Yemen: Victory Is Nothing To Look Forward To

The UN continues to push for peace talks but the Iran backed Shia rebels are apparently not interested, at least not yet. Iran senses victory in Syria this year and everyone is waiting to see what the new U.S. government will do about Iranian support for the Shia rebels in Yemen. The previous American government agreed to lift many economic sanctions on Iran and as part of that deal provided Iran with billions in cash and refused to put much pressure on Iran for supporting military operations in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere (in areas that attract less media attention, like Africa and South America). That is expected to change this year but it is unclear how soon and how much.

Meanwhile the fighting continues and 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 more than 10,000 have died (and over 40,000 wounded) in the 22 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 UN believes about seven million Yemenis are cut off from any regular food supplies.

Despite the reluctance to take casualties government forces continue an offensive to clear rebels away from the Bab al-Mandab strait linking the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. The offensive was renewed during the first week of the year and will apparently continue as long as it succeeds. This is slow going but the rebels have been unable to stop the advance. Eventually (after months of fighting) the Shia rebels will control little, if any, of the Red Sea coast. But the fighting is causing a lot of casualties on both sides and the government forces and their Arab coalition allies have shown themselves more sensitive to combat losses.

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. But since then the Iranians have made themselves useful in less publicized ways.

Iranian Support For The Rebels

Captured rebel commanders admit (some say boast) that Hezbollah and Iranian personnel run military training camps in the north (Saada province) where the Shia rebel tribes have their ancient homeland. Despite overwhelming evidence of Iranian weapons being supplied to the Shia rebels the Russian and Chinese support in the UN blocks any international action against Iran. The Arab coalition has imposed an air, sea and land blockade of rebel territories but continued control of much of the Red Sea coast and the inability to search all the numerous small cargo and fishing boats operating along the coast make it possible to well-paid smugglers to get most shipments through. The continued prevalence of accepting bribes from truckers wishing to avoid a search of their cargo allows smugglers to also use a land route via Oman. Iran makes no secret of the fact that it is supplying the cash (for bribes and the rebel payroll) as well as advisors. Also important is the Iranian run media campaign that has managed to get more attention paid to civilian casualties from the Arab coalition air attacks (the rebels have no air support). The smuggling not only keeps the Shia rebels supplied with ammo and light weapons (assault rifles, machine-guns. RPGs launchers) but also some very large ones, like Iranian Zelzal-3 unguided rockets. Several of these have been fired at targets in Saudi Arabia and are easy to identify by examining fragments of the missile after it hits the ground. These rockets are very large. Zelzal-3 is a 9.4 meter (30 foot) long, 610mm (24 inch) diameter, 3.9 ton missile based on the Russian Cold War era FROG (Free Rocket Over Ground) rocket. Iran introduced this missile in 2007. Zelzal-3 has a max range of 250 kilometers and Iran claims it can land within 300 meters of what it is aimed at. Some have also been aimed at government forces inside Yemen. Because of the lack of accuracy these rockets cause few casualties. They are basically designed to be fired at large urban areas. These rockets can also be intercepted by American Patriot anti-missile missiles the Saudis use to guard their border and key bases inside Yemen. The Saudis are pressuring the UN to censor Iran for sending in these rocket but the Russian UN veto prevents that. The Shia rebels claim they built the Zelzal 3’s locally which may be partially true as the Zelzal 3 would be easier (or at least cheaper) to smuggle in if it were disassembled in Iran, sent in as components and then assembled in Yemen by Iranians experienced in such things.

Another factor the Iranians are taking advantage of is the unwillingness of the Arab coalition to risk a lot of their own troops getting killed in combat. The Yemen war is not popular with the other Arab nations because Yemen is seen as its own worst enemy and no friend of the other Arabian states. But these Arab neighbors had little choice but to intervene in 2015 when the Yemen unrest became a full civil war as Shia rebels sought to take control of the entire country. Neighboring Arab states quickly formed a military coalition to halt that. The Arab coalition appeared to be succeeding because by 2016 pro-government forces were close enough to launch a major assault on the rebel-held capital. At that point Arab coalition casualties also increased and the Arab coalition governments were reminded how unpopular the Yemen intervention was at home. What made worse was that as the fighting intensified in early 2015 Iran admitted it had been quietly supporting the Shia rebels for a long time but now was doing so openly, or at least trying. The Arabs, with U.S. support, blockaded air and sea access to Yemen. The U.S. refused to send in ground troops but the Arabs eventually did. The Arab troops made a big difference despite suffering some embarrassing defeats along the way. This was an impressive display of Arab military capabilities, which benefitted from all the money spent on high-tech weapons since the 1990s.

Meanwhile the basic problem, that Yemen has been a mess for decades, was unresolved. Because of the 2015 war Yemen is truly broke, disorganized and desperate. The Arab Spring hit Yemen hard and upset the “arrangement” that left one group of tribal, criminal and business leaders in charge for over three decades. The country is fragmented again, just like it has always been. Many Yemenis trace the current crisis back to the civil war that ended, sort of, in 1994. That war was caused by the fact that, when the British left Yemen in 1967, their former colony in Aden became one of two countries called Yemen. The two Yemens finally united in 1990 but another civil war in 1994 was needed to seal the deal. That fix didn’t really take and the north and south have always been pulling apart ever since. This comes back to the fact that Yemen has always been a region, not a country. Like most of the rest of the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa region, the normal form of government until the 20th century was wealthier coastal city states nervously coexisting with interior tribes that got by on herding or farming (or a little of both) plus smuggling and other illicit sidelines. This whole “nation” idea is still looked on with some suspicion by many in the region. This is why the most common forms of government are the more familiar ones of antiquity (kingdom, emirate or modern variation in the form of a hereditary dictatorship.) For a long time the most active Yemeni rebels were the Shia Islamic militants in the north. They have always wanted to restore local Shia rule in the traditional tribal territories, led by the local imam (religious leader). This arrangement, after surviving more than a thousand years, was ended by the central government in 1962. Yemen also became the new headquarters of AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) when Saudi Arabia was no longer safe for the terrorists after 2007. Then came ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and then an invading army of troops from oil-rich neighbors.

Preexisting Disasters Predict the Future

Because of pre-existing problems (overpopulation, water shortages, corruption) and all the unrest since 2011 Yemen is now broke, disorganized and desperate. Before the civil war began in 2011 the Yemeni GDP was $37 billion. Now it is about $20 billion and still falling. As a result victory is nothing to look forward to. UN efforts to raise money for food and other aid to Yemen are not doing well with only about half the amount requested being donated. The problem is the chronic corruption in Yemen and the fact that even with so many (millions) of 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 got the Shia rebels support from non-Shia. 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. As far as poverty and hunger goes the primary cause of that has been around for a long time.

The population problem is the result of a high birth rate, which is sustained by ancient customs and religious beliefs. The impact of conservative forms of Islam also means there has been little economic or educational improvements, at least compared to the non-Islamic world, for a long time. The economy is primitive and unproductive. Water, food and power shortages, as well as growing unemployment make life miserable for most Yemenis. This is also the fault of the enormous oil wealth in the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. A major malignant side effect of the oil wealth was the skyrocketing demand for the leaves of the Khat plant. This did major damage to the Yemeni economy and fueled growing violence in Yemen along with causing a devastating water shortage. Before 2011 most of the water consumed was used for growing Khat, which only contributes a few percent of the GDP. Khat is a plant that has grown in Yemen for thousands of years. Khat leaves when chewed give you more of a buzz than caffeine or nicotine, but less than stronger drugs. It is addictive and until the 1950s was grown by farmers for their own personal use as a stimulant. Khat was used like that long before anyone figured out how to use coffee beans to produce a stimulating liquid. One thing that kept Khat local was the fact that the leaves quickly (a few days after being picked) lose their potency. In other words, Khat did not travel well while coffee beans and tea leaves did. That all changed after World War II when roads, trucks and air transport became widely available. Suddenly Khat had an international market for those who could afford to pay and had a taste for it. Yemen was the one Khat growing area that was close to affluent Khat consumers; namely people in the Arab oil states of the Persian Gulf. The other area where Khat grew easily was Ethiopia, which was deep in Africa surrounded by poverty and far from anyone able to pay for Khat. Yemen was the only Arabian state without a lot of oil but with the largest population. Khat was suddenly a way to make a lot of money. Despite the fact that many nations (including most of those in the Middle East) outlawed Khat (because of its unfortunate side effects, especially the addiction) the stuff was very popular with those who grew up with it. This included many people in Yemen.

With all that oil wealth came a demand in the Arab oil states for workers. The pay was good and Arabs were preferred. This led to millions of Yemenis going off to the Arab Gulf States to work. Some got rich and nearly all sent money home. So much money was being sent back that by the end of the 20th century such remittances comprised over a quarter of the Yemeni GDP. That began to shrink after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and threatened Saudi Arabia. Many Yemenis backed Iraq and Islamic terrorism and the Arab oil states took this as an unfriendly act and fired a lot of their Yemeni employees. It did not go unnoticed that the bin Laden family came from Yemen and made their fortune in Saudi Arabia. These days the remittances are less than four percent of GDP. But before the collapse in remittance income during the last two decades many Yemenis developed a taste for Khat, and so had many Saudis, even though Khat was illegal in Saudi Arabia. Thus the demand for Khat increased, but mainly for export. The oil money may be gone, but the curse of Khat remains and most of it is was smuggled into Saudi Arabia. Some still gets through but Saudi border security has been much improved since the Shia uprising in Yemen got successful in 2014. That coincided with growing Islamic terrorist activity by AQAP in eastern and southern Yemen. The increased border security also made it more difficult for illegal Yemeni economic migrants to leave via Saudi Arabia.

Ending the Yemen civil war will not end the other problems which got little international attention before 2011 and won’t remain in the headlines after peace comes. In other words, the reasons for rebellion and reform are still there and will always need to be solved to avoid more chaos and fighting.

January 17, 2017: In the west government forces advanced to within 30 kilometers of Saana, the national capital, and captured some of the Iranian Zelzal unguided rockets the rebels have been using since 2016. Actually the advance today captured a large quantity of weapons abandoned by fleeing rebels.

January 16, 2017: In the south the Arab coalition continued its offensive against Shia rebels in Shabwa province. This is just north of Hadramawt province and Mukalla (the largest city in the province). The fighting resulted in about fifty casualties and a rebel retreat. This was mainly because 23 of the dead were rebels and the government forces had more troops, armored vehicles and air support.

UN officials again met with the elected president (Mansour Hadi) to try and persuade him to accept a compromise settlement with the Shia rebels.

January 15, 2017: In the south (Abyan province) AQAP gunmen fired on a checkpoint after dark, killing three soldiers and wounding three more. The attackers soon departed before reinforcements could show up. There are few locations in Abyan where AQAP or any other Islamic terrorists are openly operating and the terror attacks have been less frequent. There are still bombings, but usually with bombs planted and detonated by remote control.

January 14, 2017: In the north, on the Saudi border, a Saudi border guard was killed when his post was fired on by Shia rebels in Yemen. The Saudis returned fire and the Yemeni rebels fled. That makes about 115 Saudis killed by these border attacks since 2015. 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.

The Shia rebels have also shot down several of the smaller surveillance UAVs the Saudis have bought from China or elsewhere. At least one larger UAV crashed in Shia rebel territory due to equipment failure. The smaller UAVs brought down are low flying commercial models favored by border security and others who have tight budgets and prefer something small and quiet (battery operated) that is practically invisible at night but has a night vision vidcam. The Shia rebels used these as well, some of them from Iran but mainly commercial models smuggled in.

January 13, 2017: The government has resumed paying government salaries in recently liberated areas. There were growing protests in these areas, especially in Taiz province, about the lack of economic support for pro-government communities. The locals complained that the salaries of some 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. There was corruption, but the government is not talking about, apparently wishing to avoid getting into a public discussion about how much corruption remains in Taiz and Yemen in general.

January 8, 2017: In central Yemen (Baida province) an American UAV used a missile to kill a local AQAP leader.

January 7, 2017: Pakistan announced that Raheel Sharif, one of its retired generals, had been selected to lead the IMAFT (Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism). Founded (in late 2015) and largely funded by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan was initially reluctant to join IMAFT but eventually did so along with other 38 Moslem bations. When Saudi Arabia announced IMAFT in late December 2015 it named 34 Moslem nations (Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Chad, Comoros, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Gabon, Guinea, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Maldives, Mali, Malaysia, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Qatar, the Palestinians, Pakistan, Senegal, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, the UAE, and Yemen) as members. Indonesia, largest Moslem nation on the planet, was described as considering joining. The nation with the largest number of Moslems, India, was apparently not invited to join. All the current members are largely Sunni. Some nations are not welcome, like Iran, Syria and Iraq. This is because the Sunni Gulf States (led by Saudi Arabia) are at war with Iran, which considers Syria and Iraq allies. Pakistan has not announced exactly what it would do as part of this new coalition but did make it clear it will not take part in any operations against Iran or Syria. IMAFT has been no help in Yemen.

January 3, 2017: In the south (Abyan province) troops seeking to clear AQAP out of coastal areas 100 kilometers east of Aden were ambushed on a coastal road by the Islamic terrorists. Three soldiers were killed and ten wounded. The Islamic terrorists retreated but caused the troops to advance more carefully.

December 29, 2016: In central Yemen (Baida province) an American UAV used a missile against a vehicle carrying a local AQAP leader and his driver, killing both of them. That makes 30 Islamic terrorists killed by American UAVs since late September. The United States carried out 38 airstrikes against AQAP in Yemen in 2016. AQAP has been operating in the area since 2014 and their attacks usually involve suicide or roadside bombs that kill more local civilians than soldiers or tribal militia.

December 25, 2016: In the north, on the Saudi border, a Saudi border guard was killed when his post was fired on by Shia rebels in Yemen.

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