Yemen: All Muddled On The Western Front


July 7, 2017: The war in Yemen has morphed into two separate conflicts. In the northwest and along the Red Sea coast it is Iran-backed Shia rebels versus the Yemeni government backed by Saudi Arabia (and their local allies plus the United States). The rest of Yemen is a fight between Yemeni government (backed by the Saudi coalition) and Yemeni tribal separatists (backed by al Qaeda). At the same time Yemen has serious economic and social problems that are getting worse because of all the unrest since 2011 (and outright civil war since 2015). Before the civil war began in 2011 the Yemeni GDP was $37 billion. Now it is less than half that and falling. Hunger and disease are increasing as are associated deaths. Foreign aid efforts are often plundered by locals. Yemen has long been considered one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. In 2016 Yemen ranked 170th out of 176 countries. Most Yemenis will agree that corruption is a major problem. Yet most Yemenis are less willing to admit that Yemen is not a country but rather a collection of tribes that don’t get along and cannot agree on how to work together to make a united Yemen work.

Poverty and hunger are nothing new for Yemen and the primary causes, in addition to corruption, have been around for a long time. The population problem is the result of a high birth rate, which is made possible by modern technology and encouraged 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. Even before the unrest escalated in 2011 water, food and power shortages, as well as growing unemployment made life miserable for most Yemenis. Because of all these pre-existing problems and all the unrest since 2011 Yemen is now broke, disorganized, desperate and still fighting itself.

News From The Front

While most adult males in Yemen are armed (it’s an ancient tradition) few of those armed men are trained soldiers or even members of some kind of organized combat unit. What does exist is a lot of local tribal leaders who can quickly organize a few dozen to a few hundred armed men to oppose someone they fear or simply don’t like. This means, and has always meant, that Yemen never had sufficient security forces (reliable soldiers or police) to impose order if large segments of the population disagreed with the central government. This has long been a problem with the Shia tribes of the north and many of the Sunni tribes in the south and southeast. Since 2011 both these groups have been very unhappy and since early 2017 the separatist Sunni tribes in the south have become more hostile to the government and more willing to tolerate the presence of Islamic terrorists, especially if these groups contain some locals and know how to behave themselves.

Because of this inability to occupy and police much of the country there are large areas where an armed groups can freely move (sometimes only at night) and thus threaten government claims that the area is under government rule because it is no longer occupied by Shia rebels or Islamic terror groups. This is most evident in the southwest where the Shia rebels and local allies can still wander about. A similar situation is evident in the southeast where large areas along the coast between the two largest ports in the country (Aden and Mukalla) are home to separatist tribes who are not only hostile to the government but often willing to tolerate the presence of AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) groups. Because of this until April 2016 AQAP controlled more territory than the Shia rebels. This included the southeastern port of Mukalla, about 600 kilometers of coastline and much of the surrounding Hadramawt province. AQAP took control of Mukalla in April 2015. For over a year AQAP controlled most of the roads near the southeastern coast. As a result government forces or anyone else was subject to attack or, if armed, a request for a contribution of cash or goods before passing without violence. As a result of this government forces had to move in heavily armed convoys to avoid ambushes or extortion attempts. Aid convoys are also subject to demands for “taxes.” AQAP was trying to operate like a government in the southeast but was hampered by a shortage of money and regular air attacks by Arab warplanes and American UAVs. AQAP obtained most of the cash needed to run its “government” by taxing everything (commercial goods and aid supplies) coming through Mukalla. This income enabled AQAP to pay most of its “government” workers on a regular basis. By the end of April 2016 AQAP lost control of Mukulla and with it a major source of income. After that AQAP was scattered to the countryside and actively seeking allies. These were found among separatist minded tribal leaders. For this reason AQAP can still travel regularly from the areas north of Mukulla all the way north to the Saudi border or all the way west to the outskirts of Aden.

Since early 2017 American UAVs have been more active in these areas, monitoring the traffic and carrying out more missile attacks on AQAP personnel. But it most cases the local tribesmen and the AQAP look identical from the air. It requires electronic eavesdropping and some informants on the ground to identify vehicles carrying just AQAP members who are worth a missile or two.

The Western Front

In the west the 2017 government offensive along the west coast has driven the rebels away from nearly all of the 450 kilometer Yemeni Red Sea coastline. But the government has not got enough troops to keep Shia rebels out of this area. This is why, since late 2015 much of the fighting has been in southwestern Taiz province, which has always been heavily fought over mainly because it has a lengthy Red Sea coastline which enabled smugglers to bring in weapons and other aid for the Shia rebels. The most heavily fought over area continues to be Taiz city, near the Red Sea. Government forces have been slowly driving rebels out of the city. Since early 2017 government forces have been pushing inland from the Red Sea town of Mocha to open a land route to Taiz. The major obstacle is the Khalid bin al Waleed military base, which was surrendered to the rebels in 2015 by soldiers loyal to the former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. The base is 30 kilometers east of Mocha and continues to hold out. Government forces are also advancing from east of Taiz as well in order to surround the Khalid base and force it to surrender. In the north government forces have taken high ground east of the capital (Saana) within sight of the city and established positions to observe and call in accurate artillery and rocket fire when large groups of rebels assemble or move. The fulltime observations posts also make it easier to keep track of the pro-government Sunni militias also operating in the area but not willing to operate like a military unit (and do what the senior army commander wants).

At this point the Shia rebels are largely confined to using the Red Sea port of Hodeida. This has been the main port for the delivery of foreign aid for civilians in rebel held areas and, in theory, government controlled areas. Government forces are closing in on Hodeida and that will make it more difficult for the rebels to smuggle in military supplies. The UN is trying to persuade the Shia rebels to peacefully give up control of Hodeida but the rebels are not interested. Even proposals that Hodeida be turned over to a neutral third party are turned down. This is not a matter of trust, it’s a matter of keeping control of the key port for handling foreign aid for most people in rebel controlled territory. Then there is the smuggling. The rebels have prevented UN personnel from inspecting aid shipments (for weapons and other contraband) and the government claims the rebels have been seizing aid shipments and preventing UN personnel from verifying that the aid is going to civilians. The rebels are putting up a strong defense around Hodeida and that slows down the advance but cannot stop it. As long as the rebels hold onto Hodeida and Iran still has powerful allies in the UN (mainly Russia and China, who can veto some measures) the smuggling can continue as can the use of food to control civilian populations that are hostile to the rebels.

Between the rebel west and the separatist tribes in the east there is a large area from the coast north to the Saudi border that is under government control. This is largely because of friendly (and often well compensated) local tribal leaders. Because of that government forces are now within 20 kilometers of the rebel held national capital Saana.

Living conditions in Saana continue to decline and in April there was an outbreak of cholera (that is spread by infected water and food) in the capital that has spread and intensified. This is because the rebels have not put a priority on maintaining the quality of the water supply and so far there have been over 250,000 cases of cholera with nearly 2,000 deaths. Iran blames the people fighting the rebels, especially Saudi Arabia. But the main problem is the corruption. Aid groups complain that they have to divert money from buying and importing food to medical supplies in order to deal with the cholera outbreak. Asking donor states (and private foundations or individuals) for more money doesn’t work when the destination is a place like Yemen. Because of the Internet donors can more easily exchange information on the success or failure of their efforts. Yemen most frequently comes up on the losing side because of the rampant corruption and banditry.

Meanwhile Army and Arab Coalition forces recently pushed Shia rebels out of Morthed Mountain in Marib Province after days of intense fighting. The Shia were forced to leave a lot of weapons, ammo and other supplies behind and the government forces appear to be establishing a base on the mountain with the intention of holding onto the vantage point and surrounding areas. The government forces are still unable to gather enough troops or nerve to go after the national capital. That may change because the longer this lasts the more it benefits Iran, which is spending little (in terms of cash and Iranian lives) in Yemen compared to the Saudi led Arab coalition.

July 1, 2017: In the south (Abyan province) an American UAV used a missile to kill two AQAP men on a motorcycle. Another UAV attack in the area killed Ibrahim Al-Adani, a senior AQAP leader, along with two other AQAP who were travelling in a car.

June 30, 2017: In the south (Shabwa province) an American UAV used a missile to kill two AQAP men in a vehicle.

June 28, 2017: In the southeast (Hadramawt province) AQAP ambushed and killed three soldiers and then fled before they could be caught. Elsewhere in the south (Abyan province) a Presidential Guard officer was kidnapped, probably by AQAP.

In the northwest Shia rebels fired another unguided unguided rocket into the city of Najran (capital of Narjan province) and killed two civilians. This sort of thing has been increasingly common since 2014 and the Saudi government is under growing popular pressure to do something about it. To that end the Saudis recently ordered 26 American AN/TPQ-53 artillery spotting radar systems. It is unclear how soon these can be operating along the 1,450 kilometer Yemen border to reduce the ability of Shia rebels to fire rockets and mortar shells into Saudi Arabia. Since 2014 that has caused several hundred casualties in Saudi Arabia and that includes more than a hundred dead from this cross border fore. The American manufacturer and the current largest user (the U.S. Army) of the AN/TPQ-53 assure the Saudis that the TPQ-53 is combat proven, debugged and can get the job done. This is not new tech, artillery spotting radars have been around since the 1970s. But the TPQ-53 adds a high degree of automation in which the Saudis can quickly (within minutes) fire back at the position that a rocket or mortar shell was fired from. Moreover that position information can be passed to any warplanes or armed helicopters in the air nearby. Both the Saudis and the AN/TPQ-53 manufacturer are under a lot of pressure to make the system work, at least as well as it already has in Afghanistan and Iraq.

June 21, 2017: Sudanese media report that 17 Sudanese soldiers were killed in a battle on June 10 in northwestern Yemen while fighting Yemeni Shia rebels. Their bodies were returned to Sudan and they were buried today in an official military ceremony. The Saudi led coalition has contingents from most Moslem nations that have benefitted a lot from Saudi generosity in the past. These volunteers from outside Arabia are well compensated and their families receive large payments (a form of life insurance) if a soldier dies in Yemen.

June 16, 2017: In the south (Shabwa province) an American UAV used a missile to kill three AQAP men in a vehicle. One of the dead was Abu Khattab al Awlaq, the leader of AQAP operations in Shabwa province.

June 14, 2017: Off the west coast, near the Red Sea port of Mocha a UAE (United Arab Emirates) freighter that had just left the port at night was hit by what was apparently an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) fired from a Shia rebel speedboat. The RPG rocket wounded one of the crew but caused no damage to the ship, which had delivered medical and other supplies to the port. The rebels declared that their speedboat had fired a guided missile but video of the projective hitting the ship did not support that claim. In late 2016 the rebels hit another UAE transport in the same area using a Chinese anti-ship missile fired from the shore. That missile started a fire that did a lot of damage and forced the UAE to take the transport out of service for repairs. In response to this an effort was made to clear the Shia rebels from the Red Sea coast. By February government forces had driven rebels away from Mocha which was probably why the rebels had to use a speedboat, operating from some part of the coast where the rebels are still present, to come near the port at night looking for a ship to fire at, more for propaganda purposes than anything else.

In the northwest Shia rebels managed to sneak across the border and plant landmines on the Saudi side (Jarzan Province). As a result there were incidents today and yesterday in which Saudi army patrols along the border encountered landmines. In each incident one Saudi border guard was killed.

June 10, 2017: In the southeast (Hadramawt province) AQAP used two suicide car bombs and several gunmen to attack an army base. Apparently the attack failed to get past the main gate because killed ten Islamic terrorists died in the brief battle as did two soldiers. AQAP often attacks checkpoints and this has prompted the army and Arab Coalition troops to be better prepared for these surprise attacks that are usually led by suicide bombers on foot or in vehicles.


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