Yemen: Where Iran And America Are Unlikely Allies


July 9, 2015: The civil war grinds on, leaving many of the 24 million Yemenis without food, electricity, water, jobs and hope. On March 26 th the years of unrest became a full civil war when Shia rebels sought to take control of the entire country and neighboring Arab states formed a coalition to halt that. Since then over 3,000 have died, about a third of them from coalition air attacks. Half of the dead appear to be civilians, most of them simply caught in the crossfire but many deliberately hit because of religious or tribal hatreds. Most of the fighting is in the south, around the major port city of Aden and several provinces defended by local tribal militias. AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) is openly allied with some of the tribal militias in the east and this makes it possible for the Islamic terrorists to regularly carry out suicide bombing attacks in the capital and even in the far north homeland of the Shia tribes. AQAP and pro-government tribesmen have also been assassinating Shia troops and low-ranking leaders in the capital and even firing on checkpoints throughout the capital. ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) Islamic terrorists also take credit for some of the attacks in the capital. ISIL and AQAP are technically at war with each other but that seems to have been put aside for the moment because of the Shia threat and the open involvement of Shia Iran. Because of this de facto Islamic terrorist help against the Shia rebels the counter-terrorism efforts by government forces (mostly in disarray anyway) and various Sunni tribal militias (who outnumber the Shia but are not united and often at odds with each other) has largely lapsed. The only ones fighting the Sunni Islamic terrorists are the Iran-backed Shia rebels and the Americans. In late June all these attacks up north caused the Shia rebels to withdraw over a thousand men from Aden and send them north to improve security in Sanaa (the national capital). Meanwhile the Shia rebels defending their northern homeland area regularly attack Saudi border guards and this leads to a dozen or so casualties a week on the border.

The UN has tried to get both sides to agree to a ceasefire so that food and other aid can be delivered to desperate civilians. The Shia rebels insist there can be no such ceasefire unless there is a halt to all air strikes and this issue has created a deadlock. To the coalition this indicates that the air strikes are effective and the number and intensity of these air attacks is increasing.  Since March some 300,000 have fled their homes. Nearly 50,000 have fled the country while the rest are either trapped somewhere or lack the cash to get out. At the same time the people smuggling from Somalia (Somaliland) and Djibouti continues with over 10,000 foreigners arriving each month and then being moved north. The smuggling gangs have arrangements, especially with tribal leaders, throughout the country to allow the movement of the smuggled foreigners, for a fee. Any income is welcome these days and apparently the smugglers (of people and anything else) are among the few economic activities tolerated by both sides. Meanwhile about 5,000 Yemeni refugees made it Somaliland (often on smuggler boats that had carried African refugees to Yemen). Somaliland is very poor itself but it is the cheapest foreign destination to get to.

By the end of March Iran admitted it had been quietly supporting the Shia rebels for a long time but now was doing so openly. The Arabs, with U.S. support, blockaded air and sea access to Yemen but refused to send in ground troops. The Arabs would probably win on the ground in the long run but believe they would suffer some embarrassing defeats along the way. This would make it obvious the weaknesses of Arab ground forces, despite all the money spent on high-tech weapons in the last two decades. The Shia rebels already demonstrated this in the beating they administered to Saudi forces during some 2009 border battles.

Because of pre-existing problems (overpopulation, water shortages, corruption) and all the unrest since 2011 Yemen is now broke, disorganized and desperate. The 2011 Arab Spring hit Yemen hard and upset the "arrangement" that had one group of tribal, criminal and business leaders in charge for over three decades. This uprising appeared to have succeeded towards the end of 2011. A successor coalition emerged and persuaded (with the promise of amnesty) the old dictator Saleh to step down. Meanwhile, there were still many Yemenis with 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 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 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 last century or so 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 throughout 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 tribes 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 when Saudi Arabia was no longer safe for the terrorists after 2007. Islamic terrorists have been more active since the government began arresting key members of al Qaeda in 2010. Other groups (mainly tribal leaders) in the south wanted more say in the government, and a larger share of the oil revenue and foreign aid. In early 2012 the new ruling coalition massed its military and tribal forces and decisively defeated al Qaeda in the south. The tribes that had allied themselves with al Qaeda quickly made temporary peace but the separatists are still active as are the Shia tribes in the north moved south and occupied the capital in 2014. The Shia rebels moved to seize control of the entire country in early 2015. The Shia are only a third of the population and succeeded because the Sunni tribes are still divided. Despite the civil war political maneuvering in general continues.

July 8, 2015: The government told the UN that it was willing to abide by a ceasefire if the Shia rebels released their prisoners and withdrew from four provinces in the southern and eastern Yemen. There is a remote possibility that the rebels will accept these terms as they have been suffering heavy losses for months from ground combat with pro-government soldiers and tribal militias as well as increasingly effective air strikes. 

July 7, 2015: ISIL suicide car bombs were used in the capital (Sanaa) where about a dozen died and another in the south (the capital of Baida province) where ten died.

At a Yemeni army base near the Saudi border some of the troops of the 23rd Mechanized Brigade tried to desert and join the Shia rebels but were intercepted by pro-government soldiers and the ensuing fighting left 30 dead and many more wounded. Saudi warplanes were called in and armored vehicles the rebels were using were attacked and destroyed from the air. The cause of defections like this are often the presence of some of the many veteran officers still loyal to former president Saleh, who secretly allied himself with the Shia rebels in an effort to regain power.

July 6, 2015:  The Saudi led coalition carried out numerous air raids, leaving over a hundred dead, in one of the most active single days for the coalition air activity. There were several clashes on the ground which left over fifty dead.

July 3, 2015: In the far north (the Shia capital at Sadaa) a coalition air strike destroyed a factory what was producing rifle and RPG ammunition. In retaliation Shia gunmen on the Saudi border fired mortars and rockets at Saudi troops and civilian close to border. This triggered Saudi artillery fire and this fire back and forth across the border went on for several hours. There were some casualties on both sides.

In the southeast (outside the port city of Mukalla) four AQAP men were killed by an American UAV missile strike. The dead included a Saudi, a Kuwaiti and two Yemenis. In the last ten days at least 13 AQAP men have been killed by such missile attacks.

July 2, 2015: In Sanaa a suicide car bomb detonated near a bank, apparently short of its intended target (a Shia mosque). There were some casualties but not as many as there would have been at the mosque.

June 30, 2015: In the southwest (Taiz) the staff a large prison fled as fighting between Shia rebels and pro-government tribesmen broke out nearby and seemed headed for the prison. As a result over 1,200 convicts got free, including several hundred AQAP men.

June 29, 2015: In the capital a suicide car bomb meant for two Shia tribal leaders killed 28 people. It is unclear if the two brothers, who were attending a funeral, were injured. Many of the dead were women.

The Shia rebels released video showing the launching of a SCUD ballistic missile launch (from what appears to be a small canyon) aimed at a Saudi missile base (containing Chinese DF-4 ballistic missiles aimed at Iran). It is unclear if the launch actually took place and if it did, if anything of note was hit. There were no reports from Saudi Arabia about this, at least not yet.

In the south (Aden) Shia rebels fired rockets at a refinery for the second time in three days. The most recent attack did little damage but the earlier one started a fire which took several days to put out. The refinery has been shut down for months because of the fighting but still contains stored petroleum and refined products.

June 23, 2015: In the northeast (Hadramout) on the Saudi frontier pro-government tribesmen took control of one of the main Yemeni border crossing facilities. The other three Yemeni border crossing facilities with Yemen are still controlled by the Shia rebels.

June 20, 2015: Peace talks with the Iran backed Shia rebels in Yemen collapsed. The main goal here was to arrange a five day humanitarian truce. Iran is sending more Quds Force personnel to Yemen, although getting them into the country is more difficult because of the blockade. It now appears that Iran did have a few Quds Force operatives with the Shia rebels for a few years and moved in hundreds more in the months before the blockade was imposed on March 25th.  This war in Yemen marks a major change in how the Gulf Arab states operate. The Gulf Arabs have a long history with Iran and other hostile outsiders. The solution has always been to seek unity and outside allies. In the 19th century, the coastal emirates (city states that depended on trade, pearls, and fishing) allied themselves with Britain, for protection against the Turks (who controlled what is now Iraq and parts of what is now Saudi Arabia), Iran (always a threat to the Arabs), and the interior tribes of Arabia. Britain was interested in suppressing pirates (which often operated out of the emirates) and halting Turkish expansion. In 1971, seven of the emirates formed a federation: the UAE. There were immediate disputes with Saudi Arabia about where the land and water borders should be. Some of those disputes are still unresolved. The Saudis consider themselves the leader of Arabia, but many in Yemen, Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE often disagree. There is lots of friction. Nevertheless, in 1981, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was formed by Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE was the chief organizer of the council and has constantly quarreled with Saudi Arabia over leadership issues. But when it comes to outside threats, especially the Iranians, there is less quarrelling and a lot more cooperation. It's uncertain if this will be enough to thwart the Iranians. Only an actual war will reveal the reality of the situation. The GCC went to war for the first time in 1990, to help get Iraq out of Kuwait. In that conflict the GCC was a minor partner, at least as far as the fighting went. But in Yemen the GCC forces are carrying most of the weight and determined not to fail. For the GCC sates this is seen, ultimately, as a matter of life or death.

In the capital a suicide car bomb outside a Shia mosque killed two people.

June 15, 2015: The U.S. revealed that a June 10th UAV missile attack in the east (Hadramawt province), which killed three AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) officials near the port city of Mukalla had in fact killed the number two man in the AQAP leadership (Nasir al Wahishi, a former aide to Osama bin Laden). All the American intel analysts knew before the attack was that the target vehicle contained three senior AQAP men. Analysis of AQAP “chatter” after the attack revealed the identity of the dead, which is common in these situations. The U.S. offered a $10 million reward for information leading to the death or capture of Wahishi.



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