Anatomy of chaos: Yemen’s Taiz
By Fernando Carvajal
Armed clashes continue in central Yemen’s city of Taiz between rival pro-government factions. Over the past year, crime and political maneuvering have exacerbated fragmentation among allies of the internationally recognized government, while regional rivalries continue to spill into the conflict through support for groups fighting over hegemony, obstructing the fight against Houthis.
Former governor Ali al-Mamari once referred to the armed groups and political parties as the “many devils” besieging the city of Taiz, pointing to groups that were supposed to fight Houthi-Saleh forces since the summer of 2015.
During his year-long (2016-2017) term in office, the governor had to address the deepening humanitarian crisis, Houthi-Saleh elements in the eastern and northern sectors, the military leadership under the Axis Command, and militias that formed under the banner of Popular Resistance forces, such as the Abu al-Abbas Batallion, al-Sa’alik Battalion and Abu al-Saduq Battalion. For the governor, the main problem stemmed from weak authority over such armed groups, and a lack of financial resources from the central government.
The problems were not unique to al-Mamari’s term. Current escalation extending from a security crackdown ordered by Taiz governor Nabil Abdo Shamsan al-Qadasi resembles the chaos that erupted under then governor Amin Ahmed Mahmoud, following the assassination of ICRC worker Hana Lahoud in April 2018. Criminal activity and assassinations between rival groups were responsible for the chaos then, and resumed following the assassination of Abdullah Moqbil al-Makhlafi, an officer of the 22nd Brigade on March 19 2019.
Four years of fighting for hegemony
While Ali al-Mamari considers the assassination of Abdullah Moqbil al-Makhalfi as a consequence of criminal activity, he acknowledges the escalations since March 23 extends from political interests on the part of various groups. Mohammed al-Qadhi, a Yemeni journalist with a grasp on current events in Taiz, believes intense clashes between Abu al-Abbas Battalion elements and military and security elements aligned with the Sunni Islamist party emerge from a broader conflict. Al-Qadhi highlighted Islah’s ambitions to control this vital strategic city.
Al-Qadhi mentions Abu al-Abbas, an extension of the Army’s 35th Brigade under Gen. Adnan Hamadi, fears al-Islah is using the 22nd Brigade and other security units to push his forces out of Taiz, from al-Sayla (canal) to the Old City areas. Others see Islah’s fears an alliance between Abu al-Abbas and other forces supported by the UAE to form a Security Belt Unit, such as those operating in Aden, Abyan, al-Dhale and Lahj. Al-Mamari considers such a move as a possibility as well.
Between July 2015 and December 2017, the city of Taiz was divided into three sectors: those under the control of the Houthi-Saleh alliance in the north and east; areas under al-Islah north of 26 September st. to 60th st. and east across Central Security HQ and Central Bank branch; and the areas under Adil Abduh Fari Uthman al-Dhubhani aka Abu al-Abbas. Prior to December 2017, amid the fighting to keep Houthi-Saleh forces out of the city of Taiz, the various pro-Hadi government units maintained a fragile peace in order to preserve territory under their control.
Yet, tensions remained and often clashes erupted as a result of carelessness by break-away groups looking to extract rents from local businesses. As the Houthi-Saleh alliance broke new areas with opportunities emerged to the east and north, leading to deeper fragmentation and proliferation of armed groups among rival factions throughout Taiz.
Although the city of Taiz is recognized as the incubator of the 2011 uprising against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, it has proven the most fragmented city in Yemen as armed groups and criminal organizations increase in numbers. For instance, al-Sa’alik Batallion is the oldest, continuous group in Taiz. It is said to have emerged in 2011 during the popular uprising and is linked to Brig. Gen. Abdu Farhan al-Makhlafi, aka Salem.
The Brigadier General now serves as advisor to the Axis Command in Taiz under Gen. Samir Abdullah al-Sabri. Salem is regarded as “the most important Islah-affiliated military official in Taiz” and Ibb. He hails from the same area as shaykh Hamoud Saeed al-Makhlafi, a tribal leader and Islah ally that led militia forces against Ali Abdullah Saleh in Taiz throughout 2011, and resistance forces in 2015. Shaykh Hamoud left Taiz in early 2016, soon after governor Shawqi Hayl Saeed resigned.
In recent months a new figure from the same area emerged, Ghazwan al-Makhlafi, nephew of Sadeq Serhan. The teen-ager has been labeled a strong man in Taiz, also having taken part in the fighting to liberate Taiz from Houthi-Saleh forces in 2015, he is now regarded as the head of a small criminal group extorting local businesses and qat sellers.
Others like Amin al-Makhlafi and former Abu al-Abbas affiliate Mumin al-Makhlafi, also lead militant groups in Taiz. Abu al-Abbas, a Salafi student of Dar al-Hadith in Sadah, originally belonged to a group under Sadeq Mayhoob, aka Abu al-Saduq, that was allied with shaykh Hamoud al-Makhlafi in mid-2015.
By 2016 Abu al-Abbas split from Abu al-Saduq and formed his own group, with links to Aden-based Salafis and patronage from the UAE. His forces took Taiz south of 26 September street to north of al-Qahira castle and parts of al-Sabr Mount. Today they maintain a presence in al-Kad’ha front.
Since the departure of Shaykh Hamoud al-Makhlafi, commander of the 22nd Brigade Sadeq Serhan, uncle of Ghazwan al-Makhlafi, emerged as Islah’s strongest military ally on the ground. The 22nd Brigade may not hold significant territory inside the city of Taiz, but represents a strong part of Islah’s infrastructure in Taiz.
Serhan maintains good relations with Brig. Gen. Abdu Farhan al-Makhlafi of the Axis Command, and the al-Sa’alik Battalion. Although not permitted by law to hold membership in any political party, many military officers in Taiz are affiliated with al-Islah and maintain a robust network of recruits. Aside from Abu al-Abbas, Serhan’s main rival is Adnan Hamadi, commander of the 35th Brigade, a Nassarist by political affiliation. Hamadi walks a fine line as his Brigade is under the National Army, but gravitates towards the UAE rather than Saudi Arabia, the latter being the primary patron of president Hadi and al-Islah party.
Excluding Houthis, none of the groups in Taiz directly challenge the authority of the internationally recognized government of president Hadi, but it is clear that political ambitions have created two competing spheres, those with al-Islah party and those against al-Islah. This also allows for regional powers to choose a side to support, splitting the Coalition under Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with Qatar trying to retain some influence with a small group from al-Islah.
The city of Taiz is just as strategically vital to al-Islah, Abu al-Abbas and their regional patrons as it is to the Houthis. Criminal groups not only find space to make a profit, but also serve as proxies granting the major players room for deniability.
All the chaos plays out before international audiences, at a time when the international community engages renewed hopes for a peace process and humanitarian relief through billions in pledged aid. Images of the chaos in Taiz not only show pro-government armed groups fighting each other but also reveal crimes against innocent civilians. Certainly, this lowers the level of confidence on the internationally recognized government. Perceptions of political ambitions and the methods employed in their pursuit also spill over on to other fronts, such as the southern provinces.
In the city of Taiz, fragmentation is both political and physical. The city is split into north and south, areas under the control of al-Islah and Abu al-Abbas elements respectively. The city’s main artery, 26 September streets, serves as de facto line between the areas under control of pro-Islah elements and Abu al-Abbas through the city center.
Houthis remain in the eastern sector from the Central Bank and Central Security HQ to Science & Technology University, controlling the eastern entrance to Taiz. Residents often report the on dangers from crossing over into a rival territory, as most people are afraid of criminal gangs or harassment. These fears are compounded by indiscriminate shelling of neighborhoods by Houthis in retaliation for armed clashes elsewhere.
Residents of Taiz also highlight the increase in recruitment by both sides of tribal elements from rural areas at the periphery. This tactic is not meant to merely supplement their forces, but also to avoid future revenge conflicts between neighbors. Initially, and now parallel to rural recruitment, Abu al-Abbas and al-Islah heavily relied on recruitment through mosques.
Islah is known for its deeply rooted infrastructure in Taiz, relying on major charity organizations run by Salafi elements or Muslim Brotherhood affiliates. On the other hand, Abu al-Abbas, a former school teacher himself, relied more on his links to Dar al-Hadith institutes in the city and neighboring provinces.
Fragmentation is further exacerbated by members of the Coalition. Saudi Arabia and the UAE each support rival groups, although both claim to support president Hadi’s government. Saudi Arabia continues to host Hadi and Islah’s leadership in Riyadh. The Kingdom, therefore, supports the governor of Taiz, in theory.
But all three recent governors have complained of the lack of support from the coalition and the government of Yemen, particularly with regard to salaries and budgetary shortfalls. Even though president Hadi remained in Aden for nearly six weeks this past summer, he never visited Taiz.
On the other hand, the UAE have provided funds and weapons to Popular Resistance elements and Abu al-Abbas from the start of the war against the Houthis. The lack of coordination from the beginning allowed for rifts to emerge between groups searching for patronage from outside of Yemen. The UAE found the Salafis, from Dammaj in particular, far more reliable in the fight against the Houthis.
Their zeal to avenge their exile in 2013 was seen as far more dependable than the patronage-based recruitment among other resistance elements. In addition, Salafis were able to capitalize on UAE antagonism of their al-Islah rival. As the UAE had listed the Muslim Brotherhood, a component of Islah, a terrorist organization, Dammaj Salafis seized the opportunity to advance their own interests, as well as deny Islah one of its most coveted prizes, Taiz.
UAE support for elements like Abu al-Abbas is an extension of their relations with southern secessionists. Southern elements share views of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, and not merely a northern occupying force, but a foreign entity in the peninsula. Whether it is through Hirak or the Southern Transitional Council (STC), demonization of al-Islah is widespread throughout the eight southern provinces (Abyan, Aden, al-Dhale, Hadhramawt, Lahj, al-Mahra, Shebwa, Soqotra).
The STC, in particular, have targeted Islah’s infrastructure for nearly two years. Security forces allied with the STC, such as the Security Belt (Abyan, Aden, al-Dhale, Lahj) and Elite Forces in Shebwa and Hadhramawt, often conduct counter-terrorism raids on party headquarters and residences. STC’s vice president, Hani Bin Breik, also a former student of Dammaj, is regarded as the original link between Abu al-Abbas and the UAE. He was made Minister of State by president Hadi as a result of his role in the fight against the Houthis in 2015.
Not a particularly strong supporter of secession, none-the-less Bin Breik, and Ahmed Bin Breik (former governor of Hadhramawt) became leaders of the STC, again, to strengthen the ideological opposition to al-Islah. The spill-over effect from the chaos in Taiz grants figures like Hani Bin Breik the ability to advance their antagonism of Islah. He recently commented that if wasn’t for the STC, Aden would suffer the same conditions as Taiz.
A leadership vacuum
The level of chaos seen in Taiz is clearly exacerbated by the lack of leadership at the local and national level. Former governor Amin Ahmed Mahmoud retreated to Canada for several months in late 2018 before being replaced by Nabil Shamsan. Following the security crackdown launched on 23 March, governor Shamsan retreated to his home in al-Turba as clashes escalated between Abu al-Abbas elements and security forces. President Hadi has yet to intervene, as some expect Shamsan will be replaced soon.
Observers fear clashes will not end this time around until one group can claim outright victory. Options for president Hadi include the appointment of a strong supporter of al-Islah, or a member of Islah, as governor, with the full support from high ranking Saudi officials; or he can appoint a member of the Nassarist party, which would please the UAE but avoid a final solution to the problems that plague the city.
The security operation launched by governor Shamsan may have not carried any political motives, but it does illustrate the difficulty in cracking down on criminal elements within the city. Abu al-Abbas remains in control of highly priced museum artifacts. He refuses to hand them over to the government as some believe he expects compensations for keeping them out of harm’s way.
The chaos also prevents any progress against Houthi elements inside the city. Fighting has stalled all discussions on the Stockholm plan (https://osesgy.unmissions.org/full-text-stockholm-agreement) of December 2018, which also aimed at improving delivery of humanitarian aid to Taiz. Houthis remain in full control of the Taiz-Aden road and eastern entrance and continue to block or extort payments from humanitarian organizations.
As problems mount for president Hadi, observers continue to lose confidence with the current government’s ability to diffuse conflicts among its supporters. If the government is unable to resolve its in-house problems, how can it work toward a solution in Hodeida or create the environment for a return to comprehensive peace talks?