Government forces continue to gain ground but at a very slow rate, too slow to claim any imminent victory over the Shia rebels. In part this is because the Shia rebels are minimizing their personnel losses. The rebels pull back when their situations appears hopeless and often counterattack later when they detect an opportunity. A similar attitude prevails with the government forces, including the better armed and trained Saudi led Arab coalition force. Despite that attitude as many as 10,000 have died (and over 30,000 wounded) in the 21 months of fighting. More than three million people have been driven from their homes and about half the population is dependent on foreign food aid to survive. The most heavily fought over area continues to be Taiz city, near the Red Sea. Most of the Yemeni Red Sea coast has remained under rebel control. This includes the Red Sea port of Hodeida In the northwest. This has been the main port for the delivery of foreign aid for civilians in rebel held areas. The rebels are accused of expelling UN personnel needed to inspect aid shipments and the government claims the rebels have been seizing aid shipments and preventing UN personnel from verifying that the aid is going to civilians. In March 2015 Iran has made a deal with the Shia rebels to modernize and upgrade Hodeida but with the intervention of the Saudi led coalition that Iranian aid effort never got going.
The Arab coalition sees itself as losing and is looking for solutions. This is complicated by the fact that the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab oil states in the Persian Gulf) declared its intervention in Yemen a success several months ago and that it should be the model for further joint efforts against Iranian aggression. Iran has since pointed out that the Shia rebels were not defeated and that Arab policies all over the region had failed. The Iranians had a point. Yet while the Iran-backed Shia rebels in Yemen have not surrendered they are very much losing. Iran won’t admit that but the fact that Iran calls for more ceasefires and peace talks in Yemen says otherwise. The GCC points out that while Iran criticizes civilian casualties from GCC airstrikes in Yemen it ignores the deliberate airstrikes on Sunni civilians in Syria by Russian and Syrian warplanes. The GCC would also like to expand its efforts against Iran to Lebanon and Gaza but that requires the cooperation of Egypt and Israel. To that end the GCC proposes a GCC+2 model with the +2 being Egypt and Jordan. Since Jordan has been a long-time ally of Israel (in the sense that the two neighbors have cooperated against Islamic terrorism for over four decades) that would make it more politically acceptable to openly accept Israel as an official ally. The GCC has not had much success in forming this larger coalition.
Iran believes it is on the winning side, and not just for religious reasons (the thousand year old Shia-Sunni dispute). The Iranians have dominated the region for thousands of years and see Arabs as inferior in just about every way. The Iranians are smart enough to be subtle about this but the Arabs have understood the Iranian attitude for a long time. They also understand that historically the Iranians usually prevail in a dispute, be it commercial, diplomatic or military. Thus when Iran says they are winning in Syria, Iraq and Yemen most people are inclined to believe them, even if all those realists in the Middle East will not admit it (at least not in public). The Iranians also know how to rub it in, as in recent remarks by senior Iranian military officials regarding Iran eventually establishing naval bases in Syria and Yemen (like on the Red Sea Coast). Of course first Iran has to rebuild its pre-revolution fleet that was unable to get updates or new ships after the 1970s. Militarily the Iranians are not very strong but they always excelled at psychological warfare and believe they have had great success at that for the last decade.
The Enemy Within
Meanwhile the Yemen government is having problems dealing with the tribal politics and corruption in the areas it controls. In Taiz Province, for example, several of the dozen or more local pro-government militias have recently expelled the officials the government appointed and replaced them with local men. This is all a protest the lack of economic support for pro-government communities in Taiz. The locals complain that the salaries of local civil servants have not been paid since July, even though other government controlled provinces have been paid. The locals accuse the government of corruption in this, and other cases. The restive tribes wonder who is getting all the money the GCC is handing over to the government.
The Arab coalition is being forced to deal with many of the problems that caused the civil war in the first place. The biggest problem is controlling the dozens of major tribes, many of them demanding more money, weapons and attention than the Arab coalition members are willing or able to provide. Then there is the corruption. The Arab coalition works through the tribal leaders, who are often corrupt, even with their own people. Giving payroll cash to tribal leaders to pay their militiamen often causes problems as the money mysteriously disappears and the tribal leaders blame the Arab coalition or anyone else. Then there are the local rivalries as well as the separatist (divide the country in two) sentiments among many southern tribes. Of course, the separatists want to have the oil, which is in the middle of the country. Meanwhile long-standing tribal feuds often cause pro-government tribes to refuse to follow orders or get distracted actually fighting with a rival tribe. Then there’s the issue of unity, or lack of it, among the pro-government tribes. The fighting drags on because the Shia tribes are much more united than the more numerous Sunni ones.
The reality is that the Shia tribes of Yemen also look out for themselves at the expense of others, as do most of the other tribes in Yemen. There is much talk of curbing corruption in Yemen but little interest in doing that equally with everyone. In other words every tribe has their own list of grievances and things that must be put right. The fundamental problem in Yemen, and many other nations worldwide, is lack of trust and willingness to compromise. Thus the rebels 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. Yet the Shia tribes didn’t wait long before declaring the new government illegitimate and in need of replacement. Virtue has a price some Yemeni tribes were not willing to pay.
Iranian backing for the rebels makes things worse because this turns the Yemen mess into part of the Iranian effort to make Shia Islam supreme in the Moslem world. So the Yemeni civil war is about more than corruption and disagreements over who gets what. Former president Saleh saw to that when he helped make the Shia tribes (who have been troublesome for centuries) more of a threat than usual. Saleh is a Shia who ran Yemen for decades by brokering deals between all the factions. He took a cut but even the most demanding tribes went along because what Saleh was doing was preferable to anarchy. Then came 2011 and the Arab Spring uprisings. Saleh proved adroit in dealing with this and resigned with an amnesty deal. But rather than retire he secretly arranged for his old allies in the military and many Shia and Sunni Yemeni tribes to effectively oppose and overthrow the elected government that succeeded him (and is now kept alive by the Arab coalition). Saleh also had contacts among Sunni Islamic terrorist groups that were surviving in Yemen because of Saleh’s willingness to make deals with anyone. That included Iran. All this was understandable (if not acceptable in this case) to his Arab neighbors but Westerners (especially the Americans) found it incomprehensible. It wasn’t, it was just the way things are done in this part of the world. That is the main reason this region is so backward and ravaged by violence but that’s another issue.
Because of pre-existing problems (overpopulation, water shortages, corruption) and all the unrest since 2011 Yemen is now broke, disorganized and desperate. Since early 2015 the rebels have controlled at least half the population and about the same portion of GDP and that helped keep them going. Most importantly they took control of the capital and most government ministries in late 2014. That’s what triggered the Saudi led intervention in early 2015 and widespread fighting and the eventual inability of the government to function. The intervention crippled the Shia use of what little oil Yemen produced. 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 late 2016 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 were not able to pay salaries for government workers after September. 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. But the elected government has not been able to use the more abundant economic resources it has. The rebels are getting enough additional cash from Iran to keep them going.
The Porous Blockade
The Shia resistance continues 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 some of the Taiz coast. This made smuggling operations along the Red Sea coast more difficult but obviously not impossible. The rebels still have access to most of the Yemeni Red Sea coast and apparently some of the smuggling efforts are succeeding. The GCC and U.S. announced several times in 2016 that the naval blockade around Yemen has been successful. In late 2016 it was revealed that four Iranian attempts to smuggle weapons (to Yemeni Shia rebels) have been intercepted since early 2015. The blockade is maintained by GCC, American and other foreign warships and that includes joint patrols and more sharing of information to make it more difficult for smugglers. Yet the rebels obtain essential supplies.
The key here is that the rebels have cash rich (since sanctions were lifted earlier this year) Iran paying to get weapons other banned equipment in and they are getting through. This is done two ways. First there are the many dhows (locally built traditional sailing ships) and other small coastal fishing and cargo ships operating in the Red Sea. Yemen Red Sea ports have been the site of dhow construction for thousands of years. Iran can afford (and does) to buy dhows and offer crews high fees to get tons of weapons and munitions landed on a rebel controlled beach or port. Most dhows can carry ten tons or more of cargo. There is also a land route and tribal militiamen manning checkpoints on the roads from Oman to rebel territory regularly discover trucks carrying weapons and explosives for rebel forces in Sanaa. The trucks from neighboring Oman (which is neutral in the civil war) is still a source for non-military supplies meant for civilians in rebel and government territory. But smuggling has long been a major economic activity in Yemen and there are plenty of skilled practitioners willing and able to take risks to move anything anywhere. Yemen has also long been the source of most illegal weapons in the region. Yemeni smugglers regularly get forbidden arms into just about anywhere, if the fee is high enough. With enough cash you can either bribe your way past security or spend more carefully hiding goods in vehicles or boats and even some of these are caught some will get through. This is expensive but Iran is paying whatever it takes to get weapons and other gear to the Shia rebels. The amount of the being intercepted is growing and so are the size of the bribes offered so a lot obviously gets through. This can be confirmed by high resolution aerial surveillance and items captured on the battlefield or intel from prisoners or pro-government people living in Shia controlled areas.
December 18, 2016: In the south (outside Aden) an ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) suicide bomber killed 52 soldiers and wounded 60. This is the second such attack in the camp this month and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) claimed them both. AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) went public after each of these attacks to condemn ISIL. In part this was because many of the casualties in these attacks were members of the local Ba Kazem tribe, which also supplies recruits and other support for AQAP (and much less so to ISIL). AQAP has always been the larger Islamic terrorist group in Yemen and resents ISIL trying (unsuccessfully so far) to set up shop and take over.
December 17, 2016: In the north (Saada province) Shia rebels claim to have defeated Saudi efforts to expand the area on the Yemen side of the border it captured earlier in the month. The rebels claim to have killed dozens of the attackers (Saudi and Yemeni pro-government militias). Since neither side allows independent observers (journalists, foreign aid workers) into the area it will take a while to find out what really happened.
December 16, 2016: In central Yemen (Baida province) locals accuse Shia rebels of using force (rocket attacks and gunfire) to compel mosques to replace their current clergy with pro-rebel ones. This apparently has led to some deaths recently. Pro- government forces have regained a lot of lost territory in Baida this year but neither side has enough manpower to seal off the areas they control. So the rebels raid whenever they think they can get away with it, and often do. .
December 14, 2016: The Saudi government made it clear it will not tolerate any external "interference" in Yemen, where a Saudi led Arab coalition has been providing ground troops, air support and logistical assistance to forces loyal to the elected government of Yemen. Iran backs the Shia rebels in the north and the Saudis are mainly talking about Iranian interference. But the Saudis also made it clear that they did not care about criticism from Western allies and arms suppliers.
December 13, 2016: In the north (near the border of Marib and Jawf provinces) an American UAV used a missile to kill four AQAP men in a vehicle travelling on the main road between the two provinces.
The American government halted shipment of $350 million of JDAM guidance kits to Saudi Arabia. The 16,000 guidance kits are used by the Saudis against Shia rebels in Yemen. The U.S. apparently did this to placate domestic and foreign critics of the Saudi ROE (Rules of Engagement) in Yemen. The Saudis have apologized to the Americans for the civilian casualties in Yemen but have not modified their ROE to reduce such deaths. 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. 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 over 60 percent of the civilian deaths. The Iranians have also been promoting accusations (mostly false) that Arab forces and their tribal allies are interfering with foreign aid efforts for 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 by looking the other way. But a lot of unsavory local practices are getting unwelcome international publicity. In response to this American ban the Saudis let the Americans know that Russian and Chinese firms stand ready to supply smart bombs and other high-tech gear. While Russia and China are also cooperating with Iran, they are doing it for reasons that have nothing to do with Yemen or the animosity between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Israel is also a potential supplier of high-tech weapons but that would create more political problems for the Saudis. At the same time the Saudis know that the American president who halted the shipment of the JDAM kits will be gone by January 2oth and replaced with a new one who has different attitudes towards the Middle East. At the same time most Western governments support the Saudi effort in Yemen, even if many wish there were fewer civilian casualties. In the United States, for example, the State Department had approved the JDAM shipment the outgoing U.S. president halted. Meanwhile the first of 84 F-15SA fighter bombers Saudi ordered from the U.S. in 2011 arrives in Saudi Arabia. Older Saudi F-15s are doing much of the bombing in Yemen.
December 12, 2016: In central Yemen (Marib province) soldiers at a checkpoint searched a truck carrying car parts and electric motors and found that it had several commercial UAVs hidden underneath. These lightweight UAVs are used by Shia rebels for aerial reconnaissance and don’t last long in a combat zone because enemy forces have learned to shoot at them on sight. So more must be smuggled in and the local smugglers have a reputation for getting just about anything through if the customer can pay what it costs.
December 10, 2016: In the south (outside Aden) an ISIL suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest while in the midst of several hundred soldiers who were assembling to collect their pay at a base next to the airport. The blast killed 57 and wounded 25. Several days later AQAP released a statement on the Internet condemning the ISIL attack and declaring ISIL an enemy of Islam and subject to attack whenever possible.
December 8, 2016: In the northwest near the border and the Saudi Arabian province of Jizan Yemeni Shia rebels killed a Saudi border guard who drove over a rebel a mine planted in the border road.
December 5, 2016: In the north (Saada province) government and coalition forces captured the border town of Alab and much of the rebel held territory around it.
December 4, 2016: In the west (Taiz province) a Saudi warplane attacked a small Pakistani freighter off the coast (near rebel controlled territory). The ship sank and six of the twelve man Pakistani crew were killed. This may have been smuggling related and an attempt to drive up the cash bonuses Iran pays for smuggling efforts.
November 26, 2016: In the northwest Shia rebels fired another ballistic missile, apparently at King Khalid Air Base in Asir province. Like several ballistic missiles fired at this air base since 2015, this one was intercepted by a Saudi Patriot missile. Elsewhere on the Yemeni side of the border a Saudi airstrike on a meeting of local Shia rebel leaders killed two senior leaders and four lower ranking ones. The meeting was in a cave, so a smart bomb or missile was probably used.
November 25, 2016: In the northwest near the border and the Saudi Arabian province of Jizan at least twelve rockets were fired from rebel territory at the Saudi village of Tuwal. There were no casualties. Since early 2015 similar attacks have killed or wounded several hundred Saudi civilians and security personnel near the border. The Saudis retaliate for each attack with artillery or air strikes and this has become part of an endless cycle of retaliatory attacks.