Yemen: United In Hunger And Fear

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June 3, 2022: Two months ago, Yemen and the Arab Coalition (Saudi Arabia and UAE/United Arab Emirates) agreed to another truce with the Shia rebels. This one expired on June 1 st , and what was needed to renew it was agreement on areas where continued Shia violence is a problem as well as ground rules for a final settlement to end the war.

Iran is not participating in these peace talks but pressures the Shia rebels to not surrender anything that will further disrupt Iranian weapons smuggling. Iran wants to continue smuggling in ballistic and cruise missiles, which are brought in broken down, to be assembled under Iranian supervision in Shia territory and then fired at targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Shia rebels have suffered heavy casualties in the past year because of failed efforts to gain more territory as well as defending areas they have long occupied.

The April ceasefire was generally adhered to and that could be measured by the reduction (by more than 50 percent) in civilian casualties. This is not usually the case. Past ceasefires are seen as futile because the Shia rebels violated so many of them and, until recently, showed no interest in change, especially since Iran support is crucial to the maintenance of the Shia military efforts.

The best example of Iranian and rebel disdain for ceasefire agreements was the 2018 agreement to halt the successful government campaign to take control of the Red Sea port of Hodeida. This is the second largest port in Yemen and the main entry point of foreign aid for Yemenis in Shia controlled territory. Despite UN monitoring, Hodeida was also where a lot of Iranian military aid was smuggled in. In 2018, as government forces were about to drive rebel forces from the Hodeida city and port, the rebels appealed to the UN for a timeout (peace talks). The UN persuaded the Yemen government and its Arab Coalition to halt operations and the rebels signed an agreement whereby they would withdraw their forces from the port area so that government troops could replace them. The rebels withdrew some of their forces then moved them back in and attacked the government troops. Rebels accused the government of violating the agreement. By 2020 it was clear that the rebels never intended to withdraw and the ceasefire deal was revealed as yet another ploy to enlist the UN to assist the rebels in avoiding a defeat. Not only did the rebels maintain their control of areas near the port, but increased their attacks on shipping in the Red Sea while denying that they were responsible. More key UN members came to conclude that the Shia rebels and their Iranian backers were intent on maintaining control of northwest Yemen so the rebels could use Iranian cruise and ballistic missiles to attack Saudi Arabia.

The current peace talks are different because the Shia and the Yemeni government both agree that allowing Yemen to be a battleground for the Iranian campaign to replace Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Moslem world is not good for Yemen. Then there is the situation in Iran. Yemeni Shia are aware of significant popular opposition in Iran to the Yemen war. The Saudis and UAE were always reluctant participants in the war but could not withdraw as long as Iran was attacking them from Shia rebel-controlled northern Yemen. This encouraged the Yemen government to seriously consider some kind of Shia autonomy and sufficient guarantees that the autonomy would not later be taken away.

The Yemeni government has also gone through some changes. In April president Hadi was forced to resign because of corruption and general ineffectiveness. Hadi agreed to officially transfer his power to a Presidential Council, whose eight members were selected earlier by the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) in consultation with many prominent pro-government officials. The council is led by Rashad al Alimi, a former interior minister. The other seven members include governors of Marib and Hadramawt provinces, STC (South Transitional Council) leaders, a Suuni tribal leader in the north who has formed an anti-Shia coalition, and several military commanders, including a member of the Saleh family that ruled Yemen before the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. The council members accurately represent the key pro-government factions in Yemen. All of these members want peace, but without the continued Iranian presence. This new government was able to use the ceasefire to reorganize and upgrade the Yemeni army.

The new Presidential Council made it easier for the Saudis and the UAE to negotiate with Yemeni factions, including many Shia ones, to work out a peace deal. The war has dragged on for eight years mainly because Iran got involved and injected religious issues. For most Yemenis the war was about maintaining the cohesion of the nation. For Iran and the Shia rebels it’s also about religion. The Iranian religious dictatorship is obsessed with replacing Saudi Arabia as the guardian of Mecca and Medina, the most important religious shrines for all Moslems. Arabs have always controlled these two cities near the Red Sea coast, 780 kilometers north of Yemen Shia territory. Even when the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) controlled the area, they put a proper (descendants of Mohammed) Arab family in charge of Mecca and Medina. The Turks profited from what the many annual pilgrims spent when they arrived. Iran wants to change all that and the Saudis, with the support of most Moslems, oppose Iranian claims.

The main battlefield for control of Mecca has become Yemen, where Iran-backed Yemen Shia rebels began a civil war in 2014 and with Iranian support have survived Saudi efforts to prevent the Shia provinces in northwest Yemen from becoming an Iranian military base area. The Yemen Shia rebels are led by members of the Houthi tribe, which Iran supports because ultimately Shia controlled northwestern Yemen would be ruled by a religious dictatorship with the Houthi tribe providing the hereditary leaders of the Yemeni Shia state.

There are about nine million Shia in Yemen (40 percent of the population) and most belong, like the rebels, to the Zaidi sect that the Houthis dominate. In 2009 only a few hundred thousand Zaidi were up in arms against the government, and not all of them were actively resisting the advancing troops. The Houthi religious leaders, despite their disagreements with Iran over what form of Shia beliefs was superior, accepted Iranian offers of support in regaining self-rule for the Zaidi Shia in Yemen as well as the million Zaidi across the border in Saudi Arabia.

It was difficult for the Shia rebel leaders to realize they had made a mistake accepting Iranian weapons and “guidance.” The Iranians and the Shia rebels had different goals and priorities. When it became obvious that most Iranians as well as most Yemenis opposed the war in Yemen. At that point it became preferable for the Shia rebels to negotiate with the Yemeni government without Iranian “guidance” and threats. Long ago the Shia and Sunni in Yemen learned that it was preferable to tolerate each other and unite when Yemen was threatened. That balance was disrupted during the 1990s as Yemen was once again a united country, The Sunni majority refused to address those complaints because many of the united government leaders were Shia. For many Yemeni Shia, those Shia government officials were out for themselves, not the Shia community in Yemen. Now that there is general agreement on that, there is an opportunity to end the war and create a more lasting peace.

June 1, 2022: There was finally an agreement to extend the truce, but only after the government agreed to a compromise on Tabriz, where the Shia rebels have refused to open up all the roads. These roads mainly used to deliver food and other aid to civilians, most of them Sunnis. The locals have a difficult time moving around, even for emergencies, because the rebel roadblocks are still active. The new agreement extends the truce. The Saudis will probably continue their retaliation for the Taiz violations. During the first truce the Saudis, who control the naval and air blockade, were supposed to allow 18 tankers unload fuel at the Red Sea port of Hodeida and a resumption of flights from the Sana airport. The airport use was delayed until May 16 because the rebels insisted the passengers could use passports issued by the Shia rebels. This was unacceptable to the Saudis because the Iran-backed Shia rebels had cooperated with Iran to smuggle people designated as terrorists and banned from any international flying, into and out of Yemen using any means available. As a result, there were only three flights from Sana during the first truce instead of 18. The rebels could eliminate fuel and airport restrictions by doing what they agreed to do in Taiz. For whatever reason the rebels keep traffic from flowing freely through Taiz.

May 31, 2022: Western nations are an important unofficial participant in the current Yemen ceasefire negotiations because Yemen is already a low priority candidate for receiving food and other foreign aid, The Shia rebels stole or diverted foreign aid, particularly food, to assist their war effort. This included depriving hostile groups in areas they controlled of food aid. Iran supported this tactic even though most Yemenis saw it as depriving Yemen in general of foreign aid. The aid groups have changed over the years and learned to prioritize nations requesting aid. That meant areas that were most likely to tolerate aid being stolen or diverted were given less aid because there is a lot more need for aid than there is supply. With the worldwide grain shortage because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is less food aid available and even though Yemen is one of the nation’s most in need of this aid, not much is likely until the Yemenis demonstrate that they can distribute it effectively.

The center of such corruption and food aid manipulation is in the southern province of Taiz. This is as far south as Shia rebel control for. Taiz is only 60 kilometers north of Aden, the largest port in Yemen and the temporary capital of Yemen since the rebels took control of Sana, the traditional capital in 2014. From Taiz the rebels could launch cruise missile attacks on Aden and other areas in the south. Government forces have been fighting for years to regain control of Taiz. In 2021 still controlled 30 percent of Taiz. Before the April cease fire began the rebels had lost most of that 30 percent but were still holding key coastal areas and portions of Taiz City that controlled key highways. The terms of the April ceasefire included the rebels allowing traffic to resume on highways they still controlled. While the government made good on its promise to allow rebels access to the Red Sea port of Hodeida and a resumption of flights from the Sana airport, rebels refused to open up all the Taiz roads. A ceasefire renewal won’t happen if the rebels refuse to open up the Taiz highways.

May 29, 2022: In the Red Sea port of Hodeida there were three more landmine explosions, killing five civilians and wounding six. The rebels frequently used and rarely remove them or share their location with the Saudi-financed demining operation in Yemen that, since 2018 has cleared over 340,000 mines and unexploded shells, bombs and grenades from Yemen. .

April 25, 2022: In Sana, the rebel-controlled capital, a Saudi UAV (a Chinese made Ch-4) carrying on a surveillance mission at night, was shot down by the rebels using a smuggled missile. The Ch-4 is a 1.3-ton UAV similar to the U.S. Predator but is optimized for sustained (up to 40 hours per mission) surveillance. Max payload 345 kg (761 pounds), which can include guided bombs and missiles. For surveillance missions the payload consists of more sensors and fuel to obtain max air-time. The rebels shot down the Ch-4 while it was over the city, which meant it could crash in a residential area, which it did, killing three and wounding three others. As per the truce, the Saudis halted their airstrikes in Yemen which the rebels did the same with the Iran-supplied cruise and ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Saudis will still shoot down any rebel UAV crossing the border because they have no assurance that it is not packed with explosives and on a one-way mission to a target in Saudi Arabia. In contrast, rebel UAVs flown inside Yemen are often used as weapons, not surveillance. In any event, shooting down UAVs does not violate the truce.

 

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