Yemen: Stumbling Towards The Endgame


March 15, 2017: The government offensive along the Red Sea coast has gained a lot of ground (especially coastline) since January when the Shia rebels controlled nearly all of the 450 kilometer Yemeni Red Sea coastline. But now nearly all of the coastline is back under government control and the Shia rebels are largely confined to the 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 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.

The rebels have stopped trying to win back smaller ports like Midi (north of Hodeida) and Mocha (south of Hodeida) and concentrate on the defense of Hodeida and, 150 kilometers to the east, the national capital Saana. Government forces are now within 20 kilometers of Saana and about to take the airport there.

The fighting is most intense at night, when government air support is less effective. The rebels have learned how to minimize the government airpower advantage. Since late 2015 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. There is still a lot of fighting around inland areas, like the city of Taiz. Most of the Red Sea coast of Taiz is now under government control. Fighting is low key but constant.

In the far northwest, on the Saudi border, shooting across the border continues with about 130 Saudis killed by these border attacks since 2015. Losses on the Yemeni side are similar. Nearly all this border violence takes place is in the three Saudi border provinces of Jizan, Asir and Najran. Most of the threatened border is in Najran where most of the half million locals are Shia. Nevertheless these Shia are loyal to the Saudi king. The provincial capital (also called Najran) has a population of 240,000 and is close enough to the Yemen border to be the target of frequent Yemeni rebel artillery and rocket attacks.

Leaning On Al Qaeda

The new U.S. government has revived their operations to go after Islamic terrorists in Yemen. This is one of the countries where al Qaeda has been trying, with mixed success, to establish a new base area in which they can train new recruits and plan international terror attacks. Al Qaeda has been unable to rebuild the base camps in had in Afghanistan before 2001. Efforts to establish a new base in places like Pakistan, Mali, Libya, Somalia and Yemen have all failed. Al Qaeda has been able to establish temporary camps and safe houses but these tend to be found and attacked by the many enemies (most of them fellow Moslems) al Qaeda tends to create wherever it operates.

Yemen has long been a refuge, but not a sanctuary, for al Qaeda. The United States withdrew its counter-terrorism personnel from Yemen in mid-2015 and greatly reduced their efforts against the many Islamic terrorists in Yemen. In mid-2016 Yemeni government and coalition forces had pushed the Shia rebels back enough to divert troops and aircraft to go after the Islamic terrorists who have been moving freely in the south, especially the southwest. Most of these gunmen belong to AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). Some 5-10 percent are with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), which splits it efforts between attacking government and AQAP targets as well as the Shia (rebels or civilians). The ISIL/AQAP conflict is to determine which version of a religious dictatorship should rule Yemen. Since mid-2016 AQAP and ISIL appear to have temporarily stopped attacking each other and concentrated on more threatening foes, like government forces (troops and tribal militias) and Shia rebels. Also fighting ISIL and AQAP are the Americans who use UAVs and manned surveillance aircraft as well as satellites to track terrorist activities. This information is shared with the coalition but is mainly used to find suitable targets for airstrikes, usually via armed UAVs.

In the first week of March the U.S. carried out more than 40 airstrikes against Islamic terrorist targets in southern and central Yemen. In all of 2016 there were only 38 such attacks in Yemen and that was an increase from 22 in 2015, 23 in 2014 and 26 in 2013. There were 41 attacks in 2012, the year after Yemen was hit with Arab Spring uprisings that produced a new government that led to the current civil war and resurgent AQAP. There will apparently be a lot more American counter-terror activity in Yemen during 2017. Not just airstrikes but also commando raids against Islamic terrorist bases, which now tend to be in remote mountain villages. These raids obtain a lot of detailed information on how the Islamic terrorists operate this is immediately used by intelligence operations (electronic and photographic aircraft and UAVs constantly overhead) to locate Islamic terrorist personnel and facilities that can be hit with smart bombs or guided missiles. The Arab coalition has special operations personnel who can be trusted to go in after these airstrikes and search for data and ID the dead. Some of these Arab commandos have worked with their American counterparts in Afghanistan and elsewhere since 2001. The U.S. believes there are about 3,000 active Sunni Islamic terrorists in Yemen, most belonging to AQAP and at least five percent with ISIL. The American airstrikes and ground operations in Yemen have already killed 5-10 senior AQAP leaders and over twenty of their subordinates in 2017. The Yemen security forces (army and tribal militias) the Arab coalition forces have killed over fifty AQAP and ISIL personnel, mostly during ground operations. This includes continued Islamic terrorist attacks on the security forces but also from battles with the security forces. ISIL likes to make attacks on the Shia rebel forces but that is difficult because the rebels have pretty good security when it comes to Islamic terrorist violence. Despite that some of these attacks do succeed, usually against Shia civilians.

Reluctance To Engage

UN pleas for peace talks are being ignored and Yemen gets little media attention worldwide. That is one reason why UN calls for more donations of cash for food and other aid are largely ignored. The UN has documented the extent of the disaster. Since the civil war began in early 2015 nearly 8,000 have died, over 40,000 were wounded and more than ten percent of the population (about three million people) has been driven from their homes and are still unable to return. About half the population is in need of food and medical aid. Yet the UN obtains only a fraction of the money for this from the usual donor nations. The main 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, 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. Water, food and power shortages, as well as growing unemployment make life miserable for most Yemenis. Because of all these pre-existing problems 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 falling.

Yemen has long been considered one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. In 2016 Yemen ranked 170th out of 176 countries while Saudi Arabia ranks 62 and the U.S. ranks 18 when it comes to lack of corruption. The Transparency International Corruption Perception Index measures nations on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea, Somalia or, since 2011, South Sudan) have a rating of under fifteen while the least corrupt (usually Denmark) it is often 90 or higher. The current scores are 14 for Yemen, 46 for Saudi Arabia, 10 for Somalia, 66 for the UAE (United Arab Emirates) 64 for Israel, 34 for Egypt, 29 for Iran, 17 for Iraq, 41 for Kuwait, 32 for Pakistan, 40 for India, 15 for Afghanistan, 29 for Russia, 40 for China, 11 for South Sudan, 12 for North Korea, 30 for Mexico, 74 for the United States, and 72 for Japan. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones.

The Iran Connection

Iran has a pretty realistic attitude towards the situation in Yemen. That explains why Iranian support is a low cost operation. Iran always urged the Yemeni Shia to adopt a more cautious and gradual strategy. That advice was ignored and when the Yemeni Shia had an opportunity to seize the capital and declare a new government in 2015 they did so. It didn’t work but came close enough to encourage Iran to spend a lot of what little cash they had to support the Yemeni Shia. Iran knew that the Yemeni Shia, or at least some of them, would be grateful for this support and that would benefit Iran long-term. In the meantime the situation in Yemen, where the outnumbered and outgunned Shia are holding out against the Sunni majority and their Arab (led by the Saudis) allies hurts Iranian enemies (the Sunni Arab Gulf states and the West) while providing the Iranians with excellent media opportunities to criticize the Arabs and the West. Iran is making the most of the fact that the Arabs, even with greater numbers and superior weapons, are unable to defeat fellow Arabs who just happen to be Shia. Iran, the largest Shia majority nation in the world, considers the Shia form of Islam superior to the Sunni variants (which over 80 percent of Moslems follow). Iranian media plays up the suffering of Yemenis in general and manages to keep itself too low profile for the media to pay attention to.

The UN continues to push for peace talks but the Iran backed Shia rebels and their Iranian backers are waiting for the most opportune time to make a deal. 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.

March 1, 2017: In the north (Saada province) Shia rebels exchanged artillery (howitzers, mortars, rockets) with Saudi forces on the other side of the border. The explosions could be heard for several hours but there were no media reports of casualties but civilians on both sides of the border indicated there were over a dozen wounded and a few dead from some of the shells hitting residential areas.

February 24, 2017: In the south (Abyan province) AQAP attacked an army camp some 50 kilometers east of Aden near the port town of Zinjibar. The assault used a suicide car bomber and gunmen. Eight soldiers were killed and about the same number of attackers. After an hour of gunfire the surviving Islamic terrorists fled, taking most of their dead with them. Since late 2015 AQAP has been a constant presence in Abyan and frequently operated in Zinjibar. But since mid-2016 the government has controlled the port towns east of Aden that AQAP had occupied for about a year.




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