The Houthis lost the battle in Shabwa, but the war is yet to be won

Houthis lose the Shabwa battle, but the war is yet to be won
5 min read
18 January, 2022
Analysis: In a pivotal blow to the Houthis, the Yemeni government has recaptured the oil-rich province of Shabwa. But it remains to be seen whether military escalations by the Saudi-led coalition will change the course of the conflict.

In September of 2021, three key districts - Bayhan, Ain and Usaylan - in Yemen's oil-rich Shabwa province fell to the Iran-allied Houthis without resistance, a development that shocked Yemenis nationwide.

While it was a proud moment for the Houthi group, that euphoria has since been decimated, and the three districts have been recaptured by forces affiliated with Yemen's UN-recognised government. In just ten days, the Houthis lost the battle in Shabwa and retreated to areas in Marib and Al-Bayda provinces. 

Following this swift victory by Saudi and Emirati-backed Yemeni troops, a weighty question begs an answer. Will this advance continue towards Houthi-controlled territories in Yemen's north?

Yemen's government or other local anti-Houthi forces cannot decide on this matter alone. The answer lies in the hands of the Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting in Yemen since 2015. 

"The recapture of Shabwa from the Houthis is proof that the coalition has started to prioritise the military option in Yemen"

The recent government victory materialised after the participation of the Giants Brigades, a highly trained militia with advanced military equipment. Most of the soldiers come from southern Yemen, and they receive funding and arms from the UAE.

The potential march of these forces towards northern provinces is a decision to be taken by the Saudi-led Arab coalition. On Monday, 10 January, the head of the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) said in an interview with Sky News Arabia that the southern forces are ready to push north if directed by the Arab Coalition. 

"The Coalition is the one who will decide to confront the Houthis in Al-Bayda and other northern provinces. The southern forces are prepared to execute these instructions," said Aidros Al-Zubaidi, who has been heading the STC since its formation in 2017.   

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Al-Zubaidi added that the Giants Brigades, who recaptured the three districts from the Houthis, are from the south and primarily fight to secure the southern provinces.

Upon advancing to the Houthi-controlled districts in Shabwa, the Giants Brigades received robust aerial support from the Saudi-led Arab coalition. The lethal aerial bombing of the Houthi fighters and reinforcements in Shabwa hastened the Houthi collapse.

On Tuesday, 11 January, Turki Al-Maliki, the official spokesperson for the coalition, arrived in Yemen's Shabwa on his first visit to the southern province.

During a news conference with the recently-appointed Shabwa governor, Sheikh Awadh Mohammed Alaulaqi, Maliki declared the start of what he dubbed the “Freedom of Happy Yemen” operation on all frontlines. This operation, he stated, will form a decisive stage in propelling Yemen into a period of development and prosperity.

Houthis lose the Shabwa battle, but the war is yet to be won
Houthi followers take part in a funeral procession for Houthi fighters killed in the siege of Shabwa and Marib on 25 September 2021 in Sana'a, Yemen. [Getty]

While a political resolution in Yemen is still far-fetched given the complexity of the protracted conflict, Maliki said that military operations would continue to "cleanse Yemen" and make it safe and secure. He argued that Houthi intransigence had led to the failure of peaceful solutions.

"The Houthi group is part of Yemeni society. But there is a way for peace and development and a way for war. Apparently, the Houthis have chosen the way of war. Therefore, by uniting efforts and military forces under the defence ministry and with the support of the coalition, all Yemeni lands will be certainly liberated," Maliki told reporters.

After seven years of war, it is almost impossible for the Houthis and the Arab coalition to agree on how to resolve the crisis. Hussein Al-Ezi, a senior Houthi official, opposed the statement of the coalition's spokesperson.

He tweeted, saying, "Our concept of the ‘Freedom of a Happy Yemen’ is the concept that all humanity knows. It is that [you] stop your aggression against our country, lift your siege on our people, end your occupation of our land, respect Yemen as a neighbour and [respect] the sovereignty of Yemen."

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Betting on diplomacy to end the war in Yemen has been frustrating, but that has been the approach since 2015. A political researcher in Houthi-controlled Sana'a told The New Arab that the recapture of Shabwa from the Houthis is proof that the coalition has started to prioritise the military option in Yemen.

 "The Houthis are not militarily more powerful than the coalition. But it is clear that the Houthis are more united than the coalition, and this is the rationale behind their steadfastness over the last seven years. Should the coalition resolutely and collectively decide to crush the Houthis on frontlines, it can do that at least in Al-Bayda and Marib province," they said.

The source also indicated that Houthi military gains over the last seven years of war had encouraged the group to look down upon diplomacy, and they have instead been employing military power to achieve their goals.

"The recent Houthi loss in Shabwa has been painful for the group. It has embarrassed them at the military level and demoralised their fighters. When they take over some territories, they feel they are invincible. Their calculation turned out to be misleading, and their loss in Shabwa is an indication that their defeats are likely to multiply this year," said the Sana'a-based researcher.

"The recent Houthi loss in Shabwa has been painful for the group. It has embarrassed them at the military level and demoralised their fighters"

Naji Ali, a local in Shabwa, told The New Arab that the recapture of Shabwa was a glorious occasion. "This province has been safe since it was liberated from the Houthis six years ago. But the Houthi militants invaded some areas in September, which was alarming to everyone living in this province. A Houthi takeover of any area is a sign that war has arrived," he said.

Ali is glad that his province is safe now, and he hopes to see the end of the war in other provinces, including Marib, where fighting has killed thousands of fighters and displaced thousands of families.

"I saw the military convoys of the Giants Brigades heading towards areas controlled by the Houthis in Shabwa, and I was confident the Houthis would not be able to resist for days, and that is what happened. They lost and fled. Ending the war in Yemen requires the unity of pro-government forces and unanimity among the coalition countries on the country's future."

The writer is a Yemeni journalist, reporting from Yemen, whose identity we are protecting for their security.