Middle East

Yemen war: Does capture of air base mark a turning point?

Fighters loyal to Yemen's President Hadi near the al-Anad air base Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The retaking of al-Anad is a strategic boost to Yemeni government forces

The retaking of a key air base to the north of the southern city of Aden is a major strategic victory for the Yemeni government in its fight against the Houthi-led insurgency.

The al-Anad air base is important for a number of reasons, and if secured in the long run will provide an important logistical staging post for rearmament and resupply for pro-government forces pushing north towards the cities of Taiz and Ibb, as well as supporting operations toward the south-western coastline.

Secondly it controls the main road into Aden, preventing the Houthis from pushing south back towards the city.

Although it cannot be said with any certainty that these gains can be held, the taking of the base signifies an important victory for Yemeni President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi, and in particular his Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC ) backers who have been bogged down in a messy war which has lasted considerably longer than had been anticipated, and triggered a humanitarian catastrophe in the country.

Central to Western interests, al-Anad is extremely important for operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the most active regional branches of the militant group.

It was a badly kept secret that much of the US drone programme that targeted al-Qaeda operatives in the south of the country was based out of al-Anad.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Al-Anad's fall comes soon after the retaking of the southern city of Aden

As the Houthis moved south, one of the most worrying developments was the abandonment of the base in March by US Special Forces operating there.

The recapture of the base and the surrounding areas will ensure that a long-term counter terror presence can be maintained, particularly around the towns of Lahj and Zinjibar where AQAP and even Islamic State operatives are known to be present.

Airpower is, of course, not the only reason for success in al-Anad, and it is important to note that command and control of the assorted pro-Hadi forces, which had performed so badly earlier in the year, has markedly increased.

The city of Aden was secured by loyalist forces in July. Although the Houthis insist they still hold areas of the town, it has largely been outside of their control for the past two weeks.

The ragtag militias operating in Aden had been no match for the Houthis, so the progress made in recent weeks to push Houthi forces back from the city strongly indicates that a permanently deployed military assistance force has been on the ground for some weeks.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Houthis retain control of northern areas, including the capital Sanaa

Though it has been flatly denied by the Saudis that special forces are operating in and around Aden, there has been a dramatic shift in the fortunes of the fighters in the area.

According to the New York Times, an Emirati brigade landed in the port of Aden a few days ago, bringing with it heavy equipment, including tanks.

The Saudis remain tight-lipped, but the cat appears to be out the bag, and it can be confidently assumed that they have maintained some form of fighting force in Aden for at least the past two months.

This should not be altogether unsurprising. For a number of reasons, the Saudis cannot afford to lose in Yemen and have seen their military operation against the Houthis as a signal to Iran that it cannot throw its weight around at the Arabs' expense.

Two months ago the war was not going well, and the Saudis and Emiratis understood that they had to expend more if they were to see results swing in their favour.

As appears consistent with the second stage of Saudi military operations following the end of Operation Decisive Storm, ground forces loyal to the president (and by extension the GCC) appear to have been backed by close air support from coalition aircraft.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Yemen's exiled president has been fighting back with the support of the Saudis and their allies

Local forces have made gains in recent weeks because of this support, and clearly both the Emiratis and the Saudis were involved in the air and on the ground in the fight to retake al-Anad, although the extent of that support is likely to remain unknown.

This is not good news for the Houthis. With increasing pressure from Gulf military forces, and populations in the south of the country that range from ambivalent to deeply hostile, their days in control of the country's south and central heartlands appear numbered.

Whilst it is too early to say that this is the "El Alamein" moment of the Yemen war, it certainly solidifies a permanent GCC foothold in the south of the country that looks unlikely to be removed by force.

This means that at any peace table the government of President Hadi will have bargaining chips, and not be negotiating from a position of debilitating weakness.

Quite how the Houthis will react to this is unclear, but they have not been averse to the idea of talks in the past. But as with Syria, battle lines determine the space for negotiations.

The question will be whether they can prevent momentum in the conflict from rapidly swinging against them.

If they cannot, then it is unlikely President Hadi will seriously enter any discussions until the Houthis are pushed right back into their northern territories.

Michael Stephens is the Research Fellow for Middle East Studies and Head of Rusi Qatar. Follow him @MStephensGulf

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