The war in Yemen continues to be a stalemate with the rebels united and determined enough to hold out while the government is crippled by factionalism and visible dependence on foreign military aid. The 19 months of fighting have left over 7,000 dead, nearly 40,000 wounded and more than three million people driven from their homes. Iran has been revealed as the major supporter of the Shia rebels and waged a mass media campaign to portray the Saudis and their Arab allies to be the bad guys.
The rebels seem to be losing because they are surrounded and largely cut off from outside support. Aid for civilians gets through but most military supplies have to be smuggled in at great cost. The rebels have cash rich (since sanctions were lifted earlier this year) Iran paying to get weapons in and they are getting through. The Saudi-led Arab coalition keeping the government viable is not willing to take a lot of casualties to win the war quickly, especially when they can afford (financially) to use less newsworthy but more time consuming methods. That is not working as well as hoped because Iran has much to gain and not much to lose by continuing to keep the Shia rebels going. The Saudis are using air strikes and economic pressure aggressively. That is making a difference but the air strikes kill a lot of civilians and that is generating a lot of negative press locally and in the West. The Saudis have told their Western arms suppliers to back off otherwise the Saudis and other Arab states would shop elsewhere for military and civilian goods. China is always standing by ready to supply whatever is needed.
The worst is yet to come. Eventual victory will not be cheap. It will be up to the Saudis and the other Arab Gulf oil states to help revive the Yemeni economy once the rebels are defeated. Before the civil war began in 2011 the Yemeni GDP was $37 billion. Now it is about $24 billion and still falling. Since early 2015 the rebels have controlled at least half the population and about the same portion of GDP. Most importantly they took control of the capital and most government ministries in late 2014. That’s what triggered the Saudi led intervention and widespread fighting and the eventual inability of the government to function. That was because exported oil accounted for about 70 percent of government income. By early 2016 the rebels had lost the local oil income and despite scrounging up other sources of income the government budget was cut by more than half and the rebels could no longer pay for essentials, like salaries for the million Yemenis who are government employees. Continuing to pay these civil servants bought more loyalty. Thus the recent decision by the Saudi backed elected Yemeni government to move the Central Bank from Sanaa to Aden and appoint a new pro-Saudi official to run it. This was move was possible because the rebels had lost so many income sources that foreign banks and most of the Yemeni economy saw it in their best interest to support the move. That explains the declining popular support for the rebels, who justified their actions as part of an effort to deal with the corruption and government mismanagement that had already ruined the economy by 2011. In areas they control the rebels have not been able to pay September salaries for government workers. To make matters worse some of the rebels went around trying to collect “taxes” from businesses and wealthy families in areas they controlled and while that brought in some cash (who would say no to a bunch of armed men?) the money did not go to pay the local government workers.
Making The Most Of Defeat
Even then a government victory will likely include the rebel forces retreating back to their ancient bastions in the northwest (Saada province and nearby areas). To this end the rebels are making financial preparations to abandon the capital (Sanaa) and one of the less visible aspects of this is how they have apparently withdrawn over a billions dollars’ worth of Yemeni currency from the economy and moved the cash north. 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 also moved north. There is also a lot of military loot seized from government military bases in early 2015. This includes ballistic missiles and lots of ammo. With continued Iranian support the Shia tribes in the north will survive and possibly thrive. The Shia rebels are confident because they have been maintaining their power and cohesion in this region for over a thousand years. This is a long-term problem for Saudi Arabia because similar Shia tribes on the Saudi side of the border could shift loyalties towards Iran if the Saudi government does not solve their own economic problems (too much dependence on oil income and foreign workers).
To make matters worse the Iran backed Shia tribes live next to the southwestern border of Saudi Arabia and have turned portions of that border into a war zone since 2014. The rebels do this by continuing to fire mortar shells and rockets at Saudi towns and villages. The Saudis retaliate with artillery or air strikes and this has become part of an endless cycle of retaliatory attacks. There have not been many Saudi civilian casualties but the Saudis want to minimize the risk of there being more of them. Meanwhile the Saudis have found that shooting back promptly and profusely has not stopped the attacks but does prevent the rebels from moving across the border.
Saudi Arabia keeps details of the war on the Yemen border out of the news. Apparently not all military casualties, from persistent Shia rebel attacks across the border are being reported in the media. The take advantage of this the Yemeni rebels try to get people across the border to obtain cell phone photos proving this but so far they have not been very successful. The Saudis publicize civilian casualties, which are more difficult to conceal in an age of cell phones and the Internet. Combat losses among Saudi security forces are easier to hide.
Nearly all this border violence takes place is in the three Saudi border provinces of Jizan, Asir and Najran. Most of the threatened border is in Najran where most of the half million locals are Shia. Nevertheless these Shia are loyal to the Saudi king. The provincial capital (also called Najran) has a population of 240,000 and is close enough to the Yemen border to be the target of frequent Yemeni rebel artillery and rocket attacks. The Yemeni Shia do not want to hit Saudi civilians along the border if only because most of these civilians are Shia. So the attacks concentrate on military and economic targets, especially those involved with oil. The Saudis have an easier time concealing military and police losses as well as damage to oil facilities. Security forces and oil facilities have always been well protected, by secrecy as well as more conventional means (well trained and loyal guards and workers). That loyalty is not permanent and is there largely because the Saud family has demonstrated for over a century that it can defend itself.
Mystery Missiles In The Red Sea
The U.S. Navy is still uncertain about what kind of missile threat its ships are facing off the Red Sea coast of Yemen. Three American warships (two destroyers and an amphibious ship) have been fired on repeatedly by Shia rebels using anti-ship missiles. These are either Chinese C-801s or C-802s taken from Yemeni Navy missile boats the rebels captured in 2015 or similar Iranian versions of these missiles smuggled in. The Chinese C-801 is 5.81 meters (18 feet) long, 360mm in diameter, has a max range of 42 kilometers and weighs 636 kg (1,400 pounds) each. The C-801 is similar to the French Exocet, and is believed to have been based on that missile and its original 1970s technology. Yemen also had some C-802 missiles which are upgrades of the C-801 but still old technology. The first ones appeared in the 1990s and had a max range of 120 kilometers. By 2001 Iran was openly testing these C-802 clones, which were called Qader or Noor. By 2011 there was a version with a range of 200 kilometers and an improved guidance system. The latest version has a range of 300 kilometers and probably an even more effective guidance system. So far the American countermeasures appear to have worked but that information would be more valuable if details of the attacking missiles were known.
October 19, 2016: A UN brokered 72 hour ceasefire began at midnight. Like the previous five ceasefires this one was promptly violated in the southwest (Taez province, inland, near the Red Sea coast). This time it was intense rebel shelling of government controlled neighborhoods of Taez city.
October 18, 2016: In south central Yemen (Shabwah province) an American UAV fired missiles at two vehicles, killing three AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) men and wounding two more. Since late August American UAV attacks have killed over 25 Islamic terrorists and most of these attacks were in Shabwah province.
October 15, 2016: Off the west (Red Sea) coast Shia rebels fired more missiles at American warships. None of the missiles hit the warships. The rebels are believed to be using Chinese anti-ship missiles or possibly Iranian clones based on the Chinese C-802 (“Silkworm”).
October 14, 2016: In the north Shia rebel mortar and machine-gun fire from Yemen killed a Saudi soldier across the border in Jizan province. Since early 2015 year over a hundred Saudis, mostly military and police, have died in this border violence, most of it in Jizan province.
October 12, 2016: Iran confirmed that it had sent a warship (the 45 year old 1,500 ton Alvand) and a support ship (the 4,600 ton Bushehr) to the Gulf of Aden (the waters between Yemen and Somalia) to protect ships from Somali pirates. The Somali pirates are not much of a threat anymore and these two ships were there to “confront” (or at least monitor) American warships off the Yemen coast. The biggest and most modern warships Iran has are some Jarmaran class corvettes. This is a 1,400 ton vessel has a crew of 140 and is armed with one 76mm gun, a helicopter, one 40mm and two 20mm cannon, four small anti-aircraft missiles, six anti-submarine torpedoes, and four Noor (C-802) anti-ship missiles. Iran describes these ships as “destroyers”. The British built Alvand has been updated over the years and has similar armament to the Jarmaran but, being much older, is more expendable.
Off the west coast Shia rebels again fired missiles at an American destroyer but missed.
October 11, 2016: American warships fired five cruise missiles at three mobile radar stations on Yemen’s west coast. These radars were being used by Shia rebels to locate targets for anti-ship missiles. The radars were apparently taken from Yemeni warships the rebels captured in early 2015. Without these radars the rebels can still use men on nearby (fishing or cargo) boats to report the location of targets, or even use small UAVs launched from the coast. That, however, is less accurate than the targeting radars.
October 10, 2016: In the north (Saada province) a SCUD (Burkan) ballistic missile was fired at the Taif airbase in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Patriot anti-missile missiles intercepted it. The Shia said the missile was fired in retaliation for the Saudi air strike in Saana on the 8th.
October 9, 2016: In the north (Saada province) a SCUD ballistic missile was fired at a government military base in central Yemen (Marib province). The Saudis said the Patriot missile battery they have stationed there intercepted the ballistic missile.
On the west Sea coast Shia rebels fired missiles at an American destroyer but missed.
October 8, 2016: A Saudi airstrike in Saana hit an indoor funeral gathering for a prominent local Shia man and killed 140 and wounded over 500 civilians. When the number of civilian casualties became big news the Saudis denied responsibility initially. Soon the Saudis admitted it was their smart bomb and they had received bad information about the nature of the target. Several prominent rebel military and political leaders were killed or wounded by the airstrike so it is unclear what kind of bad information the Saudis received. Attacking funerals is a favorite tactic of Islamic terrorists.
October 1, 2016: Off the west coast, near the Red Sea port of Mocha a UAE (United Arab Emirates) HSV 2 catamaran high speed transport, carrying supplies and passengers, was hit by a Chinese anti-ship missile. The damage to the 1,600 ton transport was severe mainly because of fire but the HSV 2 did not sink and the crew survived. The ship was towed to a port for further examination. The UAE had leased one of the former U.S. Navy HSV 2s and it arrived in July 2015, just in time to quickly move troops and vehicles from the UAE to Yemen to help the government there deal with an Iran-backed rebellion by Shia tribes. Since then the HSV 2 has continued to move supplies and personnel to Yemeni government controlled ports in southern Yemen, including near areas along the Red Sea coast that were still controlled by Shia rebels.
September 30, 2016: In the southwest (Taez province) a Saudi airstrike killed the local Shia rebel commander and eight of his subordinates. This air attack also destroyed a nearby rebel ammunition storage site.
September 29, 2016: In the north Shia artillery fire from Yemen killed a Saudi border guard across the border in Jizan province
September 23, 2016: In central Yemen (Marib province) an American UAV fired missiles at a vehicle killing four AQAP Islamic terrorists, including one of their leaders. These American UAV attacks killed at least 17 Islamic terrorists in September.
September 22, 2016: In south central Yemen (Shabwah province) an American UAV fired a missile at a vehicle killing an AQAP commander and his bodyguard.