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War in Yemen: Taiz on the frontline

Taez is an important strategic prize for both sides [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 20 April, 2015

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Analysis: Yemen's third largest city and the birthplace of the 2011 uprising, Taiz has become an active front in the battle between pro-Houthi forces and those loyal to President Hadi.

Taiz, Yemen's third-largest city, is now the latest front for the pushback against the forces of the Ansar Allah movement (commonly known as the Houthis) and forces loyal to deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The situation there has shifted from sustained protests against the coup to armed clashes and shelling over the past few days between the Houthi-Saleh alliance and an army brigade loyal to the legitimate government, backed by tribesmen and volunteers. The Arab coalition has also been conducting air raids in the city, destroying the presidential palace, one of the most recognised government buildings in Taiz.

The armed conflict tbegan in Taiz after the 35th Armoured Brigade stationed on the outskirts of the city declared its loyalty to the legitimate government represented by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who has appointed Colonel Mohamed al-Hammadi as commander of the brigade. On the other hand, army forces loyal to the Houthi-Saleh alliance are operating in the city, most notably the 22nd Armoured Brigade, backed by security forces.

The tension began after the 35th Armoured Brigade on the outskirts of the city declared its loyalty to current President.

Units from the pro-Hadi 35th Brigade deployed in conjunction with intense air strikes targeting the pro-Saleh 22nd Brigade. Though the latter sustained heavy losses, the air raids did not fully eliminate the 22nd Brigade.

Houthi forces and their allies tried to counter-attack and besiege the headquarters of the 35th Brigade, which was joined by tribal forces and volunteers loyal to Sheikh Hammoud al-Mikhlafi. Mikhlafi is close to the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah Party and Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. Street battles ensued as well as intermittent clashes in more than one district of the city.

Taiz and Popular Resistance

Taiz province is the largest in Yemen in terms of population, and many of its residents live in cities. Taiz is considered the birthplace of the revolution of 2011, as the first protest demanding Saleh step down took place there. Freedom Square in Taiz, meanwhile, was the second-most important anti-Saleh sit-in location after Change Square in the capital Sanaa.

In May 2011, forces loyal to Saleh raided Freedom Square and burned the sit-in camps. Soon enough, armed groups were formed for the first time ostensibly to protect the square, under the command of the same Sheikh Hammoud al-Mikhlafi.

Mikhlafi is a former Political Security officer close to both Major General Ahmar and Brigadier General Sadiq Sarhan. Sarhan was appointed a few days ago by President Hadi as commander of the now-pro-Saleh 22nd Armoured Brigade, but he was not able to take his post because of a mutiny in the brigade.

With both Sarhan and Mikhlafi now involved in the conflict, Taiz would have returned to the same situation as in 2011. Taiz is therefore likely to become the site of escalating fighting in the coming period, though the new thing this time that could alter the balance of power is the Arab coalition air raids targeting the pro-Houthi forces and assisting "resistance" forces.

The political situation in Taiz

The governor of Taiz Shawqi Hael is one of the key figures in the province. Hailing from a major trading family in Yemen, he had voiced some exceptional positions in the past, refusing the entry of militias to Taiz.

Hael had refused to side with either the legitimate government under Hadi or the Houthis, and remained only a "representative of Taiz". The governor did not allow pro-Houthi reinforcements to enter Taiz on their way to Aden, saying in a statement that this would turn Taiz into a conflict area.

Recently, after the start of the clashes, he tried to mediate between the two sides to convince them to remove their checkpoints and avoid fighting in the province.

Taiz could become a second Aden, that is, another conflict zone.

Concerning other political forces, many leaders of the General People's Congress Part (GPC) led by the ousted president have sided with the Houthi-Saleh alliance. On the other side of the divide there is the Yemeni Islah Party, many members of which are now part of the so-called Popular Resistance fighting against the Houthis.

The majority of the other political forces are against turning the city into an arena of violence, but blame the Houthis for the deterioration. They say the Houthis were the first to escalate the situation in the city by sending reinforcements to bases in Taiz, and engaging in repression against protesters.

Further escalation expected

In light of the current situation and the developments of the past few days, it seems that Taiz could become a second Aden, that is, a conflict zone. For one thing, the general mood in the province is opposed to the Houthis.

The forces loyal to the Houthis and Saleh are able to continue the confrontation. However, if the battles spread to Taiz in a more dramatic manner, this could relieve pressure on Aden, as most pro-Houthi reinforcements go to Aden through Taiz. Most probably, if political solutions are not found soon for the crisis, Taiz could become the site of protracted fighting.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

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