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‘The Battle of All Yemenis Against the Houthi Coup’ – A Q&A with Tareq Saleh

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

On April 9, 2021, the Sana’a Center held a media briefing with Brigadier General Tareq Saleh, the commander of the National Resistance Forces (NRF) and nephew of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The meeting shed light on the latest developments on the Western Front and Red Sea Coast, as well as the establishment of the Political Bureau of the NRF announced by Saleh in March 2021. The event was facilitated by Sana’a Center Executive Director Maged al-Madhaji.

*This transcript has been edited for length. The full interview is available here.

Sana’a Center: What exactly is the political office of the National Resistance? Can it be seen as an alternative to the General People’s Congress (GPC), which seems to have fragmented and no longer has the political influence that it once did?

Tareq Saleh: The political office was created as a result of the ongoing political situation in Yemen and the developments that have occurred. We, on the West Coast, need a political entity that represents us in any upcoming negotiations, for it to be another voice that represents the Yemeni people outside of any religious political parties. The GPC is the umbrella that we are all under, but unfortunately, it was fragmented between those inside Yemen and those outside. This major political party was not given the opportunity to play its role in the Yemeni political arena, whether in foreign representation or internally.

Inside Yemen, it is under pressure by the Houthis and the GPC in Sana’a has become very marginalized in its political role. Outside of the country, it is divided into a number of different factions. We hope the GPC can play a very important role. We’re obviously never going to be an alternative to the GPC and the role it has played. But the political office of the National Resistance represents the Joint Forces here on the West Coast, and it also represents the political arm of all of these forces here in the Yemeni political arena.

Sana’a Center: The National Resistance Forces were established in 2017 to go into battle with the Houthis, and they did that and got to the outskirts of Hudaydah city. They seemed to be the most ambitious forces against the Houthis, and they achieved results very quickly. But then the Stockholm Agreement came into play. This agreement is now two years old. What have you been doing since the signing of the Stockholm Agreement? What is the exact situation on the frontlines now?

Saleh: We had hoped that the Stockholm Agreement would actually achieve something for the Yemeni people. The main purpose behind the Stockholm Agreement is to alleviate the suffering. But unfortunately, none of it was implemented. The only thing that was implemented is that it stopped the battle to liberate Hudaydah from these militias who are using the Hudaydah port for smuggling and for their own interests, as well as for military purposes, such as smuggling weapons and ballistic missiles through the port. The Houthis continue to control the port; they did not withdraw their forces from Hudaydah city, as per the Stockholm agreement.

As for forces within the Joint Forces, we adhere to the agreement that was signed by the legitimate government and we are committed to anything signed by the government because they represent the constitutional legitimacy of the Yemeni state and represent all Yemenis … But with regards to the frontlines themselves or any changes or shifts, there have not been any changes. Last November, we proposed to participate in the defense of Marib. We got a formal request and had a meeting within the Arab coalition with the other military forces, and they said that the legitimate government was discussing this. We volunteered to participate, but the government said that they did not need external forces to participate in the defense of Marib. We wish them well and hope that they are victorious in that battle.

Sana’a Center: There had been talk that there would be forces deployed from the West Coast to Marib, but until now, there has not been any acceptance or rejection of this offer. Is that the case?

Saleh: Yes. We offered our support after the first wave where the Houthis took control of the Maas base and made progress in Serwah and on the desert frontlines toward Al-Alam base. And then their assault stopped for two or two and a half months and then the second wave started. During this period, we said we had the forces and the front lines here are not dynamic, and we could support the national army in this battle, which we believe is a part of the battle of all Yemenis against the Houthi coup. We offered to deploy some of our forces to Marib where we could assist in some of the activities, but we did not get the green light.

Sana’a Center: Why don’t you move to another frontline other than Hudaydah if the situation here is so static?

Saleh: At the end of the day, I’m not the person who makes this decision, whether we can move to the frontlines. The legitimate government is the one who makes these decisions regarding military strategy.

Sana’a Center: Let me ask you about your relationship with the local authorities, in Taiz governorate, which Al-Mokha is a part of. How is this relationship? Is it a complicated relationship? Is the political identity of the party in power in Taiz (Islah) reflected in your relationship with the local authorities?

Saleh: There are some who are trying to cause a media ruckus about this relationship, and this does not serve our interests as Yemenis. Our relationship with the governor (Nabil Shamsan) is good. He is the one who makes appointments. He is the one who appoints district managers. It’s not our job to do that. We cooperate with them. We try to facilitate anything we can. But with regards to who is in control on the ground, we said that any time the government wants to come visit these areas, wants to come and observe what is happening in Al-Mokha, we don’t have a problem. We don’t have any problems with the local authorities.

The deputy governor has visited Al-Mokha a number of times. We don’t have any issue with this. But for us to come under the control of any other political party, I think that’s not in anyone’s interest. We’re now in the middle of a battle for the liberation of these areas, we’re in an extraordinary situation. But we’ve never claimed to not recognize the local authorities there; they are the forces on the ground, and we do everything we can to assist them in that function.

Sana’a Center: Why have the Houthis not released your brother and your son? Why did they release some of your cousins instead?

Saleh: There were mediation efforts by the Omanis and the late Sultan Qaboos tried to mediate with the Houthis. There was a request by my family to do so, and he communicated through the channels the Omanis have with the Houthis. The Houthis continued with the discussion for a while, and there were also some mediation efforts by prominent social figures and members of the GPC like [Chairperson] Sheikh Sadeq Amin Abu Rass, as well as many other prominent social figures and politicians. After a lot of discussions between the two, there was a televised meeting with Abdelmalek al-Houthi. A lot of tribal figures and sheikhs were attending. He told them in this televised meeting, “I will release two and then two more will be released in a second stage.” He said that he was under pressure by extremist factions within his own group.

He said that in two months they would release Mohammed (my brother) and my son (Afash). This is the agreement that was reached. They said they didn’t think that he would be able to lie in a televised meeting or a statement that was this public, especially since he sees himself as a man with a holy lineage. After a while, even the visits to these detainees were stopped and communication was stopped. But hopefully they’ll be released soon.

Sana’s Center: When was the last time you contacted them?

Saleh: Myself personally? December 2017 was the last time I contacted them. But there was contact with them through my brothers and through their mother, who would be in touch with them. The last call was almost exactly two years ago, February 2019.

Sana’a Center: So as long as we’re talking about the Houthis and Tareq, the question we always hear is, how were you able to escape the Houthis after the events that occurred in December 2017*?

*Editor’s note: In December 2017, the alliance between the Houthi movement and Ali Abdullah Saleh fell apart, and the former president was killed by his erstwhile allies.

Saleh: God made it easy. After they (the Houthis) took control of the city, and their tanks were meters away from the positions that we were in control of, we were able to leave along with a small group of people. We went our separate ways and I went from one home to another. After a few days, I would hear about raids and so I would have to leave. I spent 10 days in Sana’a after trying to leave the city and staying in four different homes. There was an offer to leave for Marib, but I preferred to leave for Aden. I organized it through people who worked in smuggling. I was able to leave Sana’a using different vehicles, including a truck and a taxi, and I was able to arrive in Aden safe and sound. I think most of it was in a cargo truck, actually, most of my trip.

Sana’a Center: There’s a question from The Guardian. What is the current state of your relationship with the UAE?

Saleh: It is a partnership. We and the UAE have put in place principles for this coalition, for this alliance, this is our cause and our interest. The UAE are part of this coalition and we need support to fight against the Houthis. We welcome their support on the condition that we are partners to liberate Yemen and to restore the state. These are our main objectives, to restore the state and ensure the return of state institutions and the legitimate government. This is the agreement that we had for our partnership with the UAE and they have adhered to this. There are no other interests or agendas outside of the liberation of Yemen from the coup.

Sana’a Center: There’s a question from the deputy Dutch Ambassador. He’s asking about the Political Bureau. Are the Giants Brigades and Tihama Resistance part of it?

Saleh: They (the Giants Brigades) are very religiously conservative and do not get involved in political affairs. But they said that they support that the voice of the Political Bureau gets across, and they considered it representative. With regards to the Tihama Resistance, most of the resistance commanders are members of the Political Bureau. They were in attendance at the meetings.

Sana’a Center: What is the relationship on the West Coast between your forces and the Giants Brigades and the Tihama Resistance? Who decides the military strategy?

Saleh: Even before the withdrawal of the Emirati forces, they formed the Joint Command and a joint operations room between the National Resistance and the Giants Brigades. The Tihama Resistance is part of the National Resistance and part of the Giants Brigades. So the UAE formed the Joint Operations Command, and there are representatives from the Giants Brigades, from the National Resistance and from the Tihama Resistance. Decisions are made all through consensus and consultations, through meetings between the leadership and representatives of all these parties. They make what they believe is the best decision with regards to military strategy.

Sana’a Center: We’ll go back to the south very quickly. How is your relationship with the Southern Transitional Council?

Saleh: We have a common goal, which is to regain control of Sana’a. We’ve talked about this with them, that this is our main objective. And we also thank them because at the beginning of the process, they supported us. They were a big part of establishing the nucleus of the resistance despite the pressure from different parties who told them that I had come to invade Aden. I came with 10 other people; how could I invade Aden? But they were trying to cause problems among us, but the STC supported us and stood with us. And we will never forget their position at the time.

This the interview appeared in “A Decade After the Uprising – The Yemen Review, March-April 2021