Yemen: There Will Be No Winners

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April 16, 2016: Government and coalition forces are using the six day old truce to divert troops and aircraft to go after the Islamic terrorists who have been moving freely in the south, especially the southwest. Most of these gunmen belong to AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). Some 5-10 percent are with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), which splits it efforts between attacking government and AQAP targets. The ISIL/AQAP conflict is to determine which version of a religious dictatorship should rule Yemen. So far this year AQAP and ISIL appear to have temporarily stopped attacking each other and concentrated on more threatening foes, like government forces (troops and tribal militias) and Shia rebels. Also fighting ISIL and AQAP are the Americans who use UAVs and manned surveillance aircraft as well as satellites to track terrorist activities. This information is shared with the coalition but is mainly used to find suitable targets for airstrikes, usually via armed UAVs.

Opposed to just about everyone (Islamic terrorists, Shia rebels, government and coalition forces) are the various separatist Sunni Yemeni tribes in the south. At the moment most of these Sunni tribes are cooperating with the government and coalition forces. This Saudi led coalition is composed largely of conservative Sunni Moslems who consider Shia, AQAP and ISIL heretics or worse. The Shia rebels are aided by Iran and Shia from the Iran-backed Lebanese Islamic terrorist group Hezbollah. If this sounds messy, it is. But this sort of thing is not unusual. Yemen has long been a mess politically and now religion has been added to create a toxic mess that has no easy solution. All this comes as the Yemeni economy collapses from overpopulation, mismanagement, rampant corruption and generally ineffective governments.

Currently AQAP controls more territory than the Shia rebels. Since late 2014 AQAP has occupied the southeastern the port of Mukalla, about 600 kilometers of coastline and much of the surrounding Hadramawt province. This means government forces or anyone else is subject to attack or, if armed, a request for a contribution of cash or goods before passing. As a result of this government forces must move in heavily armed convoys to avoid ambushes. Aid convoys are also subject to demands for “taxes.” AQAP is trying to operate like a government in the southeast but is hampered by a shortage of money and regular air attacks. AQAP finances it “government” in the southeast by taxing everything (commercial goods and aid supplies) coming through the port. This apparently works because AQAP is able to pay most of its “government” workers on a regular basis. In contrast ISIL is scattered in remote locations or urban bases in Aden and subsists on plunder. 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.

The Shia rebels still hold the capital (Sanaa) and about a fifth of the country overall. Unlike the larger areas in the east that the Islamic terrorists control, the Shia held areas a more densely populated and dominated by pro-rebel tribes and gunmen. The east is largely desert and the Islamic terrorists are most active along the coasts, where most of the population is. The government controls much of the south, especially the southwest but is threatened by the many separatist tribes in the south who are ready to turn their guns on the central government once the Shia rebels are defeated. The Saudi led coalition could destroy the rebels but believes the Saudi coalition and civilian casualties would be too high. The Arab oil states that have contributed troops have found that casualties among their troops are very unpopular back home. The Arab oil states have not fought a war for generations. Their participation in the 1991 liberation of Kuwait was inconsequential compared to what is being encountered now in Yemen. The Shia rebels also make the Saudis look bad in the media by having rebel fighters live among civilians (even when the civilians are hostile to that) and ensuring that there are lots of civilian casualties for the foreign media to feast on when Shia rebels are hit with air or artillery attacks. As a result nearly half the 6,000 dead (since March 2015) have been civilians. The Shia rebels know that a peace deal means they must withdraw to their home areas in the northwest. Negotiations will be about what the Arab oil states will pay (in cash and political favors) to make this happen. There will be bluster and threats but there will probably be a deal because Iran has not been able (or willing) to bail its Shia brethren out and Yemeni Shia are not really up for a bloodbath either.

Meanwhile Yemen has been devastated by years of unrest following the 2011 Arab Spring. Because of thatmost of the educated professionals and many of the successful businessmen have left the country, some for good. The economy is a mess and there are more Islamic terrorists (several thousand) present. Most of the population is destitute and on the verge of starvation. Whatever the final peace deal is, there will be no winners. That said Yemen has been a dysfunctional mess for centuries and it only got worse when oil was discovered in the Arabian Peninsula, but little of it in Yemen. Thus Yemen got lots of well-paying jobs and economic opportunities for Yemenis willing to go north but all that did little to make Yemen more stable and sustainable.

The April 10 truce is not complete because some rebel and government forces are still firing on each other and so far there have been over a hundred casualties. Most of these violations are the result of so many non-professionals on both sides. The lack of professional officers is the biggest problem and the result is many fighters and leaders act more like bandits than disciplined troops. To many armed Yemenis an order is not regarded as something that must be done but as a suggestion that can be interpreted freely.

April 15, 2016: In the south (Lahj province, just north of the port of Aden) AQAP gunmen were driven out of the provincial capital (al Houta) by government forces. There were over twenty dead, including five of the several hundred attacking troops. But more than 40 Islamic terrorists were captured and many more fled and are being pursued. AQAP had attacked al Houta several times since mid-2015 and held it briefly. Finally AQAP captured it in February 2016 and held on to it. That attack succeeded because there were not enough government or coalition troops available to respond. With the truce in force and more Yemenis graduating from coalition-run military training camps it was time to secure al Houta once and for all.

Elsewhere in the south an ISIL car bomb went off in the port city of Aden. Two nearby civilians were wounded and the man who remotely set off the bomb got away after he apparently found security forces made it impossible to park the car near his target (one of the government compounds that have turned Aden into the temporary national capital.)

April 12, 2016: In the south (the port city of Aden) an ISIL suicide bomber killed five soldiers.

April 10, 2016: Another UN brokered ceasefire began. This one is indefinite pending the outcome of peace talks that are to begin on the 18th in Kuwait.

April 5, 2016: In the north mortar shells fired from Yemen landed in a Saudi border town leaving two adults dead and a child wounded.

April 4, 2016: For the fourth time in a month a warship on anti-piracy patrol near Somalia stopped and searched a ship and found a large shipment of weapons being smuggled to Shia rebels in Yemen. The last two times it was an American destroyer that caught the boatload of weapons. The shipment before that was found by a French frigate and the first one, on March 7th by an Australian warship 300 kilometers off the coast of Oman. In each case the cargo on the fishing boats of wooden dhows consisted of over a thousand AK-47s plus some machine-guns and lots of ammo. At first it was unclear if the weapons (which seemed to be from Iran) were headed to Shia rebels in Yemen or black market weapons dealers in Somalia. Further investigation confirmed that all four shipments were headed to Shia rebels in northern Yemen.

April 3, 2016: Arab coalition aircraft carried out four air strikes against an AQAP camp outside the southeastern the port of Mukalla. There were several dozen casualties.

March 28, 2016: Saudi Arabia and the Shia rebels completed a prisoner exchange that saw 109 rebels and nine Saudis exchanged. This is the latest of several such swaps that have taken place since late 2015.

March 27, 2016: In the south (Abyan province) two American airstrike against an AQAP targets left at least 14 dead. This follows a similar attack on the 22nd that killed more than fifty.

 

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