A major obstacle to peace in Yemen is the fact that there is not one war but at least five different ones. Ending one or more of these wars will not necessarily stop the others. The many wars include;
The North-South Divide.
This one is centuries old and was last “mended” in the 1990s. The possibility of a split has returned because the UAE (United Arab Emirates) has been in charge of security (and aid delivery) in the south since 2015 and has supported the formation of the STC (South Transitional Council). This group is composed of southern tribes that want autonomy but are willing to fight and defeat the Islamic terrorists as well as the Shia rebels first. Aidarous al Zubaidi, the STC leader is seen as more popular in the south than Abdrabu Mansur Hadi the last and current elected president of united Yemen. Hadi has only briefly visited Yemen a few times since 2015 and spends most of his time in the Saudi capital. This is for Hadi’s safety, given the number of assassinations going on in Aden (where the Hadi government was moved to in 2015). The Saudis and the UAE do not agree on dividing Yemen once more but for the moment it is more convenient to support the STC and efforts to defeat the Iran backed Shia rebels. After that, who knows?
The Shia Tribal Autonomy War.
This has been going on forever as well and is all about the traditional autonomy some of the northern Shia tribes long enjoyed but was taken away several times in the last century but the tribes always manage to regain it. The tribes are persistent because they see themselves on a Mission From God.
The Saleh Loyalists.
Ali Abdullah Saleh lost power in 2012 and wants it back. He has demonstrated that he cannot be ignored. Saleh ruled Yemen for decades before the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings unified his many opponents in Yemen.
Yemen has always been full of Islamic conservatives and radicals and many of those who founded al Qaeda came from Yemen or Yemeni families that had moved to oil-rich neighbors in the last fifty years and prospered economically but not mellowed theologically. From al Qaeda came AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and in 2013 ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). ISIL and AQAP are technically enemies but have established a truce in Yemen while both concentrate on terror attacks. The massive losses ISIL has suffered worldwide in the last year has caused many surviving members to return to “more moderate” groups like AQAP. Despite that ISIL has been seen gaining strength in Yemen.
The Sunni-Shia War.
This one is mainly between Iran (the largest Shia nation) and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab oil states in the Persian Gulf). Iran wants to replace Saudi Arabia as the guardian of the most holy Islamic sites in Mecca and Medina (western Saudi Arabia near the Red Sea). The GCC and Iran are using Yemen as a battlefield and no one likes this. But for Iran it is a cheap way to annoy and demean the Saudis.
The one common thread in most of these conflicts is the extreme corruption and tribalism that cripples the Yemeni economy and efforts to run a fair and efficient government. These vices have long existed in Yemen which until the 20th century was not a unified country but an ever changing collections of coalitions. Nationalism is not particularly popular in what is called Yemen, but factionalism is.
Making peace with the Shia rebels is complicated by the fact that a major rebel faction is led by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who considers the elected president (Abdrabu Mansur Hadi) who followed him to be illegitimate. It’s unclear exactly what Saleh wants other than getting some of his political power back, plus a little revenge. Many (nearly half) of these security forces were very loyal to former president Saleh even after he was deposed in 2012. Saleh used that loyalty to quietly persuade the Shia tribes up north to try and take over the country rather than just demand their autonomy back.
Saleh himself is a Shia but always got along well with Sunni politicians and tribal leaders. Because of this many military units sided with the Shia rebels or disbanded when the Shia tribes moved south in 2014. Some remained loyal to the government but they make up only about ten percent of the government forces at the time when the split came. Since late 2015 Saleh has come out of the shadows and admitted he was with the Shia. This was no surprise to most Yemenis as it was Saleh’s ability to assemble and manage a coalition of largely Sunni groups that kept him in power for decades. That coalition fell apart in 2011 and Saleh was deposed in 2012, after he had negotiated amnesty for himself.
The Shia and Saleh insist that the elections to select a successor to Saleh were unfair. International observers declared the elections fair (at least by Yemeni standards). Saleh is believed to want more amnesty guarantees so he can leave the country without fear of someone prosecuting him. Meanwhile the Sunni majority in Yemen opposes autonomy or weapons for the Shia up north because those two things have made the Shia tribes a constant source of trouble for centuries. The Sunnis want the man they elected (Hadi) recognized as the ruler of all of Yemen. Meanwhile many Sunni tribes in the south want more autonomy, which some interpret as secession and the creation of two Yemens (as there used to be before the unification wars of the 1990s). Iran admitted its support for the Shia rebels about the same time Saleh did. But Iran has been unable to provide much tangible support because the coalition air and naval blockade has been very effective. Most, if not all, recent Iranian smuggling attempts have been detected and blocked. That did not last because this part of world contains some of the most expert smugglers on the planet. If you know the right people and are willing to pay high fees you can get anything to just about anywhere (Israel is one place smugglers prefer to avoid). But Yemen has always been “smuggler friendly” and with Iranian help that kept the war going.
The Air War
The Arab coalition air force has been using decapitation attacks more often and doing it successfully. This is made possible by better intelligence collection and analysis as Arab fighter-bomber pilots gaining enough combat experience to carry out these missions against single buildings or moving vehicles. This is taking a toll on prominent rebel leaders because the Shia rebels announce these deaths (if not the cause) on the Internet.
The Americans continue to handle most of the decapitation attacks on AQAP and ISIL as well as any targets that are mainly Islamic terrorists. UAVs are the most common aircraft carrying out the attack, as well as the extensive surveillance required to locate these targets.
The GCC coalition is pressuring the UN to examine the role Iran and the Shia rebels are playing in keeping emergency aid (especially food) away from so many Yemeni civilians. The UN has been more open to examining that aspect of the Yemen war since there was an outbreak of cholera earlier in the year. So far this has infected some 800,000 people in 22 of 23 provinces and at least 2,200 have died. This began in April when living conditions in Saana declined to the point that there was an outbreak of cholera (that is spread by infected water and food). The disease spread from the capital and intensified. This is all because the rebels have not put a priority on maintaining the quality of the water supply. 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.
The UN inspectors have also seen a lot of physical evidence of Iranian weapons in Yemen, including ballistic missiles and large rockets. It is becoming for difficult for Iran to play the innocent bystander.
October 29, 2017: In the south (Abyan province) army and UAE troops captured another AQAP held town (Mahfad). Without access to this town the Islamic terrorist lost the ability to block the highway from the port of Aden to Shabwa province and its oil fields. Most of AQAP men fled before the troops arrived. But a suicide truck bomber was used to slow down pursuit and that explosion killed one soldier and wounded five. By August the Arab coalition had driven AQAP out of all the major urban areas in in Shabwa province. This area is north of Hadramawt province and Mukalla (a major port and the largest city in the province). The effort to clear AQAP out Hadramawt, Abyan and Shabwa has been going on since late 2016 but became more intense in early 2017 when the United States increased its effort to find and kill key AQAP personnel, especially the many who were based in Shabwa. This was mainly done from the air using UAVs for surveillance and attacks using guided missiles and smart bombs. The American have made over s hundred airstrikes in Yemen this year, most of them in Shabwa. There have also been American special operations teams on the ground, mainly to gather intelligence and direct airstrikes. There were two American commando raids in Yemen so far this year, made possible by the more intense intel collecting effort. This disrupted AQAP operations and made it possible for government forces and coalition forces to systematically take back control of all the towns and cities in Shabwa that the Islamic terrorists had long been free to operate in (mainly because a lot of the local tribesmen agreed with the Islamic terrorists).
October 28, 2017: In the south (Aden) another conservative Islamic cleric was assassinated. This is the third such killing in Aden this month and all three of the clerics supported separatist southern tribes. No one has taken credit for these killings.
October 27, 2017: In the northwest Shia rebels fired an Iranian Qaher M2 ballistic missile across the Saudi border into Narjan province where it exploded in a border village causing a fire and wounding a civilian. This sort of thing has been increasingly common since 2014 and the Saudi government is under growing popular pressure to do something about it.
In central Yemen (Baida province) a pro-government tribal militia, angry because Shia rebels had recently killed a member of their tribe, struck back with a surprise attack on a rebel convoy. This killed six rebels and destroyed four vehicles (two of them armored.) Three of the tribesmen were wounded. Now that tribe and the rebels are at war that is the sort of thing the rebels can’t afford.
October 25, 2017: In central Yemen (Baida province) American UAVs used missiles to attack Islamic terrorists in two locations, killing at least nine of them. Earlier attacks on ISIL camps in Baida province killed over fifty Islamic terrorists. Thus is the last ten days the UAV attacks have killed over 60 ISIL members in the province. This was the first major American air attack against ISIL in Yemen this year. ISIL and AQAP cooperate but maintain separate facilities.
The United States and the GCC have pooled their information on known Islamic terrorists in Yemen and issued sanctions on 11 individuals and two organizations associated with ISIL and AQAP in Yemen. It will now be more difficult for the sanctioned to operate internationally or in the vicinity of Yemen.
October 23, 2017: In the south (Abyan province) four AQAP men attacked the headquarters of a pro-government tribal militia (“Security Belt”) that specializes in counter-terrorism operations. All the attackers died as did nine militia men. The Security Belt militia is supported financially and otherwise the UAE and has caused AQAP a lot of trouble. The attack today cost AQAP four men but was promoted as another effort to prevent Arab coalition from carrying out their secret agenda of partitioning Yemen with the UAE getting the south and the Saudis annexing the north.
October 19, 2017: Saudi Arabia quietly lifted the air embargo on Sanaa today and halted all air attacks on the city. This was to allow a Russian medical team to fly in and operate on former Yemen president who, at age 75 is still a powerful leader in Yemen. In mid-2017 Saleh began to discuss peace terms with the Saudis and this led to denunciations by Shia leaders but not effort to imprison or kill Saleh. Apparently Saleh still has his political skills and both sides see keeping him alive in their interest. Russia is on good terms with Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as Saleh. If Saleh sides with the GCC the Yemen rebels will have to consider making peace, otherwise the war can go on for a while yet.
October 12, 2017: In the south (Shabwa province) fighting broke out between soldiers and Shia rebels, leaving one soldier and nine rebels dead.
October 11, 2017: In the northwest (between the port of Hodeida and the Saudi border) government forces have spent the last 24 hours as fighting flared up between the port town of Midi (Medi) and the Saudi border. The Shia rebels finally lost Midi in by June 2017 and have been tryng to get it back ever since. The effort in the last two days cost the Shia rebel at least 18 dead and the government defenders far less.
October 10, 2017: In the north the Shia rebels fired an Iranian Qaher M2 ballistic missile at a Saudi army headquarters just across the border in Jizan province. The missile missed and damaged a nearby school.
October 8, 2017: In the north (Marib province) an American UAV attacked a vehicle and killed five AQAP men.
October 6, 2017: In the south (Abyan province) an AQAP suicide car bomber killed four Yemeni soldiers and wounded seven others.