Since August 2018, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, otherwise known as the Islah party, has taken major steps towards consolidating political and military power in Taiz City. Islah officially supports the internationally recognized Yemeni government of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi; however, the party’s increasing capacity to act independently in Taiz represents a further erosion of the state’s purview within areas the government supposedly controls. Islah’s rise in Taiz, if solidified, is likely to complicate United Nations-led efforts to secure a peace agreement between the Houthi leadership and the internationally recognized Yemeni government. It also threatens potential post-conflict efforts to stabilize the country’s political and security environments and establish effective state sovereignty.
With the escalation of the ongoing conflict in March 2015, Taiz City and the wider governorate have been an epicenter of violence, with Houthi fighters continually clashing with various anti-Houthi forces. Within the anti-Houthi coalition in Taiz City, Islah-affiliated forces and the Salafi-oriented Abu al-Abbas Brigades have also had long-running tensions and periodic clashes. Among the former’s most prominent backers are Yemeni Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and President Hadi’s chief of staff Abdulla al-Alimi; while the Abu al-Abbas Brigades are supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
On August 8, 2018, intense clashes between Islah-affiliated groups and the Abu al-Abbas Brigades erupted, prompting President Hadi to hold an emergency meeting with Governor of Taiz Amin Mahmoud. Following this, Hadi announced the creation of a presidential committee to end the violence. The presidential committee, however, was dominated by Islah figures. Most prominent among these, and the committee chair is Abdu Farhan Salem, commonly referred to as “Salem.” He is arguably the most important Islah-affiliated military official in Taiz, as an advisor to the commander of the Taiz Military Axis, Khaled Fadl – also an Islah figure.
The presidential committee brokered a deal in which both the Abu al-Abbas Brigades and Islah-affiliated national army units and militias agreed to withdraw from positions within Taiz City. On August 18, the committee reported that all positions had been handed over to the Presidential Guard. However, by month’s end it was clear that while Abu al-Abbas’ forces had withdrawn, Islah-affiliated forces remained.
In September, Governor Mahmoud publicly thanked the presidential committee for its efforts before asking that it be dissolved, having seemingly fulfilled its mandate. The committee refused, insisting that, having been established through a presidential decree, another presidential decree was required for it to be dissolved. To date, President Hadi has not issued such a decree.
In the meantime, Islah affiliates have leveraged the committee’s apparent authority to assert control over the official security apparatuses in Taiz that had technically been under the governor’s jurisdiction. Within these institutions, Islah has dismissed officials considered unloyal to it while promoting Islah affiliates. The committee has also facilitated the withdrawal of other anti-Houthi forces from areas around Taiz, in place of whom Islah-affiliated forces have moved in. Aiding Islah’s expanding clout in Taiz are the group’s strong grassroots support, local business ties, and loyalists in senior military positions. Currently, the largest anti-Houthi force unaffiliated with Islah still present in Taiz City is the Yemeni army’s 35th Armoured Brigade, which has worked closely with the Abu al-Abbas Brigades and is backed by the UAE.
Islah’s rapid ascent is allowing it, a non-state actor, to increasingly consolidate its authority in Taiz and be able to assert its own control independently from the internationally recognized Yemeni government. Meanwhile, it also appears that Islah is coordinating efforts to have the current governor replaced with someone more amenable to the party.
The creation of another statelette within Yemen, however, is not inevitable. There are practical steps that local, regional and international stakeholders can take to head off this potential scenario. First, President Hadi must issue a decree officially disbanding the presidential committee. Second, he can order the removal of officers from Taiz’s military and security apparatuses who were appointed based on their political affiliations. Third, he can institute measures to increase the professional standards within, and decrease the ideological character of, the security forces in Taiz.
President Hadi should also help support the current governor’s legitimacy through greater financial support and ensuring that all civil servants in Taiz receive their salaries on a regular basis. While the consistency of public sector salary payments has improved relative to 2017, still not all civil servants are regularly receiving their salaries.
Saudi Arabia is the best-placed actor to compel Islah to follow the Yemeni government’s lead. This is due to the longstanding relationship between Saudi decision-makers and Islah, and the fact that many Islah leaders reside in or regularly travel to Riyadh.
UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths should be particularly interested in recent developments in Taiz, given how the governorate represents another power center where non-state actors are competing for influence. Ignoring Taiz could complicate his conflict mediation efforts between the main warring parties. He has recourse: Griffiths’ staff can communicate clearly with senior Islah figures, and other parties, that if their members are noncompliant and act as peace spoilers, their leadership will be placed on the UN 2140 Sanctions List.
General conflict de-escalation efforts in Taiz should also focus on opening the Sana’a Road. This thoroughfare is a key access route through the al-Hawban area, located northeast of Taiz city, and is currently a frontline between Yemeni government and Houthi forces. It connects Taiz with the cities of Ibb and Sana’a and opening it would dramatically reduce the time and expense it currently takes to transport people and goods to and from Taiz. An open Sana’a Road would thus increase humanitarian access to the population and reduce the cost of commercial goods.
Houthi forces are facing considerable pressure along various frontline areas around Taiz City, including: Haifan (east of Taiz City); al-Burj and al-Kadha (west of the city); al-Salal hill (to the northeast) and al-Qabbaytah and Karish (on Taiz’s southeastern border with Lahj governorate). Mediation efforts could thus involve de-escalation efforts along these frontlines in exchange for a ceasefire in al-Hawban and a reopening of the Sana’a Road. Such would represent a major step towards ending the Houthi siege on government-held areas of Taiz City, and dramatically improve the dire situation facing the civilian population.