Yemen: The Torah Is Gone And All Hope Is Lost

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March 26, 2016: Outside Taez, capital of Taez province (inland, near the Red Sea coast) rebels recaptured the only road into the city on the 24 th after two days of fighting. Taez city is 250 kilometers from Saana (the national capital) and has been fought over since late 2014 and has been cut off since March 2015. The government forces broke the siege on March 11 by driving rebel forces away from the main road to the port of Aden. That allowed badly needed supplies to reach the civilians and armed defenders trapped in the city. Now the government forces have to gather another attack force and reopen the Aden road. Taez has been the scene of the heaviest fighting in the last year and nearly a third of casualties in Yemen have occurred in Taez. The rebels have led the city since September 2014 and it is astride a main road from the port of Aden to Saana, the national capital.

Northeast of Taez the rebels are giving up territory, but slowly. Northeast of Ibb there is a similar situation in Marib province. Government forces have regained a lot of lost territory in nearby Baida province. The coalition wanted the rebels to concentrate a large defensive or counterattack force that can then be torn apart by air attacks. So far the rebels are not cooperating and the Saudi led Arab coalition does not want a lot of casualties. So the ground fighting is slow and deliberate, using air support and artillery to attack enemy resistance.

In the south (Shabwa province) government forces continue advancing while in the north (Jawf province) pro-government Sunni tribes continue gaining control of rebel territory. Since the Sunni tribes there gained air support from the Arab coalition and access to training and supplies (weapons, ammo, medical) in early 2015 they have been able to drive Shia tribesmen out of most of Jawf. To the west of Jawf is Saada province, the Shia tribal homeland. North of Jawf is Saudi Arabia. Going into Saada will be a much more difficult fight but the Sunni tribes want revenge for several years of heavy fighting with the Shia. So far this year the Shia resistance has been more determined but the pro-government forces are still taking back control of towns and areas containing key roads.

There are other aspects of this conflict that the UN and the world would rather stay away from. For example the war in Yemen can be described as a four sided religious civil war. On one side you have the Yemeni Shia rebels who are fighting Both AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) who are each fighting to establish their own version of a religious dictatorship in Yemen. Opposed to these three groups are the various separatist Sunni Yemeni tribes. At the moment most of the Sunni tribes are allied alongside the government (some Shia but mainly Sunni Yemenis) aided by a Sunni Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia. This coalition is composed of largely conservative Sunni Moslems who consider Shia, AQAP and ISIL heretics. The Shia rebels are aided by Iran and Shia from the Iran-backed Lebanese Islamic terrorist group Hezbollah. Yemen has long been a mess politically and now religion has been added to create a toxic mess that has no easy solution. All this comes as the Yemeni economy collapses because of overpopulation, rampant corruption and generally ineffective governments.

At the moment AQAP controls more territory than the Shia rebels. Since late 2014 AQAP has controlled the southeastern the port of Mukalla and much of the surrounding Hadramawt province. AQAP is trying to operate like a government there but is hampered by a shortage of money and regular air attacks. In contrast ISIL is scattered in remote locations or urban bases in Aden. This reflects the different strategies of the two groups AQAP believes in slowly expanding while ISIL favors aggressive attacks and boldness. Neither approach has had much success in over a thousand years of use but both remain popular with Islamic radicals.

AQAP territory is largely thinly populated desert which the Islamic terrorists have used for bases since 2009, when AQAP was created. That was an aftereffect of al Qaeda being driven out of Saudi Arabia. That defeat was after a bloody terror campaign against the government triggered by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. In 2009 al Qaeda ordered its remaining members in Saudi Arabia (several thousand full and part timers) to move to Yemen. The newcomers merged with the al Qaeda organization already there to create AQAP. The new organization also benefitted from hundreds of Iraqi al Qaeda members who arrived after the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-8. Many of the al Qaeda men who stayed behind in Iraq went on to later create ISIL.

March 25, 2016: In the south (Aden) ISIL suicide bombers attacked three checkpoints in the port city leaving 24 dead. ISIL said these attacks were revenge for recent air attacks against ISIL.

March 24, 2016: The UN sponsored peace talks have produced another ceasefire agreement. The ceasefire goes into effect on April 10 and that will allow supplies to reach millions of civilians cut off by the fighting. At that point the effort to negotiate an end to the conflict will begin on April 18, if the ceasefire holds. In a major setback for Iran the Shia rebels have been quietly seeking peace terms with Saudi Arabia and have expressed a willingness to distance themselves from Shia Iran as part of a peace deal. Iran understands that Yemen is far more important to the Gulf Arabs than to Iran. Moreover the Yemeni Shia have never been dependent on Iran like those in Lebanon (Hezbollah), Iraq or Syria. Control (or substantial influence) in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon give Iran a land route to their declared main foe; Israel. Yemen is a problem for whoever “owns” it and many Iranians don’t mind losing this one.

All this does not mean peace will break out real soon. Back in in December a similar ceasefire deal, and peace talks, collapsed. That ceasefire was to last from December 15 to January 2 be as soon as it began it was regularly violated by both sides and never really worked at all. Discussions to resume the peace talks in January were not making any progress but several senior rebel leaders and supporters sought to make deals for themselves and their families. This is the way wars end in Yemen and the current negotiations reflect that. The UN is paying more attention to dealing with the growing aid crisis. For over a year food and medical supplies have been at risk of attack by rebels, Islamic terrorists, bandits or Arab coalition warplanes. The peace talks in late 2015 tried to deal with that but the rebels demanded too many concessions, mainly am unconditional ceasefire. Now the rebels have lost more ground and any hope of prevailing. So far a year of fighting has left over 6,000 dead, at least half of them civilians.

March 23, 2016: In the southeastern (outside the port of Mukalla) an American airstrike on an AQAP training camp killed over fifty trainees and wounded many more. The attack came as most trainees were lined up for dinner. The bombs started large fires and several explosions are buildings and ammunition caught fire.

March 21, 2016: The last Yemeni Jews in Yemen were flown out and landed in Israel. This was apparently done with the cooperation of the Shia rebels. Details of that cooperation were not made public. The arrival of these 19 Yemeni Jews in Israel ends an effort that began in 1949 and eventually got over 50,000 Yemeni Jews out and safe from growing anti-Jewish violence there. The Yemeni government protested this illegal action and arrested two men and accused them of helping get a 500 year old Torah scroll that was brought to Israel by one of the departing Jews. Torah scrolls are sacred to Jews and many Jewish religious ceremonies require one. But in this case the Yemeni government considers this Torah, the oldest known to survive in Yemen, as state property and accuses Israel of stealing it. Over the last century growing anti-Jewish violence has led to the destruction of many such elderly Torah scrolls, which is why this one is so valuable.

March 16, 2016: In the northwest (Hajjah province) a Saudi airstrike hit a crowded market place and killed over a hundred civilians. The UN confirmed the losses and demanded that coalition aircraft stop killing civilians this way. The Saudis ignored the UN criticism. The Saudis have spread a lot of cash around the UN bureaucracy over the last few decades and does not fear any serious repercussions. 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 they never forgot.

In the south (Aden) three AQAP suicide bombers died when one of them apparently set off his explosives. The three were apparently planning to make three separate attacks on checkpoints.

March 14, 2016: In the south (outside of Aden) a UAE Mirage 2000 jet fighter-bomber crashed while on a bombing mission. The two pilots died and the cause was equipment failure. This is the third jet the coalition has lost in the last year. A Moroccan F-16 crashed in May 2015 and a Bahraini F-16 crashed in December 2015. All there were lost due to equipment failure although pilot error is believed to be a contributing cause in at least one case. Islamic terrorists claim to have brought down one of these aircraft but there was no proof of that.

March 12, 2016: In the south (outside of Aden) coalition jets bombed an AQAP base killing at least fifteen Islamic terrorists.

March 11, 2016: In the southwest government forces broke the Shia rebel siege of Taez city by gaining control of the road from Aden into the city. This came after 24 hours of heavy fighting that left over a hundred dead.

March 9, 2016: Saudi Arabia revealed that it had recently exchanged prisoners (one Saudi officer for seven Shia tribesmen) with the Shia rebels and also discussed possible peace terms.

 

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