Yemen: Victory At Sea


March 1, 2023: The war in Ukraine has caused food shortages because Ukraine and Russia account for over a quarter of the world’s exports of wheat and similar crops. Economic sanctions on Russia and Iran have reduced oil exports and driven up the cost of oil and natural gas for countries like Yemen. One side effect is that, in some parts of Yemen, local forests are being cut down to supply fuel for commercial bakers and cooking in general. Iran supports the Russian war effort in Ukraine and that has reduced Iranian support for the Shia rebels in Yemen.

Another reason for less Iranian support for the Shia rebels is that the international naval blockade force is intercepting Iranian smuggling boats shortly after they leave their southern Iranian port of Jask. The smugglers rarely get past Oman and still more rarely to the Red Sea. For example, on January 15th a smuggling boat was intercepted and inspection found it was carrying 3,000 assault rifles, 578,000 rounds of ammo and several anti-tank missiles. This follows another interception on January 6th and one in December and one on November 8th. American and French warships in the Gulf of Oman often carry out the intercepts and searches of cargo and fishing boats headed for Yemen from Jask, which had become the main location where smuggler ships were loaded with hidden cargo for Shia rebels in Yemen.

Some searches take a week to find well-concealed cargoes of weapons, ammunition, tons of ammonium perchlorate (used for rocket fuel) and urea fertilizer (used for explosives). A recent inspection found a smuggler transporting rocket fuel. The Shua rebels had been getting this propellant for years and it was unclear how Iran was getting it to Yemen without being detected. The rocket fuel was particularly well hidden and satellite surveillance of Jask apparently indicated which ships were carrying the well concealed rocket fuel cargo.

Previous cargoes, since at least 2017, included Iranian naval mines. These are a recognized danger to all ships in the Red Sea where they were used. In 2020 shipping companies warned their ship captains that naval mines, of the contact type, were floating into the Red Sea from the north Yemen coast. That coast is off the Shia rebel home province of Sadaa and the rebels had been releasing groups of moored and un-moored mines in an effort to disrupt Red Sea shipping traffic to Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The currents generally flow north in this part of the Red Sea, towards the major Saudi Red Sea ports and the entrance to the Suez Canal. The Shia rebels drop Iranian moored and unmoored mines into the sea at night. These mines are designed to have their weighted base sink to the bottom of shallow (less than 20 meters) water. A chain is used to keep moored mines near the surface. Some of these contact mines were released to float on the surface while others had their chains break, turning the moored mine into a free floating one. These mines proved most dangerous to Yemeni fishing boats, including the ones Iran used to smuggle weapons in. Dozens of fishermen were killed when their boats hit one of these contact mines. These mines are a danger to blockading warships, which are better equipped to detect the mines. Most commercial shipping is moved in very large ships on which contact mines usually inflict only minor hull damage. During 2020 there was a major effort to locate and neutralize these free-floating mines. By the end of 2020 over 160 mines were found and neutralized. The rebels continued putting mines in the water during 2021 and the number found and neutralized remained at 2020 levels. The use of naval mines declined in 2022 because the Iranians and Shia rebels realized that the mines and bomb boats are not much of a threat to warships (which are constantly on the lookout for them) and commercial ships that are too big to sink with these mines or bomb boats. The only ships harmed by the mines were fishing boats and small coastal cargo boats that were often operated by Yemeni Shia.

All this smuggling cost Iran a lot of money, both for the smuggled cargos and personnel including shipyard technicians to modify the boats to carry smuggled cargo. The crews of these boats are also well paid for the risks of getting caught and jailed. Iran has been short of cash since economic sanctions were revived in 2020 and increased in 2022 because of Iran support for Russian forces in Ukraine. There were also higher costs for preparing the boats and bonuses for the crews limiting the amount of smuggled cargo that reaches the Yemen rebels. That expense was one of the reasons for the nationwide anti-government protests which began in September 2022 and continue. The IRGC (Islamic Republic Guard Corps), which guards the religious dictatorship that has ruled Iran since the 1980s, also handles Iran’s many foreign wars including Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and now Ukraine. Iran controls the leadership of the Yemen rebels, in large part because Iran supplies weapons. With that weapons pipeline disrupted during the last three months, the rebels responded by observing a ceasefire with their many opponents.

IRGC leaders were reluctant to give up gains made in Yemen and are unsure when or if they can revive support for the Yemeni Shia because of the growing economic sanctions on Iran as well as the demands of supporting Russia in Ukraine. Because of the sanctions imposed in 2017, the Quds force saw its budget cut by half ever since. This meant major reductions in Quds activities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Yemen was always the least expensive Quds operation and did not suffer noticeable aid cuts after 2017. Yemen was the only IRGC operation that was able to attack arch-enemy Saudi Arabia directly and that counted for something. The Yemen operation was allowed to continue. This was only possible if the smuggled weapons from Iran kept getting through. The Iranian weapons smuggling has now been greatly reduced. This sharply limits Iran’s ability to directly attack Saudi Arabia by arming Shia rebels in Yemen. The Shia rebels in Yemen received over a thousand ballistic missiles and UAVs between 2016 and 2021. Most of these were aimed at southwestern Saudi Arabia. Less than one percent of those UAVs and missiles hit anything of consequence in Saudi Arabia. Iran sought to carry out a similar campaign against Israel using Iran-backed militias in Syria. That has worked so far because Israeli intelligence capabilities and airstrikes have been much more effective in Syria than Saudi efforts in Yemen. This despite the fact that Israel and Saudi Arabia have similar aircraft, smart bombs and air defense systems.

While not as efficient as the Israelis, Saudi pilots and ground forces have gained a lot of practical combat experience in Yemen since 2015. Saudi pilots are much more accurate and surer of themselves than they were during the first two years (2015-16). On the ground the Saudis supply artillery and troops trained to quickly and accurately request and direct air and artillery support. All these ground teams have a year or more of combat experience and it makes a difference. The Yemen ceasefire specifically includes Saudi airpower and artillery. The Yemen rebels are now at a disadvantage and are being pressured to make a peace that the Yemen government and Saudis can live with. Unless the Iranians can revive their smuggling link, the Shia rebels of Yemen will have to take whatever peace deal they can get. Many of the 21 million Yemenis in need of food aid are in Shia rebel-controlled territory where the food aid coming in via the Red Sea port of Hodeida declined.

Several years ago, the Shia rebels were close enough to fire on cargo ships in Hodeida. Until the rebels could be driven away from the port, food aid had to come in via a more southern port and trucked north. The trucks often encountered rebel roadblocks which kept food aid out of rebel-controlled territory. The UN, which was constantly trying to get peace talks going, pointed out that disrupting food aid headed for rebel-controlled areas was counterproductive and the rebels could not blame anyone but themselves. This, plus the reduced arms smuggling led the rebels to be more receptive to ceasefire negotiations.

By 2021 the Shia rebels were more interested in negotiating than fighting. The rebels were losing and were forced into survival mode. They were not giving up, the Yemeni Shia have never done that, but their effort to conquer and rule all of Yemen was suspended. The Iranian situation got much worse after September 2022 when nationwide anti-government protests began and have continued. The Yemeni government accuses the rebels of turning to looting of government facilities in areas they control. For a long time that worked but now it doesn’t because the loss of Iranian financial support put an end to the “understanding” that prevented or limited looting.

Even without being officially renewed, the ceasefire is continuing because neither side wants to risk the heavy casualties a resumption of full-scale fighting would mean. Iran is technically at war with most of the Arab oil states as well as Israel, the United States and anyone else who gets in their way. Given the growing number of countries that oppose Iran or are losing patience with Iranian troublemaking, there is something of a deathwatch attitude towards Iran. At least for the rest of 2023 not much is expected to change in Yemen.

February 27, 2023: The United States announced $400 more aid for Yemen. Since 2014 the U.S. has sent $5.4 billion in aid to Yemen. Most of this aid is in the form of emergency food supplies. Most countries receiving a lot of food aid depend on the Americans to pay for it.

February 26, 2023: Because of the sharp decline in Iranian aid, the Shia rebels have expressed a willingness to make a peace deal with the Saudis that guarantees no more cruise or ballistic missile attacks on Saudi targets in return for a halt to Saudi aerial or ground operations into Yemen. This means the Saudis are withdrawing most support for the Yemeni government. The Shia rebels continue to control the capital and much of northwest Yemen.

February 25, 2023: In central Yemen (Marib Province) four government soldiers were killed and several others wounded during a surprise attack by Shia rebels. The attackers suffered casualties but took them with them as they retreated.

In the northwest, the Red Sea port of Hodeida saw the arrival of the first general cargo ship since 2016. A container ship unloaded commercial cargo that was inspected by UN verification teams to ensure no weapons were being smuggled in. The cargo delivery was made possible by the ongoing peace talks between the government and the Shia rebels. Bringing general cargo in via Hodeida was cheaper for customers in the northwest than the previous use of the southern port of Aden. This required sending the cargo north by truck. Two more container ships arrived at Hodeida once the first one began to unload.

Since 2016 the only ships allowed to unload at Hodeida were those carrying much needed food, fuel and cooking oil for the millions of Yemenis faced with starvation unless such supplies were brought in. This was made possible by the UN verification teams that checked the cargoes. There is a lot more work for the UN verification teams now that so general cargo is arriving. This provides more opportunities to attempt smuggling in weapons. The UN inspectors assured the government, which now has the Shia rebels on the defensive, that Iran was not trying to smuggle in weapons via aid or general cargo ships. Iranian smuggling efforts have been less effective over the last few years because the international naval blockade has been detecting and intercepting more of the Iranian smuggling efforts. The Saudis had already put a stop to cross country smuggling via Oman. The Iranians have not tried to revive it, in part because Oman has backed the halt to Iranian smuggling..

February 24, 2023: The Shia rebels in the northwest are not the only rebels in the country. The Southern Transitional Council, or SCT, represents the Sunni tribes in the south who have long backed dividing Yemen into the Sunni south and largely Shua north. For a long time, the northern Shia have fought to maintain some autonomy. In 2015 that escalated into a civil war as the Iranian-supported Shia captured the capital Sanaa and much territory south of the capital. Within a year this brought in an Arab coalition (Saudi Arabia and the UAE) that supported the Yemeni government and national unity. That halted the rebel advance but did little to end the civil war. The Saudis and UAE had different goals in Yemen. The Saudis wanted to keep their southwestern border with Yemen peaceful while the UAE was more interested in new economic opportunities in the more prosperous south. The UAE provides financial and other aid to the southern separatists while the Saudis are more concerned about Shia violence against southwestern Saudi Arabia.

The continued popularity of dividing the country in two is partly about what little oil Yemen has, as it is in the south and that’s where the Sunni separatists are. Islamic terrorists (mainly AQAP) are also in the south and willing to help the separatists. Most southerners just want peace and some prosperity. There are enough devoted separatists in the south to provide sanctuaries and support for Islamic terrorists. Most southerners realize that a new (separatist run) government in the south would be as corrupt as the one they have now and the ones Yemen has had for thousands of years. As a result of all this and years of fighting, it is more difficult to bring foreign aid into the south, which needs it the most, because AQAP believes such aid, even though most is from Moslem countries, is tainted and should be prevented.

The basic problem is that too many Yemenis don’t want to be Yemenis. The country was a patchwork of independent tribes and cities when the English East India Company took control of some Yemeni ports in the 1830s and 40s to support and protect ships moving between Britain and India. The Ottoman Turks maintained their control over most of northern Yemen until 1918, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Britain took over from the Ottomans and established the borders of modern Yemen. But Yemen was still not a unified country. 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.

All this corruption and lack of unity is related 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 such as 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 on imports or royalties from oil.

This lack of nationalism means a lack of cooperation or willingness to act in the public interest. Much of the Yemeni agricultural crisis is caused by the fact that Yemen's economic situation has been rapidly deteriorating since the late 20th century. This is largely because the government has done nothing to address the problems of overpopulation, water shortages and Khat. The last item is 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 and has to be smuggled in.

There is little willingness to cooperate. Feuding, fighting and blaming others for common problems is the preferred method for dealing with the problems. Before oil was discovered in Arabia nearly a century ago, Yemen had long been the most populous, powerful and pleasant part of Arabia because it was the only part of Arabia with regular rains. This was thanks to the annual Indian Ocean monsoon. Most of the oil deposits were at the north end of the Persian Gulf and Yemen lost out there. Yemenis had long despised the less affluent Arabians to the north, but since oil arrived the Yemenis have become despised and they did not take it well. Resentment, envy and a sense of entitlement have combined with the lack of unity to produce Yemen that is a nation in name only. Few others in the region have much sympathy for the Yemenis who are seen as the main cause of their own problems and the main obstacle to solving them. Since that is all you have to work with, it is no wonder that Yemen came to be such a perennial disaster area.

The concept of a unified Yemen was largely created by Cold War politics and how Britain handled a threat to their seaborne trade in the early 19th century. That was when Britain took control of Aden. This was partly to shut down the many pirates operating out of there, who were increasingly going after British ships traveling between Asia (India, Southeast Asia and China) and Britain. Only Aden was needed but the British made deals with the tribes that occupied most of southern Yemen coast and had long depended on Aden and other southern ports for supplies and such. Britain made Aden and the smaller southern ports more prosperous with new trading opportunities and provided more benefits for the interior tribes. Most importantly the tribes still had their autonomy, as well as British protection from outsiders. The Suez Canal opened in 1869 and over the next few decades larger, more efficient, steam powered metal vessels supplanted and replaced wooden sailing ships. That meant a lot more trade moving past. Aden and South Yemen became more prosperous.

When the British left in the early 1960s, as part of a widespread abandonment of colonies by European nations, there was some unrest and fighting in the newly independent South Yemen. This was because Aden was much less religious and traditional with a better educated population and it was no surprise that Aden and some other South Yemen cities were dominated by local communists. From 1970 until the fall of European communism in 1989, South Yemen was a communist state, subsidized by the Soviet Union, and the only such one in the Arab world.

Most of that enthusiasm for communism was centered in Aden and its suburbs. This is where most of the South Yemen population lived and where an even larger proportion of its GDP came from. A few other coastal cities had the same type of population and political attitudes, giving the urban population control of politics as well as the economy. The tribal minority, out in the desert and semi-desert inland areas, was much more religious and traditional. But over the centuries the urban and tribal populations had learned to get along and respect each other’s customs.

It was different in northern Yemen, where the urban population was not as dominant and the tribal population was economically better off and about as religious and conservative as their southern counterparts. The problem was the northern and southern tribes saw each other as “foreigners”. This is a common situation in tribal cultures, which includes the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. Yet even then there was some enthusiasm for a united Yemen in the north and south.

With the collapse of European communism and the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991 the Russian subsidies stopped and unification was suddenly much more appealing. After a few years of haggling, and occasional fighting, Yemen was united by 1994. At that point there were still factions in the north and south who believed unity was overrated and that two Yemen’s was preferable. That is no longer the case, not with most of the population surviving on foreign food aid. Many of those hungry Yemenis have to pay Shia rebels for this “free food.” The foreign aid NGOs (non-government organizations) and the UN complain about this but the Shia rebels are armed and dangerous and the UN is not. Not armed that is.

There is resistance to admitting that Yemen is a failed state, one of those areas, like Somalia and Afghanistan, that were never united for long and are basically several smaller entities that are not really interested in unity with their neighbors who are supposed to be their countrymen. And then there is the corruption problem. Yemen has long been recognized as one of the most corrupt places on the planet and the civil war has not changed that because Yemen has long been at the bottom of the list.

February 21, 2023: Saudi Arabia deposited a billion dollars into the Yemen Central Bank in an effort to stabilize the economy and the value of the currency (the rial). This is the second time the Saudis have done this. The Shia rebels ban the use of the rial but there is a black market for rials anyway. The rebels depend on foreign currencies. The government controls enough of the country now to address some basic problems, like the value of the rial against the U.S. dollar. Currently the black market rate is 1,225 rials to buy one dollar. Two years ago it was 1,700 rials to purchase an American dollar. The dollar is used to purchase many exports and is critical to cope with inflation. Since early 2020 the Yemeni economy has suffered accelerating decline and the best measure of that has been the falling value of the Yemeni rial. In 2020, it cost 840 rials to buy a dollar. This was down from 720 rials per dollar in late 2018 and a lot of foreign exchange was spent to get it back under 700 rials per dollar. In early 2020 it was 623 rials per dollar but has been rising ever since. The currency collapse accelerated in early 2020 when the rebels banned the use of new rials issued by the government based in Aden. Enforcing the ban was seen as another money raising opportunity for the rebels. The distinctive new southern rials can be seized in the north and used by the rebels to buy things from the south.

At the start of the civil war (early 2015) it cost 250 rials to buy a dollar. By early 2018 it was 425 rials and six months later it was 650 rials. This was not unexpected. In early 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. This worked at first and the value of the Yemeni currency immediately rose ten percent (against the dollar). That did not continue because the Shia rebels had looted the Central Bank of at least four billion dollars in rials in 2015 and that contributed to a rapid decline in the purchasing power of the rial as the rebels spent more of this loot. Then there were the counterfeit rials.

At the end of 2016 the U.S. and Germany revealed that they had detected and disrupted an Iranian currency counterfeiting operation that had already produced several hundred million dollars’ worth of Yemeni currency. This was apparently used to bolster the Shia rebels while at the same time weakening the Yemeni government and their Arab allies. The Iranian currency counterfeiting was carried out by the IRGC Quds Force. Laws were broken in Germany to obtain the special materials needed to make the counterfeit bills. The remaining stocks of the counterfeit rials were apparently dumped into the Yemeni economy before everyone got to know how to detect the fakes and refuse to use them. The Shia rebels had always planned to use currency manipulation as a last-ditch weapon. By late 2016 the Shia rebels made financial preparations to abandon the capital (Sanaa) and that included withdrawing over a billion dollars’ worth of Yemeni currency from the economy and moving the cash north to the rebel homeland Saada province. At the same time a lot of portable assets (computers, electronics of all sorts, some machinery) are being bought or “seized in lieu of revolutionary taxes'' and moved north.

February 19, 2023: The Shia rebels continue to use land mines to protect their forces from attack and to control civilian populations that are hostile to the rebel presence. Over a hundred civilians have been killed or wounded by the mines so far in 2023.The Saudis sponsor and finance mine-clearing efforts in Yemen. So far, the demining teams have found and removed over nearly 400,000 landmines and other dangerous explosive items. The landmines have become a major problem and the Saudi and UAE sponsored mine clearing efforts have been concentrating on eight provinces that are not under rebel control or threatened by the rebels. The total includes mines the rebels have not had a chance to use yet. Because the rebels keep poor records of where they plant them and have no plans to remove them, the orphaned landmines are going to be a problem for a long time. The rebel held capital is defended by at least 60,000 mines and many of these will still be in the ground long after the war is over. The Saudis and UAE train and pay Yemenis to do most of this work, alongside teams from other Arab nations. Eventually the local mine clearing teams will carry on by themselves. The demining effort began in 2018 and so far, 33 deminers have died, including five foreigners. Nearly fifty deminers have been wounded. During those four years 1,800 civilians were killed or wounded by the mines and other hidden explosives. The Shia rebels have planted over a million mines and explosive devices, either to defend their positions or terrorize uncooperative civilians.

February 14, 2023: Oman has hosted truce talks between Saudi Arabia and the Shia rebels have reached agreements on many issues. The ultimate goal is to agree on a new ceasefire. The first ceasefire began in April 2022 and was renewed in June and August for another two months. UN sponsored peace talks sought to obtain a six-month extension but the Iran-backed Shia rebels turned that down, insisting that the ceasefire was not working for them. The rebels demanded large cash payments and other concessions if there was to be another ceasefire extension. The government refused. Some fighting resumed after the ceasefire expired, mainly in the usual war zones; Taiz province in the south and Marib in central Yemen. At least twenty people have died and even more wounded in those areas since October 2nd. The Saudis have not resumed their airstrikes, nor have the rebel’s resumed attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia or the UAE (United Arab Emirates). This turned out to be the result of direct negotiations between the rebels and the Saudis. This was the first time the rebels and Saudis worked out such a deal. Iranian influence on the Shia rebels is fading and many rebel factions are calling for some kind of peace deal and an end to a civil war that the rebels are losing.

January 30, 2023: In central Yemen (Marib province) an American missile armed UAV killed three members of AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). AQAP continues to plan attacks in foreign countries, especially Western nations. The Yemen civil war has limited AQAP activities but not eliminated the group from southern Yemen.

January 13, 2023: In Yemen, Iran is the major reason the rebels agreed to a ceasefire. A decline in Iranian support due to lack of funds plus unrest at home diverted Iranian attention away from Yemen, The Iranian weapons, cash, advisors and smuggling network supercharged the Shia rebels, enabling them to keep fighting the more numerous and better armed force arrayed against them. Iran has been openly supporting the Shia rebels since 2014 and later admitted that less visible support had been supplied since 2011. Growing economic sanctions on Iran and eventual Saudi and American success in discovering details of the Iranian smuggling operation finally worked.




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