Yemen: No Easy Way Out Of This Mess


January 22, 2015: The Shia rebels appear to have gotten their way as president Hadi, at gunpoint, agreed to reduce corruption and give Shia up north more autonomy (which the Shia had for centuries until the 1960s). In return for this the Shia will withdraw their gunmen from the presidential palace and other government buildings. This isn’t over. While the Shia have proved to be the most powerful force in the north (which is majority Shia) and the capital, to the south the Sunni majority has the advantage in numbers (of men with guns). The Sunni tribes and the largely Sunni army have been divided (by tribe, politics, Islamic terrorism and envy over who gets what in general) and that has made the Shia move south possible. But the Shia advance is stalled. One of the Sunni factions is AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) which contains a lot of foreigners and is not widely liked or supported inside Yemen. AQAP also seeks to eliminate corruption. At the moment AQAP is doing the most damage to the Shia rebels, mainly via terrorist attacks. Many of the Sunni tribes are willing to work with AQAP in the short term, but because AQAP wants to turn Yemen into a religious dictatorship (which only a small minority of Yemenis support) long-term cooperation between AQAP, the Sunni tribes and the army is not likely. Right now cooperation is the best option the Sunni have, but they, and the Shia, know that such cooperation is an unnatural act and not likely to last long. Despite that the Shia believe they can crush AQAP. The Sunni tribes and the army is another matter. The army and the tribes are united by a web of corruption that uses cash (mostly from what little oil exports Yemen has) to keep everyone happy. That unity collapsed in 2011 as the Sunni and Shia tribes, dissatisfied with the payoff arrangements made by long-time ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, united to overthrow him. That they did in 2012 but Saleh got an immunity agreement and did not leave the country. Saleh is a Shia and is believed to have made a deal with some army officers and the Shia tribes to overthrow the new government. Saleh has kept quiet as the Shia tribes advanced south in the last year, but is expected to help the Shia tribes craft a new arrangement of payments (legal, not informal as in the past) to maintain national unity. It may be too late for that as many of the southern Sunni tribes was to divide the country once more and have a nearly all Sunni south. That means keeping the oil fields and the Shia will never agree to that.

In the midst of all this there is the potential for foreign interference to worry about. Saudi Arabia and the other members of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab oil states in the Persian Gulf) are reluctant to intervene militarily. The GCC agrees that Yemen cannot be allowed to disintegrate or become dominated by the Shia minority. For one thing that would provide Iran with another ally (via the Shia tribes of the north). At the moment the GCC is trying to determine exactly what is going on with the Yemeni government and army. Both are unclear about how they still will resist growing Shia power. The government can do nothing without permission from the Shia rebels who now control the capital. Yemen needs a new coalition to run the country because the one that existed until September has ceased to function, at least when it comes to the Shia rebels occupying the capital and the growing number of cities and provinces the Shia have taken control of.

Iran officially has nothing to do with all this, but Arabs know that the “victory” in Yemen is being celebrated in the streets of Iran (at least in conversation). This is humiliating for the GCC members and Sunnis in general. Iran has not directly intervened (but is suspected of supplying the Yemen Shia with cash and advice). The best Sunni hope for military intervention is the Saudis, but that’s not the Saudi style. The Saudis don’t want to see their armed forces tied down in Yemen, not when Iran remains a major, and growing, threat. Then there is the ISIL threat in Syria and Iraq (and, to a lesser extent, inside Saudi Arabia itself).

There is no easy way out of this mess for anyone. The customary way these things are settled in Arabia is by making deals. The Shia have interfered with that by coming down on the rampant corruption. Many Arabs, especially Sunni, see corruption as the lubricant that makes governments, and the maintenance of law and order in heavily armed and short-tempered Arabia possible. Shia see the corruption being used against them and also the major reason why the economy is crippled and the government is so ineffective. The Shia are on the right side of history when it comes to corruption. The West would not be so advanced (economically, militarily and so on) were it not for their success in dealing with corruption. Yet the Yemeni Shia also feel an affinity for Iran, considered the “leader” of the Shia world. Iran is also mired in corruption as well as disagreements over the value of letting clerical rule continue. The Iranian clerics don’t actually run Iran, but they have the final say and their own private army of fanatics (the Revolutionary Guard) to enforce their will. Most Yemeni Shia don’t want that, but they are willing to accept aid from Iran and work to make Sunni majority Yemen a “friend“ of Iran (much like the Shia minority has done in Lebanon and Syria). The Saudis and GCC are very hostile to this sort of thing but reluctant to go to war over it.

Long term the only real beneficiary of the growing Shia success is AQAP which now has a lot more support (and recruits) from the Sunni tribes fighting the Shia rebels. Before the Shia rebels got on a roll AQAP was on the ropes. AQAP was not moribund a year ago but it was in bad shape. It had switched to more assassinations (over 300 senior military officers killed so far) and bombing attacks. Meanwhile AQAP has internal problems. Last November AQAP openly denounced ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant). This was a reversal as in mid-October AQAP announced that it supported (but had not joined) ISIL. Both groups are affiliated with al Qaeda which, since the 1990s, has been dedicated to overthrowing the Saudi monarchy. However, al Qaeda and AQAP both agree that ISIL is too divisive and harming global efforts of Islamic terrorists to conquer and rule the world as an Islamic state. AQAP has now reaffirmed its allegiance to al Qaeda. 

AQAP was formed in 2009 after the remnants of the Saudi al Qaeda organization (several thousand full and part time members at its peak) fled to Yemen and merged with the Yemeni al Qaeda branch. AQAP also benefitted from hundreds of Iraqi al Qaeda members who arrived after the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-8. Some of these men returned to Iraq after a few years to join what became ISIL. Meanwhile growing unrest in Yemen (against the long-standing Saleh dictatorship) enabled AQAP to recruit locally and take over several towns in southern Yemen by 2011. In 2012 the new post-Saleh government launched a counteroffensive and AQAP got hurt very badly. That offensive continued, along with the growing use of American UAVs in Yemen. In April 2014 another major offensive was launched against AQAP by the U.S. and Yemen and this succeeded in capturing all the new bases AQAP had established in remote mountain areas after the 2012 defeat. That was followed by Shia rebels moving south and going after the Sunni Islamic terrorists there. While the al Qaeda situation is desperate in Yemen, AQAP is still al Qaeda’s most capable branch and the only one that has shown any ability to support attacks (few successful so far) in the West. Now that capability is in doubt, for a while at least as ISIL competes with AQAP for recruits in Yemen. ISIL is more appealing to the really hard core Islamic terrorists and denouncing AQAP as a bunch of half-hearted sellouts gives ISIL a boost among Islamic conservatives. Meanwhile the United States still considers AQAP a threat to the West and continues to track AQAP activity in Yemen and attack AQAP members via UAV launched missiles. Now the U.S. is hunting and killing ISIL in Yemen as well.

The new peace between the government and the Shia rebels was sufficient to get the major airports, and the seaport of Aden working again. These had been closed on the 21st when the president was taken into “custody” by the Shia rebels.

January 21, 2015: President Hadi agreed to abide by the terms of the September peace deal he had made with the Shia rebels. Hadi had his mind changed by the fact that his presidential guard could not resist the Shia rebels who have taken the president and prime minister prisoner in the last 24 hours.

January 20, 2015: In the capital Shia rebels seized the presidential palace and defied the UN to do anything about it. The UN had earlier placed sanctions on two Shia rebel leaders because of their efforts to take over the Yemen government. The Shia rebel leader warned the government to proceed with reforms or else the Shia would take over. The Shia are particularly angry at the president’s refusal to appoint members to the panel which is to create a new constitution.

Saudi Arabia changed the rules of engagement for its border guards on the Iraq and Yemen frontiers and ordered them to shoot on sight anyone refusing to obey orders (to stop, for example) at crossings or caught trying to sneak across the border. This could cause problems with some of the Bedouin tribes living near the border, where tribal members have been smuggling for generations and tribal leadership tolerates a lot of it (especially if they are getting a percentage). But the Saudis know that Islamic terrorists will exploit these relationships if they can. In any case the new border fence on the Iraq frontier is being augmented with more barriers and sensors and over 30,000 personnel are now stationed on the Iraq border. A fence system is also being built on the Yemen border.

January 19, 2015: In the capital Shia rebels and soldiers fought several battles that left at least nine dead and over 60 wounded. The rebels seemed to win most of these gun fights because they seized an army base near the presidential palace. The rebels also took control of the mass media in the capital. A ceasefire was negotiated but it did not last long. By the end of the day rebels had surrounded the Republican Palace, where the prime minister lived.

January 18, 2015: In the south (Shabwa province) the governor order oil production halted until the Shia rebels in the capital release the president’s chief of staff (who is from Shabwa.)

January 17, 2015: In the capital Shia rebels kidnapped the president’s chief of staff and said they would not release them until the president moved forward with promised reforms.

Police announced they had arrested two French citizens on suspicion of Islamic terrorist involvement. France wants these two extradited to France.

January 16, 2015: In the south (Baida province) violence between al Qaeda and Shia rebels in and around the Shia controlled town of Rada left several dead.

January 12, 2015: In the south (Ibb province) Sunni gunmen killed a police official who was believed to be allied with the Shia rebels.  

January 11, 2015:  In the south (Baida province) Sunni tribesmen raided the Shia rebel headquarters in Rada and freed five Sunnis who had been captured by the rebels. The rebels are seeking tribesmen suspected of working with AQAP.

January 10, 2015: In the east (Marib province) up to thirty thousand armed tribesmen are assembling to fight the Shia rebels. This apparently means an end of the November peace deal. Back then three of the most powerful tribes in the province united and worked out a peace deal with the approaching Shia rebels. In essence the deal guaranteed the safety of Shia in Marib and in return the Shia rebels would not try to enter Marib and take over. The three tribes in Marib are powerful and have a reputation for being determined fighters. The Shia rebels may come back later, and that seems more likely now that Marib is the assembly point for anti-Shia tribesmen. Twice this year the Shia rebels have made similar deals and soon reneged and conquered the tribes involved. In this case the tribes reneged, under pressure from tribes in neighboring provinces who are threatened by the advancing Shia.

January 9, 2015: In the capital police announced the arrest of five AQAP members believed involved in the recent bombing at the police academy.

January 8, 2015: AQAP quickly took credit for an Islamic terror attack in France yesterday that left 12 dead in Paris. The two terrorists had been trained in Yemen and apparently received financial support from AQAP.

January 7, 2015: In the capital a suicide bomber disguised as a woman set off explosives at the police academy killing 40 men waiting to apply for the academy. Another 71 were wounded. AQAP denied involvement in the attack.

January 6, 2015: In the south (Baida province) an ambush killed a pro-Shia tribal chief and four other people with him.

January 5, 2015:  In the capital a bomb went off outside a Shia rebel base wounding six rebels. In the north a Sunni tribe complained that 22 of its members had been kidnapped by Shia rebels. This was believed to be related to a recent roadside bomb in the area that killed two Shia rebels.

January 4, 2015:  South of the capital an AQAP bomb killed six people (and wounded 31) at a Shia rebel event.

In the south (Shabwa province) another senior army officer was murdered by an unidentified gunman believed to be from AQAP.

January 3, 2015: The Shia rebels rejected the already agreed on plan to change the constitution to divide the country into six federal (more autonomous) districts. The Shia believe their district is too small.





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