Yemen: Unnatural States


September 25, 2019: On August 10 th STC (South Transitional Council) southern separatists took control of the southern city of Aden, which has been the temporary capital of Yemen since the Shia rebels took control of Sanaa in 2015. The threat of this happening existed before the Shia rebels moved south in 2015. The STC takeover of Aden revives the fear that Yemen will be split into two Yemens, as has often been the case during the last few centuries. North Yemen, which occupies the northeast and about a third of Yemen’s territory, also has 89 percent of the population. That was because north Yemen has more rain and thus more crops and more people. North Yemen was also more religious, and the population up there was over 40 percent Shia. But those Shia were rural tribes near the Saudi border. Most of the money up north was in the cities and ports. Sanaa was inland but it was a large urban area that eventually became the capital of united Yemen. The northern Red Sea ports were always sources of wealth.

Until 1918 what is now north Yemen was controlled by the Turks (Ottoman Empire) and it wasn’t until the 1930s that the Saudi family united most of the Arabian Peninsula as Saudi Arabia. That unification also meant the ancient Ottoman province of Yemen was split in two. The northern half was now part of Saudi Arabia while the southern portion, containing prosperous cities like Sanaa and Hodeida became North Yemen. This split the Yemeni Shia Arab population in half. Three decades later the growing oil wealth of Saudi Arabia meant the Saudi Shia tribes on the Yemen border were better off economically than their Yemeni kinsmen. The reduced enthusiasm for reuniting the Yemeni Shia. There was no such oil wealth in Yemen and the Yemeni Shia felt the Sunni majority were taking more than their fair share of what little oil income Yemen produced.

Down south there was the other Yemen, largely created by the British in the early 19th century when they took control of Aden. This was partly to shut down the many pirates operating out of there, and increasingly going after British ships traveling between Asia (India, Southeast Asia and China) and Britain. Only Aden was needed but the British made deals with the tribes that occupied most of southern Yemen coast and had long depended on Aden and other southern ports for supplies and such. Britain made Aden and the smaller southern ports more prosperous with new trading opportunities and provided more benefits for the interior tribes. Most importantly the tribes still had their autonomy, as well as British protection from outsiders. The Sues Canal opened in 1869 and over the next few decades larger, more efficient, steam-powered metal vessels supplanted and replaced wooden sailing ships. That meant a lot more trade moving past and Aden and South Yemen became more prosperous.

When the British left in the early 1960s, as part of a widespread abandonment of colonies by European nations, there was some unrest and fighting in the newly independent South Yemen. This was because Aden was much less religious and traditional with a better-educated population and it was no surprise that Aden and some other South Yemen cities were dominated by local communists. From 1970 until the fall of European communism in 1989, South Yemen was a communist state, subsidized by the Soviet Union, and the only such one in the Arab world.

Most of that enthusiasm for communism was centered in Aden and its suburbs. This is where most of the South Yemen population lived and where an even larger proportion of its GDP came from. A few other coastal cities had the same type of population and political attitudes, giving the urban population control of politics as well as the economy. The tribal minority, out in the desert and semi-desert inland areas was much more religious and traditional. But over the centuries the urban and tribal populations had learned to get along and respect each other’s customs.

It was different in northern Yemen, where the urban population was not as dominant and the tribal population was economically better off and about as religious and conservative as their southern counterparts. The problem was the northern and southern tribes saw each other as “foreigners”. This is a common situation in tribal cultures, which includes the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. Yet even then there was some enthusiasm for a united Yemen in the north and south.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union (and European communism) in 1991, the Russian subsidies stopped and unification was suddenly much more appealing. After a few years of haggling, and occasional fighting, Yemen was united by 1994. At that point, there were still factions in the north and south who believed unity was overrated and two Yemens was the way to go.

What eventually became the STC got started in 2007 as a separatist confederation. When the Shia Yemenis seized Sanaa in 2015 and the Arab Coalition came to the aid of the elected government and its Sunni president the southern separatists grew more militant. The 2011 Arab Spring has triggered a rebellion against the Shia president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had become the elected “president-for-life” of a united Yemen since the 1990s. Saleh had managed to put together a Shia-Sunni coalition that worked but was unstable. Corruption and poverty, especially in comparison to oil-rich Saudi Arabia, brought down Saleh and replaced him with an equally corrupt Sunni who was unable to handle the Shia up north. Civil war soon followed. It got more complicated as Iran, a potential friend of Shia everywhere, increased its aid to the Yemeni Shia. The STC consider their more militant stance a matter of self-preservation. 

The possibility of further divisions in Yemen developed in part because the UAE has been in charge of security (and aid delivery) in the south since 2015 and supported the formation of the STC as a means of maintaining peace and order down there. This group is composed of southern tribes that want autonomy but are willing to fight and defeat the Islamic terrorists as well as the Shia rebels first. Aidarous al Zubaidi, the STC leader is seen as more popular in the south than Abdrabu Mansur Hadi the last and current elected president of united Yemen. Hadi has only briefly visited Yemen a few times since 2015 and spends most of his time in the Saudi capital. This is for Hadi’s safety, given the number of assassinations going on in Aden (where the Hadi government officially moved to in 2015).

The Saudis and the UAE do not agree on dividing Yemen once more but for the moment it is more convenient to support the STC and efforts to defeat the Iran backed Shia rebels. The STC armed forces consist of about 12,000 men from the separatist militias trained by the UAE and referred to as the SBF (Security Belt Forces).

One force in Aden that is loyal to the Yemen government and Saudi Arabia is the Islah (a Moslem Brotherhood related Islamist Party in the south) militia. Islah has worked with the STC against the Shia rebels as well as the Islamic terrorists in the south. These are mainly AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Both these terrorist groups are still around but largely keeping their heads down. AQAP has few active members left in Yemen and the only remaining local support is from some separatist Sunni tribesmen in the south and east. Some of these Islamic terrorist tolerant tribesmen also support the STC. This can be awkward at times but is accepted down south as “the way things are done.” In the south (Shabwa province) Yemeni special operation troops have been finding and raiding the few remaining rural AQAP hideouts there. Since 2017 AQAP has been under heavy attack by the Americans and the Arab coalition and the Islamic terrorists have responded by shifting more of their attacks to the government and Arab coalition forces.

Then there is the Islah militia in Aden. Because Islah is Islamic and loyal to Saudi Arabia (and a united Yemen) there has always been friction with the STC. These two rivals have always been suspicious of each other. To further complicate matters Saudi Arabia tolerates Islah, while the UAE doesn’t trust them. The Islah militia is considered part of the Yemeni government Aden garrison, a force meant to ensure that Islamic terrorists and southern separatists do not become a threat to government control of Aden. The early August fighting in the south, mainly Aden, was about the STC demanding that Islah get out of Aden because of trust issues. While this may seem odd, it’s quite common in Yemen, and Islah was forced out of Aden.

Contentious Coalition

Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) are the core of the Arab Coalition supporting the Yemen government against the Iran backed Shia rebels up north. But disagreements between the UAE and Saudi Arabia over how to handle the war led to the UAE withdrawing most of its ground troops from Yemen earlier this year. The Saudis are mainly concerned about eliminating an Iranian ally operating on the southwestern border of Saudi Arabia and posing a threat to maritime traffic in the Red Sea. This is also of major concern for Egypt, which depends on Suez Canal transit fees for a major portion of its foreign currency income. Persian Gulf oil states depend on the Suez Canal to ship oil to Europe and receive exports from there.

Since the Arab Coalition arrived in 2015 the Saudis have concentrated on air operations and defending their northern border and the Red Sea coast. The UAE concentrated on the south, the Islamic terrorist threat there and rebuilding the Yemen armed forces as well as the local tribal militias. The UAE feels most of its work is done and it does face an increasingly aggressive Iran in the Persian Gulf.

The Saudis accuse the UAE of being more interesting in supporting another partition of Yemen as a more effective solution to the perpetual Yemeni crises. There is a case to be made for that. According to the Saudis, the UAE supports the Sunni separatist tribes in the south who want nothing to do with a Shia dominated northern Yemen. The Saudis believe that the UAE expects to be allowed to invest in new ports and other facilities in southern Yemen after the war. This is probably true, but investing in new or upgraded port facilities throughout the region is a major business activity for the UAE. Perhaps that provides the UAE with a different view of the mess in Yemen and a perpetual source of friction with Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis will carry on with efforts to defeat the Shia rebels despite UN pressure to make a peace deal the Shia rebels would currently accept. Such a deal would restore the Shia autonomy (lost in the 1960s) in the north and make it possible for Iran to continue supplying the Shia tribes with weapons that can be used to attack Saudi Arabia. To the Saudis that is unacceptable, given the fact that the Iranians are openly calling for the overthrow of the Saudi government, and Iran taking over as the “protector of the two Most Holy Islamic cities of Mecca and Medina”. The Saudis suddenly feel more sympathy for Israel and the years of Iran-financed violence on its southern border where Gaza-based Hamas exists mainly to try and destroy Israel.

Most Moslems do not want Iran in charge of Mecca and Medina. The Iranians are Shia Moslems and Shia comprise only about ten percent of all Moslems. The Saudis are largely Sunni, a version of Islam about 80 percent of Moslems belong to. Moreover, the Iranians are not Arabs. Rather the Iranians are Indo-European and for many Moslems that is a big deal because Islam was founded by Arabs and the Moslem scriptures (the Koran) are written in Arabic. The Saudis will go to great lengths to prevent the Shia provinces in northwest Yemen from becoming an Iran base area. Meanwhile, the Iranians have convinced many of the Shia Yemenis that getting their autonomy back should be non-negotiable because without that autonomy the Yemeni Shia will be vulnerable to retaliation from all the other Yemeni groups the Shia rebels have harmed during the years of civil war.

September 24, 2019: In the north, the Shia rebels fired two ballistic missiles, from residential neighborhoods in Sanaa, towards Saudi Arabia. Both rockets ran into problems and crashed short of the Saudi border. These Iranian missiles have been used much less frequently because the government forces have more control over the Red Sea ports this year, particularly Hodeida, making it more difficult to smuggle in Iranian weapons. The solid-fuel ballistic missiles must be smuggled in broken down into smaller components and assembly problems and shipping damage makes it more likely the missile will misfire. Several have but two at once is unusual. The missile launches were also a violation of the unilateral ceasefire the rebels declared four days ago.

September 20, 2019: In the northwest (the Red Sea port of Hodeida), Saudi airstrikes hit four rebel sites along the coast north of the city. The Saudis said this did not violate the ceasefire because the four rebel sites hit were being used to make attacks (with naval mines and explosive-filled speedboats) on Red Sea shipping. Since this includes food and other aid coming to Hodeida for distribution by the UN, there was no UN opposition to these Saudi airstrikes.

The Shia rebels have proposed a peace deal that would include a halt to all attacks on Saudi Arabia. As part of that, the rebels declared a unilateral ceasefire and asked the Saudis to join them. The UN thought this was a splendid idea but the Saudis pointed out that the rebels were lying and that the recent UAV attack on Saudi Arabia came directly from Iran. Moreover, the Saudis will not tolerate armed and hostile Yemeni Shia on its southwestern border, especially since these Yemenis are working closely with Iran. For the Saudis victory is the only option, not a compromise that leaves the Yemeni Shia threat intact.

September 19, 2019: Saudi intel officials announced that debris found at the Abqaiq facility indicated that Iran used 18 UAVs and seven Ya Ali air-launched cruise missiles to attack two Saudi targets. The Ya Ali has been around since 2014 and has a range of 700 kilometers. The UAVs and cruise missiles were flying preprogrammed flight paths using GPS. The flight path carefully followed a course that avoided areas covered by Saudi Patriot system radars, which see in a 120 degree arc, not 360 (all around). The attack force would move along the Iraqi coast and stay off the Persian Gulf, because that body of water is under constant surveillance by the United States Navy and Air Force. The attack force would then proceed south of Abqaiq and turn around so that the attacked appear like they have just arrived from Yemen. Not all the UAVs and cruise missiles hit targets. Over a third of them for one reason or another missed.

September 18, 2019: In the northwest (off the Red Sea coast) coalition aircraft spotted and destroyed another Shia rebel remotely controlled speedboat full of explosives heading for the shipping lanes. The rebels will use these boats to try and hit a cargo ship or tanker and terrorize commercial shipping.

September 14, 2019: In the north, Shia rebels claim responsibility for an air attack in Saudi Arabia where the Abqaiq oil processing facility (the world’s largest) and a nearby oil field were damaged by multiple explosives equipped UAVs. This attack was well planned and hit key facilities within the sprawling oil processing center. The Iran-backed Shia rebels quickly took credit for the attack but few people who knew about how these Iranian UAVs operated believed the Yemeni rebels. Although those rebels have been using similar UAVs for similar attacks since 2018, one like this, so far from northern Yemen and so precise and carefully planned, was beyond the capabilities of the Shia rebels. For one thing, the Saudis have developed methods for detecting and destroying these UAVs that were operating in Yemen and it is unlikely that a formation of a dozen or more could travel 1,400 kilometers over Saudi territory without being detected. Later analysis of the debris indicated that over 20 UAVs were involved and the Americans provided photographic evidence that the UAVs came from the north (as in from Iran), not the south. Kuwait also reported detecting a number of UAVs passing over their territory before the Abqaiq attack.

The Yemeni rebels claim to have used their Samad-3 UAVs, which has the range to hit Abqaiq and has been used by the Yemen rebels since 2018. The Samad-3 is basically an Iranian Ababil UAV with a new name. This UAV would take about five hours to get from Yemen to Abqaiq. For a while, it was suspected the UAVs came from southern Iraq because there was one pro-Iran PMF militia that boasted of launching UAV attacks on Saudi Arabia from western Iraq (Anbar) and was suspected in an earlier UAV attack. But that PMF unit was no longer in a position to launch any UAV attacks and the growing body of evidence indicated the UAVs were launched from western Iran and passed over Kuwait to reach Abqaiq. Iran denies this but this sort of attack is typical for Iranians, who prefer to use third-parties to make such attacks and then deny any responsibility. This approach works less well now because Iran has used it so often and several entities (the U.S., the UN and others) have compiled evidence leading back to Iran as the source of numerous assassinations, bombings and aerial attacks. Iran is taking advantage of the fact that no one wants an all-out war in the Persian Gulf and believes it can continue attacks like this without serious repercussions. Iran is already under intense economic sanctions so they believe they are not vulnerable to any serious retaliation. The Ababil attack did not have much impact on the world oil market as there was plenty of extra supply to fill in while Ababil was repaired. The Americans did impose new financial sanctions on Iranian banks and financial services in general and will more vigorously enforce existing sanctions on Iranian banks. In other words the Americans are now going after all Iranian foreign financial activity. This will cause Iran problems. Worse, what Iran wants is an actual attack by the Americans, so the unpopular Iranian religious dictatorship can get more popular support inside Iran. This also reduces popular support for Iran among Iraqi Shia Arabs. These Iraqis were initially attracted to installing an Iranian style government in Iraq, but given the string of failures and defeats Iran has been suffering the past few years, Iran no longer seems worth following or emulating.

September 13, 2019: In the south (Dhalea province), fighting between Shia rebels and government forces left a senior Shia commander (of a brigade) dead along with several of his subordinates. Last June some of the rebel fighters withdrawn from three Red Sea ports because of a ceasefire, were shifted to other areas, like the border of Dhalea province in preparation to retaking one of the first provinces retaken by government forces in 2015. That offensive quickly evolved into a bloody stalemate that just grinds on. These Shia commander deaths took place either late today or early the next day.

September 12, 2019: Down south AQAP and ISIL have resumed fighting each other. Since the end of August, the two terror groups have been regularly fighting. There have been about 30 clashes, which is more than there were from January to mid-August. Most (about 80 percent) of these attacks were by AQAP. Until this latest activity, the two groups were largely keeping their heads down in rural hideouts. Most of these are in central Yemen ( Baida province) and to the east.

September 9, 2019: In the north (Saada province), coalition airstrikes destroyed a Shia rebel weapons and ammo warehouse. This could be confirmed by all the secondary explosions that occurred after the bombs hit and started fires.




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