Yemen: Covid19 Becomes A Weapon


April 20, 2020: Since mid-2019 the balance of combat power has shifted as the government coalition lost a lot of their ground troops. This was because the UAE (United Arab Emirates) withdrew most of its forces in late 2019 because of disagreements with Saudi Arabia over strategy and fears in the UAE that Iran might attack. The UAE has less population and fewer troops than Saudi Arabia. The UAE is also smaller and closer to Iran. The Saudis also lost troop contributions from other Moslem states and have not been able to replace them. This stalled the long, slow, methodical and successful government offensive which had pushed the rebels back. The rebels, encouraged by the steadfast and effective support from Iran, held on. The major weapon the Shia rebels had was Saudi fear of an Iran dominated Yemen.

The Saudis have many reasons to fear Iran. Historically the Iranians have always been more effective militarily and that factor is still present. While the Iranians have a tradition of recruiting the most capable men to be officers the Saudis, and Arabs in general, are wary of professional military personnel, especially officers. It’s mostly about fear of a military takeover and the Saudis have crippled their own military by valuing loyalty over competence when it comes to officers, and many troops as well. As a result, the Saudis do not have a lot of troops they can trust to do well in a foreign war. Air Force pilots are another matter but you cannot win a ground war from the air. On the ground, the lack of more talented and experienced ground commanders in Yemen has hurt the Saudis in ways they won’t admit.

The Saudis have a bigger problem with the fact that the rebels are backed by Iran which continues to pay whatever it takes to smuggle in some weapons despite Saudi efforts to tighten the sea, air and ground blockade. Yemen is unique in that it is a nation with a disproportionate number of skilled smugglers, many of them willing to work for whoever will pay.

This new situation puts Saudi Arabia in a difficult position. Efforts to negotiate an end of the Yemen war proved unsuccessful as Iranian control over the Shia rebels could not be reduced. The Iranians are determined to maintain their presence in Yemen and on the Saudi border. From there the Iranians can continue to launch attacks on the Saudis, who do not want to commit the ground forces necessary to take control of the adjacent Yemeni provinces that are the homeland of the Shia rebels. The Saudis also have to maintain sufficient forces in northeast Saudi Arabia, where most of the oil is and the Iranian threat has been a problem for decades. At this point, the best thing the Saudis can hope for is that the religious dictatorship that has ruled Iran for decades will collapse and be replaced by a friendlier and less threatening government.

The Yemeni rebels continue getting some aid from Iran, but this must be smuggled in. Shia Iran also makes demands. So for over a year, the Shia rebels have been imposing more and more religious restrictions on people living under their control. This includes many Sunni tribes. The rebels have even been shutting down cafes and restaurants that cater to groups of women. These gatherings are considered un-Islamic by religious conservatives.

April 17, 2020: In central Yemen (Marib province) the Shia rebels launched a ballistic missile at government held Marib city where it hit areas of the city not occupied by troops or military facilities. The Shia rebels have been trying to retake Marib city and this may have just been a terror attack.

The first confirmed case covid19 appeared, in government-controlled territory. There are believed to be cases in rebels territory but the rebels are not talking about it.

April 16, 2020: The UN revealed that it would shut down most of its Yemen aid programs by the end of the month because most donors now refuse to provide cash or supplies. The problem is the Shia rebels diverting more and more of the aid to finance their military operations. This is a common problem in the Middle East and Africa and often becomes so extreme that aid donors prefer to send the money to other needy areas where there is a lot less corruption and diversion. The Saudis and UAE still provide aid, but only to areas where there are no Shia rebels. This will cause increased hunger in many rebel occupied areas and the rebels will only provide food to areas that support the rebels. People in anti-rebel areas are encouraged to flee to government-controlled areas where the Saudis will feed them.

April 9, 2020: The Saudi and UAE forces agreed to the UN-backed two week truce but the Shia rebels demanded more concessions at the last minute and never observed the ceasefire. The Shia rebels are determined to get the air and sea blockade lifted but the Saudis will not allow that because that will make it easier for Iran to smuggle in ballistic missile components, UAVs and other weapons. The UN urged everyone to accept the truce so that the covid19 pandemic could be tended to. The rebels are apparently not alarmed at the covid19 threat, which is understandable given the number of diseases still active in rural Yemen. So far there have been no verified covid19 cases in Yemen. There is still a belief among many Moslems that Allah will protect the faithful. Iran used to believe that but the massive covid19 casualties in Iran changed minds.

The rebels maintain control over hostile populations by controlling things that matter most for all Yemenis; food, safety and disease. Malaria, dengue fever and cholera have long been a threat but are usually kept under control. That changed in 2017 with a cholera epidemic that was never completely suppressed and has revived in 2019 with about 200,000 new cases that year and more in 2020. The original 2017 outbreak got out of control because the Shia rebels refused to allow the UN to fly in half a million doses of vaccine early on. The rebels insisted that they be first supplied with ambulances and other medical equipment their fighting forces needed. This delayed the vaccination program and the rebels continued to tolerate contaminated water supplies in areas they controlled. With the deadlock at Hodeida, the rebels had even fewer resources to deal with the water supply problems and growing poverty in their territory. The resurgence of cholera is a very visible example of the problems in rebel territory. The rebels are less prepared to deal with the epidemic than they were in 2017. Cholera is endemic (always present) in Yemen and gets out of hand when public health services are allowed to deteriorate or are trashed by widespread violence. The rebels allowed the current cholera outbreak to get out of control because the rebels are more desperate than the government. The Shia tribes of the north have always been a minority in a majority Sunni region. For centuries the Shia tribes felt they were outsiders and were frequently persecuted. The Yemeni Shia were often taken advantage of as well and while the Shia rebels see Iran as a powerful and reliable ally, most Yemenis see Iran as taking advantage of the Yemeni Shia and a growing number of Yemeni Shia are quietly agreeing. Saying that out loud while in Shia rebel-controlled territory is not safe.

April 5, 2020: Government forces have pushed back Shia rebel advances in the north (Jawf province) and central Yemen (Marib province). The rebels had taken advantage of the Arab coalition manpower shortage after the UAE withdrew most of its troops and a new government in Sudan withdrew the 15,000 mercenaries they had been providing. The coalition still had the airpower advantage and once their ground forces had been redistributed it was possible to stop and reverse the recent Shia gains. This does not discourage the rebels who believe time is now on their side as long as the Iranian support continues. Iran understands this as well and is willing to finance the expensive smuggling effort because of the distress it causes the Saudis.

April 4, 2020: In central Yemen (Marib province) Shia rebels are accused of attacking and damaging an oil pipeline pumping station. The rebel offensive into Marib is an effort to recapture oil fields.

March 31, 2020: Coalition jets hit fifteen targets in and around the Shia rebels city of Sana. This is the traditional capital of Yemen but has been controlled by the rebels since 2014.

March 28, 2020: In Yemen Iran-backed Shia rebels fired two Iranian ballistic missiles, one at the Saudi capital in central Saudi Arabia and the other at the Red Sea port of Jazan near the Yemen border. Saudi air defense intercepted both missiles with Patriot missiles. Two Saudis on the ground were injured by falling missile debris. Both attacks were at night and the explosive interceptions were very visible.

March 27, 2020: In southwest Saudi Arabia (Asir province) Shia rebel explosives carrying UAVs were used for an attack on the border cities of Abha and Khamis Mushait. The UAVs were shot down before they could reach their targets.

March 24, 2020: In the northwest (south of the Red Sea port of Hodeida) the Shia rebels twice prevented a UN ship, used as neutral ground for peace talks, from leaving the port. The rebels have forces outside the port and able to fire on the harbor. The rebels were showing their dissatisfaction with UN peacemaking efforts. The Shia want the UN to put more pressure on the Saudis to make concessions.

March 23, 2020: In the south (Aden) two foreign aid workers who had recently been kidnapped were found dead. No one claimed responsibility for the deaths and it may have been the result of some group pressuring the Red Crescent (the Islamic Red Cross) to cooperate with some form of aid theft.


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