NIHM, Yemen (AFP) – Ignoring the rumble of heavy artillery, Yemeni commander Nasr al-Dibani points at Houthi bases from a jagged clifftop, outlining his push to break a grinding stalemate on the frontline outside Sana’a.
“Whoever controls Nihm controls Sana’a,” Dibani, flanked by armed loyalists, said from atop a newly captured hill, Al-Humra, on the outskirts of the Yemeni capital.
Backed by air support from the Saudi-led coalition, the Yemeni army in recent months has toppled multiple Houthi rebel bases on Nihm, a rugged chain of cloud-cutting mountains on the eastern edge of Sana’a, which has been held by the insurgents since September 2014.
A bloody battleground, Nihm is a key gateway to the capital, which still remains elusive with the Yemeni military advance impeded by the treacherous mountain terrain and thousands of land mines planted by the Iran-backed rebels.
“What is a bigger enemy – the Houthis or the terrain? I say both,” said Dibani, clutching a walkie-talkie as he pointed at surrounding Houthi territory below during a press tour organised by the coalition.
Dibani said his army stormed many Houthi hideouts on foot, using donkeys to carry supplies before a months-long engineering effort to pave a moonscape of rutted mountain tracks.
Now pick-up trucks carry equipment, fuel and supplies to captured outposts, in a bone-jarring ascent.
Sanaa, less than 30 miles (50 kilometers) away, remains stubbornly out of reach despite the recent gains, highlighting the complexities of Yemen’s tangled conflict.
“Nihm’s rugged mountains make it quite difficult for even the most technologically proficient armies to make progress,” Adam Baron, a Yemen expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP.
“This makes it unlikely – though not impossible – that there will be any dramatic shifts for the time being, even if both sides of this conflict see Nihm as one of the most strategically important battlefields in Yemen.”
A fight to the death
Further complicating the war, the Yemen army led by President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi is now distracted by the emergence of a new battlefront against southern secessionists who last week seized the port city of Aden.
Yemen’s civil war took a dramatic turn in December when Houthi rebels killed Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country’s toppled ex-president, punishing him for switching sides and seeking peace with the Saudi-led coalition.
But the soldiers at Al-Humra seem unfazed.
Dibani used a knife to rip open a rock-shaped anti-tank mine that blended in with the dun-coloured landscape.Hundreds of such mines were defused on Al-Humra alone, he said.
In a small hole punched in the mountainside, used as a Houthi sniper nest, he pulled out discarded Islamic literature, cigarettes, fruit juice and cans of cream cheese and a condiment made from sesame seeds.
“They eat like us. They are human,” Dibani joked.
A foul stench came from another sniper nest, raising fears there was a dead Houthi inside.
“These men fought till their death, unwilling to surrender,” Dibani said.
A discarded pamphlet — embossed with images of university graduates and smiling youths — which was apparently airdropped by coalition jets during the fight, read: “Oh happy people of Yemen, Iran only wants the destruction of this Arab nation.Put your hands in the hands of the legitimate government of Yemen.”
‘Honor and revenge’
Dibani’s men – including teachers, lawyers and PhD holders who took up arms – insist they are capable of a swift advance to dislodge the rebels from Sana’a, but they are restrained by the need to prevent civilian casualties.
“We don’t want to capture Sana’a at the cost of burning the city,” Dibani said.
“Our families, our relatives, our brothers are inside.”
The United Nations accuses both sides of doing little to prevent civilian casualties, and plunging the country into chaos, famine and disease.
Dibani said ordinary Yemenis are so inured to tragedies that death no longer gives pause.
He insisted on pushing ever closer to the city, in the hope of pressuring the Houthis to surrender and commit to negotiations.
But that may be wishful thinking, analysts warn.
“This is because the tribes surrounding Sana’a have fluid allegiances,” Elisabeth Kendall, a Yemen scholar at Oxford University, told AFP.
“It’s also because the Houthis will not simply surrender, irrespective of superior Saudi fire power.This is about honour and revenge, and not necessarily about military logic.”
Dibani insists they have no choice in the face of an intractable enemy unwilling to engage.
He cited a recent encounter between one of his men who seized a walkie talkie abandoned by the Huthis on a captured mountain and a rebel on the other side.
“Why did you kill Saleh?” the soldier asked in a bid to engage with the rebel over the air waves.
“Because he was ISIS (Islamic State) like you,” he retorted before taking aim at the soldier, who was oblivious that he was in the rebel’s crosshairs.
The soldier survived a bullet wound on his shoulder.