Yemen: Driving the Demons Out


April 20, 2022: Pressured by the UN and a new American government, Yemen and the Arab Coalition (Saudi Arabia and UAE/ United Arab Emirates) agreed to another truce with the Shia rebels. These ceasefires are seen as futile because the Shia rebels have violated three such agreements so far and show no interest in change, especially since Iran support is crucial to the maintenance of the Shia military efforts.

The best example of rebel disdain for ceasefire agreements was the 2018 agreement to halt the successful government campaign to take control of the Red Sea port of Hodeida. This is the second largest port in Yemen and the main entry point of foreign aid for Yemenis in Shia controlled territory. Despite UN monitoring, Hodeida was also where a lot of Iranian military aid was smuggled in. In 2018, as government forces were about to drive rebel forces from the Hodeida city and port, the rebels appealed to the UN for a timeout (peace talks). The UN persuaded the Yemen government and its Arab Coalition to halt operations and the rebels signed an agreement whereby they would withdraw their forces from the port area so that government troops could replace them. The rebels withdrew some of their forces then moved them back in and attacked the government troops. Rebels accused the government of violating the agreement. By 2020 it was clear that the rebels never intended to withdraw and the ceasefire deal was revealed as yet another ploy to enlist the UN to assist the rebels in avoiding a defeat. Not only did the rebels maintain their control of areas near the port, but increased their attacks on shipping in the Red Sea while denying that they were responsible. More key UN members came to conclude that the Shia rebels and their Iranian backers were intent on maintaining control of northwest Yemen so the rebels could use Iranian cruise and ballistic missiles, as well as armed UAVs, for attacks on Saudi Arabia. Evidence, often authenticated by UN inspection teams, showed that Iranian-made weapons were being used for more and more attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as inside Yemen. The Iranian weapons were assembled and launched from rebel held areas in northwest Yemen. That is why the rebels protested the recent increased naval patrols in the Red Sea and especially coastal areas still controlled by rebels.

It was recently revealed that the Saudis forced Yemeni president Hadi to resign because of corruption and general ineffectiveness. Hadi agreed to officially transfer his power to a Presidential Council, whose eight members were selected earlier by the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) in consultation with many prominent pro-government officials. The council is led by Rashad al Alimi, a former interior minister. The other seven members include governors of Marib and Hadramawt provinces, STC (South Transitional Council) leaders, a Suuni tribal leader in the north who has formed an anti-Shia coalition, and several military commanders, including a member of the Saleh family, that ruled Yemen before the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. The council members accurately represent the key pro-government factions in Yemen. All of these members want peace, but without the continued Iranian presence.

The Presidential Council makes it easier for the Saudis and the UAE to negotiate with Yemeni factions, including many Shia ones, to work out a peace deal. The war has dragged on for eight years mainly because Iran got involved and injected religious issues. For most Yemenis the war was about maintaining the cohesion of the nation. For Iran and the Shia rebels it’s also about religion. T he Iranian religious dictatorship is obsessed with replacing Saudi Arabia as the guardian of Mecca and Medina, the most important religious shrines for all Moslems. Arabs have always controlled these two cities near the Red Sea coast, 780 kilometers north of Yemen Shia territory. Even when the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) controlled the area, they put a proper (descendants of Mohammed) Arab family in charge of Mecca and Medina. The Turks profited from what the many annual pilgrims spent when they arrived. Iran wants to change all that and the Saudis, with the support of most Moslems, oppose Iranian claims.

The main battlefield for control of Mecca is in nearby Yemen, where Iran-backed Yemen Shia rebels began a civil war in 2014 and with Iranian support have survived Saudi efforts to prevent the Shia provinces in northwest Yemen from becoming an Iranian military base area. The Yemen Shia rebels are led by members of the Houthi tribe, which Iran supports because ultimately Shia controlled northwestern Yemen would be ruled by a religious dictatorship with the Houthi tribe providing the hereditary leaders of the Yemeni Shia state.

There are about nine million Shia in Yemen (40 percent of the population) and most belong, like the rebels, to the Zaidi sect that the Houthis dominate. In 2009 only a few hundred thousand Zaidi were up in arms against the government, and not all of them were actively resisting the advancing troops. The Houthi religious leaders, despite their disagreements with Iran over what form of Shia beliefs was superior, accepted Iranian offers of support in regaining self-rule for the Zaidi Shia in Yemen as well as the million Zaidi across the border in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis created this division of Zaidi Shia in the early 1930s as they were establishing the borders for the new kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Before that the Zaidi in the mountains of northwest Yemen had maintained their independence for centuries. The Ottomans left the Zaidi alone as long as there was no interference with Turkish administration of Mecca, Medina and the Red Sea port that brought in pilgrims and cargo.

When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918, the Zaidi created a Shia kingdom led by the Houthi religious and tribal leaders. That ended when the Saudi forces moved south in 1930 to establish the borders of their new kingdom. The Saudis recognized the hill country of what is now northwest Yemen as a good place to put the border. The Sunni majority in Saudi Arabia developed methods that made any Shia uprising, or cooperation with their Zaidi brethren on the other side of the new border, highly unlikely. The Yemen Zaidi lost their autonomy in 1962 as the rest of Yemen finally united as one country. Zaidi resistance to this local domination began small and grew to the point where the goal of full autonomy seemed much closer. What made it even more real were Iranian pledges to support that effort and reunite Yemeni Shia with the Zaidi trapped in Saudi Arabia since the 1930s.

The Iranians convinced many of the Shia Yemenis that getting their autonomy back should be non-negotiable because without that autonomy the Yemeni Shia will be vulnerable to retaliation from all the other Yemeni groups the Shia rebels have harmed during years of civil war. It’s an impossible situation for the Saudis because the Iranians want to use Shia controlled areas in northern Yemen as a perpetual base for attacks on Saudi control of Mecca and Medina. The Iranians have also displayed a preference for violating any treaty they enter into and the Yemeni rebels do likewise.

Before the Iranians got involved, the Saudis avoided problems with the Zaidi Shia living in Saudi Arabia by making sure the Zaidi got a share of the oil wealth that had made all Saudis loyal to the kingdom. Some groups (tribes) were more loyal than others and that included Sunni tribes that were on the losing side during the war the Saud coalition fought to create the kingdom. Most Saudis are Sunni Moslems adhering to the very conservative Wahhabi form of Islam. Technically that meant any Shia were not acceptable. The Saudi family were Wahhabis but practical, which is why it became Saudi Arabia. The Saud royal family persuaded the Sunni to at least tolerate the Shia minority among them and much of the oil wealth went to rewarding those who went along with this policy. Down south this tolerance persuaded the Saudi Zaidi to keep the peace. As long as the Yemeni Zaidi did likewise the Saudis tolerated Zaidi from both countries moving back and forth. The Houthi clan disagreed with that agreement and once the Houthi had Iranian support, they were powerful enough to exploit that tolerance in an effort to make the Zaidi autonomous once more. The Saudi Zaidi did not go along with this although many maintained a form of neutrality.

Exploiting religious differences is an ancient excuse for war in the Middle East and has persisted long after the other major religions (Christians and Hindus) accepted that tolerance brought peace. The Saudis and other Gulf Arab states have openly been promoting an “Arab Reform Movement” for decades as a way to achieve the kind of religious tolerance the Christians and Hindus have achieved. While there are many Sunni clerics who oppose such reform, it is the Iranian religious dictatorship and Sunni Islamic terror groups that are most violent in their opposition to any tolerance and both these groups are active in Yemen.

April 19, 2022: In the south (Aden), the new eight-member Presidential Council was sworn in and pledged to end the war. The ceremony was not announced in advance because Shia rebels have earlier used Iranian cruise missiles against some public events in Aden. Some of the council members had to fly in from the Saudi capital, where they spend most of their time to avoid assassination by the rebels or hostile Islamic terror groups.

April 17, 2022: The United States began using its new anti-smuggling task force known as CTF (Combined Task Force) 153 to patrol the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea. The objective is to detect and intercept Iranian weapons, particularly components for ballistic and cruise missiles as well as guided rockets. Some of these shipments are still getting through because the missile and rocket attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE continue, but at a lower frequency because increased efforts by the three existing CTFs (150, 151 and 152.)

April 16, 2022: Yemen government officials told the UN they wanted to continue with the April 2 truce despite repeated violations by the rebels. At the same time the rebels insisted that the new anti-smuggling task force in the Read Sea was a violation of the truce. UN truce observers agree that the rebel violations occur but so far are minor but could escalate and destroy the truce. Rebel criticism of the new anti-smuggling patrol is seen as a good sign and such efforts were not part of the truce.

April 14, 2022: In the southeast (Hadramawt province) ten al Qaeda prisoners overpowered their guards and escaped from a local prison. Apparently, some guards were bribed or intimidated into cooperating. Al Qaeda will often use threats against family members to obtain cooperation from local police or prison guard.

April 7, 2022: Yemen’s elected president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi resigned from his post as the last and current elected president of united Yemen. Hadi has only briefly visited Yemen a few times since 2015 and spent 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. In addition to being ineffective and generally unpopular in Yemen, evidence of Hadi’s corrupt practices surfaced recently, prompting the Saudis to demand Hadi resign. The alternative was to lose his safe haven in Saudi Arabia.

Hadi first became president when an interim leader was required after the unpopular and corrupt president Saleh was ousted by the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. In 2012 Hadi was selected by the major Yemeni political factions to serve as president for two years and organize national elections. The Houthi-led Shia coalition, objected to this plan and attacked the capital Sanaa and captured Hadi. They forced him to resign. Hadi later escaped to Aden, his hometown, and renounced his abdication because it was obtained by the Shia threats to him and his family. Hadi still had the support of many Sunni factions but the Shia declared war in the name of cleaning up the corruption that had crippled Yemeni governments for decades.

Then there was the centuries old north-south divide that was last “mended” in the 1990s. The possibility of a split returned 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 are willing to fight and defeat the Islamic terrorists and Shia rebels first. Aidarous al Zubaidi, the STC leader is seen as more popular in the south than president Hadi. The Saudis and the UAE do not agree on dividing Yemen once more but for the moment it is more convenient to support the STC and efforts to defeat the Iran backed Shia rebels. With Hadi gone and the Shia on the defensive, most Yemenis can cite eight years of fighting and the Shia selling out to Iran as a good reason to make peace. The Shia rebels are now dependent on Iranian financial and military support to survive. Even many Shia factions has openly expressed anger at the Iranian interference.

April 2, 2022: P eace talks between the Saudis and Iran are having more success dealing with the Yemen situation than negotiations between Iran and the Western nations over lifting sanctions. There is a new truce/ceasefire deal in Yemen, which begins today and lasts two months while negotiations continue to achieve a permanent peace. The truce includes a halt to Arab Coalition air strikes and a limited reopening of the Sanaa airport in the rebels-controlled Yemen capital.

Until now efforts to negotiate a settlement of the issues in Yemen and end the eight-year civil war were stalled because of two “non-negotiable” issues. First, there is the Iranian refusal to give up their presence and support of the Yemen Shia. This is unacceptable to Saudi Arabia and most other Arab states because they can see what happened in Lebanon when the Iranian presence and support of the Hezbollah militia was allowed to persist. The second “non-negotiable” was calls for partitioning Yemen again. This has been the case in the past and most Yemenis came to believe unity was preferable. With Iran refusing to give up their control of the Shia north, partition is even less acceptable. No one has come up with a viable solution yet but the new ceasefire indicates that there may be a mutually acceptable solution.

March 21, 2022: Israel is an unofficial ally of Yemen. For example, commercial satellite photos showed the extent of a February 16 Israeli airstrike, using six large UAVs, on an Iranian UAV storage warehouse in rural west Iran. Israel has still not officially taken credit for the attack, which the Iranians describe as a fire that got out of control. Iran admitted it was an Israeli attack yesterday. The satellite photos show precise and total destruction of the facility. The warehouse stored hundreds of the large UAVs, which are disassembled and smuggled into northern Yemen where Iran-backed Shia rebels use them to attack Saudi Arabia and the UAE.


April 20, 2022: The United States is sending troops belonging to an U.S. based armored brigade to Germany where they will use prepositioned vehicles, weapons and equipment for training exercises. There have long been four of these prepositioned equipment sites in West Europe. Now there is a new prepositioning site, for an armored brigade, in Poland and it is supposed to be ready in 2022. That will mean equipment for two armored and two mechanized brigades will be stored at sites located in Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and Poland for units needed in East Europe. Another site in West Europe (Italy) contains equipment for a unit that might be needed in Africa. The Poland storage site makes it possible to fly troops from the U.S. to Poland and have them combat ready in a few days.

These prepositioned sites were created during the Cold War and the equipment largely unused in Europe since the late 1980s. Since 2016 these sites are active again. That means a revival of the REFORGER exercises. The prepositioning of equipment continued after the Cold War ended but the annual troop movement exercises (REFORGER) to use the pre-positioned equipment stopped. Now it is being resumed with at least one brigade a year being sent to Europe to use the pre-positioned equipment for training exercises aimed at defending East Europe against Russia. Just like the Cold War, except then the Russian armies were already in East Europe and it was Western Europe being defended.

This practice of moving troops and equipment as separate entities was a Cold War innovation. To speed the movement of reinforcements from the United States to Europe, in the event of a Soviet attack, or threat of one, two American divisions had one set of equipment in Europe, and another back in the United States, where the divisions were based. In reality this pre-positioning and troop movement plan also served political demands in the United States that some of the divisions stationed there be brought home. The pre-positioning was a politically (to NATO members) acceptable way to withdraw two divisions from Europe. This was done in 1968, but the equipment stayed behind, and was stored and maintained by contractors (local civilians). Starting in 1969 troops from the two withdrawn divisions began flying to Europe each year, firing up the gear, and going out on field exercises. The troops would then return the gear to the storage areas and fly home. These annual exercises lasted until 1988 when the Russian threat was rapidly receding.

The experience gained in all those REFORGER exercises made the army and marines confident that they could apply the concept of prepositioned equipment elsewhere. This also led to the idea, as applied in Iraq from 2004 to 2011 of having the first units to get there to leave their gear behind, if they were being replaced by the same type units, when the troops returned home. This saved a lot of money in shipping costs, not to mention the additional work the troops had to do preparing everything for sea movement. Same deal in Afghanistan and the REFORGER techniques have become standards.

One thing that did change was that there were no longer regular movements of troops each year to use the prepositioned equipment. But there are still REFORGER exercises where the troops are flown overseas, take control of pre-positioned gear and go out and train for a week or two. It is good training and a way to make sure that the pre-positioned material is being maintained properly. The new pre-positioning site in Poland will get regular use because it was found that moving REFORGER units by road or rail from West Europe to Poland or other new NATO members in East Europe was time consuming and complicated by the need to get advance permission from each country that the units passed through.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close