The Shia rebels are talking aggressively, apparently at the urging of their Iranian backers. The reality is that the rebels are in trouble and it is getting worse. They are running short of cash and have been unsuccessful in solving that problem. Their Iranian Quds Force advisers urge them to plunder their occupied territories more thoroughly. But that has long-term effects the Shia tribes would rather avoid. Years of civil war have created active opposition to the rebels in their home province of Saada up on the Saudi border. The Saudis have long supported the Sunni tribes up there and, for the last few years, that has included weapons and other military aid. The Sunni tribes are not eager to escalate the fighting because Shia retaliation is up close and personal for the families of Sunni tribesmen. So the violence tends to be low key with no one taking credit for many attacks. The rebels are short of manpower and don’t want to try and crush the rebellious Sunni tribes because that would require more manpower on a permanent basis as an occupation force. The rebels don’t want to publicize these tribal warfare woes, but they are not a secret and are getting worse.
Further south the rebels are still at war with government forces despite several ceasefire agreements. The front lines don’t move much and when they do it is usually the rebels pulling back to conserve dwindling manpower and other resources.
There has been a major reduction in fighting since October 2019 as both sides talk about the possibility of a ceasefire and peace deal. No real progress there. Meeting are held regularly about a ship offshore that the UN uses as a base. It is safer than anywhere in Yemen and close enough for negotiators from both sides to reach. Meanwhile the Shia rebels continue threatening to attack Red Sea shipping. This is part of an Iranian effort to retaliate for economic sanctions on Iran. While coalition airstrikes are down about 80 percent since October, this can change quickly if there are more attacks on Red Sea shipping.
Since Iranian UAVs attacked Saudi oil facilities in September 2019, the Saudis have sought to negotiate some kind of long-term ceasefire in Yemen. Since they are dealing with Iran they are wary of how such an agreement is worded and implemented. This is because Iranian support has enabled the Shia rebels to survive four years of Arab coalition efforts to defeat them and end the Shia rebellion. UN pressure to make peace ignored the fact that restoring Shia autonomy (lost in the 1960s) in the north would make it possible for Iran to continue supplying the Shia tribes with weapons that can be used to attack Saudi Arabia or, according to Israeli leaders, Israel. The rebels still control a hundred kilometers of Red Sea coast and are now using that to threaten all shipping passing by headed for Saudi, Egyptian, Jordanian and Israeli ports as well as the Suez Canal. Traffic going south is headed for the Gulf of Aden and anywhere in the world. The Saudis do not trust Iran and will not accept Iranian weapons and “advisors” on their southwestern border as well as the Red Sea coast. The Red Sea commercial traffic moves over a billion dollars’ worth of raw materials and finished goods each month. This traffic is of vital economic importance to the Arab Gulf states, Israel, Egypt and Jordan. With access to the Red Sea coast, Iran can threaten all of it and let the Shia rebels take the credit (and blame).
The rebels currently provide Iran with access to the Saudi border and for the Saudis that is unacceptable, given the fact that the Iranians are openly calling for the overthrow of the Saudi government, and Iran taking over as the “protector of the two Most Holy Islamic cities of Mecca and Medina”. The Saudis suddenly feel more sympathy for Israel and the years of Iran-financed violence on Israel’s southern border where Gaza-based Hamas exists mainly to try and destroy Israel.
January 3, 2020: In the north (Sanaa, Amran and Amanat al Assima provinces), Shia rebels conducted dozens of raids to kidnap tribal leaders who had become uncooperative. Kidnapping and holding tribal leaders until those tribes agree to cooperate is a short-term solution. Those agreements usually don’t last long and the rebels have to kidnap tribal leaders again. These operations risk turning bloody which, in turn, can lead to tribes openly declaring war on the rebels. The tribes would prefer to keep their resistance low key because the rebels often control the flow of foreign aid to the tribes and that is also cut in an effort to compel cooperation. The tribal people in these provinces have enough problems just getting by without the additional problems of being actively involved with the war between the rebels and the government. Nevertheless the tribes are more hostile towards the rebels than anyone else. There are several Sunni tribes in the Shia majority north and some of these tribes have been at war with Shia neighbors long before the current rebellion went nation-wide in 2013.
January 2, 2020: In Iraq, American UAVs used missiles to kill Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, the long-time commander of the IRGC Quds Force. Also killed were nine Iraqi and Iranian associates of Soleimani. This included the head of the Iraqi Kataeb Hezbollah which is trying to emulate the older Lebanese Hezbollah. It was later revealed that American intelligence indicated that Soleimani had ordered preparations for major attacks on American targets. The Shia rebels of Yemen expressed anger at the death 0f Soleimani and announced they would take part in retaliation against the Americans. Privately the Shia rebels were demoralized by the loss of Soleimani, who was a major proponent of more Iranian support for them. With Soleimani gone the rebels have one less ally in the Iranian leadership. In addition, encouraging the U.S. to attack them does not appeal to the Shia rebels. This does not rule out some kind of attack by more radical rebel factions who really, really miss their man Soleimani.
January 1, 2020: As a peace gesture the Shia rebels released six Saudis prisoners. This deal was brokered by the UN.
December 31, 2019: The UN has resumed grain milling operations
outside the port of Hodeida. The milling was halted on December 26th because the rebels had resumed firing on the grain storage and milling operation. The rebels do this to gain concessions from the UN or government forces. The storage capacity silos hold over 50,000 tons of grain that arrives by ship and is then milled to produce flour for making bread that keeps millions of impoverished Yemenis alive. While the silos are controlled by government forces the nearby Shia rebels can fire on the silos/milling operation or nearby roads into the area. Either tactic makes it impossible to move the grain out to starving Yemeni civilians. The Shia rebels had, since September 2018, frequently blocked access to the grain. If left alone the grain/milling operation can feed nearly four million people for a month.
December 30, 2019: In the northwest (Hudaydah province), Shia rebels shot down a Saudi recon UAV. Photos of the wreckage showed it was a Turkish Karayel UAV, which until now was believed only used by the Turkish military. Karayel is a half-ton UAV with a max endurance of 20 hours and a controlled flight range of 200 kilometers. Preprogrammed flights can go much farther. Karayel can fly high enough (6,500 meters/20,000 feet) to avoid most anti-aircraft weapons but may have been flying lower to obtain more detailed video of what as below. Or it may have had equipment problems. Whatever the case the Saudis had at least one of them, which is now lost. Karayel can also carry weapons, as in either Turkish made laser-guided missiles (similar to Hellfire) or a GPS guided bomb. Two of these weapons can be carried and the Turks have been using this UAV for several years now.
December 29, 2019: In the south (Dhalea province), the Shia rebels fired a missile at a graduation ceremony held by a pro-government militia for men who completed military training. The explosion killed seven and wounded many more. The Shia rebels have attacked similar ceremonies in the past, often timing the attack to strike while the ceremony was still underway. In this case, the ceremony had just ended, otherwise the casualties would have been higher.
The Shia rebels announced that they had selected six targets in Saudi Arabia and three in UAE that will be attacked by rebel cruise missiles and long-range UAVs. What this really means that those targets closer to Iran than northwest Yemen (and the Saudi border) will probably be attacked by cruise missiles and armed UAVs launched from Iran. The Shia rebels and Iran will insist these unmanned aircraft actually came from Yemen. Since such an attack in September on Saudi oil facilities, the Saudis have been more willing to try and negotiate a peace deal. That has not been going well and more attacks on targets deep inside Saudi Arabia will not help.
Earlier the Shia rebels also threatened to use their Iranian ballistic and cruise missiles against Israel. An attack on Israel is recognized as unlikely, simply because the rebels don’t have any weapons that can reach that far. Worse, even if an unsuccessful attempt were made he Israelis would retaliate and that is something the rebels want no part of.
December 26, 2019: Shia rebel leaders met with the Iranian foreign minister in Oman to discuss the future of Iranian support for the Shia rebels. Iran continues to suffer economically from sanctions and has had to cut support for overseas operations (in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq and Yemen). While Gaza and Yemen are relatively low-cost for Iran Yemen is considered particularly important because it puts an Iranian ally on the Saudi border and able to launch attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE whenever Iran needs it. Right now the radicals (IRGC leaders) in Iran are pushing for more violence against Gulf Arabs and American forces in Iraq. Attacks on Israel are much more difficult so IRGC wants to concentrate on the Americans and Arab states that oppose Iran. A growing number of Shia rebel leaders are reluctant to go along with what Quds Force (the IRGC “dirty deeds” department) is demanding. Being on the Saudi border makes the Shia rebel home province vulnerable to Saudi attack and a growing number of Saudis support a major escalation involving more air and ground attacks on Shia rebels just across the border.
December 23, 2019: Most of the foreign aid groups in Yemen halted their operations because of continued Shia rebel attacks on some relief operations. Over the weekend there were attacks that wounded relief workers and damaged their equipment and facilities. Such violence against relief operations, especially the delivery of food and other essential supplies, has been a constant problem with the rebels. What is going on here is typical of many conflict zones where one side or the other tries to take control of aid distribution to further their own goals. This usually means stealing some of the aid to support continued violence and to block aid to populations who do not support them. This sort of thing is worst in Yemen and nearby Somalia. The situation is particularly critical in Yemen, which is considered the largest (in terms of needy people) disaster relief situation in the world but is chronically short of money. That’s because donor nations favor situations where their aid money will do the most good rather than areas were much of the aid money supports the people causing the chaos.
December 19, 2019: In Saudi Arabia, a local man admitted that he had attacked people at a public event on November 11th on orders from
(Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) in Yemen. This knife attack left three people wounded and the attacker under arrest for what he described as a protest against a public performance of music. This used to be illegal in Saudi Arabia but younger leaders are taking over and easing a lot of the lifestyle restrictions that have been in force for decades. The attacker was a Yemeni living legally in Saudi Arabia and police eventually connected him with AQAP and arrested an associate in Saudi Arabia. By the end of the month, the attacker had been sentenced to death and his associate to twelve years in prison. Most of the remaining AQAP personnel are in central Yemen (
Baida province) and to the east. Anywhere an Islamic terrorist can find a hospitable tribe, they can usually arrange refuge
. AQAP has few active members left in Yemen and the only remaining local support is from some separatist Sunni tribes in the south and east. In the south (Shabwa province) Yemeni special operation troops have been finding and raiding the few remaining rural AQAP hideouts there.
Since 2017 AQAP has been under heavy attack by the Americans and the Arab coalition and the Islamic terrorists have responded by shifting more of their attacks to the government and Arab coalition forces.
December 8, 2019: Sudan announced its recall of all of its soldiers from the war in Yemen. At one time 15,000 Sudanese soldiers served with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The contingent has already been reduced to 5,000 and these will soon be withdrawn. Sudan now believes that the Yemen conflict has no military solution.
November 29, 2019: Yemen continues to be one of the most violent areas in the world. This is according to the GTI (Global Terrorism Index), which counts all forms of terrorism. Afghanistan and Iraq have usually been competing for first and second place while the rest of the top ten fluctuates. The rest of the top ten is currently Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, India, Yemen, Philippines, and Congo. India, Philippines, Yemen and Congo all have Islamic terrorism accounting for a minority of the deaths. In the last few years, the deaths that are counted for the GTI have declined considerably and that decline continues.
November 27, 2019: An American destroyer halted and searched a dhow in the Indian Ocean (near Oman and Iran) because an ID check had shown it to be “stateless.” That indicated smuggling and a search of the cargo revealed a large number of key components for Iranian cruise missiles (both land-attack and anti-ship) as well as anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles. The cargo was apparently headed for Yemen, where final delivery would probably be made by fishing boats carrying cargoes of weapons rather than recently caught fish. There are so many of these fishing boats off the Red Sea coast of Yemen that not all can be searched and the smuggler boats seek to appear less suspicious than the actual fishing boats. Iran pays what it takes to get this smuggling done and there are plenty of skilled smugglers in Yemen looking for work, no questions asked. Such cargoes used to be sent to Gaza on a regular basis but the Israeli-Egyptian blockade is tighter than ever and it is difficult to even get individuals or suitcases of cash into Gaza.