Yemen: Chronically Troublesome Neighbors


February 14, 2017: The government offensive along the Red Sea coast has gained a lot of ground (especially coastline) so far this year. In January 1st the Shia rebels controlled nearly all of the 450 kilometer Yemeni Red Sea coastline. But now most of the coastline is back under government control and the next objective will be Red Sea port of Hodeida. 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 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 and the Arab nations in the region accuse Iran of trying to seize control of Yemen via the Shia minority there.

Given the stakes the rebels are trying to win back smaller ports like Midi (north of Hodeida) and Mocha (south of Hodeida) and fighting continues there and elsewhere along the coast. The combat is most intense at night, when government air support is less effective. Last night there were over a hundred casualties and it has been that way for several days. For over a year much of the violence has been in 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. But in the last few months the government forces have concentrated on the ports (towns and cities) on the Red Sea coast.


While Yemen seems to be in trouble 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 as well as the Shia government in Syria. 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.

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 for this. The Arab coalition has imposed an air, sea and land blockade of rebel territories but continued control of Red Sea coast areas 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 but kill plenty of civilians without it). 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 items, 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.

Another factor the Iranians are taking advantage of is the unwillingness of the Arab coalition to risk a lot of their own troops 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 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. 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 of how unpopular the Yemen intervention was at home. Over the last year the Arab coalition has managed to adapt and get its offensive moving again.

UN Can’t Get No Traction

The UN continues to push for peace talks but the Iran backed Shia rebels are apparently not interested, at least not yet. The rebels and Iranian media keep calling for the UN to first investigate all the civilian casualties from Arab (mainly Saudi) air strikes. Iran, sensing better opportunities elsewhere, is ignoring UN calls to participate in peace talks. The Arab coalition is not interested either because, Iranian sponsored propaganda to the contrary, the government and their Arab allies feel they are winning. The march to victory is more a shuffle forward than a sprint to the finish line but a win is a win, especially when you are dealing with chronically troublesome neighbors. Not only are UN pleas for peace talks being ignored, so are calls for more donations of cash for food and other aid. The UN has obtained only about half the amount requested. 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 initially got the Shia rebels support from non-Shia Yemenis. 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. UN pleas for aid get some response from the oil rich nations backing the government and rebels, but this appears to be mainly to obtain some positive publicity in a situation where most of the news is relentlessly negative.

Poverty and hunger are nothing new for Yemen and the primary causes have 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. Because of all these 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 half that and still falling.

February 13, 2017: The Arab coalition has declared the port of Red Sea port of Hodeida to be a war zone and for foreign organizations operating there to act accordingly. This signals that the government forces are about to begin an offensive to drive the Shia rebels out of Hodeida. That would deprive the rebels of their major source of access to the outside world. Expect to see some interesting moves by Iran to assist the rebels in maintaining control of Hodeida, especially as the rebels lose access to the rest of the Red Sea coastline.

In the south (Aden) there was sporadic shooting at the airport outside the port city over the weekend. There have been about a dozen casualties. This was the result of corruption in that someone had stolen the money meant for the payroll of the tribal militia that has been guarding the airport since 2015. The UAE has been supplying the cash for this and it is still unclear who was responsible (or irresponsible) for the problem. In any event the aggrieved tribal militia closed the airport on the 10th to pressure whoever to get them paid. The provincial governor wanted to keep the airport open while the payroll problem was handled so he asked the Presidential Guard (stationed in Aden because that is where the national government is temporarily based) to go provide security at the airport. The tribal militia was unwilling to cooperate and the airport remained closed amidst occasional gunfire.

February 10, 2017: After five weeks of heavy fighting (and over a thousand casualties) government forces took control of the Red Sea port of Mocha.

February 5, 2017: Saudi Arabian air defense forces used a Patriot missile to shoot down a ballistic missile fired by Shia rebels towards a base in central Saudi Arabia (outside the capital, Riyadh). Iranian media insisted the missile landed but there was no evidence of that on the ground or posted to the Internet (from people living in the area, none of whom reported any visual or audio indications of a missile landing).

February 3, 2017: The United States sent a destroyer to join the Red Sea blockade of the Yemen coast. The United States already had an amphibious ship there, which carries nearly 2,000 marines and over 30 combat and transport helicopters. Apparently two more American destroyers are being sent into the Red Sea as well.

February 2, 2017: In the northwest across the border in the Saudi Arabian province of Jizan Yemeni Shia rebels killed a Saudi border guard (who encountered one of the landmines the Yemeni rebels had planted). The Yemenis sneak across the border at night to plant mines in or along the border road. Such violence has killed about six Saudis (or foreign workers in Saudi Arabia) a month since early 2015.

January 31, 2017: In the northwest, off the coast, three Shia rebel speedboats carrying suicide bombers sought to attack a Saudi frigate enforcing the blockade. One of the speedboats managed to explode near the rear of the ship, killing two sailors and wounding three others. The rebels, and Iranian media, claimed the damage was done by an anti-ship missile but the Saudis had a video camera watching the area where the speedboat approached and exploded. That video matched the damage seen when the 3,600 ton French built frigate returned to port.

January 30, 2017: The Shia rebels (or at least the Iranian media that first reported it) claim to have used a ballistic missile to attack a Saudi base on Zuqar Island in the Red Sea. The Iranian media claimed that there were over a hundred casualties but there was no evidence of such an attack. Similar claims have been made before.

January 29, 2017: In central Yemen (Baida province) the first U.S. commando raid in Yemen this year took place in an effort to capture or kill Qasim al Raymi, the AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) leader. This raid was in preparation since late 2016 and depended on lots of intel and surveillance. Raymi had survived for so long by adapting to the American use of continuous aerial surveillance. So finding Raymi became a matter of combing through vast quantities of video and electronic surveillance searching for patterns. That finally produced a prediction that Raymi would be meeting with tribal and other AQAP leaders in a small mountain village this night. Some 40 special operations troops were involved, including Navy SEALs. Apparently Raymi had not yet arrived or had just left and he was not involved in fighting. It is still unclear what Raymi was doing but he is still alive. The raiding force, while a few minutes away from the target, was informed that aerial surveillance indicated that there was more activity down there. It was unclear why. The raid commander decided to proceed. Once on the ground the raiders found many in the villagers awake and using their weapons to fight back. Air support fired on houses from which the raiders were being shot at. The raid left three AQAP leaders dead, along with eleven other AQAP gunmen. Lots of documents (mostly electronic) were seized and it was not revealed if any prisoners were taken. One SEAL was killed in the fighting and the villagers claimed over fifty civilian casualties from all the shooting (by raiders and their air support). Three more of the raiders were injured when leaving because their V-22 tilt wing aircraft had engine trouble when taking off and made a hard landing. The passengers and crew were put on another aircraft and got away safely. The disabled V-22 was destroyed by another air strike.

January 27, 2017: Saudi Arabian air defense forces used a Patriot missile to shoot down a ballistic missile fired by Shia rebels at a Saudi base in Narjan province (near the Yemen border).

January 23, 2017: In the southwest government forces launched another major attack in Taiz province, causing several hundred casualties in the last few days of air and ground attacks.

January 22, 2017: In central Yemen (Baida province) an American UAV used a missile to kill a well-known AQAP training expert. This marks an increase in American UAV activity in Yemen, with four UAV attacks so far this year. There were 39 UAV attacks in 2016 and it appears 2017 will be more active than 2002 (the peak year when there were 41 attacks.)

January 21, 2017: In central Yemen (Baida province) an American UAV used a missile to kill three AQAP men in a vehicle.

January 20, 2017: In central Yemen (Baida province) an American UAV used a missile to kill an AQAP military trainer.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close