Most of those fighting in Yemen since 2011 have quietly (as possible) admitted that victory is neither affordable nor attainable. The signs are increasingly visible. For example in the capital Sanaa Shia rebels deny they had placed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh under house arrest and that Saleh and Shia tribal leaders have worked out disagreements that caused tensions and occasional violence. Forces loyal to Saleh had clashed with Shia rebel tribesmen for nearly a week in Sanaa before and the after of the annual meeting of Saleh supporters.
The Shia tribesmen from north of the capital accused Saleh and members of his GPC (General People's Congress) political party of seeking to make a separate peace deal with the national government and their Arab coalition backers. That would be in character for Saleh, a Shia politician long popular because he had cultivated allies from among the many tribes, both Shia and Sunni. That coalition fell apart in 2011 and degenerated into a civil war that brought in Arab coalition troops and warplanes after the rebel Shia tribes took control of the capital in early 2015.
Iranian backing for the Shia rebels makes things worse because this turned the Yemen mess into part of the Iranian effort to make Shia Islam supreme in the Moslem world. So the Yemeni civil war became more than an effort to reduce corruption and settle disagreements over who gets what. The rebels have stalemated the better armed and more numerous government and coalition forces but are nevertheless losing. Most Yemenis agree that the Iranian support has kept the rebels going longer than they would have lasted otherwise. Despite the Iranian aid the rebels appear to most everyone (except the hard core rebels) as fading and should be looking for a peaceful way out.
Former president Saleh helped make the Shia tribes (who have been troublesome for centuries) more of a threat than usual by secretly making an alliance with them. Saleh is a Shia who ran Yemen from the early 1980s until 2011 by brokering deals between all the factions and often doing so in secret. He took a cut but for decades even the most demanding tribes went along because what Saleh was doing was preferable to anarchy. Then came 2011 and the Arab Spring uprisings. Saleh proved adroit in dealing with this and resigned with an amnesty deal. But rather than retire he secretly arranged for his old allies in the military and many Shia and Sunni Yemeni tribes to effectively oppose and overthrow the elected government that succeeded him (and is now kept alive by the Arab coalition). Saleh also had contacts among Sunni Islamic terrorist groups that were surviving in Yemen because of Saleh’s willingness to make deals with anyone. That included Iran. All this was understandable (if not acceptable in this case) to his Arab neighbors but Westerners (especially the Americans) found it incomprehensible. It wasn’t, it was just the way things are done in this part of the world. That is the main reason this region is so backward and ravaged by violence and corruption but that’s another issue.
Earlier in August Saleh has been heard openly disparaging the Shia tribal rebels as a “militia” and unfit to rule Yemen. At least that’s what a lot of Shia tribal rebels believe and many non-Shia heard about these sentiments from non-Shia Saleh followers. Members of the GPC believe Saleh was simply trying to negotiate an end to more than two years of heavy fighting, a growing death toll and massive disruption of the economy. The Shia tribal rebels consider the Saleh approach a betrayal because many of those Shia tribesmen believe that Iranian support will at least enable the Shia tribes to force the government and the Arab coalition to negotiate a peace deal the Shia tribes can live with. The problem here is that Saleh has lost the trust of his tribal allies.
Meanwhile pre-existing problems (overpopulation, water shortages, corruption) and all the unrest since 2011 have left Yemen broke, disorganized and desperate. In early 2015 the rebels controlled at least half the population and about the same portion of GDP and that helped keep them going. Most importantly they took control of the capital and most government ministries in late 2014 with the help of Saleh and the GPC. Saleh had been in touch with the Shia tribes after he resigned in 2012 and negotiated a secret alliance to overthrow the elected government that replaced him. That’s what triggered the Saudi led intervention in early 2015 and widespread fighting and the eventual inability of the government to function.
The 2015 intervention crippled the Shia use of what little oil Yemen produced. That was because exported oil accounted for about 70 percent of pre-2011 government income. By early 2016 the rebels had lost the local oil income and despite scrounging up other sources of income the government budget was cut by more than half and the rebels could no longer pay for essentials, like salaries for the million Yemenis who were government employees in areas they controlled. Continuing to pay these civil servants bought loyalty, or at least less willingness to fight. The Shia rebels were also popular with many non-Shia Yemenis because these rebels were serious about doing something about the corruption. But that did not stop the Saudi backed elected Yemeni government from move the Central Bank from Sanaa to Aden in late 2016 and appoint a new pro-Saudi official to run it. This move was possible because the rebels had lost so many income sources that foreign banks and most of the Yemeni economy saw it in their best interest to support the move. That explains the declining popular support for the rebels, who justified their actions as part of an effort to deal with the corruption and government mismanagement that had already ruined the economy by 2011. In areas they control the rebels were not able to pay salaries for government workers after September. To make matters worse some of the rebels went around trying to collect “taxes” from businesses and wealthy families in areas they controlled and while that brought in some cash (who would say no to a bunch of armed men?) the money did not all go to pay the local government workers. The rebels were getting enough additional cash from Iran to keep them going but not enough to pay all their government workers. Iran always treated Yemen like a low-cost effort because the Iranians considered it a longshot that the Saudis and their local (other Arab oil states) and for foreign allies (mainly the West) would tolerate a pro-Iran government in Yemen. Not all the Shia rebels believed that in 2015, now most do, whether they like it or not.
Perhaps the final blow to the rebels came in April when living conditions in Saana declined to the point that there was an outbreak of cholera (that is spread by infected water and food). The disease spread from the capital and intensified. So far it has killed over 2,000 people and infected over half a million. This is all because the rebels have not put a priority on maintaining the quality of the water supply. Iran blames the people fighting the rebels, especially Saudi Arabia. But the main problem is the corruption. Aid groups complain that they have to divert money from buying and importing food to medical supplies in order to deal with the cholera outbreak. Asking donor states (and private foundations or individuals) for more money doesn’t work when the destination is a place like Yemen. Because of the Internet donors can more easily exchange information on the success or failure of their efforts. Yemen most frequently comes up on the losing side because of the rampant corruption and banditry.
The Shia rebels are largely confined to using the Red Sea port of Hodeida for legitimate imports and a lot of smuggled items. This has been the main port for the delivery of foreign aid for civilians in rebel held areas and, in theory, government controlled areas. The UN is forcing the rebels to allow the UN to police the port and basically control the smuggling and diversion of foreign aid the rebels have been engaged in. Evidence of rebel theft of foreign aid and depriving civilians of essential supplies is piling up and has become difficult to ignore.
Government forces have captured most of the coastal areas as well as closing in on Hodeida. That makes it more difficult for the rebels to smuggle in military supplies any other way except through Hodeida. For months the UN has been pressing the Shia rebels to peacefully give up control of Hodeida but the rebels have refused to consider this. Even proposals that Hodeida be turned over to a neutral third party are turned down. This is not a matter of trust, it’s a matter of survival for the rebels. In part this is because of the smuggling. The rebels have prevented UN personnel from inspecting aid shipments (for weapons and other contraband) and the government claims the rebels have been seizing aid shipments and preventing UN personnel from verifying that the aid is going to civilians. The rebels are putting up a strong defense around Hodeida and that slows down the advance but cannot stop it. As long as the rebels hold onto Hodeida and Iran still has powerful allies in the UN (mainly Russia and China, who can veto some measures) the smuggling can continue as can the use of food to control civilian populations that are hostile to the rebels. But Iran is losing UN support for what is going on in Yemen with Russia or China no longer ready to veto anything the Iranians don’t like.
The Air Campaign Scares Iran
UN analysts estimate there have been a lot more airstrikes in Yemen this year. During the first six months of 2017 there were about 5,600 compared to 3,900 for all of 2016. The means about 30 airstrikes a day so far in 2017 compared to about eleven a day during 2016. Nearly all those airstrikes were carried out by Arab coalition forces, usually with smart bombs and guided missiles. This reduced civilian casualties but did not eliminate them because the rebels and Islamic terrorists (the two primary targets) often operated in populated areas. Iran played this up in the media and that had some impact.
By late 2016 the American government was threatening to halt shipments of smart bombs to Saudi Arabia because of the bad publicity the Arab Coalition aircraft were getting (with the help of Iranian media experts) for the civilian casualties caused by the airstrikes. The U.S. was trying to placate domestic and foreign critics of the Saudi ROE (Rules of Engagement) in Yemen. The Saudis apologized to the Americans for the civilian casualties in Yemen but did not modify their ROE to reduce such deaths. Iranian publicists and diplomats have successfully played down the Yemeni rebel practices of deliberately using civilians as human shields. Since the Arab coalition entered the Yemen civil war in early 2015 both sides have accused the other of deliberately attacking civilians. The government forces (and their Arab allies) accuse the rebels of storing weapons and housing troops in buildings also used by civilians. The Arab warplanes are using smart bombs and missiles to minimize civilian casualties (compared to previous wars) but will still attack rebel forces who are using civilians as human shields.
The Arabs are not as concerned about killing human shields as Western nations and believe that this encourages civilians to avoid being used as human shields. Perhaps, but a lot of civilians are getting hurt. Saudi Arabia has its lobbyists and diplomats in the West and at the UN working overtime to deal with accusations, especially those sponsored by Iran, that the Saudi led Arab coalition air attacks in Yemen has caused over 60 percent of the civilian deaths.
The Iranians have also been promoting accusations (mostly false) that Arab forces and their tribal allies are interfering with foreign aid efforts for desperately hungry or sick Yemeni civilians. Iran has been less successful defending the Shia rebels from all sorts of misbehavior accusations. When there is a war between Shia and Sunni things tend to get ugly. It is no secret that Arabs tend to be brutal when fighting each other and regularly treat civilians badly. The Saudis and other Arab states prefer to keep this out of Western media while continuing to operate as they always have. Western governments, although not most Western media, usually cooperate as best they can about Yemen by looking the other way. But a lot of unsavory local practices are getting unwelcome international publicity.
In response to this American ban the Saudis let the Americans know that Russian and Chinese firms were ready to supply smart bombs and other high-tech gear. While Russia and China are also cooperating with Iran, they are doing it for reasons that have nothing to do with Yemen or the animosity between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Israel is also a potential supplier of high-tech weapons but that would create more political problems for the Saudis. At the same time the Saudis knew that the American president who halted the shipment of the smart bombs would be gone by January 2oth and replaced with a new one who had different attitudes towards the Middle East. At the same time most Western governments support the Saudi effort in Yemen, even if many wish there were fewer civilian casualties. In the United States, for example, the State Department had approved the smart bomb shipment the outgoing U.S. president halted. Meanwhile the first of 84 F-15SA fighter bombers Saudi ordered from the U.S. in 2011 arrived in Saudi Arabia. Older Saudi F-15s are doing much of the bombing in Yemen.
One thing the Iranians don’t like to discuss openly is the fact that the Arab air forces have demonstrated they can indeed use all this high-tech weaponry effectively. Not just the modern warplanes using smart bombs but also the anti-aircraft systems that regularly shoot down ballistic missiles fired by the Shia rebels. The Arabs now have a lot more combat experience with these modern weapons than do the Iranians. Actually the Iranians have few modern warplanes or smart bombs at all and are eager to obtain them now that most sanctions have been lifted.
August 26, 2017: In Sanaa there were some gun battles between supporters of former president Saleh. Several people on both sides were killed or wounded. Total casualties were eventually twenty or more but apparently there were a few as three killed. Leaders of GPC and the Shia tribes openly sought to calm their followers and sought ways to deal with such an obvious weakening of the rebel coalition.
August 25, 2017: In the south, about 30 kilometers off the coast an American UH-60 helicopter went down during a training flight. Five of the six people on board were rescued. The U.S. has a few hundred special operations troops in Yemen and help from more American forces stationed in the Persian Gulf and across the Gulf of Aden in Djibouti. The U.S. forces in Yemen are mainly to go after Islamic terrorists, which benefits everyone, even the Shia rebels. The American try to stay out of the way.
August 24, 2017: In Sanaa supporters of former president Saleh held their annual mass rally to honor him and the GPC (the political party Saleh led to victory 35 years ago). Many Shia tribal rebels manned the checkpoints Saleh supporters passed as they entered the city for the event. Many of the Saleh supporters were more loyal to the GPC than the Iran backed Shia tribesmen and that was more obvious this year.
August 22, 2017: In Sanaa the Shia tribal rebels who control the city declared an emergency and banned partisan activities. This ban was directed at the GPC which was gathering for a mass demonstration to honor the GPC leader, former president and Shia rebel ally Ali Abdullah Saleh. Both the Shia rebels and Saleh followers have armed men in Sanaa but the Shia rebels have more and technically control the city.
August 20, 2017: Abdul Malek Al Houthi, the leader of the Shia tribal rebels gave a televised speech in which he openly criticized the GPC and former president Saleh. The speech described Saleh as a deceiver and seeking to exploit the Shia tribal rebels for his own benefit. The rebel leader reminded everyone that the main reason for the rebellion was to force Yemen to do something about the crippling corruption. Saleh was always a symbol of that corruption in action but he was a Shia and came to the rebellious tribes at a time when both the rebels and the GPC needed allies.
August 15, 2017: Yemenis reacted optimistically to the prospect of the Saudi-led coalition withdrawing. This came after it was revealed from leaked emails that senior Saudis were discouraged with their efforts in Yemen.
August 14, 2017: Hackers obtained emails from the UAE ambassador to the United States and released another batch of them today in which they indicate the new (since June 2017) Saudi crown prince considers the war in Yemen a failure and more of a burden to Saudi Arabia than to Iran. The crown prince is Mohammed bin Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud (or MBS as he is called), the young (born 1985) son of the current king of Saudi Arabia. MBS is seen as one of the brightest (he has a degree in law) of the top Saudi royals. In addition to being the crown prince he was, in January 2016, appointed the youngest Minister of Defense ever. MBS is ambitious and has proved himself capable to handling the Saudi bureaucracy. Since 2014 he has been working on a plan to move Saudi Arabia away from dependence on oil income. In April 2016 he announced that his plan has been accepted and he will implement it. MBS considers this economic plan more important than what is happening in Yemen. The UAE ambassador apparently agreed with that assessment and the need for the Saudis to reform their economy.
August 8, 2017: In the south (Abyan province) Islamic terrorists used a car bomb to kill three soldiers and wound nine of them outside the town of Loder (150 kilometers northeast of Zinjibar, the provincial capital). Islamic terrorist activity in Zinjibar, Loder and much of Abyan has been intense since 2011. Al Qaeda and anti-government tribesmen have been fighting government forces and, increasingly, local tribesmen who turned against the Islamic radicals in order to get food aid trucks and other supplies through to civilians. Islamic terrorists from al Qaeda and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) have been less active in the area since last year because of more counter-terrorism activity by the United States and the Arab coalition. Those operations have driven Islamic terrorists out of key areas like ports and oil production facilities thereby reducing access to cash, supplies and foreign recruits.