The government offensive along the west coast has driven the rebels away from nearly all of the 450 kilometer Yemeni Red Sea coastline. In January the rebels had access to nearly all of it and now they don’t. At this point the Shia rebels are largely confined to using the Red Sea port of Hodeida. This has been the main port for the delivery of foreign aid for civilians in rebel held areas and, in theory, government controlled areas. Government forces are closing in on Hodeida and that will make it more difficult for the rebels to smuggle in military supplies.
The rebels have prevented UN personnel from inspecting aid shipments (for weapons and other contraband) and the government claims the rebels have been seizing aid shipments and preventing UN personnel from verifying that the aid is going to civilians. The rebels are putting up a strong defense around Hodeida and that slows down the advance but cannot stop it.
The rebels have been pushed out of smaller ports like Midi (north of Hodeida) and Mocha (south of Hodeida) and are concentrating on the defense of Hodeida and, 150 kilometers to the east, the national capital Saana. Government forces are now within 20 kilometers of Saana and about to take the airport there.
Government forces are also pushing inland from Mocha to open a land route to Taiz. The major obstacle is the Khalid bin al Waleed military base, which was surrendered to the rebels two years ago by soldiers loyal to the former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. The base is 30 kilometers east of Mocha. Government forces are also advancing from east of Taiz as well in order to surround the Khalid base and force it to surrender. East of the capital (Saana) government forces have taken high ground within sight of the city and established positions to observe and call in accurate artillery and rocket fire when large groups of rebels assemble or move. The fulltime observations posts also make it easier to keep track of the pro-government Sunni militias also operating in the area but not willing to operate like a military unit (and do what the senior army commander wants).
The fighting is most intense at night, when government air support is less effective. The rebels have learned how to minimize the government airpower advantage. Since late 2015 much of the violence has been in Taiz province, which has always been heavily fought over mainly because it has a lengthy Red Sea coastline which enabled smugglers to bring in weapons and other aid for the Shia rebels. There is still a lot of fighting around inland areas, like the city of Taiz. Most of the Red Sea coast of Taiz is now under government control. Fighting is low key but constant.
Scary Foreign Aid
In 2017 the United States has increased the use of air support and aerial surveillance for the government forces. In the last month there were about two American air strikes a day and about one a day has been with UAVs. There were only 39 UAV attacks for all of 2016 and the in the peak year (2002) there were only 41 attacks. So 2017 is already a record breaking year for American UAV missile attacks. In addition there are more American airstrikes using manned aircraft and smart bombs.
There are apparently more foreign (American, Moslem, European) special operations troops in Yemen. These operate in support of Arab operators who carry out a growing number of raids. The increased aerial surveillance and intelligence assistance has led to locating more targets for air strikes or raids (to take prisoners, obtain information and disrupt terrorist operations). The result has been heavy losses for Islamic terror groups, fewer attacks and more of those that do happen fail. The Arab coalition believes this has significantly reduced the number of Islamic terrorists operating in Yemen.
As has been the case since 2015 most of the Islamic terrorists in Yemen 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 as well as the Shia (rebels or civilians). The ISIL/AQAP conflict is to determine which version of a religious dictatorship should rule Yemen. Since mid-2016 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.
The increased American contributions to counter-terrorism operations is mainly to prevent Yemen from becoming a base for AQAP or ISIL attacks elsewhere in the region and in the West. But at the same time the Islamic terror groups have a lot of local support in Yemen because of the religious, regional and tribal animosities. Yemen’s long history is mainly one of constant internal strife, not unity, peace and prosperity. The Islamic terrorists provide Holy Warriors to fight for these local causes and the foreigners are seen as unjustified interference.
Frightened Foreign Aid
The government has had less success dealing with the growing problems involved with caring for the general population. In this case the enemy is not external but within. The UN has documented the extent of the disaster. Since the civil war began in early 2015 nearly 8,000 have died (some estimates are 25 percent higher), over 40,000 were wounded and more than ten percent of the population (about three million people) has been driven from their homes and are still unable to return. About half the population is in need of food and medical aid and most of the population is dependent on foreign aid to one degree or another. Yet the UN obtains only a fraction of the money for this from the usual donor nations. The main problem is the chronic corruption in Yemen and the fact that even with so many (over 15 million) Yemenis dependent on food aid, a lot of this aid gets diverted by corrupt officials and local (often tribal) leaders.
Pledges to deal with the corruption was what initially got the Shia rebels support from non-Shia Yemenis. That support has since faded because the Shia have demonstrated they are less concerned with reducing corruption than they are with expanding their own power. UN pleas for aid get some response from the oil rich nations backing the government and rebels, but this appears to be mainly to obtain some positive publicity in a situation where most of the news is relentlessly negative. The UN and other aid organizations have long played down the corruption angle (because it angers heavily armed locals who will kill aid workers if sufficiently provoked) and instead pressured the donor nations to provide the money and tolerate the corruption losses. That no longer works as the extent and nature of the corruption has become more widely known and led donor nations to simply direct more of their aid money to areas where most of the aid gets to where it is intended. The message here is for aid groups to pay more attention to the corruption but that idea has not caught on in a big way yet. Arab nations have become major aid donors in Yemen but they have an edge in that can supply more qualified people on the ground to ensure that most of the aid gets to where it is needed. Even that capability has its limits and sometimes Arab donors will cut off aid to areas where corruption remains intense. Yemen has long been one of the most corrupt and self-destructive states in the region.
The UN peace efforts have been crippled by the fact that both the Arab oil states and the Iran coalition (including allies China and Russia) have long been the main practitioners of corruption in the UN and have achieved a stalemate in obtaining official UN backing for their cause in Yemen. This is one of the most active theaters of the Sunni-Shia war, which the UN won’t even admit exists. Two years of fighting in Yemen have made it clear what an all-out war between Shia and Sunni would do; destroy lots of mosques. Both sides go after mosques, especially when they are full of worshippers. Since 2015 nearly a thousand mosques have been destroyed in Yemen.
Unwelcome Foreign Aid
Iran has a pretty realistic attitude towards the situation in Yemen. That explains why Iranian support is a low cost and largely covert operation. Iran always urged the Yemeni Shia to adopt a more cautious and gradual strategy. That advice was ignored and when the Yemeni Shia had an opportunity to seize the capital and declare a new government in 2015 they did so. It didn’t work but came close enough to encourage Iran to spend a lot of what little cash they had to support the Yemeni Shia. Iran knew that the Yemeni Shia, or at least some of them, would be grateful for this support and that would benefit Iran long-term. In the meantime the situation in Yemen, where the outnumbered and outgunned Shia are holding out against the Sunni majority and their Arab (led by the Saudis) allies hurts Iranian enemies (the Sunni Arab Gulf states and the West) while providing the Iranians with excellent media opportunities to criticize the Arabs and the West. Iran is making the most of the fact that the Arabs, even with greater numbers and superior weapons, are unable to defeat fellow Arabs who just happen to be Shia. Iran, the largest Shia majority nation in the world, considers the Shia form of Islam superior to the Sunni variants (which over 80 percent of Moslems follow). Iranian media plays up the suffering of Yemenis in general and manages to keep itself too low profile for the media to pay attention to.
April 16, 2017: In the north a Shia rebel landmine killed a Saudi soldier (and wounded three others) across the border in Jizan province. Shia rebels sneak across the border to plant landmines although most of the casualties on the Saudis side of the border are caused by mortar and machine-gun fire from Yemen. Since early 2015 year about 130 Saudis, mostly military and police, have died in this border violence, most of it in Jizan province.
April 11, 2017: Off the east coast a Yemeni patrol boat seized a small cargo ship from Oman that was carrying weapons, apparently for the Shia rebels in western Yemen.
April 8, 2017: In the south (Aden) security forces took video of a checkpoint incident where a suicide bomber in an army uniform calmly approached. A nearby plainclothes policeman confirmed that the man was a suicide bomber and an officer at the checkpoint shot him dead. The video then shows soldiers approaching the body and removing the explosive vest. The dead suicide bomber belonged to one of several Islamic terror groups that still operating in and around Aden. The police have been successful in tracking these groups and in this case were able to spot and track a suicide bomber and take him down before he could reach his target (which was apparently unclear for a while, thus the plainclothes police tailing the bomber).
April 6, 2017: Since 2015 the Saudi Arabian Air Force has carried out its first sustained combat operation in Yemen and some of the pilots are getting worn out. So the government has awarded 60 percent pay raises to combat pilots and 35 percent raises to all aircrew. Other, unannounced, bonuses have apparently also been provided. The Saudis have also had to hire more foreign technicians to help maintain the warplanes, which have never been used this intensively before. The Saudis have always used a lot of foreigners to maintain their warplanes although the percentage of Saudis trained and able to do the work has been increasing. Nearly all the aircrew are Saudi, or are supposed to be.
March 28, 2017: In the south (Abyan province) an American UAV used a missile to kill four AQAP men in a vehicle. Elsewhere in the south (Bayda province) a known AQAP leader was also killed by a UAV. In the southeast (Hadramawt province) a raid by Yemeni special operations troops captured Abu Ali al Sayari, a senior AQAP leader along with three other AQAP members. Two other AQAP men were killed during the night raid on a remote village where the AQAP men had been hiding. Sayari, like many Islamic terrorist leaders, is a Saudi citizen whose family was originally from Yemen and he maintained ties with the kin in Yemen.
In the northwest Shia rebels fired four ballistic missiles at cities in southwest Saudi Arabia (Asir province). Saudi Patriot anti-missile missiles intercepted them. The Arabs point to these Iranian ballistic missiles and Iranian UAVs as pretty clear evidence that Iran was still smuggling weapons in. Iran denies everything and when confronted with physical evidence insists that the Yemeni Shia made they stuff locally, obtaining technical help via the Internet.
March 22, 2017: Four UAVs that Yemen Shia rebels used to attack Saudi and UAE air defense radars were not locally made as the rebels claimed but were smuggled in (disassembled) from Iran via Oman hidden in truckloads of non-military goods. The four UAVs were identified as Ababils which are made in Iran and provided to several Islamic terror groups so far. In Yemen the Ababils are used to try and incapacitate Saudi Patriot air defense systems. If you know where the air defense radars are you can use the GPS guidance of the Ababil to send the UAV, armed with an explosive warhead, to destroy or damage the radar. Ababil is an 83 kg (183 pound) UAV with a three meter (ten foot) wing span, a payload of about 36 kg (80 pounds), a cruising speed of 290 kilometers an hour and an endurance of 90 minutes. The Ababil under radio control can operate as far as 120 kilometers from its ground controller. But it also has a guidance system that allows it to fly a pre-programmed route and then return to the control of its controllers for a landing (which is by parachute). The Ababil can use its GPS guidance to fly over 300 kilometers in “cruise missile” mode.
March 17, 2017: In the north, off the Hodeida province coast, a Yemeni smuggler boat carrying Somalis was attacked at night by a helicopter and a warship as it moved near the coast with its lights out. The attackers were apparently from the Arab Coalition blockade off Yemen, established in 2015 to prevent Iran from smuggling weapons and other military supplies to the Shia rebels in Yemen. Soon after the smuggler boat came under fire passengers waved flashlights to indicate that the boat was full of illegal migrants not Iranian weapons. The helicopter gunship and warship went away and the shot up smuggler boat returned to Yemen with survivors. At least 42 people on the crowded boat were killed. The smugglers said they were trying to reach Sudan. Until the Yemen civil war broke out in 2015 people smuggling from Somalia (Somaliland) and Djibouti was a major criminal enterprise with over 10,000 foreigners arriving each month and then being moved north. The smuggling gangs had arrangements, especially with tribal leaders, throughout Yemen to allow the movement of the smuggled foreigners, for a fee. After 2015 the traffic began to go both ways with thousands of Yemeni refugees reaching Somaliland (often on smuggler boats that had carried African refugees to Yemen) each month. Meanwhile the movement of Somalis (and other Africans) to Yemen continued with 100,000 arriving in 2015 and 115,000 in 2016. The civil war keeps most of these illegal migrants in UN supported refugee camps. Those with money can hire smugglers to take them across the Gulf of Aden to Sudan and from there to the Mediterranean coast and another boat to Europe.