Confrontation between the armed Houthi movement and the forces arrayed against it appeared to reach a turning point in January, with a new push by the UAE-backed Giants Brigades in Shabwa and Marib. The governorates have been the focus of the conflict over the past year, as Houthi forces closed in on Marib city and the governorate’s strategic oil and gas facilities. The advances by the Giants Brigades were followed by Houthi strikes on the UAE, prompting an intense round of retaliatory airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition (SLC). Fighting then shifted toward the Hajjah governorate border town of Haradh, where a new Saudi-organized force, backed by coalition airstrikes, struggled to dislodge Houthi forces. This Salafi-oriented force, the Arabia Felix Brigades, also took over from the Giants Brigades in southern Marib.
Total reported civilian casualties spiked as result of the fighting in airstrikes, reaching 426 in January, according to Yemen Data Project. Coalition air raids were at their highest level since October, with 401 individual airstrikes in January and 716 in February, making October-February the longest period of heavy bombing since 2018. January 2022 was the most violent month for coalition air strikes in more than five years, with 139 civilian deaths, taking the casualty toll to over 19,000 civilians killed and injured since the bombing campaign began in March 2015. A UN report issued on January 29 said nearly 2,000 children recruited by the Houthis had been killed in battle between January 2020 and May 2021.
The Giants Brigades Push Houthi Forces Out of Shabwa
It remained unclear how far the Giants Brigades were willing or able to push into Marib after their January successes in Shabwa. The UAE and Southern Transitional Council (STC)-backed force scored a rapid victory in the first week of the new year, removing Houthi forces from three districts in northern Shabwa after redeploying from the west coast. Critically, they also advanced into Marib, where Houthi encirclement of Marib city had portended the fall of the last government-held stronghold in the north.
The surprise operation in Shabwa appeared to overturn the military balance of power and put an end to predictions of Marib, and its oil fields, inevitably succumbing to the Houthi advance. At the same time, differences emerged among anti-Houthi forces over how the operation should proceed. The recently appointed UAE-backed Shabwa governor Awadh bin al-Wazir al-Aulaqi said the Giants Brigades would go on to fight in other governorates, but the head of the STC, Aiderous al-Zubaidi, appeared to choose his words carefully in a January 10 interview with UAE-based Sky News Arabia when he said the aim of the operation was to secure southern governorates against the Houthis, while making more rhetorical allusions to taking the war all the way to Sana’a. His comments seemed to suggest that the Giants Brigades’ southern leadership was uninterested in committing forces in Marib or on other northern fronts.
Giants Brigades operations did continue initially in Al-Jubah and Harib districts in southern Marib, aiming to shore up control of Shabwa’s border regions, as well as int0 Nate’ and Na’man districts in Al-Bayda governorate. Harib district fell on January 24 and remains outside Houthi control while Al-Jubah which remains contested.
The Giants Brigades
The Giants Brigades (Amaliqa), also known as the Southern Giants Brigades, were formed with UAE support in 2016 to regain control of Yemen’s Red Sea coast around the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the city of Mokha. The Giants Brigades currently consist of at least 13 brigades, each varying in size between an estimated 800 fighters to more than 3,000. They are not formally part of the internationally recognized government’s military and receive salaries and other support directly from the Saudi-led coalition.
In 2018, the Giants Brigades joined other UAE-backed forces in a military campaign aimed at expelling Houthi forces from the port city of Hudaydah. The campaign was aborted in late 2018 with the signing of the Stockholm Agreement, but the Giants Brigades remained in military camps on the outskirts of Hudaydah city. The Giants Brigades for the most part have remained neutral in conflicts between the internationally recognized government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC). For this reason, some Giants Brigades units were deployed to Abyan in late 2019 to separate government and STC forces.
From November 9–12, 2021, the Giants Brigades and other UAE-backed forces withdrew from most of their frontline positions near Hudaydah city. Some massed in Mokha city, while others redeployed to nearby frontlines in southern Hudaydah and western Taiz’s Maqbanah district. In late December, several Giants Brigades units were redeployed to Shabwa governorate to regain control of three northern districts that Houthi forces had seized in September. Accomplishing that mission, the Giants Brigades helped dislodge Houthi forces from Harib district in neighboring Marib governorate. In late January 2022, the Saudi-led coalition formed the Saba Giants Brigade in Marib governorate, following the withdrawal of the Southern Giants Brigades.
Most of the commanders of the Giants Brigades are conservative Salafi figures like Abu Zara’a al-Muharrami, a graduate of the Dar al-Hadith Salafi institute in Dammaj, Sa’ada. Abu Zara’a and other Salafis were driven from Dammaj and other Houthi-controlled areas in 2014 and 2015. The Giants Brigades’ rank-and-file fighters were generally recruited from the Southern Resistance that formed to expel Houthi forces from Aden in 2015. Most of these early recruits are from southern tribal areas in Aden, Abyan, Lahj and Al-Dhalea governorates, which is why they are often called the Southern Giants. Others were recruited from Salafi groups, and a small number of Giants Brigades fighters are from northern governorates like Hudaydah, Raymah and Al-Mahweet. They have remained united in their opposition to the Houthis.
Houthi Attacks on the UAE
Subsequent Houthi drone-and-missile attacks on the UAE that the group explicitly linked to the Shabwa operation seemed to play into the calculus to keep the Giants Brigades mostly confined to Shabwa. The first Houthi attack, on January 17, hit an oil storage facility near Abu Dhabi airport, killing three people as well as construction work within the airport grounds and causing a fire. A second attack on January 24, apparently targeting the Dhafra military base, which houses US military personnel, was thwarted by US Patriot missiles.
In response, the coalition increased its bombing campaign, hitting targets around Sana’a and Hudaydah in particular. Airstrikes on January 17 killed more than a dozen people in Sana’a, including a former head of the air force academy; internet and other communications were knocked out for four days after a January 21 airstrike on a telecoms building in Hudaydah; and more than 91 people were killed and 265 wounded in a January 21 airstrike on a Sa’ada detention center housing migrants. This followed an attack that struck a water reservoir in Sa’ada, which aid agencies said put access to clean water for 120,000 people at risk.
Following these attacks, the US administration resisted UAE pressure to redesignate the Houthi movement a terrorist organization, though the UN Security Council agreed on February 28 to expand a arms embargo targeting several Houthi leaders to include the whole group while the text also referred to the Houthi movement as a terrorist organization. The UAE, which proposed the resolution, surprised observers in securing Russian support for the vote, possibly as a quid pro quo for two UAE abstentions in Security Council votes on Ukraine.
On January 29, the Giants Brigades announced publicly they would halt operations after taking the Marib-Shabwa border area. Reuters reported that a new unit of northern Salafi forces called the Arabia Felix Brigade had deployed near Marib city with the aim of securing the route to Shabwa, suggesting again that the Giants – seen as one of the more professional forces – would go no further. A further report on February 13 said that residents of Marib governorate would also form their own force within the framework of the Giants Brigades. Despite this recalibration, a third Houthi missile strike was intercepted on January 31 as the UAE hosted Israeli President Isaac Herzog on the first-ever visit by an Israeli head of state.
In addition to its maneuver with the Giants Brigade, the UAE reformed the Shabwani Elite, a group it helped form early in the conflict for counterterrorism purposes. After defeat in clashes with government military forces in 2019, the Shabwani Elite were largely disbanded, with remnants of the force stationed at two coalition bases – the Balhaf LNG plant on Shabwa’s southern coast and the Al-Alam camp, north of the capital Ataq.
However, following the appointment of Al-Aulaqi as governor, the Shabwani Elite repositioned to Ataq airport, under the rebranded title of the Shabwa Defense Forces. The reactivation of the Shabwani Elite involved the recruitment of around 5,000 personnel, according to a source at the Balhaf facility. The move indicated a new Emirati proactiveness in asserting political, security and economic interests in Shabwa, to the detriment of the Islamist Islah party.
In Wadi Hadramawt, to the east of Marib and Shabwa, STC-aligned tribal sheikh Hassan al-Jabiri announced the formation of training camps on January 8. Al-Jabiri said the camps would be formed to protect the region and aid the UAE-backed Hadrami Elite Forces. However, the plan was rejected by Faraj al-Bahsani, governor of Hadramawt and commander of the government’s 2nd Military District. While Al-Bahsani is also head of the UAE-backed Hadrami Elite Forces, he has had a poor relationship with the UAE-backed STC since 2019, emerging as a more independent figure who maintains good relations with the government and President Hadi.
Low-Level Clashes Continue on Several Fronts
Conflict in the region of Al-Bayda, Shabwa and Marib continued in late January and February, albeit at a decreased intensity. In Marib, Houthi forces launched a drone attack that struck a school in Harib operations against Umm al-Resh military camp and other locations in Al-Jubah district. A Houthi missile killed five people in Marib city on January 27 and there were reports of further civilian deaths from Houthi missiles on February 20. Houthi forces mounted new attacks on government troops around Al-Jubah on March 7.
In Shabwa, a Houthi missile struck a mosque in Jardan district where pro-government soldiers were gathering on February 19, killing five people. The same day, three soldiers were killed and 14 injured when a Houthi missile hit a mosque near Al-Alam military base. Overall, coalition air raids were down by more than 60 percent in Marib, to 52 in February from 145 in January, while Shabwa and Al-Bayda also saw a drop off. This seemed to reflect the lack of military push-back by Houthi forces after their territorial losses in Shabwa, a southern governorate outside the main theater of Houthi operations. Retreats from Houthi positions north of Jabal Habashi in Taiz governorate also appeared to be the reason for government gains there in early February.
In Abyan, Houthi forces damaged bridges and roads in mid-January, fearing an advance by the Giants Brigades now based in Azzan in neighboring Shabwa. On January 12, Houthi forces destroyed the only road linking Abyan’s capital Lawdar with Mukayras, a northern region bordering Al-Bayda. Fighting also broke out between Houthi forces and the Saudi-backed Amjad Brigades on January 11 in the Jayshan area, after which the Houthis destroyed part of the road linking the area with Lawdar. On January 15, Houthi forces clashed with government-allied Tharah Resistance forces northwest of Lawdar.
Meanwhile, SLC airstrikes continue to focus on Houthi drone capabilities, targeting the telecoms ministry in Sana’a on February 14, after a drone attack on Abha airport left 14 people wounded, and an alleged drone command center west of Sana’a on February 18. In February, there were 20 air raids on Sana’a, marking the first time since 2016 that the city has seen three consecutive months with at least that number.
Fighting in Northern Border Areas
In northern governorates, inconclusive fighting continued in Jawf’s western Khabb wa Al-Sha’af district in January, as Houthi forces tried to take the last government-controlled camp at Tayyibah al-Isim. On February 14, the Saudi-led coalition bombed a water drill in Al-Matmmah, killing and wounding at least three civilians. In Hajjah governorate, a Saudi-organized offensive began in early February. The aim was to take Haradh, Yemen’s largest border crossing with Saudi Arabia, using Arabia Felix forces backed by SLC airstrikes. After initial successes, Houthi forces holding the town appeared to have retaken the surrounding mountains and a military camp by February 12. Fighting continued there and in the neighboring Abs district into early March. In Sa’ada, government forces, supported by SLC airstrikes, captured territory in Safra district on January 20; the government claimed on February 17 to have taken further positions in Safra. According to the Yemen Data Project, Hajjah witnessed its highest monthly rate of air raids since March 2018 with 51 strikes, causing 15 civilian casualties.
UN, MSF personnel abducted in Abyan, Hadramawt
In Abyan, five United Nations employees were kidnapped on February 11 while returning to Aden after a field mission. In Hadramawt, foreign employees of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) were taken from their car in eastern Hadramawt governorate on March 6. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is suspected of carrying out both abductions.