Yemen: The Shia Rebellion That Threatens Them All


May 10, 2015: Saudi warplanes bombed the Sanaa home of former president Saleh. The Saleh family was not there and is said to be uninjured. Long time ruler Saleh was the target of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Yemen and has been trying to broker a peace deal and thus regain much political power and possibly become president again. Despite being a Shia himself Saleh managed to assemble a coalition of largely Sunni groups that kept him in power for decades. That coalition fell apart in 2011 and Saleh was deposed in 2012, after he had negotiated amnesty for himself. He was replaced by Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi after elections the Shia insisted were unfair (but international observers approved of). Saleh was long suspected to secretly supporting the Shia rebels and that proved to be true once the Shia rebels sought to take control of the government earlier this year.

The air strikes began on March 26th and the intensity declined in late April but returned to their original intensity on May 7th. The coalition is apparently getting better information from people inside Yemen because the latest round of strikes hit Shia rebel headquarters and supply and equipment storage areas that had already been moved at least once and were supposed to be difficult to spot and identify from the air. Some of the bombs wrecked runways at the main airports under Shia control. There have been thousands of civilian casualties so far, in part because the Shia rebels have moved some of their headquarters and other facilities (including ammo and heavy weapons) to residential areas. As expected the Saudis Arab coalition bombed anyway and now some UN officials are calling that a war crime.

Since the air offensive began on March 26th there have been nearly 10,000 casualties, over a third of them civilians. Fighting is taking place in the north (near the Saudi border) and all over the south as the Shia rebels try to expand their control. Since late March over 300,000 civilians have been forced to flee their homes to avoid the violence.

The Shia rebels have not yet responded to the coalition ceasefire proposed on the 7th. The air strikes and fighting on the ground have halted most truck traffic meaning that food and fuel is running short in cities. This means less electricity and supplies for hospitals and many more people going hungry. Even before the Shia rebels began their advance last year most Yemenis were short of food, mainly because of rising prices and unemployment. Now some 20 million Yemenis (80 percent of the population) are hungry and many of those are now in danger of starvation. This is a catastrophe that has been building for years. The current situation is made worse by the naval blockade which delays aid ships for a week or more as boarding parties inspect the cargoes to ensure there is no contraband (military gear for the Shia rebels or Islamic terrorists) on board.

Meanwhile heavy fighting continues in Aden. Elsewhere in the south (Taiz) Shia rebels are encountering more resistance from Sunni tribal militias and the rebel advance is stalled. The rebels have been aided by army units loyal to former president Saleh. The army operates tanks and artillery which fire freely inside urban areas, causing casualties among civilians as well as armed tribesmen. In the provincial capital of Taiz hospitals are reporting over a hundred badly wounded patients arriving each week. In Lahj province (just north of the port of Aden) the rebel offensive is also stalled by coalition air strikes, tribal militias and troops loyal to president Hadi. On the northern border of Lahj (al Dali province) the situation is similar.

Egypt has been officially at war with Shia rebels in Yemen since April but the Egyptian government is not eager to actually do anything. That’s because the security forces are still needed to deal with Islamic terrorists and political opposition at home that is allied with some of the terror groups. The newly elected Egyptian government is not accepted by all Egyptians and is seen by many as similar to the corrupt and incompetent Mubarak dictatorship overthrown in 2011. On a more basic level the country is broke and dependent on foreign donors to keep functioning. The two major donors are the United States and the Arab Gulf states. The Arabs want assurances that if the situation in Yemen gets really bad they can depend on some Egyptian troops. So far the Egyptian leadership has been able to keep its two major donors happy by saying much evil Shia rebels in Yemen and doing as little as possible. Some Egyptian warships are helping to blockade Yemen (and held safeguard ships headed to and from the very lucrative Suez Canal). Some recent army training exercises were done to demonstrate a willingness to send troops to Yemen if needed.

May 9, 2015: The Saudi led Arab coalition carried out over a hundred air strikes today. This was the third day of heavy bombing.

In the southwest (Taiz) Shia rebels scored another victory over pro-government Sunni tribesman and killed a prominent tribal militia leader who was also active in the Yemeni Moslem Brotherhood.

May 7, 2015: The Arab coalition offered the Shia rebels a five day ceasefire, starting on the 12th, to allow relief supplies to move freely. ) At the same time the coalition ordered all civilians in the northern Saada province (the homeland for many Shia tribes) to evacuate because the entire province was now considered a war zone and after 7 PM on the 8th warplanes would destroy anything that moved or looked like a military target. Several thousand civilians fled Saada as a result. This was apparently a response to Shia rebels firing rockets and mortar shells into Saudi Arabia on the 5th and 6th and killing eleven people and wounding dozens more.

AQAP admitted that it recently lost another of its senior leaders (Nasser bin Ali al Ansi) to a recent American UAV missile attack. Ansi was involved with the Islamic terror attack in France on January 7th that left 17 dead and AQAP took credit for.

May 6, 2015: In the southern port city of Aden Shia rebels captured the presidential palace compound and the surrounding neighborhood.

In the UN the Yemeni ambassador (representing the Hadi government) called for support of a ground invasion of Yemen to suppress the Shia rebels and stop the fighting. The UN was also asked to support a ceasefire to allow food and other aid to reach civilians.

May 4, 2015: Senegal has joined the Saudi led coalition (currently Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, Egypt, Sudan, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt) and will send 2,100 troops to Saudi Arabia. Pakistan is sort of an associate member, saying it will send troops if Saudi Arabia is invaded by Iran. Egypt is mad at Iran over lots of things, including recent revelations that Iran had established a large spy network in Egypt, which had recently suffered heavy losses (and provided Egyptian counter-intelligence with a lot of embarrassing, to Iran, details.)

May 3, 2015: The Egyptian government has extended by 90 days its mandate (commitment) to send troops to Saudi Arabia. On March 26th, when the Saudi led coalition began bombing the Shia rebels Egypt agreed to be ready for 40 days to send troops if needed.  

April 30, 2015:  Recent news leaks showed that UN investigators had been tracking Iranian arms shipments to rebellious Yemeni Shia tribes since at least 2009. That was no secret, as some of these shipments were seized by the Yemeni Coast Guard. But UN investigators relied on a large network of informants to gather more details of this Iranian aid effort. Israel has been less secretive about Iranian arms smuggling and recently complained that Iran is still trying to smuggle weapons to Hezbollah (in Lebanon) and Hamas (in Gaza).          

April 29, 2015: On the Saudi border Shia rebels attacked several Saudi border posts (compounds or fortified observation facilities) and killed three border guards. The Saudis fought back and say they killed over 30 of the attackers. The Shia rebels also launched a major offensive in the southern port of Aden but were stopped by the growing force of soldiers and pro-government tribesmen in the city.

April 28, 2015: An Iranian air transport, which had agreed to land and be inspected for contraband before continuing on to the Yemeni capital, refused to land and instead headed for the capital. Coalition warplanes then bombed the runways to prevent anyone from landing (at least until repairs could be made). With that, the Iranian air transport turned back. Non-Iranian aircraft carrying aid have complied with the Saudi inspection order and been allowed to land in Yemen.

April 27, 2015: Some 300 Yemeni tribesmen returned from Saudi Arabia where they had received training and equipment. The tribesmen were from Marib province in the southeast. Apparently more tribesmen are in Saudi Arabia receiving training and other assistance. The Saudis are trying to form a tribal coalition but most of the Sunni tribes (most Yemenis are Sunni) are rivals in one way or another and are only temporarily cooperating against the Shia rebellion that threatens them all.

The government (in exile in Saudi Arabia) declared three cities (Aden, Taiz and Dali) disaster areas because of the extensive battle damage caused by weeks of fighting in those places.

April 26, 2015: Saudi Arabian National Guard troops began arriving at the Yemen border, to join army and border guard forces already there. Overall, the Saudi military has about 200,000 troops. But 80,000 of those belong to a separate force, the National Guard. These are organized into eight brigades (three mechanized and five infantry, for a total of 32 battalions.) There are also another 24 battalions of National Guard reservists. About 75 percent of the National Guard troops spend most of their time guarding oil facilities, and other important government assets. The rest provide security for the royal family and key government officials. The most loyal, and able, members of the royal family hold senior commands in the National Guard. This is an organization that puts a lot of emphasis on loyalty.



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