Yemeni president appoints veteran general to lead fight against Houthis
ADEN // Yemen’s president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi has appointed a former general with close ties to tribes around the capital Sanaa as the deputy supreme commander of the military.
The appointment on Monday of the politically powerful Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar, who has been based in Saudi Arabia since the Houthi rebel takeover of Sanaa in 2014, is a potentially important development in the country’s civil war.
Analysts said Mr Al Ahmar wields significant influence among tribal groups in and around Sanaa, as well as senior military figures he previously worked with.
The announcement of Mr Al Ahmar’s appointment comes as the Yemeni military, backed by the Saudi-led coalition, has advanced to within about 48 kilometres of Sanaa. Coalition air strikes have also increased in recent days, and analysts speculated that Mr Al Ahmar’s appointment was a precursor to operations to wrest the capital back from the Iran-backed rebels.
“This appointment came late ... but we can say that the liberation of Sanaa has started with the appointment of Al Ahmar,” said Fahdl Al Rabei, who runs the Madar Strategic Studies Center in Aden.
Mr Al Ahmar, a retired brigadier general, was a powerful military leader and close adviser to Abdullah Saleh during the former president’s 33-year reign. He helped lead military operations against the Houthis during the six wars that Mr Saleh’s government fought against the rebel movement.
Since then, however, allegiances have shifted dramatically. Mr Al Ahmar split with Mr Saleh after the so-called Friday of Dignity on 18 March, 2011 when the latter’s forces killed 45 young Yemenis protesting against the government during the Arab Spring.
Mr Al Ahmar’s First Armoured Division troops then played a key role in finally ousting Mr Saleh.
In 2013, Mr Hadi appointed Mr Al Ahmar as his military and security adviser after restructuring Yemen’s armed forces to try and dilute the power of commanders and units still loyal to the ousted Mr Saleh.
But with the breakdown of the GCC-brokered and UN-backed transition process in 2014, the northern Zaydi-Shiite Houthis allied with their former enemy, Mr Saleh, in a war for control of the country.
The joint rebel force captured the capital from Mr Al Ahmar’s forces in September of that year before advancing southward, seizing large parts of the country, including much of the second city of Aden. Mr Al Ahmar decamped to Saudi Arabia.
The rebels have managed to hold Sanaa despite a Saudi-led coalition of mostly Arab states launching an intervention last March. Forces loyal to Mr Hadi’s government — backed by the coalition in which the UAE plays a leading role — recaptured Aden from the rebels last July and have since pushed northward, retaking five southern provinces.
Farther north, where the Houthis and their allies have more tribal support and where their power base is located, has proven more difficult terrain, however.
Yemeni and coalition forces continue to battle Houthi-Saleh forces in Taez province, where the rebels have besieged large parts of the provincial capital, also called Taez. But the announcement of Mr Al Ahmar’s new role may be an indication that the military priority will shift to the more crucial task of retaking Sanaa.
Many observers had previously thought an all-out assault on the capital unlikely, given the rebels’ by now well dug-in positions and the likely high rate of civilian casualties.
Over the past week, pro-government forces have moved within about 48 kilometres of Sanaa after taking the town of Fardhat Nihm and a nearby military base from the rebels.
“The appointment of Al Ahmar is a clear indication that the battle of Sanaa will be before Taez or any other province, as Al Ahmar has most of his supporters in Sanaa, and he can bring forces in the northern provinces under one leadership,” Mr Al Rabei said.
Mr Al Ahmar’s clan leads the large Hashid tribal confederation in the country’s north, and his appointment may be a bid to win over tribesmen who have backed the rebels.
“The Houthis have been able to persuade some tribes to support them, and so these tribes sent many of their men to fight with the Houthis in different provinces,” said Mr Al Rabei. “But I think that Al Ahmar can persuade these tribes to leave the Houthis and support the pro-government forces, as he has many tribes who support him.”
Taimur Khan reported from Abu Dhabi
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse
Updated: February 23, 2016 04:00 AM