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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Who are the Yemeni ground forces fighting in Hodeidah?

More than 20,000 Yemeni fighters are massing on Houthi-held Hodeidah, but who are they?

Yemeni pro-government forces flash the victory gesture as they arrive in Al Durayhimi district, about nine kilometres south of Hodeidah international airport on June 13, 2018.
Yemeni pro-government forces flash the victory gesture as they arrive in Al Durayhimi district, about nine kilometres south of Hodeidah international airport on June 13, 2018.

The assault on Yemen's Houthi-held port city of Hodeidah, observers believe, could tip the balance in a conflict which has largely been at a stalemate for the past three years. The Arab Coalition's offensive has about 25,000 Yemeni fighters advancing on the city, backed by thousands of its own troops, including about 1,500 from the UAE. They face as few as 1,000 Houthi fighters, but who exactly are the Arab coalition’s partners on the ground?

The Yemeni force has three components - one, a group of local tribal fighters, and the other two made up of largely of remnants of Yemen's armed forces

The Tihama Resistance take their name from the Red Sea coastal area in which Hodeidah lies. Many of the Tihama fighters have familial ties to Hodeidah itself, and several thousand are leading the advance on the city.

Analysts suggest the Tihama’s local knowledge of the terrain in and around Hodeidah could be decisive. Their personal connections to the population will gives them another advantage over the Houthis, who hail from Yemen’s heartlands. Battle hardened, the Tihama Resistance have led much of the frontline fighting in Yemen’s south in recent months.

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The Guardians of the Republic are what remain of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s Republican Guard and are led by his nephew, Tariq Saleh.

Mr Saleh and his men have become the public face of much of the Arab Coalition’s efforts in Yemen. They are are fiercely loyal to the former president, who was murdered by the Houthis in December. However, Mr Saleh has not explicitly pledged allegiance to Yemen’s exiled President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi.

The Guardians include personnel from the army's special forces and anti-terrorism brigades, which were disbanded immediately after the Houthi coup.

In April, it was reported that Mr Saleh and his officers had stripped themselves of their ranks in order to stand on an equal footing with their soldiers. They vowed not to restore ranks until Yemen was completely recaptured from the Houthis.

Based out of Mokha, a port almost 200 kilometres down the coast from Hodeidah, a recent report by the International Crisis Group noted that the Guardians are regarded as “the best trained and equipped of all the coalition-backed forces in Yemen”.

Mr Saleh, who was feared killed along with his uncle six months ago, has since risen to become one of the most important military leaders in the battle for Hodeidah.

The Al Amalikah brigades are a former elite unit of the Yemeni military, rebuilt with the help of the United Arab Emirates. These brigades are also fiercely loyal to former president Saleh, and hail from Aden, Lahj and the surrounding areas.

They were among the first units to receive Emirati support in 2015 and have since developed a reputation for reliability. Three Al Amalikah brigades have been assigned to lead the charge on urban Hodeidah, according to Yemeni military sources who spoke to Associated Press.

Together these three groups make up Yemen’s National Resistance Forces, and have driven many of the rapid gains against Houthi forces along the Red Sea coast in recent months. As they push into the city and port of Hodeidah, the Arab Coalition will be relying on their combination of local knowledge and battle experience.

AS the entry point for much of Yemen's food and humanitarian aid, the port has been a major revenue source for the Houthis. Coalition officials believe that recapturing the port could force the rebels to the negotiation table, bringing Yemen closer to a political settlement. If their plan succeeds, it will be due in no small part to the Yemeni groups’ heavy lifting in Hodeidah.