The Shia rebels now control the capital (Sanaa) and the second largest city Taiz and are assembling forces to go after the largest city; Aden. Meanwhile the Shia rebels control most of western Yemen, at least the major cities. The countryside is still controlled by Sunni tribes who could, if they ever got organized and united, retake the cities and their largely Sunni populations. Eastern Yemen, which is generally thinly populated desert, is held by Sunni tribes and AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) Islamic terrorists. If the Shia rebels take Aden they will have the ability to block the entry to the Red Sea (Mandab Strait), through which passes over three million barrels of oil a day and lots of trade for Saudis Arabia and other nations that border the Red Sea. Shia rebels have already entered a smaller port near these straits but so far the threat is theoretical.
The Saudis are moving more troops to the Yemen border but there is no indication this will soon lead to a Saudi invasion (or “intervention” as the other Gulf Arabs will call it). The Saudis also have to deal with the ISIL threat in Syria and Iraq (and, to a lesser extent, inside Saudi Arabia itself). Any Iranian move against the Gulf Arab oil states will have to deal with American forces first as the Western nations have an oil supply to protect. For threats from inside Arabia the Westerners defer to the locals, especially the Saudis.
There is no easy way out of this mess for anyone. The customary way these things are settled in Arabia is by making deals. That is not easy in Yemen where the Yemeni Shia rebels feel an affinity for Iran, considered the “leader” of the Shia world and expect help from that direction. So far Iran is coming through and that means Iranian troops and operatives (from the Quds Force, which creates and supports pro-Iran terrorists) on the long and porous Yemeni border.
Most Yemeni Shia don’t want the religious fanaticism of Iran but are willing to accept aid from Iran and work to make Sunni majority Yemen a “friend“ of Iran (much like the Shia minority has done in Lebanon and Syria). The Yemeni Shia have already shown they will tolerate the presence of Iranian commandos (who freed a long-held Iranian diplomat) and the Saudis are certain that Quds has also arrived. More of the Yemeni Shia are showing up in new combat uniforms, some of which may have been made in Iran. While the Iranians would like the Yemeni Shia to impose a religious dictatorship it is certain they won’t insist on that. In Lebanon the Iranian supported Hezbollah never pushed for a religious dictatorship which, as in Yemen, the locals want no part of. Hezbollah has done Iran’s bidding since the group was created with Iranian aid in the 1980s and that is that. In Yemen it is a little different as the Shia rebels are not only fighting for Shia autonomy but also for some real efforts to curb the corruption that has long crippled the government and economy. This anti-corruption angle is popular with Sunni as well as Shia Yemenis and is one reason the Sunni majority cannot muster sufficient forces to halt the Shia rebel advance.
Another factor aiding the Shia is former president Saleh. Despite being a Shia himself Saleh managed to assemble a coalition of largely Sunni groups that kept him in power for decades. That coalition fell apart in 2011 and Saleh was deposed in 2012. Saleh did not go into exile but stayed in Yemen and quietly cultivated members of his former ruling coalition that were still loyal to him. While Saleh and the Shia rebels kept quiet about this alliance, it is obvious that Saleh has delivered as many of the military officers who benefitted from Saleh patronage (and that’s a lot of officers) have kept their units either neutral in this civil war or willing to fight alongside the rebels. Now this is all the result of the corruption the Shia rebels are so hostile to. But this is Arabia and you make deals. Yemenis understand what is going on here as many corrupt military and police officers are earning amnesty by siding with the rebels and backing a revolution that offers the best hope of making a dent in the corruption that is literally killing the country. That is no guarantee that this anti-corruption campaign will work, but the Shia rebels have been consistent in supporting it and that makes it difficult for a lot of Sunnis to enthusiastically back armed opposition to the rebels.
The Saudis and the other Gulf Arab states are mainly concerned with Iranian aggression. Iran has made it very clear that they believe they should control the Moslem holy places in Saudi Arabia and be the dominant military and political power in the region. That means having a veto over Arab diplomatic moves and generally returning to their ancient role of regional superpower. The Gulf Arabs are very hostile to this sort of thing but reluctant to go to war over it.
The Shia rebels blame the Sunni Gulf Arabs of supporting al Qaeda in Yemen. This Islamic terrorist group has always been very hostile towards Shia and the growth of al Qaeda in Yemen was a primary reason for the Yemeni Shia rebelling in the first place. There is some truth to the Yemeni Shia accusations as many Sunni Gulf Arabs do support al Qaeda and have long provided cash donations and recruits. This terrorist support is not government policy with these Gulf States although some Gulf Arab states, like Qatar, have actively supported Islamic terrorist rebels in Libya and Syria. There is a lot of popular support for Islamic terrorism among Sunni and Shia as it is common to believe that the non-Moslem world is actively at war with the Islamic world and Islamic terrorists are the only effective weapon to strike back with. This sounds absurd to non-Moslems, especially Westerners and Arab diplomats insist that there is no such terrorist support. But anyone perusing Arab language media immediately sees this support and some of it even shows up in English language versions of Arab media. That despite the fact that the Arab editors of the English language news outlets know that the Arab support for Islamic terrorism is not acceptable to Western audiences and try to remove it from the English language sites. The Iranians understand all this, as do other non-Moslems (like Indians) who have lived next to Moslems for a long time. So when the Yemeni Shia complain of Gulf Arab Sunni support for al Qaeda in Yemen it has a different meaning to other Moslems (who take it as fact) and Westerners (who dismiss it as a paranoid delusion).
So far this week Shia and pro-Hadi (the last elected president) forces have been fighting about a hundred kilometers north of Aden. There are also clashes west of Sanaa as pro-Hadi Sunni tribesmen move towards the capital. Or is it Shia rebels moving east towards the oil fields the Sunni tribes now control. It’s hard to tell because the situation in Yemen is chaotic and getting worse. There have been hundreds of casualties in the last few days and most of the “battles” have been firefights that tend to go on for hours without much result. There are also a lot of ambushes, assassinations and terror attacks. These are over quickly and the bombings tend to create more casualties than the battles. Although the Shia rebels have access to lot of armored vehicles (captured or contributed by pro-rebel army units) this has not proven decisive. The pro-Hadi forces also have access to tanks and anti-tank weapons and this has been enough, in most cases, to neutralize the rebel armor advantage. Most of the forces involved have been guys with assault rifles, machine-guns and RPGs riding around in SUVs and pickup trucks. There are also regular demonstrations in Sunni majority cities the rebels occupy and these crowds are often dispersed with gunfire (resulting in dead or wounded demonstrators).
March 24, 2015: North of Aden Shia rebels and pro-Hadi forces fought is several places with neither side able to advance. The Shia rebels are trying to clear the 260 kilometer long road from Sanaa to Aden but are encountering a lot of armed Sunni tribesmen and pro-Hadi soldiers who will not cooperate.
March 23, 2015: In the south pro-government forces fought and halted Shia rebels a trying to advance from Taiz to Aden. The Shia convoy was about a hundred kilometers north of Aden.
March 22, 2015: Shia rebels have taken control of Taiz, the southern city with a population 460,000 and the second largest in Yemen.
In Aden anti-aircraft guns around the compound where president Hadi was headquartered fired at an aircraft that approached and the aircraft turned away. This is the third time this has happened since the 19th. In some of those incidents bombs were dropped on the compound. It was probably a Yemeni Air Force aircraft flown by a pro-Shia pilot. Hadi has declared Aden the provisional capital and moved from the presidential compound to an undisclosed location after aircraft first appeared over that compound on the 19th.
March 21, 2015: President Hadi has asked the GCC to intervene militarily in Yemen and for the UN to declare a no-fly zone. The UN cannot agree on what to do, especially as Russia and China, who are Iranian allies, can stall any UN moves.
In the south (Lahij province) the last hundred American troops stationed at the major airbase there. This base (al Anad) has long had American personnel stationed there to help with American UAV and intelligence operations in Yemen as well for training Yemeni specialists. With the departure of these American troops and the closing of the U.S. embassy the United States has no way of keeping track of the half a billion dollars’ worth of military aid (including a lot of weapons and equipment) it has given to Yemen. The UAV operations can continue from other airbases in the region but intelligence collection will not be as effective as it used to be.
March 20, 2015: In Sanaa ISIL suicide bombers attacked two Shia mosques during prayers, killing 137 and wounding over 300 others. The worshippers blamed the United States and Israel, who are believed by many Moslems to have created ISIL to harm Islam.
In the south (Lahj province, just north of the port of Aden) AQAP gunmen tried to take over the provincial capital. The raiders killed twenty soldiers before army reinforcements arrived and drove the Islamic terrorists out of the city after several hours of fighting.
In the north Sunni tribesmen fought with Shia rebels in another inconclusive clash.
March 19, 2015: An Iranian freighter docked at Yemen’s second largest port (al Saleef) and unloaded 185 tons of weapons and military equipment. The Saudis could blockade this port and monitor Red Sea shipping to make it very difficult for Iran to keep delivering supplies to the Shia rebels. But that would risk an undeclared naval war with Iran and the Saudis try to avoid that sort of thing, Until recently Iran officially had nothing to do with what is going on in Yemen but now they have signed aid and support agreements with the Shia rebels. Arabs know that the “victory” in Yemen is being celebrated in the streets of Iran (at least in conversation) and increasingly in Iranian media as well. This is humiliating for the Gulf Arabs and Sunnis in general. Iran has not directly intervened but is definitely enjoying the situation. The best Sunni hope for military intervention is the Saudis, but that’s not the Saudi style. The Saudis don’t want to see their armed forces tied down in Yemen, not when Iran remains a major, and growing, threat.
March 18, 2015: In the capital a prominent pro-Shia journalist was shot dead by assassins. Three similar killings of pro-Shia journalists have taken place since 2013.
March 16, 2015: The Shia rebels replaced the head of the air force with an officer who is more sympathetic to the Shia cause. The dismissed general had refused to provide air support for Shia rebels.
In Sanaa the Shia rebels released the remaining members of president Hadi’s cabinet from house arrest. The cabinet members had been held like this for two months.
Pakistan revealed that earlier this month Saudi Arabia had asked Pakistan to join a Sunni Arab coalition against Iranian aggression and send a brigade of troops to help deal with the Shia rebellion in Yemen. Pakistan declined, for now, apparently not willing to antagonize their neighbor. Pakistan got a similar request in 1979 when Shia clergy led a revolution against the Iranian monarchy and talked of attacking the Sunni Arab states. For most of the 1980s Pakistan had an armor brigade stationed in Saudi Araba and also served as a threat to eastern Iran, which borders Pakistan. Since then Pakistan and the Shia religious dictatorship in Iran have learned to get along. About 20 percent of Pakistanis are Shia and Pakistan has its hands full trying to halt Sunni Islamic terrorists from attacking those Shia. Those attacks anger Iran and Pakistan does not want to make that worse.
March 14, 2015: Iran has made a deal with the Shia rebels to modernize and upgrade the Red Sea port of Hodeidah. This will include a new power plant, improved port facilities and much else. Iran has also agreed to supply Yemen with oil for a year. Currently Yemeni oil fields are controlled by Sunni tribes and are cut off from the port city where that oil is either exported or refined for local use.
The National Salvation Bloc was announced it was now operational. This is an anti-Shia coalition of tribal and secular political parties as well as members of the southern secessionist movement.
March 12, 2015: In Sanaa Shia rebels fired on a crowd demonstrating in favor of president Hadi. Two demonstrators were killed.
March 11, 2015: In the north several thousand Shia rebels assembled near the Saudi border for military exercises.
March 10, 2015: The Shia rebels turned down a Saudi Arabian offer to host peace talks between the Shia and Sunni factions of Yemen. President Hadi had called for these talks. The Shia rebels also accused Sunni nations in Arabia of supporting al Qaeda and Western plans to take control of Yemen. Both are common and widely accepted ideas in the Middle East.
The World Bank has shut down its operations in Yemen, cutting the country off from an important source of loans and aid.
March 9, 2015: In the south (Abyan province) AQAP attacked the army base at Mahfad. Pro-government tribal militia came to the aid of the soldiers and the Islamic terrorists retreated. There were over a dozen casualties.
March 8, 2015: China has declined to get involved in Yemen.
The Shia rebels are trying to obtain aid, investment and diplomatic support from Russia and China, two countries that have long supported Iran, the primary supporter of the Yemeni rebels. China does a lot of business with Iran because of the oil and some export business to Iran. But Yemen has nothing of interest to China.
In the south (Baida province) Shia rebels and AQAP gunmen fought leaving at least a dozen dead.