Yemen: STC forces take advantage of Houthi truce to turn fire on al-Qaeda
Since late last month, when it launched operation Siham al-Sharq (Eastern Arrow), Yemen's Southern Transitional Council (STC), backed by government forces and tribal leaders, has been battling a militant group in their Abyan province stronghold.
So far the operation against Ansar al-Sharia, created in 2011 by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as its local arm, has succeeded in taking control of some areas in Abyan, including the Mudeyah district, but with a high rate of casualties.
'Ansar al-Sharia are well equipped and they have military camps where they were trained in fighting skills, so it was not easy for the southern forces to advance'
- STC fighter
The STC has said the offensive, one of several similar military operations in the last decade, will be expanded to include Shabwah, the other main province where al-Qaeda fighters have spread, and may ultimately arrive at Hadhramout.
In response, on Wednesday Ansar al-Sharia announced its own military operation against the STC and its allies.
Saudi Arabia leads a western-backed military coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 to restore the government, which was kicked out of power in the capital, Sanaa, by Houthi rebels in 2014.
Ansar al-Sharia fighters have at times fought alongside coalition forces against the Houthis in Aden and other parts of the south. However in recent years the group has take advantage of the tensions between the different groups in the southern provinces to reunite themselves and strengthen their position.
In light of that growing strength, the STC and its allies appear to be taking advantage of the current truce between Yemen’s internationally recognised government and the Houthis to focus their efforts against Ansar al-Sharia.
The truce, which originally began in April, was extended in early August, with the offensive against Ansar al-Sharia beginning less than three weeks later on 23 August.
Mohammed*, originally from Abyan and a fighter with the UAE-backed Giants Brigade, crack troops known as al-Amaliqa in Arabic, told Middle East Eye that the STC forces, fighting shoulder to shoulder with tribal leaders and government forces, had achieved major successes in Abyan.
“The southern forces liberated major Ansar al-Sharia areas in Abyan, especially Omoran valley in Mudeyah district, and that cost the southern forces a lot [of casualties],” he said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, Mohammed said Ansar al-Sharia fighters had different kinds of weapons and had planted many landmines in the roads leading to their strongholds, and that was the main reason behind the casualties among the southern forces.
“Ansar al-Sharia are well equipped and they have military camps where they were trained in fighting skills, so it was not easy for the southern forces to advance,” he said.
On 6 September, al-Qaeda fighters killed around 20 Yemeni security force members in an assault in Abyan province, before all eight attackers were killed.
The fighters used rocket-propelled grenades, light and medium weapons and military vehicles in the ambush on a security checkpoint in Ahwar district.
“The main challenge now how is how the southern forces can secure the liberated areas, rather than advances,” said Mohammed.
During the last decade, the defence ministry and other government forces have liberated Abyan and Shabwah a number of times, but later failed to secure those areas, allowing al-Qaeda forces to return to their strongholds.
“Ansar al-Sharia fighters are Yemenis, and they usually flee and become normal people following military operations, but later they return to their strongholds," said Mohammed.
"Any operation should take into consideration how to secure the areas after liberation.”
Mohammed, who participated in a former operation against Ansar al-Sharia fighters in Abyan and Shabwah, said he was happy to see such another operation against the fighters.
Longing for peace
Munther*, a resident of Abyan province, told MEE that al-Qaeda in Abyan was just one of several militias that were depriving Yemenis of the peace they were longing for.
“When there are Ansar al-Sharia fighters in one area, that means that area will witness explosions, assassinations and other kinds of crimes which leaves the area in chaos,” he said.
'Ansar al-Shariah is a headache in Abyan, and we hope that the STC and other forces can liberate the province and the whole of Yemen from them'
- Abyan resident
“Residents of Abyan have been calling for peace, and when there is a military operation against Ansar al-Sharia, they don’t hesitate to join because by the end these campaigns help them to stay in peace.”
Munther said the Ansar al-Sharia fighters can be seen moving around markets and that people feel terrified while the security forces are unable to do anything about their presence.
“Ansar al-Shariah is a headache in Abyan, and we hope that the STC and other forces can liberate the province and the whole of Yemen from them,” he said.
“If the different groups in Yemen get unified against extremists, they can’t continue but when they leave them freely, they get stronger.”
Veteran journalist Mohamed Ali told MEE that this was the best time for the STC and government forces to liberate southern areas from Ansar al-Sharia as there is currently a truce with the Houthis.
“There is no fighting with the Houthis nowadays, and the STC knows there are extremists in Abyan and Shabwah and those extremists consider the STC and the government as targets,” he said.
“Extremists are a hidden danger that threatens the STC and the government and it is normal that the STC launches this operation at this time.”
Ali said it will not be easy to liberate the south from Ansar al-Sharia but at least they could besiege them in specific areas where they can’t leave them freely.
“We see tribal leaders and government forces fighting shoulder to shoulder with the STC and that is because both parties want to send a message that they are against extremists and because they are targets of extremists,” he said.
The operation is still ongoing and there has been no announcement of when it will end, but Ali believes that if fighting with the Houthis resumes, the forces may have to stop the operation in Abyan and go to fight the rebels.
*Not their real names