Yemen: Faction Fatigue


March 19, 2019: The UN has been trying, for months to get major donor nations to provide $4.2 billion for Yemen aid in 2019. That’s a third more than in 2018. The UN has only been able to obtain pledges for 62 percent of what was asked. Most of what was raised came from four donors (the U.S., Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait). What is discouraging donors is the absence of any reliable distribution system in Yemen. Only in the last year has the UN admitted that the Shia rebels are the major obstacle to effective distribution. For years the rebels used their control over Hodeida, the largest port in Yemen (and main port for central and northern Yemen) to steal aid and use what was delivered .selectively, denying tribes or provinces food if they opposed the rebels.

Yemen government forces were poised to take Hodeida in late 2018 when the UN arranged a ceasefire that was to make the port a neutral zone controlled by the UN. Great plan but the rebels have refused to withdraw as agreed to in the December peace deal. The rebels also block access to warehouses and grain silos in Hodeida holding huge quantities of food. Now the rebels are planting explosives in these storage facilities. Most of the aid now coming in is via southern ports, which cannot match the port capacity of Hodeida, so many donors are holding off until the distribution problems are solved.

Many UN members are demanding that the Arab sea/land and naval blockade of Yemen be lifted so food and other aid can get through. Yet recent UN investigations now admit that Iran has been smuggling in weapons and even North Korea was willing to supply the rebels but was unable to because of the blockade. Another problem most outsiders fail to acknowledge is that Yemen is not and never has been a stable, united country. Southern tribes are still demanding partition while the northern Shia tribes want autonomy and a united Yemen that will protect them from Saudi "aggression", i.e. retaliation for the smuggling and cross border attacks the Shia tribes persist with. Since “unity” was achieved in the 1990s the various factions have refused to cooperate “for the good of the country” because for most Yemenis the faction (usually a tribe or local coalition) come first. The UN has not helped by throwing donor money at the problem without admitting that a lot of it was being stolen and not used for its intended purposes. Then again the Shia rebels are not the only Yemenis who will steal aid rather than use it as intended.

Dead December Deal

The Shia rebels still refuse to implement the December pace deal that was supposed to reopen the Red Sea port of Hodeida, which is essential for delivering emergency food and other aid to northern Yemen. Iran has persuaded the Shia rebels to stall but that advice is losing its appeal as the rebel situation worsens. While the rebels have stolen and stockpiled a lot of food and other aid, their coalition continues to unravel. The rebels seemed unstoppable in 2014 because they could depend on the cooperation or neutrality of many Sunni tribes and all the Shia tribes in the north. That cooperation often came in the form of reliable neutrality. After 2016 there were a lot fewer neutral Sunni tribes and some had turned against the rebels. Now key neutral Shia tribes in the northwest (the rebel homeland) are renouncing their neutrality and fighting, or just blocking rebel movement. The latest example of this is in the northwest (Hajjah province). In 2018 Saudi troops finally drove Shia rebels out of the province, after more than two years of fighting. This province is on the Saudi border and largely populated by Shia. But many Saudis believe Hajjah province should be part of Saudi Arabia. At one time in the 1920s, a decade before the Saudi kingdom was founded, Saudi forces conquered Hajjah province. British threats caused the Saudis to withdraw but the Saudis never forgot.

Another reason to take the province is to halt the smuggling that still takes place along the Red Sea coast. Pacifying Hajjah province meant making deals with the Shia tribes to assure them they would not be mistreated. To help with that the Saudis had the experience of the many Shia tribes in southwest Saudi Arabia, who have done much better economically over the decades than their Shia brethren across the border in Yemen. The Saudi pitch was classic Arabian; support the Saudi cause and the Saudis and Saudi Arabia will provide protection and aid. By January 2019 it was obvious to the Shia rebels that the key Shia tribes in Hajjah province had switched sides. The rebels shifted forces from the south to launch an offensive against their new enemies. The Saudis had persuaded the Hajour tribes in Hajjah province to accept Saudi military support to block Shia rebels from entering Hajour territory. That was a problem for the rebels because Hajour lands contained some key routes. The Shia rebel campaign involved attacking, or rather besieging many villages. The Saudis countered that with airdrops of food, ammo and other supplies while organizing group operation to break the siege. This put more pressure on the rebels because this was yet another Saudis success in or near the Shia rebel home province of Saada. This is not a new situation but has been growing worse over the last two years and caused a manpower shortage for the rebels as well as a worsening morale problem.

The Shia rebels have become weaker in other respects. Their failure to meet the terms of the December 2018 Hodeida ceasefire backfired on the rebels. The Arab Coalition brought in food from the less capable Gulf of Oman ports and are working to expand the capabilities of those ports. In the meantime, there was less food aid for the areas once dependent on supplies coming in via Hodeida. Thus the Yemeni government has done something about the problem while the Shia rebels are simply making matters worse without helping the rebel coalition or the core rebel Shia tribes back north in Saada province.

The Shia rebels, faced with a complete breakdown of the Hodeida ceasefire and resumption of the government advance have threatened to launch more ballistic missiles at key targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. That sounds ominous but the Arab coalition doubts the rebels have many ballistic missiles left. Moreover, the Saudis and UAE have been able to shoot down all of the missiles that were going to hit important areas instead of unpopulated ones as  many of the missiles have done. Another threat that the rebels pose, but will not admit openly, is destruction of the port facilities and food storage sites before they leave the city.

The Arab Coalition is also slowly taking apart the legal income sources the rebels had because they captured the national capital in 2014 and held on to it. That meant they maintained control over vital, and profitable (via taxation) industries. One of the most valuable, the telecommunications business, has been generating about $60 million a month in taxes since the rebels seized the capital. The Arab coalition created a rival national telecommunications authority and has persuaded most of the foreign telecommunications firms to abandon the Shia rebels and pay the legitimate government operating from the temporary capital of Aden. The rebels have already lost enormous sums because Hodeida is closed and all those bribes, extortion payments and stolen aid are no longer available as is most aid smuggled in from Iran. Some still gets in but because the rebels no longer run Hodeida Iran has a much more difficult, and expensive, time getting contraband to the rebels.


Iran, facing growing domestic unrest because of expensive foreign wars, and lack of tangible results, desperately needs a clear cut win and Yemen is one area where that is still possible, despite numerous setbacks. For one thing, Iran still has a lot of support from leftist politicians in the West. This is partly resentment against the United States, which has always been the primary supporter of Saudi Arabia, and Gulf Arab oil states in general. Now the majority of legislators in the American Congress are willing to demand the U.S. halt military aid to Saudi Arabia. This is unlikely to pass into law but even if it comes close it is a major win for Iran.

While the Iranian Information War campaign (with the help of Russia) to demonize the Arab coalition efforts in Yemen, continues more Western analysts are pointing out that the main cause of civilian casualties is the Shia rebels, who deliberately use civilians as human shields. This is not a unique situation because the same problems were encountered fighting ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Syria and Iraq. Arab armies will attack despite the presence of civilians. The Syrians were condemned for deliberately attacking pro-rebel civilians on a large scale from 2012-2018. This drove millions of pro-rebel civilians out of Syria and from an Arab perspective that was a win. The Assad government is not the only Arab government that operates that way and anyone who becomes an ally of an Arab nation must either put up with that medieval attitude towards civilian casualties or step away from the situation. Iran, Russia and Turkey still adhere to this approach as does China. Aware of that the Yemeni rebels make sure any civilian deaths in their territory get publicity (photos, video and staged interviews) that puts all the blame on government or Arab coalition forces. This is done mainly to manipulate Western media. This has been more obvious during the current ceasefire. The main cause of ceasefire violations and dead civilians has been Shia rebels. Despite all that the casualties have been low in Yemen compared to other combat zones (Syria, Iraq, Sinai, South Sudan and Nigeria)

One major loss for Iran is that their smuggling efforts are no longer able to bring in ballistic missiles (broken down and later reassembled under the supervision of Iranian technicians) into Yemen. There is still some threat from Iranian UAVs, but while these are smaller and easier to smuggle in, there appears to be a limited number of them left in Yemen because of the numerous Arab air raids during 2019 against bases they operate from. The Saudis are pleased that the ballistic missile attacks have been halted along with the reduction of armed (with explosives) UAV attacks. The Arabs will probably prevail in Yemen but it is the only one of Iran’s wars where Iranian prospects are good. Iraq, Syria, Gaza and Lebanon are all more expensive and less likely to provide the Iranian theocracy with a much needed victory. That means the growing domestic protests in Iran will become more of a problem because already Iran has been forced to sharply cut the budget for these operations.

March 18, 2019: In the southwest (Taiz province), Shia rebels are still present in about 30 percent of the province, even though the Taiz city has been under government control since early 2018 and the rebels no longer control any territory on a permanent basis. Taiz is the third largest city in Yemen and the province occupies a strategic location. For that reason the province has seen nearly constant fighting for eight years now and it is still one of the most active areas for fighting in the country.

March 14, 2019: In the northwest (Hodeida province), a rebel ballistic missile hit an army base, killing one soldier and wounding 14. This base was not protected by Patriot missile defense systems the UAE has brought in to protect major bases from attack. Cut off from Iranian supplies of ballistic missiles and still unable to penetrate the Saudi ballistic missile defenses the rebels apparently decided to hit a smaller target in Yemen and do what damage they could.

March 10, 2019: In the northwest (Hodeida province), major fighting broke out between the Shia rebels and government forces in the port of Hodeida. There had been a growing number of minor violations of the Hodeida cease fire this year but this was the first major outbreak of violence since the ceasefire agreement was signed in December 2018.

March 9, 2019: In the northwest (Hajjah province), Shia rebels took heavy casualties (from Arab coalition air strikes) as the rebels attacked villages belonging to another Shia tribe (the Hajour) who had switched sides over the last few months and were blocking routes the rebels had long used. In response the Shia rebels went after Hajour tribal leaders and their families. The rebels wanted to take hostages but managed to kill more than fifty civilians, which made the Hajour more determined to fight.

March 8, 2019: In the northwest (across the border in the Saudi province of Asir), air defense systems shot down another Iranian UAV that the rebels had sent off in an attempt to cause some damage and casualties in Saudi Arabia. This one was aimed at Abha, the capital of Asir province and 230 kilometers from the border.

March 3, 2019: The government pointed out that the rebels were planting landmines and other explosives around the UN aid warehouses in the port of Hodeida. This was visible to some of the remaining UN observers assigned to Hodeida. The rebels have been deliberately firing at these UN personnel, not with the intention of hitting them but to make the inspectors less curious about any illegal (according to the ceasefire) activity by rebel forces.

February 17, 2019: In the northwest (Hodeida province), the government and the Shia rebels finally agreed on the details of how to carry out the first withdrawal of combat forces in the port of Hodeida so that aid shipments can resume. This withdrawal agreement did not work as the rebels expressed doubts that they could trust the government. But the pressure is on the rebels, who have controlled the port since 2014 and never allowed the UN or aid groups any real control over aid supplies moving through the port. The rebels do not want to lose control of the port (which has already happened as government forces have been in the port city since late 2018) and they do not want the port to resume operation until they receive more concessions (as yet not described in any great detail).


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