Yemen: Slow Death

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February 19, 2016: The rebels are losing but the government forces and their Arab allies are willing to take their time and limit their casualties. This is necessary because the Shia rebels are too effective as fighters, especially in the northern mountains they come from, for the Saudis to win quickly 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. On the plus side Saudi archenemy Iran will have suffered a very public loss.

In the north (Jawf province) pro-government Sunni and rebel Shia tribes continue fighting for control of territory and the pro-government Sunni forces continue winning. Since the Sunni tribes gained air support from the Arab coalition and access to training and supplies (weapons, ammo, medical) in early 2015 they have been able to drive Shia tribesmen out of most of 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.

The UN sponsored peace talks, begun in December and scheduled to resume in January are stalled. This comes after a December 15-January 2 ceasefire deal was regularly violated by both sides. Discussions to resume the peace talks

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. Since late 2014 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.

Over 7,000 people have died in the Yemen fighting since March 2015 and about half of them have been civilians. This includes nearly 400 people (most of them civilians) killed just across the border in Saudi Arabia by rebel mortar, rocket and gun fire. This sort of thing happens several times a week and is often quite intense.

The fighting and general chaos made it difficult for foreign aid groups to get needed food and medical supplies to rebel controlled areas where Yemenis are most in need of such aid. The Arab Coalition nations are making a large and very public effort to obtain the needed aid and quickly get it to the ten million Yemenis who need it the most. This has created problems with UN controlled (or sponsored) aid groups. While the Arab aid groups work closely with the local and coalition forces to avoid getting fired on, the UN aid groups often do not and some insist that any interference with their aid operations is illegal and possibly a war crime. Saudi Arabia told the UN very publicly that all aid groups must proceed with caution and coordinate with government forces to avoid getting shot at. At the same time the government and Arab coalition consider it collaboration (with the enemy) when foreign aid operations take place within rebel controlled areas. The UN, and foreign aid groups in general, do not agree with this and it is a growing problem worldwide. All this is made worse by the fact that many warring groups force aid groups to supply rebel operations and keep quiet about fighters hiding out in aid facilities (like hospitals or refugee camps). Many aid workers feel a responsibility to try and halt the fighting any way they can and that often includes reporting bombings, artillery or gunfire that kills civilians as a war crime even when it isn’t. This makes many aid groups suspect as far as government and rebel forces are concerned.

The UN is trying to get donor nations to provide $1.8 billion to pay for UN supervised aid for Yemen during 2016. The UN is facing increasing resistance from donor nations because of corruption and growing instances of aid ending up under the control of one armed group or another instead of the civilians who desperately need it. The UN estimates that about 80 percent of Yemenis are in need of aid.

The Iran Angle

The Saudis and the other Gulf Arab states are mainly concerned with Iranian aggression. Iran has made it very clear that they believe they should control the Moslem holy places in Saudi Arabia and be the dominant military and political power in the region. That means having a veto over Arab diplomatic moves and generally returning to their ancient role of regional superpower. The Gulf Arabs are very hostile to this sort of thing but reluctant to go to war over it because the Iranians have an impressive history of battlefield victories.

In response the Sunni Arab states tried to use Islamic terrorist groups as a weapon against the “Shia threat. Thus Yemeni Shia rebels blame the Sunni Gulf Arabs of supporting al Qaeda in Yemen. This Islamic terrorist group has always been very hostile towards Shia and the growth of al Qaeda in Yemen was a primary reason for the Yemeni Shia rebelling in the first place. There is some truth to the Yemeni Shia accusations as many Sunni Gulf Arabs do support al Qaeda and have long provided cash donations and recruits. This terrorist support is not government policy with these Gulf States although some Gulf Arab states, like Qatar, have actively supported Islamic terrorist rebels in Libya and Syria.

There is a lot of popular support for Islamic terrorism among Sunni and Shia as it is common to believe that the non-Moslem world is always actively at war with the Islam and Islamic terrorists are the only effective weapon to strike back with. This sounds absurd to non-Moslems, especially Westerners. Arab diplomats insist that there is no such terrorist support in Moslem nations. But anyone perusing Arab language media immediately sees this support and some of it even shows up in English language versions of Arab media. That despite the fact that the Arab editors of the English language news outlets know that the Arab support for Islamic terrorism is not acceptable to Western audiences and try to remove it from the English language sites. The Iranians understand all this, as do other non-Moslems (like Indians) who have lived next to Moslems for a long time. So when the Yemeni Shia complain of Gulf Arab Sunni support for al Qaeda in Yemen it has a different meaning to other Moslems (who take it as fact) and Westerners (who dismiss it as a paranoid delusion).

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 or Syria. 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. 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.

February 17, 2016: In the south (Aden) an ISIL suicide bomber wearing an army uniform killed 14 soldiers at the entrance to a military base. Islamic terrorists are having a more difficult time organizing and carrying out bombing attacks like this and so far this year most of the Islamic terrorist violence in government controlled areas has been assassinations and ambushes.

President Hadi revealed that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah sent him a latter in which he admitted that Hezbollah members were operating in Yemen but only to help the Shia rebels govern the areas they had taken control of. This is no surprise. Back in May 2015 Saudi Arabia sanctioned two Hezbollah leaders because the Saudis were certain that Hezbollah had personnel in Yemen aiding the Shia rebels. The Saudis long supported Hezbollah (more in words than in deeds) because Hezbollah was in direct contact with Israel, which all Arab states still officially consider the enemy.

February 16, 2016: In the southwest (Taiz) pro-government forces finally pushed Shia rebels away from Taiz city. It is believed that the rebel forces were actually ordered to move back the help defend Sanaa, the national capital that is under increasing threat from government forces. For six months Shia rebels remained outside Taiz city and made it very difficult to get supplies to civilians and pro-government forces in the city. For the last few months it was believed that the Shia resistance wouldn’t last much longer because Shia strength in the province and territory held has been gradually shrinking since August 2015. The Arab air strikes have been constant and pro-government tribes cut access to rebel held bases outside Taiz. But the Shia resistance continued in Taiz because the province has a lengthy Red Sea coastline which enabled smugglers to bring in weapons and other aid for the Shia rebels even though the rebels gradually lost control of most of the Taiz coast. This made smuggling operations along the Red Sea coast more difficult but obviously not impossible. There are Red Sea smugglers who will (for a much larger fee) get stuff in although the naval patrols have become more intense in an effort to halt all aid to the rebels. Over 1,500 civilians have died in the city so far.

February 11, 2016: Government forces captured two army bases outside Sanaa and are now 30 kilometers from the capital. These moves also cut off rebel access to a main road to Marib province.

Saudi Arabia detained a cargo ship carrying UN aid for Yemen. Saudi inspectors say they found four cargo containers containing computer and communications equipment that was not declared and is considered suspicious because this gear can also be used for military purposes and would be useful to the Shia rebels.

February 9, 2016: In the south (Aden) government forces fought AQAP gunmen in the residential area (Mansoura) for several hours leaving several people dead. Inside Aden the growing number of AQAP men has enabled the Islamic terrorists to take control of some neighborhoods. The government has been trying to clear AQAP held neighborhoods but there is not enough manpower right now to complete the job because most government forces are up north fighting the Shia rebels in the capital.

February 4, 2016: In the south (Abyan province) a senior AQAP commander and two associates were killed by missiles from an American UAV. The AQAP leader had a $5 million price on his head. This was the third such UAV attack in Yemen this year.

February 1, 2016: The rebels launched another ballistic missile at a target in southwest Saudi Arabia but the missile was shot down. A day later Saudi warplanes found and destroyed the launcher for this missile, which was outside Sanaa. The Saudis were particularly annoyed at the Shia continuing to fire ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia. None of these missiles hit anything of value mainly because Saudi anti-missile systems (U.S. Patriot PAC-3 missiles) were able to shoot down missiles that were headed for a populated area.

On the Saudi border Shia rebels fired over a hundred mortar shells and at least 15 short range rockets into Saudi Arabia.

 

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