Almasdar investigates the military and armed forces in Yemen in 2020
Parallel militaries: Anatomy of the armed forces fighting Yemen’s war
Rare in Yemen’s modern history is the existence of a single, unified military. And when it happened, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh went to work building a parallel military with the Republican Guard to consolidate his family’s power, setting the stage for future conflicts to come. There are currently several actors in Yemen’s political conflict, each establishing and commanding armed units outside of the official military.
Following the September 1962 Revolution, members of armed groups that fought Yemen’s autocratic imamate regime to establish a republic, calling themselves the Free Officers, formed Yemen’s first modern military with the help and support of the Egyptian armed forces. South Yemen established its own military during the October Revolution, between 1963-67, on the ruins of the Union Army, which served under British colonial rule. The new southern military was supported by the Soviet Union until its collapse, which was followed shortly by unification of North and South Yemen into one country in 1990.
Ambitions to build a strong, unified and professional military were no match for conflicting interests and political differences in the years following unification, leading ultimately to a civil war between the North and South in 1994. Ali Salem Al-Beidh, the southern leader who became Vice President of the unified Republic of Yemen under President Ali Abdullah Saleh, chose to declare independence and the war ended with Al-Beidh’s defeat and the reaffirmation of unity. But it came at a great price. Military units that supported secession were punished. Thousands of southern soldiers were dismissed from their posts, and the rest were marginalized within the unified military.
In 2004, war broke out between the central state in Sana’a and Yemen’s Houthi rebels, located in Saada governorate. The war marked a turning point in the history of the Yemeni military. President Saleh had already begun building a parallel military in 1998 under the leadership of his eldest son Ahmed, naming the new branch the Republican Guard. The Republican Guard monopolized military resources at the expense of the rest of the military, which Saleh neglected, therefore consolidating the country’s military might under his family’s control and weakening the integrity of the national forces as a unified institution.
The first war began on June 18, 2004 after three soldiers were killed in limited confrontations between the local authorities in Saada and supporters of the Houthi movement. The battles raged until September 10, 2004, when government forces led by General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, the current vice president of the Hadi-led government, managed to reach the site of the Houthi movement’s founder, Hussein Al-Houthi, killing him and a number of his supporters. Following the Houthi leader’s death, the government announced a cessation of the fighting.
The killing of Al-Houthi was not the end of the government’s conflict with the Houthis. Six rounds of war followed between 2004 and 2010. The First Armored Division, led by Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, assumed a major role in Yemen’s fight against the Houthis during these wars. Military officers accused Saleh of colluding with the Houthis during the six rounds in order to weaken the national military and eliminate many of its leaders, whom he considered potential rivals to his son Ahmed and the Republican Guard.
The determination of Saleh and his son to build a family-led military to parallel and dominate the state’s armed forces raised alarms among the country’s leaders, including senior officers in the army. These concerns helped fuel the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, during which Ali Mohsen and other political and military officials defected from the government and joined the protestors.
Restructuring the military: Hadi’s most difficult challenge
The Arab Spring led to Saleh stepping down from power after 33 years as Yemen’s leader. In February 2012, a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) established Saleh’s vice president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, as Yemen’s transitional leader for two years to give the country time to reform its institutions, pass a new constitution and prepare for elections. The restructuring of the military was an important demand of the youth in Sana’a’s Change Square and a main priority of President Hadi, who saw ending the divisions within the military and establishing one unified entity as urgent and necessary. In April 2012, Hadi started the restructuring process by forming teams to study proposals for restructuring. In December 2012, the new president issued a number of decrees to restructure the national forces, dismantle what remained of Saleh’s network and put the military firmly under the control of the Ministry of Defense.
Yemen’s Military Regions (Almasdar Online)
The decrees dismantled Ahmed Saleh’s elite Republican Guard and Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar’s First Armored Division, the country’s largest military unit, and ordered the reorganization of the military regions.
The most important decrees removed Saleh’s family patronage network from the military, appointed Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar an advisor to Hadi for defense and security affairs and delegated Ahmed Saleh as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. Air Force Commander Muhammad Saleh Al-Ahmar was appointed assistant to the Minister of Defense, while Saleh’s nephews were divided between two military attachés and brigade leaders.
The process of restructuring the military and raising its professional standards was a focus of one of the working groups of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), which acted as a forum to resolve the country’s political divisions following the uprisings. Yemen’s Houthis took part in the conference but were displeased with the NDC’s outcomes. The group exploited the divided military and Hadi’s unpopularity, staging a coup and successfully taking over the capital in September 2014.
While the country made progress with the restructuring of the military and looked forward to moving beyond the conflicts of the past, the Houthis began their expansion from Saada towards the governorates of Hajjah, Al-Jawf and Amran. In mid-2014, they engaged in a decisive battle with the forces of the 310th Brigade in Amran, which was commanded by Brigadier General Hamid Al-Qushaibi, one of the country’s most prominent military figures. Al-Qushaibi was known for his close association with General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, who by then had been removed from his post as head of the First Armored Division and was acting as an advisor to the president for defense and security affairs.
After a four-month battle, the Houthis managed to storm the city of Amran and the 310th Brigade, gleefully posting photos of Al-Qushaibi’s chair riddled with bullets, sending a message to other officials. The killing of Al-Qushaibi was a severe blow to the government in its confrontation with the Houthis.
Controversy arose at the time regarding the role of Hadi’s defense minister, Muhammad Nasser Ahmed, who was accused of collusion. Those in the military who remained loyal to Saleh were a decisive factor in neutralizing any military effort to join the fight and save the 310th Brigade. Other units played an ineffective role in the Hamdan area on the outskirts of Amran.
During the battle of Amran, Lieutenant General Muhammad Al-Maqdashi – current minister of defense in President Hadi's government since 2018 - was commander of the Sixth Military region. The 310th Brigade was part of the Sixth Military Region.
Almasdar Online’s editor asked Al-Maqdashi why the Houthis were not confronted decisively by the country’s military at the time.
“Some people considered it a conflict between the Houthis and the tribes. In Amran, they would say it is just a battle between the Islah party and the Houthis,” Al-Maqdashi said, explaining that there were those within the military who did not consider it a conflict that involved the military. “And the Houthis dominated and were able to take over the country.”
Al-Maqdashi says he told the minister of defense at the time, Muhammad Nasser Ahmad, that even if this was a conflict between the Houthis and Islah, the military still needed to intervene and not wait around while soldiers were being killed.
"We were already starting to mobilize forces, but unfortunately, the armed forces in general did not cooperate because there were people who had unfortunate ideas and are now expelled from history," Al-Magdashi added.
Three months later, after light confrontations with the remaining forces of the former First Armored Division, the Houthis managed to take over the capital. The UN peace envoy brokered a deal between the government and the Houthis the day after, signing the Peace and Partnership Agreement on September 22, 2014.
Major General Mohsen Khusrouf, the former head of the Moral Guidance Department, a division inside the military mostly dedicated to communications and morale, told Almasdar Online that the Houthis would not have been able to invade Sana’a without the cooperation of the Republican Guard. While the Republican Guard had technically been ordered to be dismantled through presidential decrees, there still remained factions loyal to Saleh and under the direction of the former president and his sons.
After the signing of the Peace and Partnership Agreement, the Houthis requested that President Hadi integrate about 40,000 of their fighters into the military and appoint one of his men, Zakaria Al-Shami, deputy chief of staff.
The shape of the Yemeni military today
After the Houthi takeover of Sanaa in September 2014, they advanced toward Aden, Taiz and Marib with the help of forces loyal to Saleh.
In Marib, the popular resistance, in alliance with the Third Military Region, which oversees military operations in Marib and Shabwa, and the armed Brigades in Marib, led an offensive against the Houthis. These brigades included the 14th Armored Brigade, led by Brigadier General Mohsen Al-Da'ari, and the 312th Brigade led by Brigadier General Abd Al-Rab Al-Shaddadi, as well as the 107th Brigade led by Brigadier General Khaled Yaslam. Support for these units increased following the intervention of the Saudi-led Arab coalition on March 26, 2015.
In Taiz, a group of popular forces and military brigades, the main one being the 35th Brigade, withstood advances by the Houthi-Saleh forces by forming a wall in the city.
Other military leaders were later captured while inspecting the forces of the Fourth Military Region. Ali Nasser Hadi, who was the head of the 4th Military Region, was killed while fighting in Al-Tawahi, a neighborhood in Aden, while military units and citizens kept up the fight until May 2015, when the coalition intervention changed the equation in Aden.
The army formed a number of brigades throughout southern governorates, including the 141st Brigade led by Brigadier General Hashem al-Ahmar, the 314th Brigade, the 21st Mechanized Brigade, the 25th Brigade and the 101st Infantry Brigade. The military brigades in Hadhramaut and Al-Mahra governorates did not participate in the war, according to Al-Maqdashi, who had been appointed chief of staff of the military in May 2015, before being appointed defense minister in 2018.
The Hadi-led government started formally setting up a framework for rebuilding the military, and Major General Abd Al-Rab Al-Shaddadi was appointed as commander of the Third Region in April 2015. Ali Mohsen was appointed deputy supreme commander of the armed forces.
In July 2015, President Hadi met with the National Defense Council for the first time since the Houthi coup and decided to incorporate the popular resistance that arose to fight the Houthis into the military, Al-Magdashi said.
"The brigades of the Third Region and other areas existed, but it was emptied of manpower, so we had to reinforce some units with elements of the popular resistance in the southern governorates, Marib and Al-Jawf, after undergoing training,” Al-Magdashi added.
The First and Second Military Regions in Hadramout were unchanged during the rebuilding of Hadi’s military. However, the Seventh Military Region, in Marib, expanded its area of operations towards the Nihm mountains near the capital Sana’a. The Fifth Military Region formed inside the Saudi border city of Samtah and then moved to Haradh and Midi in Hajjah governorate on the Red Sea coast. The remaining military regions were unchanged from the previous military structure, according to the Minister of Defense.
Additional units were formed that were not based on the previous military structure, due to urgent needs, and these units are under the command of the chief of staff, according to a Brigadier General who works in the Operations Department of the National Military.
According to the defense minister, there are approximately 320,000 members of the military in the Hadi-led government. The Fourth Military Region (Aden - Taiz - Lahj - Abyan – Al Dhale) is the most populous, as it represents 56 percent of the military’s forces, according to information obtained by Almasdar Online from an informed military source who was not authorized to speak with the press. The Third Military Region is the second most populous of military forces with 13.8 percent, with the Second Military Region containing 9.5 percent of the country’s military forces. The Seventh Military Region contains 6.3 percent of military forces, followed by First, Sixth and Fifth Military Regions. The country’s army reserve comprises 1.8 percent of military forces.
Those military regions with fewer numbers of military forces face more confrontations with the Houthis than more heavily populated regions. The source specifically mentioned these regions as the Seventh, Sixth, Fifth and parts of the Third and Fourth Military Regions.
Al-Magdashi outlined the obstacles facing the restructuring of the military during an ongoing war, telling Almasdar Online there was not enough training periods and professionally qualified forces.
“We started building the military .... but the battles, as it is said, ‘eat everything,’ and we could not train and qualify in the manner that was required. At the beginning, the training and qualification were strong, but the need for manpower is urgent due to the ferocity of the war and the expansion of the range of operations."
The military and the popular resistance made large advances along the war’s frontlines in 2015 and 2016, defeating the Houthis from the outskirts of the city of Marib to the mountains of Serwah district in the west, 40 km from Marib City, the outskirts of Al-Baydha to the south, and the liberation of Shabwa governorate, while the Seventh Military Region advanced to control large areas and ascend the Nihm Mountains to the east. Houthi supplies were cut off towards Al-Jawf governorate, and the Sixth Military Region forces advanced to regain control of the city of Al-Hazm, the center of Al-Jawf governorate. It advanced on other districts, reaching Al-Mutoon and Al-Masloub, north of the capital of Al-Jawf.
The emerging military exhausted the available stock of weapons available in the Third Region in Marib and some camps in the First Region. The Saudi-led coalition began providing logistical support, infantry, weapons and ammunition to the forces and some heavy artillery controlled by the Saudis themselves, as well providing air support.
According to three high-ranking officers in the military who talked to Almasdar Online, the Yemeni government was unable to make new arms deals because the Saudi-led coalition procured and distributed the arms. “The Yemeni military now has weapons, but it does not have the appropriate ammunition or spare parts. The Yemeni military is mostly armed with Russian weaponry and ammunition, while Saudi military equipment is largely American, French and British,” one officer added.
The Houthis seized large stocks of weaponry that former President Saleh had stored in the capital, including the most modern of Yemen’s military equipment that he had hoarded for the Republican Guard and Special Forces, according to a colonel who worked in the Arms Department of the Ministry of Defense for 15 years.
“The stockpile included modern T72, T80, tanks BTR08 and BMB tanks”, he added.
In mid-2017, tensions came to a head amongst the coalition, between the UAE and the Saudi-supported Hadi-led government and its local allies. This conflict was reflected in the Yemeni military, and led to a stalemate for more than two years. This respite in the fighting allowed the Houthis to rearrange their ranks, strategically plan future battles armed with effective Iranian logistical and technical support, according to a source working in the defence ministry. The Houthis were able to recapture the Nihm Mountains front near Sana’a and important parts of Al-Jawf governorate in early 2020.
The most prominent leaders of the Hadi-led government’s military are Minister of Defense Al-Maqdashi, who rose up the military beginning in the 1980s, and Chief of Staff Brigadier Saghir Bin Aziz, who joined the military in the 1980s and entered Parliament. He is still a member of the GPC Party, and fought battles against the Houthis in his area, Harf Sufyan in Amran, in 2010.
The most prominent central command of the military are: Major General Ahmed Al-Wali, who leads the Logistical Support Authority, Major General Nasser Al-Thaibany, who leads the Military Operations Authority, Major General Ahmed Al-Yafei, who leads the Militrary Intelligence Authority, Major General Ahmed Al-Marzouqi, who leads the Manpower Authority, and Major General Muhammad Al-Radfani, who leads the training staff.
The First Military Region, Sayun Hadramout, is commanded by Major General Saleh Tumais, the Second Region, Sahel Hadramout and al-Mahra, is commanded by Major General Faraj al-Bahsani, who is also the Governor of Hadramout. Major General Mansour Thawabah leads the Third Military Region, Marib and Shabwa.
Major General Fadl Hassan leads the Fourth Region (Aden - Taiz - Lahj - Abyan - Al-Dhale). The Fifth Region, which is currently stationed in Midi in Hajjah on the Red Sea, is led by Major General Yahya Salah, and the Sixth Region is commanded by Major General Amin Al-Waili. The Seventh Region, which is connected to the outskirts of Sana'a Governorate, is led by Major General Ahmed Hassan Jubran,
The military has lost many of its most reknown leaders during the war, most notably Major General Abd al-Rab Al-Shaddadi, who was in command of the Third Region, Major General Ahmed Al-Yafei, who was in command of the Fourth Region, Major General Saleh Al-Zandani, deputy chief of staff, Major General Muhammad Saleh Tammah, head of the Intelligence Authority, and a number of military brigade commanders.
According to the minister, the military faces financial difficulties because of the obstacles facing the Yemeni government, including the end of gas exports, the large reduction of oil exports, the instability of the government and its obligations in the governorates and towards the work sectors, amongst other issues.
Since the Houthis began their attack on Amran in 2014, they called their forces the Popular Committees. After their takeover of the capital, the forces were then referred to as the Military and the Popular Committees. After Hadi fled Sana’a following the Houthi takeover, the Houthis maintained the military institution that had in place. But do the Houthis actually run a professional military?
It is extremely difficult to obtain information about the composition of Houthis forces. However, an official in the Military Manpower Authority, government soldiers largely left and joined the ranks of the Hadi-led government. Some forces left Yemen altogether. The Houthis security apparatus imposes its authority over all those within its ranks, monitoring them closely to ensure confidentiality of the group’s movements and information. And despite the dozens of requests for comment that the editor made to military officers who remain in Sana'a, and whom the Houthis use as public faces of the military, no responses were provided.
The Houthis maintained the façade of having a professional military in the structure of the one Hadi had led during his time in Sana’a, in order to intimidate their opponents with their size, discipline the experienced professionals who remained in Sana’a.
Saleh's alliance with the Houthis had kept a group of officers loyal to him in the military command, but they were without any actual power or decision-making capabilities, and after the disintegration of the alliance, most fled. The Houthis removed any of the remaining officers whose loyalties they doubted.
In 2017, the Houthis appointed their most prominent commanders as commanders of the military regions, and pushed them to the forefront, and rearranged the range of operations according to their own vision. It did not completely adhere to the division that was approved by the restructuring decrees in 2012.
For example, the Fifth Region, Hudaydah and Hajjah, remained as it was and the Houthis appointed Yusef Al-Madani as its leader. They appointed Abdu Al-Latif Al-Mahdi as commander of the Central Region according to the old division, and under his leadership it included the Seventh and Fourth regions in south and central Yemen. They also re-named the Central Region in Sanaa and its suburbs and appointed Abdul-Khaliq Al-Houthi, the brother of the group leader, as its leader. He was also appointed leader of the Republican Guard, mostly made up of former Republican Guard forces, which were led by Saleh's son, as well as the special forces that were led by Tariq Saleh. They also kept the Sixth Region, Al-Jawf, Amman, and Saada according to the structure's division and appointed Jamil Zar'a as its commander.
All of the military leadership positions are now occupied by Houthis. Former military forces who want to join their ranks must undergo cultural and religious courses, regardless of their rank, according to a number of officers in Sanaa who spoke to Almasdar Online.
The sources estimated that 80 percent of the military members who chose to remain in Houthi-controlled areas after they were taken over have preferred to remain in their homes without any salaries during the fifth year of the war. The Houthis pay salaries of 25,000 Yemeni Riyals (about $31) per month.
The Houthis focus on forming an ideological army of youth, recruiting from neighborhoods and schools, and providing them with religious, cultural and political propaganda. They also use intimidation and coercion to recruit. Every family with adolescent boys is pressured to enroll them in the military, or face threats of imprisonment and accusations of treason.
According to two military sources working in the Houthi-run military in Sana’a , the number of actual Houthi forces is close to 200,000, of whom 130,000 have been recruited since the beginning of the Saudi-led intervention.
The Houthis have secretive military units, about which nearly nothing is known. They are called the Special Ansar Allah Brigades. According to documents obtained by Almasdar Online, among the most prominent of the brigades are Al-Hadi Brigade, Al-Qasim Brigade, Imam Zaid Brigade and Al-Ayani Brigade, as well as Nasr 1, Nasr 2, Nasr 3 and Nasr 4 Brigades.
Elite Houthi forces known as the Special Forces also exist. They are reportedly chosen directly by the Houthi’s leader, Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi, and directly commanded by him. They are only mentioned in Houthi media when its leaders are killed, in order to commemorate them.
These forces, as per the sources, include the group’s best fighters and are subject to an intensified religious training and education program. According to the documents obtained by Almasdar Online, these forces include about 3,500 to 5,000 fighters, called the Elite of the Mujahideen, and they carry out special operations on the fronts.
When President Hadi fled Sana’a, he took the Presidential Protection Brigades with him. The Houthis also established several brigades called the Presidential Protection Brigades in Sana'a, affiliated with Abdul-Khaliq Al-Houthi. The deputy head of the group’s executive office also disclosed the name Support Brigades when he paid condolences in the killing of one of its leaders, marking the first time they had been mentioned publicly.
Additionally, the Houthis have formed brigades under the commands of sheikhs and other notable figures capable of mobilizing large support, such as Al-Mahwit Brigade, which is supervised by the tribal leader Hanin Qattinah, the Wahbi Brigade in Al-Baydha, and the Shaheri Brigade in Ibb.
In 2015, the Houthis tried to use ballistic missiles they had seized from the Yemeni military. The missiles had been in the military’s possession for decades, and either failed to properly launch when tested or were intercepted by the coalition’s patriot missile defense systems, a military officer in the defense ministry in Marib told Almasdar Online.
Toward the end of 2016, the Houthis announced the development of Qaher-1 missile from the Russian Sam-2 missile. It has a range of 250 kilometers. Each year since, the Houthis have developed new ballistic missiles and drones, with the help of Iranian and Hezbollah support.
Parallel Forces of the Military:
Parallel to the process of rebuilding the military by the chief of staff, with logistical support from the Arab coalition, the coalition forces themselves were building parallel forces of popular resistance units. These units were not formally part of the military but are controlled by the Saudis and Emiratis financially and administratively. The leaders of these new units were chosen from Salafi leaders and tribal sheiks.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have established nearly 60 new units, brigades and battalions, within the past five years, according to an official who works on this file in the presidential office. The brigades and units that Saudi Arabia supervises are limited to those along their border with Yemen, especially the areas bordering the governorates of Saada and Al-Jawf.
The forces established by the UAE are concentrated in southern governorates. They were established starting in mid-2015 as independent units. These UAE-funded and trained forces participated in liberating Aden from the Houthis.
These units were initially placed under the umbrella of Southern Resistance, but soon many were organized under a new name, the Security Belt Forces. The UAE established the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and it served as a political umbrella organization. These forces, under the leadership of the STC, became the Logistics and Support Forces.
In April 2016, the UAE oversaw the liberation of the coastal city of Mukalla, the capital of the Hadramout governorate, from the control of Al-Qaeda.
The UAE immediately began building a new unit, the Hadrami Elite Forces, which it still runs from Al-Rayyan airport. They are formally part of the military but are led by the UAE.
A few months after the liberation of Mukalla, the UAE established the Shabwani Elite Forces in neighboring Shabwa governorate, with the aim of tracking al-Qaeda terrorists.
All of these forces in Aden, Shabwa and Hadramout are under the umbrella of the STC. With the exception of the Hadhrami elite, all were part of the rebellion against the Hadi-led government in August 2019, which led to the government’s expulsion from Aden. The sides came together and signed the Riyadh Agreement in November 2019, which seeks to form a power-sharing government between the quarreling anti-Houthi allies..
The UAE also formed a number of combat brigades in 2016 and 2017 called the Giants Forces, consisting of tribesmen and Salafists from Al-Dhale, Lahj, Aden and Hodeidah. They were sent to the western coast and Bab Al-Mandab.
At the beginning of 2018, Tariq Saleh fled to Aden after his defeat and the killing of his uncle, former President Saleh, by the Houthis in Sana’a.
Emirati forces received him in Aden and provided him with the support to build new forces and join the battle against the Houthis. After four months, Tariq’s forces were transferred from Aden to Mocha to join the operations that were taking place to liberate Hodeidah. He has not recognized the legitimacy of President Hadi, and remains backed by the UAE.
In July 2019, the UAE merged the forces fighting on the western coast under the name Joint Forces. These included the Republican Forces, the Giants Forces and the Tuhami Resistance.
According to sources in the Presidential Office unauthorized to speak with the press, some of these brigades and formations, whether in the STC or the Giants, or those on the Saudi-Yemeni border, were established under the orders of President Hadi, but are not formally part of the military. They are instead under the command of the Emiratis.
Defense Minister Magdashi said that while it was up to the president and political leadership to decide what to do about these units that exist outside the military, as long as they are not integrated, “they are considered a militia.”
Parallel forces of the Yemeni military and their branches:
Infographics: Military and Armed Groups in Yemen (Almasdar Online)
1- The joint forces in the West Coast
The combined forces on the west coast consist of three main branches, The Republican Forces, the Southern Giants and the Tuhami Resistance. The most prominent leader of these branches is Major General Haitham Qasim Taher, the former Minister of Defense, who plays a symbolic supervisory role with Emirati support. As a popular figure, the Emiratis have been able to use him as the face of their operations, though they manage all events on the ground.
A. Republican Forces
These forces were formed after the Houthis tightened their grip on Sana'a and killed their ally, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in December 2017. The Republican Forces are led by Brigadier General Tariq Saleh, and its structure is similar to the former Republican Guard. Its establishment was announced in April 2018, under Emirati supervision and support, and the command center is located in the coastal city of Mocha, Taiz governorate.
The Republican Forces consist of ten brigades, nearly a third of them from the former Republican Guard forces. Another brigade under Tariq Saleh’s control includes Salafi groups that left the city of Taiz two years ago, called the Tenth Brigade Republican Forces, and is led by Colonel Adel Abdo Farea (Abu Al-Abbas), who is on the US terror list along with his deputy, Adel Al-Ezzi.
The total number is 32,000 personal, according to a document obtained by Almasdar Online, and one of the most prominent commanders of these forces, next to Tariq Saleh, is Brigadier General Sadiq Dowayd, a military spokesman, considered the second man in command.
Tariq and his forces left Sana'a without any equipment or weapons. Even their military uniforms were left behind. The UAE turned it into the most advanced military unit on the western coast. It has hundreds of modern vehicles, dozens of armored vehicles, in addition to transport and support equipment, and heavy weapons such as cannons, tanks and rocket launchers, as well as drones, naval boats equipped with guns, and modern military communications units, according to a commander close to Tariq.
B. Southern Giants:
The Southern Giants are military units that were created between 2016 and 2019, and emerged from the Southern Resistance in Aden, Lahj and Abyan, and are led by Brigadier General Abu Zar’a Abd al-Rahman Al-Muharrami Al-Yafei. They emerged as an effective force during the Golden Spear battle, which began in January 2017, to liberate the west coast overlooking the Red Sea, from the grip of the Houthis, with the support of the coalition and the UAE in particular.
It has a command center in the city of Mocha within the Joint Forces and a main headquarters in Aden, and consists of 12 brigades. Most of its fighters are from Salafi groups and members of tribes in the governorates of Lahj, Al Dhale and Hodeidah governorate. It has 22,000 fighters, according to documents received by Almasdar Online.
These forces are currently stationed in Hodeidah, and have played a prominent role in the battles that liberated the west coast since the beginning of 2017 and the battles to liberate the city of Hodeidah in the second half of 2018 before the fighting at the entrances to the city was stopped by the Stockholm Agreement. The military leadership of these brigades acknowledged the legitimacy of President Hadi, and are in communication with him.
The most prominent of its leaders, other than Commander-in-Chief Abu Zaraa Al-Mahrami, are Brigadier General Ali Salem Al-Jasni, who succeeded Al-Mahrami temporarily for several months in command of these forces in 2019, and Brigadier Hamdi Shukri, who leads the Second Brigade Giants and is one of the most prominent and effective leaders. Shukri has the support of his tribe, Al-Subbayha, and has a greater number of fighters compared to the other Giants brigades. Brigadier General Raed Al-Habhee is the commander of the First Giants Brigade.
Some brigades and units of the Giants move outside the range of operations in the city of Hodeidah, under the directives of the Emiratis through the Joint Forces.
These forces have less equipment compared to the Republican Forces and the STC, and their weapons are limited to hundreds of armed military vehicles, and dozens of modern armored vehicles provided by the UAE, in addition to transportation, medical evacuation equipment and some heavy weapons such as artillery and rocket launchers.
C. Tihami Resistance:
They are forces whose members are residents of Hodeidah governorate, and they are made up of young people and citizens who reject the Houthis and their control over the governorate. The Tuhami Resistance consists of four brigades. The most important of these is the First Brigade Tuhami Resistance led by Colonel Ahmed Al-Kawkabani and the Second Brigade Tuhami Resistance led by Abdul Rahman Hajari. Each has approximately 7000 fighters. They are considered the least armed and organized among the Joint Forces present on the western coast of Yemen, and their leaders are constantly being attracted by the leader of Republican Forces, Tariq Saleh.
2- Southern Transitional Council forces
The Southern Transitional Council (STC), which was established with the support of the United Arab Emirates in May 2017 as a political and military bearer of the Emirati influence in the southern governorates, inherited the entirety of the military forces established by the UAE in Aden and other southern governorates. These forces formed the strong arm of the Emirates in the south, which carried out the August 2019 coup on President Hadi's government in Aden and in other cities.
Before the government forces were able to shift the battle in their favor and expel the STC and the Emiratis from Shabwa and Abyan governorates, Emirati fighters decisively intervened with several raids on government military forces at Al-Alam checkpoint at the entrance to the city of Aden, leaving more than 300 Yemeni soldiers and officers dead and injured, forcing the government military to retreat to the outskirts of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan governorate, until the present.
The units associated with the STC and the Emirates include the Logistics and Support Brigades, the Security Belt Forces, the Shabwani Elite, the Hadhrami Elite and the Elite Brigade in Socotra. These units include in their entirety about 30 brigades and military and security units spread out in the southern governorates, except for Shabwa and Al-Mahrah, and they are under the command of the UAE. According to a high ranking official in the Intelligent Authority in Aden, those forces include about 90,000 personnel. Although the UAE announced its withdrawal from Yemen in July 2019, it is still operating these forces through officers in command centers in Mukalla, Aden, Balhaf, and Mocha on the west coast.
Southern Transitional forces consist of:
A. Security Belt Forces
The Security Belt Forces were established in late 2015 and early 2016 with the support of the UAE and are spread across the governorates of Aden, Lahj, Al Dhale and Abyan.
At the beginning of its establishment, its purpose was to conduct security operations in Aden, Lahj, Dhale and Abyan. Its members were distributed according to their geographic origins, with Abyanis in Abyan, and so on.
Over the years, as the funding increasingly went to the Security Belt Forces, its influence expanded in the four governorates as the performance of the official police declined. Following the August 2019 confrontations between the STC and government forces, the Security Belt Forces took full control of security in these governorates.
They have in their possession vehicles, armored vehicles and medium weaponry, which they obtained from the UAE, in addition to mobile armed vehicles and artillery, and tanks they seized from government forces' camps, according to a security official who worked in Aden’s Ministry of Interior.
Among the most prominent commanders of these forces are the General Supervisor of the Security Belt Forces, Abdullah Abu Arab, Brigadier General Jalal Al-Rubaie, who is Commander of the Security Belt Forces in Aden, Brigadier General Waddah Omar Abdel Aziz in Lahj, Brigadier General Ahmed Qaied Al-Qubbah in Al-Dhale, Abd Al-Latif Al-Sayed in Abyan, and Imam Al-Nubi in Camp 20 in Aden.
The Salafi Sheikh Abdul Rahman Sheikh is supervisor of military and security forces that are funded by the UAE, and he is a member of the Presidency of the STC and a member of its negotiating delegation in Riyadh. The source in the Yemeni Ministry of Interior emphasized that Sheikh is a very important and mysterious figure who maintains an extremely low profile, despite his various roles.
B. Logistics and Support Forces
These forces are considered a military wing of the Southern Transitional Council, supported by the UAE in the southern governorates of the country, and allegedly have partially participated in battles against Al-Qaeda in Abyan governorate. The military arm is led by the Salafi preacher Brigadier General Mohsen Al-Wali and his deputy Brigadier General Nabil Al-Mashoushi, as well as the head of operations Colonel Awadh Al-Saadi.
These Forces have received great support from the Emirates, including dozens of armored vehicles, vehicles, cannons, medium weapons, and a number of tanks, as well as military equipment and weapons from army camps in Aden.
According to official documents obtained by Almasdar Online, it consists of five main brigades in addition to 14 brigades under the names of the Thunder Brigades (Sa'iqa) and the Southern Resistance Brigades. There are two brigades called the Storm Brigades, (Asifah) established by Aydaroos Al-Zubaidi at the end of the 2019 and 2020.
The main leaders of the Logistics and Support Forces are Brigadier General Nasr Bin Atef, commander of the First Brigade, Brigadier General Nabil Al-Hanashi commander of the Second Brigade, Brigadier General Nabil Al-Mashoushi, commander of the Third Brigade, Brigadier General Haddar Al-Shuhti, commander of the Fourth Brigade, and Brigadier Mukhtar Al-Nubi, commander of the Fourth Brigade.
The Thunder Brigades consists of fourteen brigades. One of those brigades is led by Muhammad Qasim Al-Zubaidi, brother of the head of the STC, Aydaroos Al-Zubaidi. Another brigade is led by a brigadier who is a close associate of Major General Shallal Sha'i, the former security director of Aden. The STC also established units called the Facilities Protection Forces and the Anti-Terrorism Forces.
The Storm Forces are led by Awsan Al-Anashli, who is close to Aydaroos Al-Zubaidi, and their influence has increased over the past months in Aden.
These forces are also linked to Abdul Rahman Sheikh, the member of the Presidency of the Transitional Council and supervisor of the forces funded by the UAE.
C- Hadhrami Elite:
These forces are natives of Hadramout and are spread in the Sahel Hadhramaut regions. The Hadhrami Elite were established by the UAE in 2016 with the aim of expelling Al-Qaeda militants who took control of Mukalla in April 2015. Al-Qaeda withdrew as soon as the Hadhrami Elite started their operations in April 2016, leading to no military confrontations or casualties.
While the Hadhrami Elite Forces are formally in the Second Military Region, they are fully supervised by the UAE. Among its ranks are a large number of supporters of secession. This force plays a major role in securing the city.
The number of its members is estimated at 9,000 fighters, per the official payroll document seen by the editor. Their armament is similar to other forces that the UAE has established.
D. The Shabwani Elite:
They are forces formed on a tribal and regional basis, consisting of young recruits in Shabwa governorate. The UAE supervised its establishment in the second half of 2016, and expanded it to six brigades. Each brigade represents a major branch of the tribes in the governorate. They were deployed with the declared aim of fighting terrorism and have continued to spread and expand in the governorate, with the exception of parts of the city center of Ataq, and Bayhan District, in the west of the governorate, which was the scene of battles between the military and the axis of Ataq against the Houthis.
These elite forces moved in August 2019 to fully control Shabwa governorate after the STC managed to expel the government and the Presidential Protection Forces from Aden and stipulated the departure of the Shabwa’s governor, Mohammed Saleh Bin Adayo, and any soldiers from northern governorates. However, they were then defeated in a counterattack by Hadi-led military forces, which also defeated the STC forces that rushed to Shabwa from Aden to reinforce them.
A close associate of Shabwa’s governor estimated the force to have 7,000 fighters, and they have similar armament to the Hadhrami elite.
After the STC’s defeat, some of these Elite Forces moved to Aden, while others were incorporated into the government’s security forces, according to an earlier statement from Shabwa’s governor to Almasdar Online.
The Yemeni-Saudi border
At the end of September 2016, President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi directed the transfer of two military brigades, the Third Presidential Protection Brigade, led by Brigadier General Mahran Al-Qubati, and the Al-Mihdhar Brigade under the leadership of Bassam Al-Mihdar, from Aden to Saada on the border with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The President assigned Brigadier General Hashem Al-Sayed - a known Salafi leader - to command the force towards Al-Buqa and Kitaf in Saada governorate.
The battle to take Saada, the stronghold of the Houthis, began weeks later, starting from Al-Buqa. These forces made important progress, and soon another front was opened in the same governorate but in the district of Baqim and another in Aleb, which prompted Saudi Arabia to recruit and attract fighters from various Yemeni governorates. Confrontations broke out in most of the area.
According to a field commander in Sadaa, the Yemeni-Saudi border in the governorates of Saada and Al-Jawf, and the range of operations was divided by the Saudis into ten independent axes/fronts, including approximately 25 military brigades. These newly recruited brigades were unorganized and ineffective. Each brigade had about 700 to 1000 members.
The Saudis were mobilizing widely and luring fighters with money, drawing hundreds of forces from the Hadi-led military in Marib, Al-Jawf, Al-Baydha, and Nihm in Sana'a, who moved north after their salaries from the national military stopped. The battle fronts near Sana’a stagnated, with no decisive battles.
Despite their lack of training, these forces who fled to join the battles in the north are considered amongst the best armed forces. Its members have sufficient personal weapons in addition to direct support from the coalition fighters, including arial support and heavy weaponry from the Saudis.
While these forces are mercenaries and not affiliated with the Ministry of Defense, former Saudi coalition leader Prince Fahd Bin Turki Al Saud persuaded Hadi to sign the orders establishing these forces and arranged for Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar to visit the forces to boost morale and increase their legitimacy, according to the commander.
The most prominent axes, brigades and leaders at the Saudi border:
The most prominent axes are: the axis of Al-Buqa / the axis of Yatamah/ the axis of Ketaf / the axis of Malaheedh/ the axis of Shada / the axis of Razeh / the axis of the Aleb / the axis of Azal / the axis of al-Safra/ the axis of Al-Rabou’ah.
The forces are distributed on the border in terms of their composition, as the Salafis represent the most prominent bloc, followed by the sheikhs and tribal leaders loyal to Saudi Arabia.
Among the most prominent leaders on the border fronts are the tribal leader Obaid Al-Athalah, who resigned in 2019 after a dispute with Saudi officers, Major General Abdul Karim Al-Sed’ee, Brigadier Raddad Al-Hashemi, Brigadier General Yasser Al-Ma’bari, Brigadier General Abu Jabr Al-Ghunaimi and Brigadier General Yasser Maj. Most of these leaders were not involved with the military prior to the war.
These forces are managed directly by high-ranking Saudi officers and their supply comes from nearby Saudi forces. Following the battle of Wadi Abu Jabara, where the Houthis decisively defeated Al-Fateh’s brigade forces and killed and captured hundreds of his men, these forces have largely retreated over the past two years. There are no battles currently being waged there.
General assessment of these forces
Government forces control the largest territories and include the most important economic and geographic interests in the country. Their control of wide swaths of territory represents a challenge when it comes to defending the integrity of the territories they control. The government has vulnerabilities, namely warfare has prevented it from properly being able to regroup. The overall prognosis of the military appears solid, with some vulnerable areas and failures.
If the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement is successful, the government is able to operate from Aden, the conflict within the coalition is solved, government arms deals are allowed, and all parties unify to confront the Houthis, then it is expected that the military will regain momentum in the fighting and achieve successes. This is especially true since manpower and organizational cohesion are in good condition, as well as popular support, which despite severely criticism of the Hadi-led government and its failures, remains enthusiastic for the military’s fight against the Houthis.
As for the Houthis, they are in a better position than they have ever been, thanks to complete control over their forces and decision making, as well as overseeing the most densely populated territory, their technical and logistical support from Iran and Hezbollah and their ideological and religious mobilization and recruitment. Most importantly, the conflict amongst the coalition has given them the opportunity to regroup and reassess their strategic battlefield plans. They also maintain tight control over the areas they rule.
And yet, if all their opponents went to the fronts to confront the Houthis, we would see a repeat of what happened when the coalition first intervened between 2015 and 2016, when the Houthis lost control over a number of governorates and retreated to the outskirts of Sanaa.
The Houthis have ballistic missiles, drones, and thermal weapons, which the government does not possess.
As for the militias funded by the UAE in southern governorates, they are mostly composed on regional bases, and no longer have the ability to mobilize far and wide, or even have the incentive to fight for a cause other than secession.
Many of these units fought the Houthis fiercely, and if they were asked to do so again, it would be a challenge.
Tariq Saleh's forces are now an important component of the Houthi opponents. Even though he has not fought major battles with the Houthis as a result of the Stockholm Agreement, they are well prepared to mobilize. In fact, the UAE has increased its arms to the Republican Forces. These forces were given more arms by the UAE than provided to the southern groups. These arms include modern tanks, advanced French vehicles and advanced reconnaissance aircraft, jointly administered by the Emiratis and members of Saleh’s forces.
With regard to the Saudi border, fighters will continue to leave and return to the interior.
For decades, Yemen’s black markets have been flush with weaponry. Any private citizen is able to buy a rifle that may well have been used already by multiple parties to the current war or previous conflicts. However, modern technology such as missiles and drones provided to the Houthis by the Iranians and air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition have fundamentally changed the calculus of the war.
* Please credit any material taken from this report to Almasdar Online