Tomorrow a new round of peace talks begin in Switzerland. This follows over a hundred days of negotiations hosted by Kuwait, which failed. The new round of talks will include representatives of the last elected government of Yemen versus the rebels, who consist mainly of a coalition of Shia tribes from the northwest. The war would have ended by now, from mutual exhaustion, were it not for the intervention of two local superpowers; Iran for the Shia tribes and Saudi Arabia for the Yemeni government. These two will not be represented officially at the Swiss peace talks.
Shrinking The Shia Homeland
In the northwest (Saada province) Saudi and Yemeni troops have been advancing into the Shia tribal homeland and cutting key roads and are now 20 kilometers from Maran, the home town of many senior Shia tribal leaders. For the Saudis the main reason for occupying Saada is to eliminate the areas where the Shia rebels have been launching ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia. The Saudi forces cross the border push towards ballistic missile launch sites and the few roads in the area. This makes it more difficult for rebels to reach the border and fire across at Saudi troops or civilians. Blocking the roads also limits where the trucks carrying the Iranian made ballistic missiles can go as these trucks have a hard time off road, The Saudis have been carrying out airstrikes in Saada since 2015 but are now sending more ground forces in to push rebels away from the Saudi border. The Yemeni troops are now advancing on Saada from the south.
The ground fighting has become less difficult for the pro-government forces because the rebels are increasingly relying on newly recruited (not always voluntarily) teenagers and unemployed young men. The rebels pay about $7o a month (in Yemeni rials) and that is a lot if you are broke. These new recruits have little military training but, like most Yemenis, grew up knowing about guns. With enough experienced small unit leaders (one or every ten or fewer new guys) the untrained fighters can be used effectively (until the less enthusiastic ones desert). But heavy losses in the last year has depleted the supply of combat experienced Shia fighters. Worse the new recruits are being sent to areas they are not familiar with to face government and coalition forces that are better trained and know how to use the air and artillery support they have. It’s the timely and accurate air strikes and artillery fire that dismays the new Shia fighters the most. An increasingly effective tactic is to hit rebel force with some accurate supporting fire, wait overnight and then advance on a force that has suffered a lot of desertions overnight and the remaining rebels are feeling less confident and are not in the mood for another air or artillery strike. This has made it much more difficult for the rebels to hold ground against a government or coalition advance and at best they can delay the advance, while taking a lot of losses in the process.
The economy is collapsing because of the declining value of the Yemeni rial. At the start of the civil war (early 2015) it cost 250 rials to buy a dollar. By early 2018 it was 425 rials and now it is 650 rials. This was not unexpected. In March Saudi Arabia transferred $2 billion to the Yemen Central Bank to support the exchange rate of the Yemeni currency and keep food (and other) prices down in Yemen. This worked at first and the value of the Yemeni currency (the rial) immediately rose ten percent (against the dollar). That did not continue because the Shia rebels had looted the Central Bank of at least four billion dollars in rials in 2015 and that contributed to a rapid decline in the purchasing power of the rial as the rebels spent more of this loot. Then there was the counterfeit rials.
At the end of 2016 the U.S. and Germany revealed that they had detected and disrupted an Iranian currency counterfeiting operation that had already produced several hundred million dollars’ worth of Yemeni currency. This was apparently used to bolster the Iran-backed Shia rebels in Yemen while at the same time weakening the Yemeni government and their Arab allies. The Iranian currency counterfeiting was carried out by the of IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them). Laws were broken in Germany to obtain the special materials needed to make the counterfeit bills. The remaining stocks of the counterfeit rials were apparently dumped into the Yemeni economy after that before everyone got to know how to detect the fakes and refuse to use them. The Shia rebels had always planned to use currency manipulation as a last ditch weapon. By late 2016 the Shia rebels made financial preparations to abandon the capital (Sanaa) and that included withdrawing over a billions dollars’ worth of Yemeni currency from the economy and moving the cash north to Saada province. At the same time a lot of portable assets (computers, electronics of all sorts, some machinery) are being bought or “seized in lieu of revolutionary taxes” and also moved north.
An American warship stopped a small boat in the Gulf of Aden on August 28th and found it was carrying a thousand AK-47s and the three men operating the boat were heading for one of the small islands off the Yemeni coast near the Red Sea port of Hodeida where local fishing boats smuggle the weapons, in small batches, to coastal villages still controlled by the rebels. The naval patrol off Yemen has to contend with hundreds of small craft operating near them each day, more that can be searched. But enough have been detected and caught since 2015 to make it clear that this smuggling route was still active. In reaction to the latest interception the Saudis increased their naval patrols near these island and searched more fishing boats. If nothing else that causes the fishermen to dump their illegal weapons cargo overboard before the boarding party reached them. Some boats refused to be searched and were fired on. This form of smuggling is more important as the government forces move closer to driving the rebels out of Hodeida and making it possible for all cargoes to be thoroughly searched. That will cut off the supply of Iranian ballistic missile components, which have, over the last two years, allowed more than two hundred of these short range ballistic missiles to be assembled in northern Yemen and eventually fired into Saudi Arabia.
The battle for Hodeida continues even though the government advance has been “suspended” for three months to give the UN negotiators an opportunity to persuade the rebels to abandon the port intact. The rebels refuse because if they lose Hodeida they lose any chance of negotiating some kind of beneficial (for them) end to the war. The government forces advancing slowly towards Hodeida realize this and the advance is slow because they want to capture the port area intact and minimize their casualties while doing so. The rebels are vigorously defending Hodeida, even more so than the capital Sanaa to the east or their homeland Saada to the north. Hodeida is more important. Without Hodeida there is a lot less cash and other goodies. Without Hodeida it is more difficult to launch attacks on ships offshore. Without Hodeida it will be easier for the government reduce or halt aid to the rebel home areas in the northwest. Without Hodeida the rebels don’t have a chance of obtaining any type of victory or decent surrender terms. The loss of Hodeida means the rebels have lost a valuable bargaining chip for all sorts of deals. The rebels will do whatever they can to hold onto Hodeida. So the coalition is trying other tactics, like ensuring that the rebels have a difficult time getting reinforcements into the port city. This is accomplished by the government forces surrounding the city attempting to control all vehicle traffic entering or leaving. Government roadblocks and the threat of airstrikes on any vehicle travelling without permission has shut down most unauthorized traffic. In response the rebels have blocked food air trucks from leaving the city. The rebels are also accused of seizing control of food warehouses belonging to foreign aid groups and using the warehouses to house troops and weapons. While the rebels can get additional food in the city they cannot get reinforcements.
UAVs Versus Islamic Terrorists And Little Else
American involvement in Yemen has been limited (to UAV attacks and intel gathering) since 2014 and mainly directed at areas where Islamic terrorists were most active. This has often been in central Yemen, especially Baida province. Most of Baida province is controlled by Sunni tribes, many of them hospitable to Islamic terrorists (or anyone with a lot of cash). Baida is where most of the American UAV attacks on AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) members take place. The American UAV attacks continue in Yemen and many of the attacks are not announced at least not right away. It was recently revealed that there was another attack on August 14th. So far in 2018 there have been about 34 attacks. As in 2017 (when there were 131 attacks) the ones in 2018 have been mainly against AQAP and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) camps and key personnel in central Yemen. This greatly reduces Islamic terrorist capabilities in Baida, which had long been an Islamic terrorist stronghold. East of Baida province are Shabwa and Hadramawt provinces. The later stretches from the sea to the Saudi border and is largely desert. Along with Baida these two provinces used to host most AQAP personnel and base areas. But since 2017 AQAP has been under heavy attack by the Americans and the Arab coalition and the Islamic terrorists have responded by shifting more of their attacks to the government and Arab coalition forces. AQAP took credit for 273 attacks in 2017 and in the first six months of that year some 75 percent of these attacks were against the Shia rebels. But in the second half of 2017 half the attacks were against fellow Sunnis (government and coalition forces). In 2018 the remaining AQAP are mainly fighting for survival against government and coalition forces. There was only one UAV attack on ISIL this year (in January) because ISIL is much reduced in size and capabilities. AQAP is more acceptable to more Yemenis in the south and survives. By mid-2017 Islamic terrorist attacks had declined more than 90 percent versus three years ago.
All this is taking place in the midst of a civil war in Yemen which began in 2014 as Iran backed Shia tribes from the north seized the capital (Sanaa). The Yemen government is backed (often reluctantly) by the majority Sunni Arabs. That is why Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states in the region oppose the Shia rebels. These Arab states intervened during 2015, first with air power followed by ground troops. The Shia rebels have been losing, slowly, ever since and while Arab air power performed well Arab cash was key to achieving victories on the ground,
By 2017 the war in Yemen had morphed into two separate conflicts. In the northwest and along the Red Sea coast it is Iran-backed Shia rebels versus the Yemeni government backed by Saudi Arabia (and their local allies plus the United States). The rest of Yemen is a fight between Yemeni government (backed by the Saudi coalition) and Yemeni tribal separatists who often host AQAP factions. In the past Yemen was rarely united and that separatism divides the country between the north (where most of the Shia are) and the south (mostly Sunni Arab tribes. The current civil war is not unique, the last one was in the 1990s.
At the same time Yemen has serious economic and social problems that are getting worse because of all the unrest since the 2011 Arab Spring (and outright civil war since 2015). Before the civil war began in 2011 the Yemeni GDP was $37 billion. Now it is less than half that and falling. Hunger and disease are increasing as are associated deaths. Foreign aid efforts are often plundered by locals. Yemen has long been considered one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. In 2016 Yemen ranked 170th out of 176 countries. Most Yemenis will agree that corruption is a major problem. Yet most Yemenis are less willing to admit that Yemen is not a country but rather a collection of tribes that don’t get along and cannot agree on how to work together to make a united Yemen work.
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. Even before the unrest escalated in 2011 water, food and power shortages, as well as growing unemployment made life miserable for most Yemenis. Because of all these pre-existing problems and all the unrest since 2011 Yemen is now broke, disorganized, desperate and still fighting itself.
While most adult males in Yemen are armed (it’s an ancient tradition) few of those armed men are trained soldiers or even members of some kind of organized combat unit. What does exist is a lot of local tribal leaders who can quickly organize a few dozen to a few hundred armed men to oppose someone they fear or simply don’t like. This means, and has always meant, that Yemen never had sufficient security forces (reliable soldiers or police) to impose order if large segments of the population disagreed with the central government. This has long been a problem with the Shia tribes of the north and many of the Sunni tribes in the south and southeast. Since 2011 both these groups have been very unhappy and since early 2017 the separatist Sunni tribes in the south have become more hostile to the government and more willing to tolerate the presence of Islamic terrorists, especially if these groups contain some locals and know how to behave themselves.
Iranian Spin Masters Stumble
One under reported Iranian contribution to the Shia rebel effort is an effective media manipulation capability. Not as massive or well-equipped as the ones created by China and Russia (the main practitioners of this) the Iranians do pretty well spinning news of events in Yemen to favor, as much as possible, the Shia rebels. The Iranians know what appeals to mass media, especially in the West, and what does not. Thus anytime a coalition airstrike kills civilians (or rebels who can be described as such) the Iranians see that pictures and stories are supplied to news media worldwide. Coverage of the nasty things the Shia rebels do to hostile civilians in areas they control is not reported because no journalists are allowed in rebel areas. Thus it is only later that it becomes known that the rebels were using civilians as human shields or letting them use a road the rebels know is constantly watched and most vehicles seen on it are hit with an air strike. The “hit anything that moves” policy can isolate a rebel force under attack and make the rebels easier to defeat.
The Iranians will also send out stories of rebel controlled civilians going hungry when that can be blamed on the coalition, the Yemeni government or the West. Another technique is to make false claims of damage from Shia ballistic missile or UAV attacks on Saudi or UAE targets. These claims are eventually found to be false but Spin Masters know that if you can get some traction with the initial story that is what most people will remember. Truth isn’t what counts here but supplying what editors are seeking at the moment.
Of late the Iranian spin machine has been having problems, mainly back in Iran. Iranians in general have noted that the overseas wars their government is waging, especially in Syria and Yemen, were more evidence of many lies Iranians were told about the state of Iranian military technology. In Syria there were no Iranian warplanes or anti-aircraft systems. All the aerial successes were carried out by modern Russian jet fighters operated by the Russian Air Force. There were some Iranian UAVs in action but all they seemed to do when used against the Israelis is promptly get shot down. Meanwhile the Israeli Air Force regularly bombed Iranian bases. In Yemen Arab pilots in modern warplanes were using smart bombs to regularly hit the Iran-backed Shia rebels. Worse, over a hundred Iran made ballistic missiles had been fired into Saudi Arabia and all were shot down by the Arabas using American Patriot air defense systems. These criticisms are causing more Iranians to doubt any government news coming out of Syria and Iran and Western media pick up that popular criticism in Iran and make life miserable for Iranian Spin Masters,
September 4, 2018: In the north (Saada province) Shia rebels fired two ballistic missiles at the Saudi city of Jizan, There were no reports of casualties because the two missiles were intercepted. That makes 188 ballistic missiles and long range rockets fired at Saudi Arabia since 2015.
August 28, 2018: In the south (Abyan province) AQAP gunmen attacked a checkpoint and killed five soldiers and wounded four. Attacks like this are increasingly rare. The effort to clear AQAP out Hadramawt, Abyan (Aden) and Shabwa provinces has been going on since late 2016 but became more intense since 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. As a result of the air operations the remaining AQAP groups became more vulnerable to detection and attack on the ground. There are also some ISIL groups out in the hills and they will fight with AQAP men as well as soldiers.
August 26, 2018: In the north (Saada province) Shia rebels got a truck carrying two Zelzal-1 missiles close enough to the border to fire them at the Saudi city of Jizan, There were no reports of casualties. The Iranian Zelzal-1 rocket has range (about 160 kilometers) but no guidance system. These missiles are only aimed at cities, where they will hit something newsworthy if they get through.
August 23, 2018: In the northwest (Red Sea port of Hodeida) the rebels sent out a suicide (or remote controlled) bomb boat to attack Saudi ships. This effort apparently failed.
August 21, 2018: In the north (Amram province) the Shia rebels fired a ballistic missile them at the Saudi city of Narjan. The missile was intercepted and there were no casualties.
August 17, 2018: In the north (Amram province) the Shia rebels fired ballistic missile them at the Saudi city of Jizan. The missile was intercepted and there were no casualties.