Below is the fourth weekly update as part of Crisis Group’s Yemen Campaign. This week we look at fighting near the Saudi-Yemeni border and strains on the ceasefire around Hodeida, as well as international developments.
Trendline: The Overlooked Battle for Yemen’s Northern Border
Though the battle for the Red Sea port and city of Hodeida is paused until the UN-brokered deal to demilitarise the area succeeds or collapses, fighting on other fronts has intensified, particularly along the Saudi-Yemeni border.
Since the Hodeida ceasefire took effect in December, the battleground has partly shifted to the northern governorates around the Huthi rebels’ heartland of Saada. According to the Yemen Data Project, an independent data collection initiative that tracks airstrikes in Yemen, Saada governorate has faced more Saudi bombardments than any other part of Yemen since the war began in March 2015, with the majority of strikes taking place near the border.
In particular, fighting has escalated in Baqim and Al-Buqaa, towns located along a main highway to Saudi Arabia, and along the internal border separating Saada governorate from Al-Jawf to the east. Here, tribal fighters backed by Saudi Arabia are pushing westward along a highway that runs along the border from Al-Jawf to Al-Buqaa.
Further west, toward Yemen’s Red Sea coast, some of the fiercest fighting is taking place around the Saudi border in Hajja governorate, namely the port town of Midi and nearby Haradh, close to Al-Tuwal, the main border crossing. In recent weeks, tensions have grown between the Huthis and members of the previously neutral Al-Hajour tribe in the Kushar district of Hajja, just 25km east of Haradh. Hostilities started when the Hajour detained Huthi fighters who had entered tribal territory. This incident triggered a series of tit-for-tat detentions and skirmishes, which now reportedly involve Sawdah tribesmen from neighbouring Amran governorate.
The Huthis and the Yemeni government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi regularly claim major victories against one another in the north while little changes on the ground. But what momentum there is lies with Saudi-backed forces, which have gradually gained territory since late 2016. They have made the most progress in Al-Buqaa, where they have come within 10km of Kitaf, until 2013 the site of a local outpost of Dar al-Hadith, a Salafi religious institute whose members were forced out of Saada by the Huthis in 2014. Some of those fighting the Huthis on the border, and in Hajja and Al-Jawf, are former Dar al-Hadith students. Others come from tribal and military networks affiliated with Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist political party. Although these are not the only forces arrayed against the Huthis along the northern border, their presence has led the Huthis to paint these battles as a sectarian campaign sponsored by Saudi Arabia.
The Huthis are also defending their home turf that holds meaning for all sides: the Hadi government sees military success in Saada as a way to demoralise the Huthis if they manage to “raise the Yemeni flag in Marran”, as President Hadi has said his forces intend to do. Marran is the Huthi family’s hometown, where government forces killed the movement’s first leader, Hussein al-Huthi, in 2004. If the Hadi government is serious, then it is willing to fight in Saada for a long time to come. For its part, Saudi Arabia says it is trying to defend its border from Huthi encroachment, and restore the authority of the Yemeni government in the north.
Bottom Line: If the Stockholm Agreement brokered in December succeeds in preventing a fight for Hodeida, diplomats hope that a broader political process on the country’s future will soon follow. But fighting in the north could undermine that outcome, as both sides see control of the Saudi-Yemeni border as important leverage. De-escalating violence along the border should therefore be a medium-term priority for the UN and international actors. In the longer term, the Huthis, Saudi Arabia and government of Yemen will need to negotiate a lasting security agreement on the border as part of wider political talks.