Yemen: Déjà Vu All Over Again


February 1, 2018: In the north Government forces have been moving closer to the capital (Sanaa) since early January. There the Shia rebels are still trying to recover from the death of former president (and rebel ally) Saleh in early December and the defection of many Saleh supporters. Saleh’s political party is still officially part of the rebel coalition but many members of that party and associated armed groups have deserted or defected to the government. The Shia rebels are suffering from a sustained and widespread cash shortage and have been unable to pay many of the government employees in Sanaa. The loyalty of these unpaid (for many months) civil servants is suspect and the rebels appear to be losing control of the capital.

In the southwest (Taiz province) government forces broke through rebel positions blocking access to areas the rebels have held since 2015. The government forces have been advancing since January 25th as part of an operation to clear Shia rebels from most of Taiz province. The most heavily fought over area continues to be Taiz city, near the Red Sea. Government forces have been slowly driving rebels out of the city. In 2017 government forces were pushing inland from the Red Sea town of Mocha (Mokha) to open a land route to Taiz. The major obstacle was the Khalid bin al Waleed military base, which was surrendered to the rebels in 2015 by soldiers loyal to the former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. The base is 30 kilometers east of Mocha and held out until mid-2017 but the rebels were not completely driven out of the 12 square kilometer base. Government forces are also advancing from east of Taiz as well in order to prevent any rebel reinforcement of rebels still around the Khalid base.

Allies Attack Aden

Over the last four days southern separatists have forced their way into the port city of Aden demanding that changes be made in the composition of the current elected (UN recognized and Arab coalition backed) Hadi government. The southern separatists complain that the current administration in the south is corrupt, incompetent and not serving the needs of the people. That is largely because the Hadi government does not control all of the south. There are still large areas controlled by tribes that are independent or support Islamic terror groups. All the tribes believe they are not getting their fair share of financial and other support. The Aden invaders belong to the STC (South Transitional Council), which is recognized by the Arab coalition (especially the UAE) that is leading the battle against the Shia rebels. The two major members of that coalition, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have divided some of the responsibility for the fighting and maintaining security. The UAE looks after Aden and has had good relations with the STC but not enough to prevent the current violence that has, in the last four days caused several hundred casualties and at least 40 dead. The UAE and Saudi Arabia sent some senior officials to Aden to negotiate with the STC.

The STC itself is all about the centuries old animosity between northern and southern Yemenis that was last “mended” in the 1990s. The possibility of a split has returned because the UAE (United Arab Emirates) has been in charge of security (and aid delivery) in the south since 2015 and supported the formation of the STC. This group is composed of southern tribes that want autonomy but are willing to fight and defeat the Islamic terrorists as well as the Shia rebels first. Aidarous al Zubaidi, the STC leader is seen as more popular in the south than Abdrabu Mansur Hadi the last and current elected president of united Yemen. Hadi has only briefly visited Yemen a few times since 2015 and spends most of his time in the Saudi Arabian capital. This is for Hadi’s safety, given the number of assassinations going on in Aden (where the Hadi government was moved to in 2015). Hadi appointed a prime minister, who spends most of his time in Aden, along with the government ministers. The Saudis and the UAE do not agree on dividing Yemen once more but for the moment it is more convenient to support the STC and efforts to defeat the Iran backed Shia rebels. After that, who knows?

Hit The Repeat Button

The 2014 Shia uprising and now the 2018 southern separatist violence is, unfortunately, business-as-usual for Yemen. This and all the pre-2011 (Arab Spring) unrest was largely because there were many Yemenis who had a grudge against whatever tries to act as a national government. Most of this could be traced back to the civil war that ended, sort of, in 1994. That war was caused by the fact that, when the British left Yemen in 1967, their former colony in Aden became one of two countries called Yemen. The two parts of Yemen finally united in 1990, but a civil war in 1994 was needed to seal the deal. That fix didn't really take, and within a decade the north and south were pulling apart again.

This came back to the fact that Yemen has always been a region, not a country. Like most of the rest of the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa (northeast Africa) region, the normal form of government, until the last century or so, were wealthier coastal city states, nervously coexisting with interior tribes that got by on herding or farming (or a little of both). This whole "nation" idea is still looked on with some suspicion by many in the region. This is why the most common forms of government are the more familiar ones of antiquity (kingdom, emirate or modern variation in the form of a hereditary dictatorship.) Yemen is still all about the tribes. The national government is a bunch of guys who deal with foreigners, and try to maintain peace among the tribes. Controlling the national government is a source of much wealth, as officials can steal part of the foreign aid and taxes (mostly on imports or royalties from oil).

The 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Yemen produced a lot of shooting and demonstrating but the most important aspect of that was the negotiating, in an attempt to reorganize the network of tribal, business and political alliances that has kept the Saleh family in charge for over 30 years. This was a very complicated process, since the tribes (especially the two major tribal coalitions) have very complex power structures. Moreover, the country is very poor and doesn't have much to lose. Thus there is more enthusiasm for the traditional bluffing, bullying and bluster, than an attempt to fight large, bloody, decisive battles. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia entered these negotiations, trying to ensure that the most durable and effective coalition is formed. That did not work out. Yemen has very serious economic problems, which demand a lot more attention than who is in overall charge of the mess. While the demonstrators called for democracy, it would be block (tribal) politics, with the leaders (and their negotiations) having to contend with the will of the people via the elections.

While the 2011 demonstrations in the major cities were about establishing a true democracy, most of the fighting was between tribal coalitions seeking to control the country, and especially the oil and gas fields in the south. The tribal leaders have more gunmen than the democracy demonstrators and have local interests that trump national ones. Elections were held in 2012 but the fighting continued. The longer that went on, the more it looked and felt like a civil war, which is what it tuned into by early 2015. This may ultimately leave Yemen divided again (as it so often has been in the past.) This is all made worse by the fact that Yemen's economic situation has been rapidly deteriorating for more than a decade. This is largely because the government has done nothing to address the problems of over-population, water shortages and Khat (a narcotic plant that is chewed fresh, requires a lot of water to grow and is worth a lot of money in Saudi Arabia where it is illegal.)

Yemen has always been ruled by tribal coalitions. Before 2011 Saleh's coalition was always under pressure, but not by an equally large and united group ready to take over. That's because the country is a mess and most tribal leaders are aware of this. Whoever takes over running the government is responsible for a seemingly hopeless situation. The separatist tribes in the south are encouraged by the prospect of seizing the oil fields there. But there isn't much oil being pumped and it's almost gone. But, for the moment, it's something. It's also why the government kept fighting to retain control of the south. After 2015 the Saudis tried to form a tribal coalition but most of the Sunni tribes (most Yemenis are Sunni) are rivals in one way or another and were only temporarily cooperating against the Shia rebellion that threatens them all.

New Boss, Same As The Old Boss

Efforts to create a more effective Yemen government are failing because the one that was overthrown was, for all its faults, something a growing number of Yemenis are getting nostalgic about. The Saleh government lasted because it worked better than any alternatives. Ali Abdullah Saleh has been president of a unified Yemen since 1990, and before that, North Yemen since 1978. He had lots of friends and allies, and lots of enemies. But by 2011 the majority of Yemenis wanted to see someone else as president, if only to see if such a change in leadership would do anything to solve the growing list of problems the country was, and still is, suffering from. It was no surprise that a new president didn’t have much success dealing with the corruption and growing water shortages, but Saleh had plenty of opportunities to fix things and failed. So in 2012 a new president, Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was elected and by early 2013 had stitched together a coalition with deals that gave key supporters senior government jobs and a license to steal. It’s the Yemeni way and changing it was not easy when you have little else to offer allies that demand something for their support.

One opportunity Hadi encountered was the call to address the complaints many families who suffered land theft during the Saleh period. Saleh would basically steal land (often with some fictitious justification) from opponents and give it to supporters. Many of the victims are now Hadi supporters but so are some of those who got the stolen land. These land confiscations can cause feuds and bad relations that span generations. The problem is there is no way to un-steal the land without creating a new angry family. Some Hadi advisors insisted that dealing with the land confiscations would be a net plus because the president would at least be on the side of doing-the-right-thing. Nothing is easy in Yemen and resolving the land disputes proved to be a futile effort.

Long time ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh was not surprised when he was the main target of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Yemen. He agreed to step down but attempted to broker a deal that would enable him to remain an active politician and possibly become president again. That was turned down and he was out of power. 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 but Saleh used it to negotiate amnesty for himself. He was replaced by Hadi via 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 in 2015. It was also revealed that Iran had been supporting the Shia rebels.

The Shia rebels were a frequent headache for Saleh but after he was deposed it did not surprise most Yemenis when it was revealed that Saleh had quietly developed an alliance with the Shia tribes up north. About a third of Yemenis are Shia and the Shia-Saleh Coalition has attracted some Sunni support (because the Shia have always called for a reduction in corruption and more effective government). Thus the rebels are not only more united but by late 2014 had the support of nearly half the population. Those advantages began to disappear when the Shia rebels sought to seize control of the government in early 2015. The brought in the Arab coalition and by mid-2015 the Shia rebels were retreating but not defeated. By 2016 Saleh apparently realized the Iran backed Shia rebels were not going to succeed and began secretly negotiating with the groups the Shia rebels were fighting. In 2017 the Shia rebels discovered Saleh’s negotiations and he was killed in early December while trying to flee the rebel controlled capital (Sanaa). The Saleh coalition survived, despite heavy attack by the Shia rebels but this weakened the rebels and the government forces and Arab coalition took advantage of the situation and advanced. Iran appears unable to do much to reverse all this given that Iran is facing difficulties at home and elsewhere.

January 31, 2018: In the north coalition airstrikes destroyed five well hidden (in populated areas) rebel ammunition storage sites in the capital (Sanaa). There were a large number of secondary explosions and fires that went on for hours. Apparently information from defecting rebels (loyal to former president Saleh) provided accurate targeting information.

In the south the invasion of Aden by separatist Sunni tribal forces has largely halted movement of relief supplies from the port area for at least two days. At least 40,000 refugees living in camps outside Aden are running out of supplies. The leader of the southern separatists declared that he was still loyal to president Hadi even though the separatist forces had surrounded the presidential palace and seized key military bases in the city. But to show good faith the separatists returned control of two bases they had occupied and exchanged prisoners with the government forces.

January 30, 2018: In the south (Shabwa province) an AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) suicide car bomber attacked a government checkpoint leaving 14 soldiers dead.

January 28, 2018: In the south separatist Sunni tribal militias attacked government facilities in Aden, where the last elected government of Yemen has established itself until Shia rebels can be drive out of Sanaa

January 26, 2018: The Saudi led maritime blockade force intercepted a second unmanned Shark 33 patrol boat loaded with explosives and headed for warships off the coast. The bomb boat used an Iranian guidance system. It was intercepted and disabled. The first such Shark 33 boat was intercepted in late 2017 by U.S. naval forces. Both Shark 33 boats were launched from Shia rebel controlled areas on the Red Sea coast.

January 24, 2018: Maritime safety organizations are warning commercial shipping to keep clear of areas off the Yemen Red Sea coast that might contain naval mines deployed by Shia rebels.

January 21, 2018: Off the Red Sea coast of Yemen a Yemeni patrol boat caught some Shia rebels trying to place a naval mine in waters used by commercial traffic. Five of the rebels were killed but one was taken alive and the mine was disabled.

January 20, 2018: In the northwest another rebel ballistic missile was shot down by Saudi Patriot anti-missile missiles after it crossed the border headed for the city of Najran, which is near the Yemen border and capital of Narjan province. There was a similar ballistic missile attack on the 11th and 5th of January.

January 17, 2018: Saudi Arabia transferred $2 billion to the Yemen Central Bank to support the exchange rate of the Yemeni currency and keep food (and other) prices down in Yemen.

January 12, 2018: A UN report on their investigation of arms smuggling and casualties in Yemen was leaked to the media. In addition to the usual criticism of the Arab coalition air attacks (which often kill civilians as well as nearby rebels or rebel bases) there was also data on Iranian and rebel activities. Nearly 9,000 have been killed since early 2015 by the fighting in Yemen. Nearly 50,000 have been injured. Over seven million civilians (a third of the population) are cut off from regular access to food. The report also confirmed other evidence that Iran was smuggling weapons, particularly ballistic missiles, into Yemen and these ballistic missiles were being used for attacks on Saudi Arabia. Iran denied the charges and Russia sided with Iran and said it would use its veto to block UN measures against Iran.

January 2, 2018: In central Yemen (Baida province) the United States concentrated most of its airstrikes (usually via UAVs) during 2017. There were 114 of these airstrikes, most of them towards the end of the year and largely going after AQAP and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) camps and key personnel in and around Baida. This greatly reduced Islamic terrorist capabilities in Baida, which had long been an Islamic terrorist stronghold.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close