Despite the UN brokered “indefinite ceasefire” agreed to in April fighting still continues in the south. The combat is most intense in Lahij province where government forces are blocking rebel efforts to recapture the al Anad airbase, the largest airbase in the country. The Shia rebels took al Anad in March 2015, forcing American special operations troops to leave the country. Government forces recaptured al Anad in mid-2015 and the Americans returned in early 2016.
In the southwest (Taiz) pro-government forces have been fighting Shia rebels in and around Taiz city since before the ceasefire and while more aid convoys are allowed into the city, the killing continues. The Arab air strikes have been constant and pro-government tribes have cut access to rebel held areas inside Taiz. 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. Since early 2015 over a third of the nearly 10,000 deaths in the Yemen civil war have occurred in and around Taiz city.
The Trust Shortage
The only real progress in the ten weeks of peace talks has been several agreements to exchange prisoners (about 700 so far) and allow safe passage of relief supplies. The government threatens to take the capital back by force but the Shia rebels don’t believe that can be done without using a lot of the professional troops from the Arab coalition. The rebels know that the public support in the Gulf oil states for participation in the Yemen war would rapidly erode if there were a lot of casualties among their troops. So far the rebels have been right about this. Yet the Saudis cannot afford to leave a hostile Iranian-supported enclave on their southwestern border.
The peace talks are deadlocked because the Shia rebels don’t trust the government to keep promises and refuse to surrender their heavy weapons. This includes artillery and armored vehicles seized from military bases as well as ballistic missiles that have been fired at targets in Saudi Arabia (so far unsuccessfully) as well as government held areas in Yemen. Some of these ballistic missile attacks did succeed but by the end of 2015 the Arab coalition had moved anti-missile systems south to defend their forces inside Yemen. A lot of these heavy weapons were actually turned over to the rebels by commanders still loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The rebels are in debt to Saleh for things like that and insisting that there be no retaliation against the pro-Saleh commanders and tribal leaders who joined the rebel cause. The government and their Arab allies are willing to make compromises on the disloyal officers and much else, but not on the rebels desire to keep their heavy weapons. The agreement to allow safe passage of relief supplies was seen as crucial for both sides. Over 70 percent of Yemenis are now dependent on foreign food aid and that includes a lot of pro-rebel civilians. So both sides generally allow the aid convoys to pass, although sometimes trucks are stopped and searched for items (like weapons and military equipment) they are not supposed to be carrying. The rebels also refuse to accept the government that was elected after former “president-for-life” Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced out in 2012. This new government is much less tolerant of Shia than Saleh, who is Shia but trusted by a lot of Sunnis.
The rebels also know that the Saudis are much more committed to maintaining ground forces in Yemen than the other Gulf Arab oil states, particularly the UAE. The smaller Gulf states have long been more reliant on negotiation and making powerful, but distant, allies to protect themselves from larger neighbors (especially Iran). The Saudis, for various reasons, feel more on their own and want to keep the Arab coalition together. That means the smaller states in the coalition have veto power and so far that has halted a major ground battle for the rebel held national capital (Saana) and the Shia tribal homeland up north on the Saudi border. All this helps Iran win by not losing.
Iran Winning The Information War
The Arab coalition air and naval blockade has kept out nearly all Iranian efforts to send in weapons or ammunition for the rebels. But Iran has a formidable Information War (propaganda and media manipulation or “spin”) capability. Using this Iran has successfully made a major international issue of Arab coalition air strikes and the resulting civilian casualties. At the same time Iranian publicists and diplomats have successfully played down the Yemeni rebel practices of deliberately using civilians as human shields. Since the Arab coalition entered the Yemen civil war in early 2015 both sides have accused the other of deliberately attacking civilians. The government forces (and their Arab allies) accuse the rebels of storing weapons and housing troops in buildings also used by civilians. The Arab warplanes are using smart bombs and missiles to minimize civilian casualties (compared to previous wars) but will still attack rebel forces who are using civilians as human shields. The Arabs are not as concerned about killing human shields as Western nations and believe that this encourages civilians to avoid being used as human shields. Perhaps, but a lot of civilians are getting hurt and about half the deaths so far have been civilians. Saudi Arabia has its lobbyists and diplomats in the West and at the UN working overtime to deal with accusations, especially those sponsored by Iran, that the Saudi led Arab coalition air attacks in Yemen has caused most of the civilian deaths in Yemen during 2015 and that this is a war crime. The Iranians have been working this angle as much as they can, along with accusations (mostly false) that Arab forces and their tribal allies are interfering with foreign aid efforts to desperately hungry or sick Yemeni civilians. Iran has been less successful defending the Shia rebels from all sorts of misbehavior accusations. When there is a war between Shia and Sunni things tend to get ugly. It is no secret that Arabs tend to be brutal when fighting each other and regularly treat civilians badly. The Saudis and other Arab states prefer to keep this out of Western media while continuing to operate as they always have. Western governments, although not most Western media, usually cooperate as best they can about Yemen and look the other way. But a lot of unsavory local practices are getting unwelcome international publicity.
The Saudi efforts to portray Yemen as one of several (Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan) areas where Iran is quietly getting away with murder have not worked. Iran and its Arab neighbors accept the fact that Iran has, for thousands of years, been more successful at Information War as well as physical combat. What terrifies the Arabs is that Iran is winning the worldwide effort to sell their version of reality; that Arabs are murderous thugs and Iran is the calming influence the Middle East needs. Arab fears that Iran is serious about taking over (one way or another) all of the Arabian Peninsula are largely dismissed by the rest of the world even though Iran media often mentions it, especially the part about Iran replacing the Saudi monarchy as the guardians the most holy shrines of Islam in Mecca and Medina. Perception is reality in the Persian Gulf and the Arab rulers (and Sunni Arab majority) are terrified. At the same time Iran is right about one thing; the Sunni Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia, continue to support many Sunni Islamic terrorist groups. This does not include ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) or al Qaeda, two of the most outspoken foes of the Saudi monarchy. Many of the Islamic terror groups the Saudis support or encourage are currently murdering Shia Moslems for being heretics. Most of Iran is Shia so you see how this sort of thing adds to the animosities and gives it all a blood feud vibe.
July 1, 2016: In the south (Swabwa province) an American UAV missile attack killed three AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) men in a vehicle. The United States has carried out eleven air strikes against AQAP in Yemen so far this year, killing over a hundred Islamic terrorists and wounding dozens. Most of these attacks were widely reported but four were not and were revealed in June by American officials.
June 29, 2016: In the south (Abyan province) an American UAV missile attack wounded Qasim al Raymi, the head of AQAP. Several senior AQAP leaders have been killed by the UAV attacks in the last two years, including Raymi’s predecessor.
June 27, 2016: In the southeast ISIL carried out two suicide car bomb attacks against government forces outside the second largest port in Yemen (Mukalla). Over 40 soldiers and civilian died. Government forces have controlled Mukalla since mid-April when AQAP lost control of the port and much of the southern coast they had occupied for about a year. For about a month AQAP was able to hold onto two smaller ports (Zinjibar and Shaqra) about 400 kilometers southwest of Mukalla and closer to Aden. AQAP still has access to some smaller ports and is still smuggling goods in and out. While AQAP has been active in the southeast for nearly a decade once the civil war began in early 2015 the Islamic terrorists were able to gain control of coastal towns and cities in the southeast. Until late April 2016 AQAP controlled more territory (mainly Hadramawt province) than the Shia rebels. Now AQAP operates out of remote villages where they are tolerated (often because the locals are paid to leave the Islamic terrorists alone). ISIL has always operated like this in the south but with the loss of Hadramawt and Mukalla (the largest city in the province) ISIL and AQAP have become temporary allies.
June 23, 2016: In the southeast (Mukalla) ISIL carried out three suicide car bomb attacks on government forces outside the city. Two of the attacks were accompanied by ISIL gunmen. At least thirteen soldiers and Islamic terrorists were killed.
June 21, 2016: Saudi Arabian air defense forces shot down a ballistic missile fired by Shia rebels in Yemen. The target was apparently the central Yemen city of Marib. The type of missiles was not mentioned but this one was probably one of shorter range SS-21 ballistic missiles the Shia rebels captured when they moved south in early 2015. Many army units joined the rebels, including troops who knew how to operate these missiles. The Saudi anti-missile systems (U.S. Patriot PAC-3 missiles) are able to shoot down missiles that were headed for a populated area. The SS-21 has a range of about 70 kilometers and can land within 75 meters of its aiming point. The SS-21 has a half ton high explosive warhead. In 2011 Yemen had about four SS-21 transporter/launcher vehicles and over a dozen SS-21 (also called OTR-21) missiles.