The National Resistance Forces (NRF), or Joint Forces, is a loose coalition of three separate fighting forces in the Yemeni Civil War. Since 2017, the NRF has fought alongside the Saudi Arabian-led coalition (SLC) against Houthi rebels.
History & Foundations
Initially, the NRF was a name used to refer to the private army of Tareq Mohammad Saleh, the nephew of the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted from power in the 2011 Revolution (1). In September 2014, when the popular Houthi movement deposed Saleh’s successor, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, and installed a new government, many elements within the Yemeni Army did not interfere. On March 26, 2015, the SLC intervention at the request of Hadi escalated tensions between Houthi and government forces and plunged Yemen into a civil war that is still ongoing (2). For the first three years of the war, Saleh loyalists within the Yemeni Army sided with the Houthis. However, this alliance collapsed in late November 2017.
The former president was killed by Houthi rebels on December 4, 2017 during the Battle of Sana’a, resulting in the erstwhile allies quickly turning against each other (3). Most of these hardliners were members of the Republican Guard, an elite formation dedicated to protecting the president. At the time of the revolution, the Republican Guard was under the leadership of Ali’s son, Ahmed Saleh, and had been fiercely loyal to the Saleh regime for decades (4).
The United Arab Emirates, a member of the SLC, sought to prevent the complete collapse of this loyalist force and thus encouraged Tareq Saleh to unify the remnants (5). Throughout the spring of 2018, Tareq recruited men from the Republican Guard in addition to the Central Security Forces, a special paramilitary police force also loyal to the Saleh regime, and formed the Guardians of the Republic. Alongside the initial base of military and police loyalists, the two other groups that would eventually form the NRF were the Giants Brigade and the Tihama Resistance (6). The Giants Brigade emerged from the Southern Movement in 2015. They had received Emirati foreign aid since 2015 and were fighting the Houthis prior to their unification into the NRF. The Tihama Resistance had mobilized against the Houthis prior to the SLC intervention. After the Houthis captured Sana’a in 2014, they quickly moved into Al Hudaydah, the principal port city in the Tihama region, in early 2015 (7).
In early 2018, the SLC combined these three groups under the banner of the NRF. Although they all retained their own leadership, they participated in SLC offensives and swore loyalty to the Hadi government.
Ideology & Objectives
Due to its structure as a big-tent coalition, the NRF lacks a specific political ideology. The Guardians of the Republic are effectively Tareq Saleh’s private army and are defined by their unwavering loyalty to the former Saleh regime. Recent developments seem to indicate that they are opposed to the Southern Transitional Council, a separatist movement for Southern Yemen and quasi member of the anti-Houthi coalition. As such, Tareq has been criticized by the southern press (8).
The Tihama Resistance is rooted in its local ties to Tihama, the coastal plain region that stretches up the Red Sea. Many Tihama fighters are from Al Hudaydah and its surrounding area, and fight to protect their region (9). While it is unclear whether they aim for independence or heightened autonomy, they aim to remove Houthi control over their lands. There may be sectarian influence as the Houthis are Zaidi while the majority of the Tihama region is Sunni. Zaydism, although a relatively niche sect of Shia Islam, is practiced by roughly a third of Yemenis (10). However, the vast majority of the country is Sunni, and specifically subscribe to the Shafi’i school of thought (11).
The Giants Brigade is mainly composed of tribesmen from southern Yemen, mainly the Lahj and Aden regions (12). They are Salafis, a conservative branch of Sunni Islam, so religious differences may partly motivate their antagonism towards the Houthis.
Ostensibly, all members of the NRF are loyal to the Hadi government. Despite their independent motivations, they are unified in their anti-Houthi stance. However, the NRF is an alliance of convenience and has seen internal tensions and conflict with other members under the anti-Houthi tent. For example, Giants forces have torn down Republican flags raised by Tareq’s men (13). In March, 2022, the offices of the General People’s Congress, the political party with which Tareq is affiliated, were seized by forces of the Southern Transitional Council (14).
According to reports, the combined strength of the NRF includes around 35,000 troops (15). The United Arab Emirates has committed to the provision of extensive financial and materiel support, but the aid is not equally distributed; this is notably because the Giants Brigade comprises the majority of the NRF’s manpower and hence receives most of the aid. It is estimated that the brigade’s leader, Abu Zarra, leads roughly 20,000 troops (16). They have been receiving Emirati aid since 2015, and as such, are very well equipped with weapons and armored vehicles. They also have access to SLC air support in the form of fighter jets and Apache helicopters (17).
The Guardians of the Republic is perhaps the strongest contingent within the NRF in terms of its combat efficiency. Although numerically small – reports estimate that Tareq Saleh commands around 4,000 men – most of them are former members of the elite Republican Guard or Central Security Force. Additionally, as former allies to the Houthis, they are seasoned veterans who possess a stronger understanding of their foe compared to other pro-Hadi forces. The Guardians enjoy strong support from the UAE, and a report in 2018 claimed that 5,000 additional forces were being trained at an Emirati base in Eritrea (18).
The Tihama Resistance is made up of 4,000 local fighters (19). The force is led by Ahmed al Kawkabani, a former marine, and Abdulrahman Hajri. The SLC appears reluctant to provide the same level of support to the Tihama fighters as they do with the other NRF elements. While they have been given trucks and fuel, their fighting equipment has been limited to heavy machine guns, mortars, and RPGs (20).
Approach to Resistance
After its formation, the NRF quickly entered combat operations against the Houthis. Their most notable contribution came during the Al Hudayah Offensive, which ran from December, 2017, to mid-June 2018. Supported by Saudi and Emirati troops, the NRF pushed outwards from southern Yemen towards the Red Sea, securing territory along the coastline, managing to secure the western port city of Al Mukha in April, 2018 (21). During Operation Golden Victory, the Saudi-led assault into Al Hudayah, NRF forces were instrumental. Battling an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 defenders, the coalition force of 21,000 men fought bitterly to wrestle the port city from Houthi hands (22). Although the city has been returned to the Houthis, NRF forces were present in the area for roughly three years until their withdrawal in 2021. Al Hudayah remains the largest battle since the SLC intervention into the conflict (23).
As internecine fighting within the SLC worsened, specifically between the Hadi government and the secessionist Southern Transitional Council, the fighting in Yemen became increasingly fragmented. In 2019, the UAE withdrew its forces from the war, and adopted a more indirect supportive policy. The Yemen conflict is now heavily reliant on proxies, and the components of the NRF control regions in southeast Yemen and operate independently of the Hadi forces (24).
While political violence continues, recently, the civil war has entered a relatively stagnant period. On April 2, 2022, the UN Special Envoy for Yemen negotiated a ceasefire between the Houthis and the Hadi government. For the four-month truce, combat fatalities dropped an estimated 90% to an average of around 300 per month (25). Houthi leadership has prioritized conducting drone strikes in both Emirati and Saudi Arabian territory which has encouraged the SLC to adopt a more rapprochement-focused policy (26).
As a member within the anti-Houthi camp, the NRF does technically constitute a piece of the internationally-recognized Hadi government. However, given the fragmented nature of Yemeni politics, many regions under NRF control are essentially proto-states. Although the Giants Brigade, Guardians of the Republic, and Tihama Resistance fight under the SLC, they enjoy extensive autonomy within the regions their respective troops occupy in the country’s southwest corner (27).
Works Cited (Chicago-style)
(1) - Emile Roy, “Tareq Saleh’s National Resistance Forces.” ACLED, May 10, 2018. https://acleddata.com/2018/05/10/tareq-salehs-national-resistance-forces/
(2) - Ammar Al-Ashwal, “Where is the Yemen War Heading.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 15, 2020. https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/81565
(3) - Roy, Tareq Saleh.
(4) - Ibid.
(5) - Ibid.
(6) - Emile Roy, “Who Are the UAE-backed Forces Fighting on the Western Front in Yemen?” ACLED, July 20, 2018
(7) - Ibid.
(8) - Roy, Who are the UAE-backed Forces.
(9) - Asmaa Waguih, “Local fighters in Hodeidah seek to break Houthi yoke,” The National, June 17, 2018. https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/mena/local-fighters-in-hodeidah-seek-to-break-houthi-yoke-1.740878#8
(10) - John Esposito, The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, Oxford University Press, 2003.
(11) - Ibid.
(12) - Roy, Who are the UAE-backed Forces.
(13) - Ibid.
(14) - Emile Roy, Matti Suomenaro, Sherwan Hindreen Ali, “Regional Overview: Middle East 26 February-4 March 2022.” ACLED, 10 March, 2022. https://acleddata.com/2022/03/10/regional-overview-middle-east-26-february-4-march-2022/
(15) - Roy, Who are the UAE-backed Forces.
(16) - Ibid.
(17) - Peter Salisbury, Yemen After Hodeidah, The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, June 19, 2018. https://agsiw.org/yemen-after-hodeidah/
(18) - Roy, Who are the UAE-backed Forces.
(19) - Waguih, Local Fighters.
(20) - Ibid.
(21) - Roy, Tareq Saleh’s National Resistance Forces.
(22) - Salisbury, Yemen After Hodeidah.
(23) - Mohammed Ghobari, Mohamed Mokhashef, “Arab states launch biggest assault of Yemen war with attack on main port,” Reuters, June 12, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security/arab-states-launch-biggest-assault-of-yemen-war-with-attack-on-main-port-idUSKBN1J90BA
(24) - Ammar Al-Ashwal, Where is the Yemen War Heading?
(25) - Luca Nevola, Emile Roy, Yemen: Uncertain Trajectory Amid Truce Collapse and Ongoing Negotiations, ACLED. https://acleddata.com/conflict-watchlist-2023/yemen/
(26) - Ibid.
(27) - Ammar Al-Ashwal, Where is the Yemen War Heading?