Sana’a and Aden, Asharq Al-Awsat—Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi met with Defense Minister Gen. Mahmoud Al-Subaihi in Aden on Wednesday, their first meeting since Subaihi escaped house arrest imposed on him by the Houthi movement, which is now in de facto control of the country.
Informed sources in Aden told Asharq Al-Awsat that the discussions focused mainly on moves to reorganize military and security cadres still loyal to Hadi. Some members of the army and police have been accused of aiding the Houthi takeover of Sana’a in September and the Shi’ite movement’s subsequent coup in February.
Subaihi, who had been placed under house arrest by the Houthis since their January takeover of the presidential palace, escaped to Aden on Saturday, in events that echoed President Hadi’s own escape from a Houthi-imposed house arrest, on February 21.
This comes as the Houthis’ High Security Council—set up by the movement following the coup in order to oversee the country’s military and security establishments—called on members of the country’s army and police not to take sides in the political tussle currently gripping the country.
“We call on all units belonging to the military and security establishments . . . to avoid aligning themselves with any political faction and to concentrate on their duties . . . and continue combating extremism and terrorism and protecting the country’s economic entities and citizens’ personal property,” the statement said. It also referenced the extremist group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has a large presence in the country’s northern region, and which has clashed violently with Houthi militias.
The statement also called on the military and police to “refuse any orders or directives calling for attacking [other] units within the army or security forces . . . and not to respond to any calls aiming to damage the unity of the army and security establishments.”
The statement comes as clashes continued around Aden’s main airport between Special Security Forces (SSF)—who are believed to be allied with the Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh—and members of the Popular Committees, or volunteer forces, which are loyal to Hadi.
Sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that forces from the Popular Committees in the city were “attempting to gain control of the airport from the Special Security Forces, who are currently being led by Brig. Gen. Abdul Hafiz Al-Saqqaf, who refused a presidential order from Hadi for him to leave his post and who is currently entrenched within his forces’ camp in the Sulban area in Aden.”
The sources also added that the Popular Committees had successfully blocked the advance of the SSF in Aden and Lahj province. The SSF are marching on the southern port city in an attempt to bolster the forces at the airport and lead a “rebellion” against Hadi in Aden, according to the sources.
Hadi has been seeking to establish a rival power base in Aden since his escape from Sana’a.
Meanwhile, sources from the Houthis’ northern stronghold Saada told Asharq Al-Awsat that the movement is seeking to open an international airport in the province.
Yemen’s SABA news agency—which like other media institutions in the country based in Sana’a is now under the control of the Houthis—reported on Tuesday that the country’s civil aviation authority was overseeing the final steps to open the airport.
The governor of Saada province, Mohamed Awad, told SABA the airport was now “very close” to being opened and would soon be receiving international flights.
A source from the Yemeni Air Force told Asharq Al-Awsat that despite the airport being capable of receiving international flights, it was not equipped to deal with “massive aircraft.”
He said that once opened the airport would not be managed by any official body or even the security services but would be under the “sole control of the Houthis.”
The movement would then be able to use the airport to receive military and other equipment and resources from key ally Iran, which is believed to have been aiding the Houthi advance across the country.
On February 28, Iran and Yemen’s civil aviation bodies signed a deal which will enable Yemen’s state carrier Yemen Airways and Iranian private airliner Mahan Air to each operate 14 direct flights a week between both countries.
The agreement was seen as a further sign of Iran’s collusion with the Houthis—who since their takeover of Sana’a last September have secured control of most of the country’s major institutions, including the Civil Aviation Authority with which Iran signed the deal.
The first Mahan Air plane arrived a day later, on March 1, at Sana’a International Airport.
Saada province is also one of the country’s main agricultural centers, and sources say the Houthis could use the airport to access international markets for exports from the province as well as using the airport for the movement of its leaders into and out of the country—given the presence of local tribal forces opposed to the Houthis near Sana’a’s airport.
Since the Houthi takeover of Sana’a air traffic in the country has almost halved, with several major international carriers canceling flights to the crisis-ridden country.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, political analyst Sami Noman said the Houthis’ plans to open the airport actually go back to 2011, when they took over Saada following the security vacuum that accompanied mass protests against the rule of longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“In normal circumstances we would have to say that, yes, Saada needs an international airport like other provinces in the country. But it has to be managed by the state, which will be able to apply internationally recognized civil aviation standards, especially those relating to security,” he said.
Speaking of the deal between the two countries’ civil aviation authorities, Noman said: “What is the advantage of having daily flights to and from Tehran? . . . More importantly, what are the security regulations these flights will undergo?”
He added that “the areas of the country under the direct control of the Houthis are now under the guardianship of Iran.” He said the aviation deal with Tehran proved the Houthis were “totally and officially aligned with Tehran” and that the movement now had its hands on state facilities and institutions, which both it and Tehran were using for their own “joint agenda.”