Yemen: Divide And Conquer


October 7, 2020: As the economic situation gets worse the willingness to make peace grows. Yemen was in bad shape economically even before a 2011 Arab Spring uprising replaced a democratic dictator. Just before the 2011 uprising the Yemeni parliament approved changes in the constitution that would abolish term limits for the president, and allow the current president (Ali Abdullah Saleh) to rule for life if he could get the voters, one way or another, to regularly reelect him. Saleh hoped to use foreign aid and oil income to keep himself in power. Saleh had been in power since 1990 and was deposed in 2012 because he was unable to solve any of the chronic problems. New elections were held and a new president elected but that did not work. Iran recently admitted, during a boatful interview of a senior general on Iranian TV, that it had indeed encouraged the Shia rebels up north to exploit the post-Saleh chaos and move forces south into the capital Sanaa. Iran provided planning, some cash and weapons and encouragement. With the help of deposed president Saleh, who is a Shia, the Shia tribes did the unexpected and took control of most of the more populous north.

In response to that the Arab coalition, mainly Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates), intervened in 2015 to save the recently elected Yemeni government. Over the last six years the rebels have grown weaker, in part because their patron Iran is no longer able to provide as much support as before. Iran has so far provided enough aid to keep the war going.

The Arab Coalition is less concerned with Yemeni unity and more about Iranian efforts to establish an autonomous or independent Shia Arab-dominated state in northern Yemen. This new state would depend on Iran for survival because Iran is the largest Shia majority nation in the world and currently a deadly rival of Saudi Arabia. While the UAE is less concerned about an autonomous Shia Arab entity in Yemen, the Saudis will not under any circumstances tolerate such an Iran-backed Shia presence on its southern border.

The basic problem is that too many Yemenis don’t want to be Yemenis. The country was a patchwork of independent tribes and cities when the English East India Company took control of some Yemeni ports in the 1830s and 40s to support ships going from Britain to India. The Ottoman Turks still controlled most of northern Yemen until 1918, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Britain took over from the Ottomans and established the borders of modern Yemen. But Yemen was still not a unified country. When the British left Yemen in 1967, their former colony in Aden became one of two countries called Yemen. The two parts of Yemen finally united in 1990, with Saleh as president. A civil war in 1994 was needed to seal the deal. That fix didn't really take, and within a decade the north and south were pulling apart again.

The corruption and lack of unity is related 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 (northeast 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). 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 as in kingdom, emirate or modern variation in the form of a hereditary dictatorship.

Yemen is still all about the tribes. The national government is a bunch of guys who deal with foreigners, and try to maintain peace among the tribes. Controlling the national government is a source of much wealth, as officials can steal part of the foreign aid and taxes, mostly on imports or royalties from meager oil exports.

This lack of nationalism means a lack of cooperation or willingness to act in the national public interest. Much of the Yemeni agricultural crises is caused by the fact that Yemen's economic situation has been rapidly deteriorating since the late 20th century. This is largely because the government has done nothing to address the problems of over-population, water shortages and Khat. That last item is a narcotic plant that is chewed fresh, requires a lot of water to grow and is worth a lot of money when smuggled into Saudi Arabia where it is illegal.

Feuding, fighting and blaming others for the mess are the preferred methods for dealing with the problems. Before oil was discovered in Arabia nearly a century ago, Yemen had long been the most populous, powerful and populous part of Arabia because it was the only part of Arabia with dependable rainfall thanks to the annual monsoon. Most of the oil deposits were at the north end of the Persian Gulf and Yemen lost out there. Yemenis had long despised the less affluent Arabians to the north, but since oil arrived the Yemenis have become the despised and they did not take it well. Resentment, envy and a sense of entitlement combined with the lack of unity to produce Yemen that is a nation in name only. Few others in the region have much sympathy for the Yemenis, who are seen as the main cause of their own problems and the main obstacle to solving them. Since that is all you have to work with it is no wonder that Yemen came to be such a perennial disaster area.

The concept of a unified Yemen was largely created by Cold War politics and how Britain handled a threat to their seaborne trade in the early 19th century. That was when Britain took control of Aden. This was partly to shut down the many pirates operating out of there, and increasingly going after British ships travelling between Asia (India, Southeast Asia and China) and Britain. Only Aden was needed but the British made deals with the tribes that occupied most of southern Yemen coast, and had long depended on Aden and other southern ports for supplies and such. Britain made Aden and the smaller southern ports more prosperous with new trading opportunities and provided more benefits for the interior tribes. Most importantly the tribes still had their autonomy, as well as British protection from outsiders. The Suez Canal opened in 1869 and over the next few decades larger, more efficient, steam powered metal vessels supplanted and replaced wooden sailing ships. That meant a lot more trade moving past and Aden and South Yemen became more prosperous.

When the British left in 1967, as part of a widespread abandonment of colonies by European nations, there was some unrest and fighting in the newly independent South Yemen. This was because Aden was much less religious and traditional, with a better educated population. It was no surprise that Aden and some other South Yemen cities were dominated by local communists. From 1970 until the fall of European communism in 1989, South Yemen was a communist state, subsidized by the Soviet Union, and the only such one in the Arab world.

Most of that enthusiasm for communism was centered in Aden and its suburbs. This is where most of the South Yemen population lived and where an even larger proportion of its GDP came from. A few other coastal cities had the same type of population and political attitudes, giving the urban population control of politics as well as the economy. The tribal minority, out in the desert and semi-desert inland areas was much more religious and traditional. But over the centuries the urban and tribal populations had learned to get along and respect each other’s customs.

It was different in northern Yemen, where the urban population was not as dominant, the tribal population was economically better off, and about as religious and conservative as their southern tribal counterparts. The problem was the northern and southern tribes saw each other as “foreigners”. This is a common situation in tribal cultures, which includes the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. Yet even then there was some enthusiasm for a united Yemen in the north and south.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union (and European communism) in 1991 the Russian subsidies for the south stopped and unification was suddenly much more appealing. After a few years of haggling, and occasional fighting, Yemen was united by 1994. At that point there were still factions in the north and south who believed unity was overrated and two Yemens was the way to go. After a few years of recent fighting, with most of the population surviving on foreign food aid, regional autonomy and national unity no longer seem relevant. Many of those hungry Yemenis have to pay Shia rebels for this “free food.” The foreign aid NGOS and the UN complain about this but the Shia rebels are armed and dangerous and the UN is not. Not armed that is. That has led to foreign donors reducing their contributions. The aid-per Yemeni fell 50 percent between 2019 and 2020. Part of that was due to the covid19 economic recession but most of the decline was about the rebels using the aid as a source of income, plus using the threat of withholding all aid to Yemenis who did not cooperate.

There is resistance to admitting that Yemen is a failed state, one of those areas (like Somalia and Afghanistan) that were never united for long and are basically several smaller entities that are not really interested in unity with their neighbors who are supposed to be their countrymen. And then there is the corruption problem.

Most Iran-backed Shia rebels still believe time is their side as long as the Iranian support continues. Iran understands this as well and is willing to finance the expensive smuggling effort at a reduced level because of the distress it causes the Saudis. The problem with this strategy is that Iran can afford to abandon the Shia rebels while the Saudis cannot afford to have an Iranian ally on their southern border.

In response to this grim reality (for the rebels) the Saudis are trying to get the Yemeni government to grant the southern tribes autonomy and offer the northern tribes (both Shia and Sunni) a similar deal as long as Iranian influence was eliminated in the north. The UAE may have proposed this because the UAE 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 claim they 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 again, but for the moment it is more convenient to support the STC and efforts to defeat the Iran backed Shia rebels

In the last two years the Arab Coalition lost most support from the UAE, its second-largest contributor. At the same time the Yemen government lost support from many of the southern Sunni tribes that, like the northern Shia tribes, want autonomy. This separatism has always been present in Yemen and is historically a collection of independent tribes and large coastal cities.

October 5, 2020: In the north (Amram province) the Shia rebels launched an explosives armed UAV towards the Saudi city of Najran. The UAV was shot down and there were no casualties.

In northwest ( Hodeida province) coalition troops found Shia rebel remote controlled boat filled with explosives near a small coastal village. The rebels send these boats out into the Red Sea to attack commercial traffic and disrupt the heavily used shipping lanes.

October 4, 2020: The Saudis claim the rebels suffered several thousand casualties in September, including a thousand dead. These are obviously estimates, because many of the casualties were inflicted from the air. Saudi pilots have become very proficient with their smart bombs and guided missiles as well as targeting pods to find military targets and hit them. There have been a lot fewer civilian casualties as a result. The rebels did not respond to the claim but there was a lot of fighting in central Yemen during September and the rebels suffered a lot of attacks from the air. In the last few days there was more fighting in central Yemen (Marib provice) and in the northwest ( Hodeida province) Shia rebels near the Red Sea port of Hodeida rebels continued firing into the city, especially the port areas. All this violence has left nearly a hundred dead or wounded.

October 3, 2020: Saudi Arabia and the UAE are hiring more African mercenaries. The pay is better that what the UN offers for peacekeepers and the job, while dangerous, is not a suicide mission. The UAE is using its mercs to guard its new electronic monitoring base on the Yemeni Socotra Islands off the southern coast.

October 2, 2020: In the southeast (Mahra province) coalition forces and some local tribal militia raided a house outside the provincial capital and found a suspected al Qaeda hideout. The Islamic terrorists resisted and locals reported hearing some large explosions and lots of gunfire. Three Islamic terrorists were killed and two wounded and captured. Earlier in the year there was violence involving local tribes. Several times Saudi troops clashed with armed members of the local Mahra tribe near the Oman border. Marah province borders Saudi Arabia in the north and Oman in the east. Saudi troops have been in Mahra province since 2017 to deal with the Iranian arms that were being smuggled to the Shia rebels via nearby ports in Mahra and Oman.

October 1, 2020: The Saudis have revealed details of the Iran smuggling operations. Interrogations of numerous captured smugglers revealed a lot of detail of how one smuggling network operates via a northern Somali port of Berbera. Yemeni fishermen from the Red Sea coast were recruited in 2015, after the Arab Coalition naval blockade went into effect. Key members of the smuggling teams were sent to Iran for a month or more of training (using GPS, maintaining engines, hiding arms cargo on fishing boats and tactics to evade the blockade. The smugglers were well paid but as time went by more and more of them were caught. This happened despite Iranian tactics that stressed team work and use of some fishing boats to deliberately act suspiciously and decoy the warships away from the boat carrying the weapons.

September 30, 2020: In northwest ( Hodeida province) Shia rebels near the Red Sea port of Hodeida fired several mortar shells into a residential neighborhood, killing two civilians and wounding several others. This sort of thing is usually done to punish neighborhoods that don’t cooperate with the rebels. The rebel forces are still close enough to the port to fire on and hit ships trying to enter the port. The rebels are using this veto power over port access to try and extract more money from the UN, which now runs the port. Ships entering the port pay user fees and before the rebels were forced to withdraw from the port in May 2019, they considered the port user fees part of their income. The rebels also imposed many other fees on the foreign aid groups and paid for the supplies brought in as well as for moving these items, by truck, to areas where the food and other items were desperately needed.

The port fees and stolen aid supplies from controlling the largest Yemen port on the Red Sea was a great loss for the rebels. Hodeida is where most of the foreign aid comes in. The government and Arab Coalition finally broke rebel control of the port in late 2018 and negotiated a rebel withdrawal from the city in early 2919. The rebels can only raise the checkpoint fees so high before the traders realize that it would be cheaper to hire smugglers to get the shipments past the rebel toll keepers.

Further north some rebels fired a shell into a Saudi village in Jizan province. There were no casualties.

September 27, 2020: The Shia rebels and the Yemeni government have agreed to exchange prisoners, which will involve exchanging 1,081 prisoners. The UN and Red Cross will administer the exchange process although details have not yet been revealed. This prisoner exchange is a positive sign. Officially both sides are claiming progress in the fighting but both sides are exaggerating.

September 21, 2020: General Mutlaq bin Salim, the new Saudi commander of the Arab Coalition is expected to put a lot of time and effort into fixing the mess his predecessor created in central Yemen (Marib province) where government forces halted a rebel offensive through the effective and heavy use of airstrikes and aerial surveillance. Through most of August rebels kept attacking, or trying to, and finally ease up on the military offensive and concentrate on the successful effort to get Sunni tribes in central Yemen join the rebel coalition or become neutral. This trend played a large role in the Saudis replacing their commander. The Saudis had become more effective at interpreting aerial photos and videos to locate rebel leaders and headquarters than in building and maintaining relationships with local tribal leaders.

The Saudi Air Force was somewhat independent of the Arab Coalition commander. The Air Force provided air support for Arab Coalition forces and carried out separate attacks against military targets. Since the Air Force was also responsible for air defense inside Saudi Arabia, air operations in Yemen had to pay more attention to what the military high command in Saudi Arabia wanted. One side-effect of this was the more effective and frequent use of electronic surveillance with UAVs or manned aircraft. This greater success in finding and hitting targets with smart bombs and guided missiles led to a lot more rebel casualties. The number of rebel commanders killed has been particularly damaging. This appears to have resulted in more UAV and ballistic missile attacks against Saudi airbases near the Yemen border. These airbases are where the Saudi warplanes and UAVs operate from. So far none of the rebel air attacks have succeeded. General Salim has a background in intelligence and the use of aerial surveillance and reconnaissance. So Salim already had a lot of experience with what was going on in Yemen.

In Marib the coalition and government ground units eliminated rebel forces that had been blocking easy access to Marib. In the first few months of 2020 the rebels took advantage of the Arab coalition manpower shortage. This took place after the UAE withdrew most of its troops earlier in 2020 and a new government in Sudan withdrew all but 700 of the 15,000 mercenaries Saudi Arabia had hired. At this point the coalition was forced to depend more on their airpower advantage until their depleted ground forces could be redistributed. By June this had stopped the Shia advance and by the end of August the Shia advance had turned into a Shia retreat. The rebels see this as a temporary setback and still believe time is their side as long as the Iranian support continues. Iran understands this as well and is willing to finance the expensive smuggling effort at a reduced level because of the distress it causes the Saudis. But now there a new Saudi general in charge and if the new guy repairs relationships with the Sunni tribes in the area, the rebels will be in more trouble.

September 19, 2020: In the northwest (across the border in the Saudi province of Jizan) a village was hit by a rocket fired from Yemen by Shia rebels. Five civilians were wounded and there was damage to buildings and three cars.

September 6, 2020: In the north (Jawf province) government forces engaged in a particularly intense attack on rebel forces in an effort to regain key terrain lost to a Shia offensive earlier in 2020. The attack was only partially successful, with twenty rebels killed as well as eight of the tribal militiamen on the ground. Saudi air power was decisive in this operation and continues to be a major asset for coalition forces. This battle was part of a larger operation connected with rebel forces that had been blocking easy access to central Yemen (Marib province).

September 2, 2020: Saudi Arabia replaced Prince Fahd Bin Turki as commander of Saudi forces in Yemen. Prince Fahd and his son, also an army officer were both accused of corruption, along with four non-royal officers. The new commander of the Arab Coalition force is Mutlaq bin Salim, a commoner who achieved his high rank (as deputy chief of staff since 2017) via two decades of successful service in a number of difficult jobs. Prince Fahd was a mediocre military leader and a disaster when it came to negotiating with the various tribal and political factions in Yemen. His replacement is quite the opposite but he has to deal with five years of poor performance by Prince Fahd.


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