After year of failure, coalition takes Midi

Last week, forces belonging to the Yemeni armed forces and the Saudi led coalition finally managed to enter the town of Midi near the Saudi border. On April 11, Yemeni forces claimed control officially, and so far Houthis have not managed to recover control over the town. While the town itself is but another town in Yemen, the capture of Midi is rather exceptional as the coalition had been attempting to take control of it for over a year without results. The attempts to capture Midi were initiated in April 2017, as part of an attempt to open a northern front towards Al Hodeidah, but the coalition forces failed to capture Midi time after time.

The battles at Midi were fought primarily by the contingent of Sudanese forces, belonging to their 9th Airborne Division, and a number of Yemeni loyalists to the Hadi government. Numerous videos and photographs of the attacks that took place since April 2017 have shown that these forces employed extremely crude tactics to advance on Houthi positions, and often these attacks resulted in high casualty numbers on the part of the Sudanese and Yemeni fighters.

In addition to these ground forces, the Saudi led coalition also supported the attacks on Midi through intensive air operations, though these appear to have had very limited effects on the Houthis themselves. For the duration of this year, Midi was reported to be the target of Saudi led airstrikes on a nearly daily basis, and during attempts to advance on the ground, significant support by attack helicopters would typically be reported as well. The accuracy of these airstrikes, however, is questionable both due to the unapparent effects on the Houthi defenses, as well as satellite imagery that shows bomb craters striking near defensive positions at best.

With Sudanese ground forces using their crude tactics, advancing in line formations across large open areas where they are exposed to Houthi defensive fire, it is no wonder that casualties continued to add up while no significant results were achieved on the battlefield. Even the attempts by the coalition backed forces to establish protected combat positions closer to Midi itself were shown to have been abandoned under pressure of Houthi fires throughout the duration of the offensive.

So why did the coalition backed forces finally manage to take control of Midi after being so desperately unsuccessful for so long? The details are not entirely clear yet, but there are some elements to be noted in the fighting near Midi in the days before it was captured. For starters, previous offensive had typically taken place within a single day. This time, however, when the attempts to advance on April 5 were initially unsuccessful, the coalition forces continued their offensive operations and maintained pressure on Houthi defensives until they eventually were able to announce control over Midi on April 11.

As of April 9, heavy armor consisting of Saudi M-60 Patton and M-1A1S Abrams tanks was also observed taking part in the offensive operations. While it is unclear whether such units have taken part in previous attempts to advance, these particular weapon systems had not been reported in the past and may have been a useful additional commitment by Saudi Arabia to allow an actual breakthrough. In addition to these elements, there is of course also the factor that Houthi fighters had been under attack for over a year, and some degree of attrition of personnel and morale may have caused the defenses to weaken over time.

Now that the coalition is in control of Midi, this opens up the opportunity for them to further exploit their recent gains in this area. So far, this has not occurred yet, but over time the capture of Midi could finally allow the initiation of a true push from the northern border towards Al Hodeidah. The capture of the town of Midi creates a brief window of opportunity during which Houthi rebels can set up defensive positions deeper into Hajjah Province, but so far the coalition has been focusing on turning their attention towards Haradh located east of Midi.

The terrain from Midi to Al Hodeidah is pretty open and flat, which should allow for coalition backed forces to maneuver easily in this area and retake the coastline up to Al Hodeidah. The coalition forces will likely avoid stretching themselves out over the coastline itself, and may want to capture Haradh and other further inland towns to shield themselves from Houthi counter attacks from the nearby mountain ranges. This means that an offensive will also happen much slower, and could become hung up on sieges of individual towns such as Midi itself.

The goal of operations in Hajjah Province continue to be the eventual offensive on Al Hodeidah itself. While these operations had completely stagnated in the north, coalition forces had been able to advance from the south in the provinces of Taiz and Hodeidah as part of Operation Golden Spear. This operation itself has also only seen temporary limited advances, however, and while much more successful than the fight near Midi, it has not allowed the coalition to initiate an actual siege of al Hodeidah. In addition to fighting their way towards this last major port city in the hands of the Houthi rebels, the success of these coastal offensives will also minimize the ability for the Houthis to employ anti-ship missiles against coalition naval vessels, or maritime traffic as witnessed during the incident on April 3 of this year.