November 25, 2009: Saudi Arabian warships are maintaining a blockade on Yemen's Red Sea coast, to prevent Iranian arms smugglers from getting weapons to the Shia rebels fighting in northern Yemen. On October 26th, Yemeni patrol boats in the Red Sea, seized an Iranian ship, carrying weapons, apparently meant for the Yemeni rebels. The Saudi Air Force is heavily patrolling, and bombing the Yemen border region, hitting rebels (and non-hostile smugglers) caught crossing the semi-desert frontier region. Yemen has had its differences with Saudi Arabia in the past, particularly over the largely unmarked, and disputed, border area. But on the subject of the rebellious Shia tribes of northern Yemen, both nations have quietly agreed to fight as allies to defeat a common threat.
Thus the four month war against rebel Shia tribesmen in Yemen has now become a joint Yemen-Saudi campaign against the common enemy. Saudi aircraft signaled this new relationship when, during the first week of November, when they used several hundred missiles and bombs on Yemeni rebel targets near the Saudi border. This was triggered by an incident on October 14th, when Saudi police caught two al Qaeda members trying to get past a border post dressed as women, and carrying weapons and bomb making material. The two were killed in a gun battle, along with a policeman. The Yemeni Shia rebels have been forced back to the Saudi border, where they are hiding out among some 60,000 civilian refugees from the fighting.
On November 3rd, a group of Yemeni rebels entered Saudi Arabia and attacked Saudi police, killing one of them. One of the rebels was killed, and the rest fled back into Yemen. The rebels have demanded that Saudi Arabia stay out of the fighting. The rebels also called on the UN to help negotiate a ceasefire, but the Yemeni army believes it is close to capturing the rebel leaders, and crushing the rebellion. On November 5th, in response to the Yemeni rebel attack, Saudi Arabia sent F-15 and Tornado fighter-bombers across the border to hit suspected rebel camps.
The Saudis believe that al Qaeda members will try to sneak back into the kingdom, rather than risk capture by Yemeni troops. The Saudis fear that the rebels are harboring a number of Saudi al Qaeda members, and that these terrorists were behind an August 28 attempt to assassinate a senior Saudi official. That attempted involved a bomber who hid the bomb in his ass. You can't get much explosives up there, and the attempt failed. But if it were tried in an aircraft, the results might be catastrophic.
Yemeni troops have been fighting Shia rebels near the Saudi border since August. In that time, there have been over a thousand casualties, about ten percent of them Saudi police and civilians. The Yemeni army has advanced deep into the territory of the tribes leading the resistance. Roads have been blocked for months, keeping food and other supplies from getting to over 100,000 Shia. Over 150,000 have fled their homes. The Shia rebels have nowhere to turn, as Saudi Arabia considers Shias heretics.
It's believed that Iran is supporting the rebels, mainly with cash. Since the Shia tribes are inland, away from the coast, it's difficult for Iran to deliver anything else. With cash, the rebels can bribe local officials, buy supplies for themselves and their families, and replenish their ammo and weapons from gunrunners. Yemeni troops recently captured three arms dealers, who were not in the area to dispense charity. The soldiers have made it difficult for anything to get through to the rebels.
There are about nine million Shia in Yemen (40 percent of the population) and most belong, like the rebels, to the Zaidi sect. Only a few hundred thousand Zaidi are up in arms against the government, and not all of them are actively resisting the advancing troops. There are another million Zaidis across the border in Saudi Arabia, where the Sunni majority makes any uprising, or assistance to their Yemeni brethren, highly unlikely. The rebels appear ready to go down fighting, and have mountain fortresses that will be difficult to take. This all might go on for a while.
The tribal warriors have been unable to stop the army, and the families of these warriors are starting to go hungry. Tribal leaders have been trying to negotiate a peace deal, but the government has not been very enthusiastic about that. Two years ago, the government made peace with the northern Shia tribes, and the tribes soon ignored their promises to behave. The tribal leaders know this, and are demanding that international observers come in to supervise any ceasefire. The government knows this is a scam, because the tribal leaders believe they could con the foreign observers to let the tribesmen get away with whatever criminal activities, or even attacks on government troops, that they had a mind to. Along those lines, the tribal leaders have alerted many prominent humanitarian relief NGOs and asked them to apply pressure on the Yemeni government, to let up on its blockade, so food and medical supplies can get through to the starving women and children (and, of course, tribal warriors, especially those hundreds who have been wounded.) The government is playing hardball, and demanding surrender, before peace talks begin. If the tribal rebels cannot get pressure from foreigners to work, surrender will be the only option.
The Shia Islamic militants of northern Yemen want 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. In the last five years, several thousand have died in this on-and-off war between the Shia tribesmen and the Yemeni security forces. While Yemen is supposed to be the new headquarters of "Al Qaeda in Arabia" (Saudi Arabia no longer being safe for the terrorists), these Islamic terrorists have been keeping their heads down. Other groups in the south want to break away and form their own "Yemen." But so far, the government sees the Shia rebels in the north as the bigger threat. The dissident politicians in the south are waiting to see how the war with the Shia tribes plays out. And al Qaeda seems to be waiting as well. There has been some gunfire from southern separatist groups, but nothing major. But many of the al Qaeda members have headed back to Saudi Arabia, fearing that once the tribes are pacified, Islamic terrorists will be next on the target list.
The bin Laden family are Sunnis from Yemen, and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda has been brutal in its persecution of Shias. Ironically, the Sunni dominated government of Yemen is quite pro-American, while the Shia, particularly the several hundred thousand followers of Shia radical al Houthi, are very anti-American. While al Qaeda are present in Yemen, rebellious Shia like the al Houthi crowd, are considered a much bigger domestic problem.
The current battles with the Shia tribesmen have been more intense than the skirmishing of the last five years. Until last year, things had been quiet for two years. In 2005, nearly a thousand troops and tribesmen died, while in 2004 some 400 died. There have been several truces, but the al Houthi supporters keep breaking them. The rebels keep demanding more concessions from the government (which is a coalition of Shia and Sunni groups). What is ironic about all this is that the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is a Zaidi. But the rebels consider Saleh a traitor for dealing with the Sunni majority.
There are still many Yemenis who have a grudge against the government. Most of this can be traced 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 parts of Yemen finally united in 1990, but a civil war in 1994 was needed to seal the deal. That fix didn't really take, and the north and south are pulling apart again.