Yemen: Taiz, Martyred and Forgotten City

Taiz is the name of a city in South-West Yemen and of the country’s most populous governorate, with its 4.5 million inhabitants, 500 000 in the regional capital alone. Although it is still the theatre of fierce fighting, five months after the partial cease-fire signed in Stockholm in December 2019, no one seems to remember the existence of Taiz.

In a street in Taez (2015) sniper range.
W. Al-Absi/ICRC

The war in Yemen is often referred to as a forgotten war when in fact it is a central concern for the major international and regional powers. While media coverage and diplomatic concern for the conflict have been growing, Taiz seems to have been neglected. The country’s third-largest city is cut in half by a battle line which separates the Houthists from their adversaries made up of various groups and factions loyal to President Hadi. These are backed by an Arab military coalition led by two countries which are particularly active on the Yemenite theatre of operations, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Even before this coalition came into being, the city suffered early in 2015 Houthist incursions to repress peaceful demonstrations against their seizure of power in Sana and invasion of South Yemen. For a long time, Houthi rebel forces were stationed in the heart of the city.

After four years of fierce fighting, Taiz is no doubt the city which has suffered the worse destructions. Several videos shot from drones, evocative of the worst Syrian examples, attest to this. Buildings are so marked by bullet holes, mortar shells and bomb shrapnel that the few foreign reporters who have been there describe what they saw as a “lunar” spectacle. The civilians, most of whom oppose the rebellion, are the main victims of the fighting, especially from snipers but also booby traps.1 Here, only a limited share of the destruction can be attributed to the coalition’s air raids.

In 2016, after having partially lifted the siege imposed by the Houthists from the highlands to the North with the support of the coalition’s air strikes, the city dwellers remained under the yoke of the various armed factions. For indeed, the rebels are entrenched in the mountains overlooking Taiz, blocking the Eastern and Western accesses. Still today the only way out of the city is to the Souhwest, through Hujariyya and across the mountains to Aden. For a few weeks now, the fighting has begun again and this route may soon be cut off as well. The Houthists have recently repositioned themselves along the southern route and regained some ground in the vicinity of Dhalea.

Revival of cultural activity

In the spring of 2018, the operation dubbed “Golden Arrow” launched by the Coalition on the West Coast, in the Tihama plain, was stopped just outside Hodeida. This operation had indirectly brought about a lull in the fighting in Taiz since for a while the troops were busy on other fronts. Consequently, a momentum triggered by the Houthist withdrawal from the city centre began to spread, bringing about a semblance of normalisation. In the districts which came under government control life began to pick up again, with the aid of the local authorities. The impressive efforts by the NGOs, and the government’s having resumed the more or less regular payment of salaries to its civil servants have made a big difference.

Students could resume their studies in the ruins of their devastated lecture halls. Hospitals could do their best to remain open despite the continuing attacks. And finally, cultural life has been resurrected, with some real enthusiasm: plays are being performed, the celebration of Eid was marked by an impressive parade through the public parks, a book fair could also be held in spite of the recent religious radicalization which the media have no doubt exaggerated.

However the fact is that is that the liberation of a large section of Taiz has also exacerbated the internal rivalries within the anti-Houthist camp. Bloody clashes have taken place between warlords, especially between the followers of the Al-Islah party, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafists. In political terms, no normalisation is possible as yet. A new governor, Nabil Shamsan, appointed in March 2019, has still not been able to take office in the city. He is the fourth to hold this office, but the antagonisms within the anti-Houthist camp are such that no personality seems able to get together the backing required to carry out his mission.

Divisions within the coalition

For a long time now, political parties have filled the vacuum left in Taiz by a tribal system which was weaker than elsewhere in Yemen. But now these parties are more dependent than ever on their foreign backers. The Islamist party al-Islah has a grass-roots support which is probably as broad as that of the General People’s Congress (GPC), founded by former President Ali Abdallah Saleh and to which President Hadi still belongs. The nationalist and left-wing parties have long been especially active in Taiz so that the political scene is very fragmented there.

Thus many major party figures nationally were originally from Taiz: Rashad al-Alimi and Sultan al Barakani of the GPC, Abdulmalek al-Mikhlafi and Sultan Al-Atwani of the Nasserite party of Muhammad Qahtanof the Al-Islah party have all acquired an undeniable national influence. However these leaders have been sidelined by the armed factions and the chaos they have created. This political polarisation has had its consequences. Once the Houthists were driven out of the city centre, Taiz gradually became the focus of in-fighting between the anti-Houthist forces. The former brothers-in-arms have turned against one another, not only with an eye to seizing the martyred city but also as part of the rivalry between the different Gulf countries. In the spring of 2019, an increasing number of clashes occurred, leading in particular to the murder of police officer Abdallah al-Mikhlafi.

Qatar’s support of the al-Islah party has led to a confrontation with the nationalist parties and the left, notably the Nasserites, who have joined forces with the United Arab Emirates, which are obsessed with their struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar.

In the face of these tensions, the military on the ground have become equally polarised. Thus the militia led by Abu Al-Abass, a local figure in the Salafi movement, have joined forces with the 35th army brigade despite its proximity with the Nasserites and the socialists. The backing provided by the UAE for this Islamist group, classified as terrorist by the Gulf Cooperation Council, is embarrassing and illustrates the limitations of Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy. Today Abu al-Abbas and his men are on the defensive and have had to withdraw to a position south of the city. On the other hand, units of the 22nd brigade entrenched in the centre of Taiz are considered to be loyal to the Islah party.

Actually the Emirati seem to fear that Taiz, like Mareb to the East of Sana before it, may fall into Islahi hands. Their political calculations involving unnatural alliances have had a large share in dragging the city into a logic of creeping violence beyond the control of the inhabitants as well as a problematic war economy.

A major source of revenues

While the tragic “blunders” of the Arab coalition are often denounced by international media which are generally critical of Saudi Arabia, other forms of violence go more or less unnoticed. The inhabitants of Taiz have a daily experience of this injustice since this focus on the failings of the coalition have enabled international organisations to turn a blind eye on the fate of Taiz. Thus the city is no longer a priority either for peacekeeping initiatives or for the coalition’s military actions.

For the Houthists, on the other hand, the city continues to be of considerable importance, especially because it enables them to keep control of the food industry. The former governor, Ali al-Mamari has thus declared that they derive from it over 25 billion riyals per annum,2 in other words, 8% of the national peacetime revenue, petroleum excluded.

In structural terms, the war has deeply modified the geopolitical divisions SouthYemenites in Yemen. The pre-1990 frontier between North and South are for the most part out of date. And yet many Yemenites still fear the explicit attempts by certain regional players and southern separatists to divide the country again according to the former pattern. The fighting in Taiz has clouded the issue. Indeed, the population is of the North but opposed to the Houthists, at the same time suffering for the past few years now from a bad reputation in the South, where they are confused with the Muslim Botherhood, hated by the Emirati backers of the Southerners. Ordinary workers and students have been run out of Aden, mistreated by angry crowds on account of the conspiracy rhetoric spouted by the separatists.

The strategic marginalisation of the city has generated powerful discontent among the population which has made it easy for Islamists and other armed groups to recruit young men, as well as their manipulation by neighbouring countries. In exchange for wages, a number of Taezis could thus be recruited to fight in the Northern provinces of al-Jawf and Saada to defend the country’s border with Saudi Arabia. Not to be outdone, the armed Islamist groups have found Taiz to be a fertile breeding ground as well. They have thus broken with the history of the city, characterized by a participation in the process of modernisation via the institutions of the State. The current incitements to violence have undoubtedly brought about the decomposition of society and certainly not put an end to the marginalisation of that major Yemeni city.

1No organisation offers overall figures of civilian casualties. However, a recently created Yemeni association has tried to compile a more precise evaluation which shows that Taez’s share is overwhelming. Out of a total of 11,267 civilians killed in Yemen since the start of the war, 3,796 died in the Taez governorate, of which 349 were killed by booby traps and 811 by snipers. The number of wounded is estimated at 12,755. Human Rights Situation 2014-2019, Yemeni Coalition for Monitoring Human Rights Violations.

2“There are many devils: A conversation with Governor of Taiz Ali al-Mamari, ” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, 4 November 2017.