Iran is suffering a rare defeat in Yemen but the Saudi led coalition is unable to achieve a complete victory. The problem is that the Shia rebels are too effective as fighters, especially in the northern mountains they come from, for the Saudis to win at an acceptable (in terms of their own casualties) cost. Whenever or however this war ends there will be some unpleasant side-effects. For one thing the Saudis will still have a needy (of Arab oil state charity) southern neighbor. Then there is the Islamic terrorist terrorist sanctuary angle. The chaos since 2011 has made Yemen a suitable hideout for a growing number of Islamic terrorists. Both AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) are thriving despite efforts by the U.S. to track and attack Islamic terrorist leaders from the air. For over a year AQAP has controlled he southeastern the port of Mukalla and much of the surrounding Hadramawt province. ISIL is scattered in remote locations or urban bases in Aden. This reflects the different strategies of the two groups AQAP believes in slowly expanding while ISIL favors aggressive attacks and boldness. Neither approach has had much success in over a thousand years of use but both remain popular with Islamic radicals.
The Shia have no equivalent to AQAP or ISIL but the Iranians do have a less bloodthirsty (but more professional) group of Islamic terrorists that they sponsor officially. The commander of this group, the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) recently made public the fact that the IRGC was responsible for training (and often recruiting, arming and paying) 200,000 pro-Iran fighters in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This, in general, is no secret. It was long believed that as many as 50,000 Iranian created militiamen are fighting in Syria. There are somewhat smaller forces in Lebanon (about 25,000), Iraq (over 20,000) and Yemen (more than 15,000). Pakistan and Afghanistan were not happy with the IRGC publicly admitting that Iran has sponsored local (and often illegal) Shia militias. The IRGC is composed of Shia Islamic radicals who wish to replace Saudi Arabia has the protector of the most sacred shrines of Islam.
Iran understands that Yemen is far more important to the Gulf Arabs than to Iran. Moreover the Yemeni Shia have never been dependent on Iran like those in Lebanon (Hezbollah), Iraq (Shia Arabs are a majority) or Syria (the Assad government). Control (or substantial influence) in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon give Iran a land route to their declared main foe; Israel. The Saudi royals and Arabs in general are secondary to the Iranian official hatred of Israel. This hate campaign is maintained by the senior Shia clerics who turned Iran into a religious dictatorship in the 1980s. Historically strange things like that happen occasionally in Iran. A growing majority of Iranians no longer see the point (or if there ever was one) in this obsession with destroying the only functioning democracy and most successful economy in the region. That seems to encourage the ruling clerics to intensify the government sponsored “Israel must be destroyed” mania. The Iranian threat to the Arab states in the region, especially those with oil, is of more immediate concern for the Arabs and the main reason why Arabs have openly become allies with Israel against Iran.
This complex web of opportunities and capabilities means Yemen is basically a sideshow where winning is not the highest priority for Iran or Arabs. Both the Arabs and Iran have an interest in shutting down the Sunni Islamic terrorists in Yemen because these cutthroats see both Arab rulers and Shia in general as prime candidates for elimination. But the Iran/Arab animosity also makes it difficult to even meet for peace talks. So far this year Iranian radicals have set fire to the Saudi embassy in Iran and the Saudis responded by cutting diplomatic ties. Other Gulf Arabs reduced their diplomatic representation in and ties with Iran. So the Yemen peace talks that were supposed to start in January, and work out a peace settlement for Yemen, are on hold.
Meanwhile Iran continues trying to delay the defeat of the Shia rebels until something can be done to distract or disrupt the Saudi led Arab coalition that has deprived the Shia rebels of the victory they seemed on the brink of in early 2015. Both sides continue fighting and government forces are closing in on Sanaa, the national capital. As powerful as it is, the Arab coalition is dependent on popular support at home and that means keeping coalition casualties down. So the advance is deliberate and prudent. Taking Sanaa will get lots of Arab troops killed and conquering the Shia tribes’ mountainous homeland north of the capital would be even bloodier. This conflict is ending but is doing so without addressing the corruption and bad government that made Yemen a bloody mess in the first place.
In the north (Jawf province) pro-government Sunni and rebel Shia tribes have continued fighting for control of territory and the pro-government Sunni forces are slowly winning. Since the Sunni tribes now have air support from the Arab coalition and access to training and supplies (weapons, ammo, medical) they have been able to drive Shia tribesmen out of most of the Jawf. To the west of Jawf is Saada province, the Shia tribal homeland. North of Jawf is Saudi Arabia. Going into Saada will be a much more difficult fight but the Sunni tribes want revenge for several years of heavy fighting with the Shia. So far this year the Shia resistance has been more determined but the pro-government forces are still taking back control of towns and areas containing key roads.
Both Iran and the Arabs are accusing each other of deliberately hurting civilians. All these accusations are correct. The Arabs control the air and bomb anything they suspect is a military target regardless of how many civilians might be hurt. The Shia rebels do the same on the ground with gunfire, grenades, artillery and rockets. Both sides deliberately block food supplies for civilians who support the other side. All this nasty behavior are actually ancient military practices that never seem to go away no matter how much those not involved in a particular war condemn it. In the last ten months the fighting in Yemen has left over 7,000 dead, about a third of them civilians. The Saudis have apologized for the civilian casualties but have not modified their ROE (Rules of Engagement) to reduce such deaths. The Arab coalition has done a lot to get food and other aid to the Yemenis (over 80 percent of the population) that need it. This has included using air dropped (via parachute) pallets of food in cases where pro-government civilians were surrounded by rebels. The Shia rebels are accused of frequently seizing this aid for their own use. This is not unknown in a combat zone where there are a lot of irregular fighters.
January 28, 2016: In Aden a suicide car bomber failed in an attempt to get inside the presidential palace compound. ISIL took credit for this effort which did manage to kill eleven people and wound twenty. Most of the casualties were security personnel and nearby civilians. Aden remains a major battlefield because this is the temporary capital of Yemen (for the last elected government) and has attracted most of the Islamic terrorist attacks. The Islamic terrorists want to kill all Shia but they want to conquer Yemen first. AQAP and ISIL also want to destroy each other but that effort has unofficially been put on hold until the local government and Yemeni Shias can be taken care of. As a result of this Aden suffers 10-20 assassinations (of senior government and military officials) a month as well as one or two bombings a week. AQAP and ISIL compete with each other to carry out the most spectacular (and newsworthy) attacks.
In the northwest near the border and the Saudi Arabian province of Jizan Shia rebels shelled a Saudi border post killing one Saudi soldier.
January 27, 2016: In Aden reinforcements (hundreds of troops and dozens of armored vehicles) from the UAE arrived by ship.
January 21, 2016: In the northwest the Shia controlled Red Sea port of Hodeida was attacked from the air in an effort to destroy oil facilities used by the Shia. This has been a major source of fuel for the Shia rebels. The bombs and resulting fires left over 16 dead.
January 19, 2016: In the east (Hadramawt province) two Islamic terrorists were killed by missiles from an American UAV. The dead were members of AQAP. This was the second such UAV attack in Yemen this year.
January 16, 2016: In the south (Shabwa province) three Islamic terrorists were killed by missiles from an American UAV. The dead were members of AQAP.