that complacency and internal divisions among military units that operate under Hadi’s command might have been the reason for some of the failures within Yemen’s central authority. This was evident with the decision to dismiss Hashem al-Ahmar, who is heavily backed by Yemeni Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, from the leadership of the Sixth Military Region after Houthi forces made significant advancement in Jawf in early January. These divisions became public when Hashem al-Ahmar registered his disagreement with the governor of Jawf, Amin al-Okaimi, over financial allocations to one of his military brigades. However, the tension between these two political giants dates back to 2018 due to political and tribal divisions.
Although both are members of the Islah Party, Okaimi is a native of Jawf and an influential tribal sheikh from the Hamdan tribe. Wary of the influence of Hashem al-Ahmar, who is from the rival Hashid tribal confederation, Okaimi’s action was triggered by several issues, chief among them were alleged backdoor negotiations between Hashem al-Ahmar and the Houthis. Both figures accused each other of “betraying Yemen’s national army,” either by direct targeting via improvised explosive devices or by providing information and intelligence to the Houthis. Okaimi became distressed as he saw Hashem al-Ahmar’s forces remain neutral in recent fights with the Houthis. Given the lack of confidence between these two powerful elites, and Okaimi’s perception of Hashem al-Ahmar’s military units’ abysmal performance, Okaimi sacked Hashem al-Ahmar at the end of January.
In a country where alliances are continually shifting, security services and military performance rely on personal loyalty and tribal allegiance. For example, the government sent military reinforcements to Okaimi under the leadership of Special Forces Brigade Commander Muhammad Ali al-Hajur. Still, Okaimi dismissed them at the end of February for failing to comply with his strategy.
What has been evident in Jawf, and throughout Yemen, is that national identity takes a backseat to tribal politics. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the central government to move about the battlefield efficiently. While Hadi’s government is aware of the existing divisions in Jawf, it has not shown an ability to manage them successfully. In fact, it has floundered attempting to find some quick fixes, such as the recent appointment of Major General Saghir Hammoud Aziz, a member of the General People’s Congress Party, as commander of Joint Operations and Chairman of the General Staff. Hadi’s efforts to balance the political powers of Islah and the General People’s Congress are not half as intricate as those of his predecessor, the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who described governing Yemen as dancing on the heads of snakes.
Meanwhile, the Houthis apparently have concluded that a military solution guarantees them a better position in negotiations, especially as they have not been held accountable for violations of the December 2018 U.N.-brokered Stockholm agreement. Moreover, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is extremely careful not to vex the Houthis lest they conclude he is biased toward the coalition, an accusation that all his predecessors faced. Therefore, with limited U.N. pressure over their militarization, the Houthis have been able to ignite multiple battlefields. Moreover, any temporary suspension of attacks they initiate is often hailed as a positive sign for “de-escalation,” frustrating Hadi’s government, which has not been able to make any substantial progress in controlling Yemen’s territory, by political or military means.
Current trends indicate that the Houthis will continue to advance. They have already sent a message to the governor of Marib, Sultan al-Arada, asking him to cede the city of Marib peacefully and avert war. Amid such provocation, local anger has been directed toward the Hadi government and the Saudis for failing to limit the Houthis’ power in the 5-year conflict. Hadi’s government has to recalibrate its strategy, become more proactive than reactive, and quickly turn its focus to building local alliances rather than appeasing a small clique of political affiliates.