The war in Yemen may appeared stalled, but it isn’t. The rebels are losing because they are surrounded and largely cut off from outside support. Aid for civilians gets through but most military supplies are kept out. The Saudis are not willing to take a lot of casualties to win the war quickly, especially when they can afford (financially) to use less newsworthy but more time consuming methods.
The final victory will come with the growing movement of rebel forces back to their ancient bastions in the northwest. To this end the rebels are making financial preparations to abandon the capital (Sanaa) and one of the less visible aspects of this is how they have apparently withdrawn over a billions dollars’ worth of Yemeni currency from the economy and moved the cash north. At the same time a lot of portable assets (computers, electronics of all sorts, some machinery) are being bought or “seized in lieu of revolutionary taxes” and also moved north.
Before the civil war began in 2011 the Yemeni GDP was $37 billion. Now it is about $24 billion and still falling. Since early 2015 the rebels have controlled at least half the population and about the same portion of GDP. Most importantly they took control of the capital and most government ministries in late 2014. That’s what triggered the Saudi led intervention and widespread fighting and the eventual inability of the government to function. That was because exported oil accounted for about 70 percent of government income. By early 2016 the rebels had lost the local oil income and despite scrounging up other sources of income the government budget was cut by more than half and the rebels could no longer pay for essentials, like salaries for the million Yemenis who are government employees. Continuing to pay these civil servants bought more loyalty. Thus the recent decision by the Saudi backed elected Yemeni government to move the Central Bank from Sanaa to Aden and appoint a new pro-Saudi official to run it. This was move was possible because the rebels had lost so many income sources that foreign banks and most of the Yemeni economy saw it in their best interest to support the move. That explains the declining popular support for the rebels, who justified their actions as part of an effort to deal with the corruption and government mismanagement that had already ruined the economy by 2011.
With help from Iran, the Yemeni Shia rebels are preparing to continue fighting even after they have been forced out of the capital and back to their home provinces up north. The Shia rebels are confident because they have been maintaining their power and cohesion in this region for over a thousand years. While most Yemenis and their neighbors learned to live with this in the past the situation is different this time because of the oil wealth. That is something that does not get nearly enough attention by outsiders.
For thousands of years Arabia was largely poor and thinly populated. Most of the population and wealth (what we now call GDP) were in the south, where there was regular rainfall in what is now Yemen. During all that time Iran was the regional superpower. The West European renaissance and industrial revolution changed all that. By the 19th century Iran was no longer the regional superpower and by the mid-20th century the ancient economic balance of power was radically changed because the West (and soon the rest of the world) figured out how to find, use and become dependent on oil and natural gas. It soon became clear that the largest concentrations of oil and gas were in Arabia. Most of that oil wealth was owned by Arabian nomads whose only notable export until then was a new religion (Islam) that had become an obstacle to any kind of economic, social, or technical progress. All that sudden oil wealth changed the traditional balance of power. Yemen became the poor cousin, a fate that Yemenis were never happy with. Iran got some of the oil wealth, but not enough for it to regain its ancient superpower status. To further complicate matters Iran had become largely Shia as part of a 16th century effort to revive Iranian power in the face of Turkish expansion. The Turks were relatively new in the region and had adopted Sunni Islam. Iranian rulers deliberately forced their subjects to convert and that process took over a century to complete. That produced an ethnic/religious divide in the region which is now triggering and sustaining several wars, including the one in Yemen and a larger potential one between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The Iran backed Shia tribes of northern Yemen live next to the southwestern border of Saudi Arabia and have turned portions of that border into a war zone since 2014. The rebels do this by continuing to fire mortar shells and rockets at Saudi towns and villages. The Saudis retaliate with artillery or air strikes and this has become part of an endless cycle of retaliatory attacks. There have not been many Saudi civilian casualties but the Saudis want to minimize the risk of there being more of them. Meanwhile the Saudis have found that shooting back promptly and profusely has not stopped the attacks but does prevent the rebels from moving across the border.
Saudi Arabia keeps details of the war on the Yemen border out of the news. Apparently not all military casualties, from persistent Shia rebel attacks across the border are being reported in the media. The take advantage of this the Yemeni rebels try to get people across the border to obtain cell phone photos proving this but so far they have not been very successful. The Saudis publicize civilian casualties, which are more difficult to conceal in an age of cell phones and the Internet. Combat losses among Saudi security forces are easier to hide.
Most of this border violence takes place is in the three Saudi border provinces of Jizan, Asir and Najran. Najran covers most of the threatened border and most of the half million people in Najran are Shia, but loyal to the Saudi king. The provincial capital (also called Najran) has a population of 240,000 and is close enough to the Yemen border to be the target of frequent Yemeni rebel artillery and rocket attacks. The Yemeni Shia do not want to hit Saudi civilians along the border if only because most of these civilians are Shia. So the attacks concentrate on military and economic targets, especially those involved with oil. The Saudis have an easier time concealing military and police losses as well as damage to oil facilities. Security forces and oil facilities have always been well protected, by secrecy as well as more conventional means (well trained and loyal guards and workers).
The Saudis have tried getting civilians to move away from the border so a buffer zone can be created in Jizan province. The government is paying the people evacuated high prices for their property and helping them find homes elsewhere in the area. Some of these civilians refuse to move, more out of loyalty to their ancestral lands than in an effort to get more cash from the government.
September 18, 2015: In the south two death squads, apparently from ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), shot dead two soldiers in Aden and another soldier in Lahj province (north of Aden). ISIL is much diminished in Yemen and worldwide and now unable to launch large attacks that attract maximum media attention (not to mention more donations and recruits). The larger (in Yemen) AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) isn’t doing much better.
September 17, 2015: In central Yemen (Marib province) pro-government tribal militiamen manning a checkpoint discovered several trucks carrying weapons and explosives for rebel forces in Sanaa. The trucks were from neighboring Oman (which is neutral in the civil war). Normally everyone allows non-military supplies to cross into Yemen for civilians in rebel and government territory. But smuggling has long been a major economic activity in Yemen and there are plenty of skilled practitioners willing and able to take risks to move anything anywhere. Yemen has also long been the source of most illegal weapons in the region. Yemeni smugglers regularly get forbidden arms into just about anywhere, if the fee is high enough. Currently Iran is paying whatever it takes to get weapons and ammo to the Shia rebels. Some of the stuff is captured but a lot obviously gets through.
September 16, 2016: The UN released a new casualty report for Yemen. This one increases the estimate of deaths so far (from March 2015 to August 2016) by more than half (from 6,500 to 10,000). The new report is based on media reports, mainly from areas controlled by the Shia rebels. This demonstrates how Iran has been very useful to the rebels, especially when it comes to propaganda. Iran and its allies Russia and China are all using their state controlled media to make the Yemen rebels look more successful than they actually are. The Iranians also strive to make the Arab coalition air attacks seem like less of a military effort and more a deliberate effort to attack more civilians than is actually the case. Iran knows that any false data they get into the news now may be discredited later on, but by then it will no longer matter and will not be considered news. This happens a lot historically and has been particularly common since the 1960s as everyone learned how easy it was to spin the media. Thus while the Saudis urge the UN to sanction Iran for supporting the Yemeni rebels, Iran is having more success accusing the Saudis of causing needless civilian casualties in Yemen.
Iran managed to do this because it has a formidable Information War (propaganda and media manipulation) capability the Saudis lack. Using this advantage Iran has successfully made a major international issue of Arab coalition air strikes and the resulting civilian casualties. At the same time Iranian publicists and diplomats have successfully played down the Yemeni rebel practices of deliberately using civilians as human shields. Since the Arab coalition entered the Yemen civil war in early 2015 both sides have accused the other of deliberately attacking civilians. The government forces (and their Arab allies) accuse the rebels of storing weapons and housing troops in buildings also used by civilians. The Arab warplanes are using smart bombs and missiles to minimize civilian casualties (compared to previous wars) but will still attack rebel forces who are using civilians as human shields. The Arabs are not as concerned about killing human shields as Western nations and believe that this encourages civilians to avoid being used as human shields. Perhaps, but a lot of civilians are getting hurt. Saudi Arabia has its lobbyists and diplomats in the West and at the UN working overtime to deal with accusations, especially those sponsored by Iran, that the Saudi led Arab coalition air attacks in Yemen has caused over 60 percent of the civilian deaths. The Iranians have also been promoting accusations (mostly false) that Arab forces and their tribal allies are interfering with foreign aid efforts for desperately hungry or sick Yemeni civilians. Iran has been less successful defending the Shia rebels from all sorts of misbehavior accusations. When there is a war between Shia and Sunni things tend to get ugly. It is no secret that Arabs tend to be brutal when fighting each other and regularly treat civilians badly. The Saudis and other Arab states prefer to keep this out of Western media while continuing to operate as they always have. Western governments, although not most Western media, usually cooperate as best they can about Yemen and looking the other way. But a lot of unsavory local practices are getting unwelcome international publicity.
September 15, 2016: In the southwest (Taez province, inland, near the Red Sea coast) heavy fighting flared up again outside Taez City leaving 27 rebels and 13 pro-government tribesmen dead. The Shia resistance continued in Taiz because the province has a lengthy Red Sea coastline which enabled smugglers to bring in weapons and other aid for the Shia rebels even though the rebels gradually lost control of most of the Taiz coast. This made smuggling operations along the Red Sea coast more difficult but obviously not impossible. The rebels still have access to a lot of the Yemeni Red Sea coast and apparently some of the smuggling efforts are succeeding.
September 13, 2016: In central Yemen (Baida province) an American UAV used missiles against a vehicle carrying five AQAP members, killing all of them. Pro-government tribesmen confirmed the date, target and casualties. AQAP has been operating in the area for over a year and their attacks usually involve suicide or roadside bombs that kill more local civilians than soldiers or tribal militia.
September 12, 2016: Qatar reported that three of its soldiers were killed today while serving with the Arab Coalition forces in Yemen.
September 11, 2016: In the south (Abyan province) an AQAP suicide car bomber attacked an army checkpoint, killing ten soldiers and wounding 14.
In the northwest Shia rebels fired another ballistic missile, apparently at King Khalid Air Base in Asir province. Like several ballistic missiles fired at this air base since 2015, this one was intercepted by a Saudi Patriot missile. Elsewhere on the Yemeni side of the border a Saudi airstrike on a meeting of local Shia rebel leaders killed two senior leaders and four lower ranking ones. The meeting was in a cave, so a smart bomb or missile was probably used.
September 4, 2016: The U.S. reported that since August 24th three American airstrikes had killed 13 AQAP Islamic terrorists and wounded another. Most of these attacks are made by UAVs using missiles and all were in Shabwah province (south central Yemen).
September 3, 2016: In the south (Lahj province, just north of the port of Aden) soldiers thought they had disabled an AQAP land mine and had loaded the mine into the back of a truck so it could be taken to a remote area and destroyed (usually with explosives, along with a lot of other useless munitions). In the case the mine was not completely disarmed and when the truck stopped later (at a market) the mine went off. Three soldiers were killed and seven nearby civilians wounded.
September 2, 2016: The Shia rebels announced that they had launched a longer range (800 kilometers) SCUD ballistic missile at a target deep in Saudi Arabia. There were no reports from Saudi Arabia about a large missile hitting anything. This announcement was apparently more propaganda for the foreign media.
August 31, 2016: In the northwest Shia rebels fired another Iranian Zelzal-3 unguided rocket, apparently at Najran, the capital of Narjan province and a frequent target of missile and rocket attacks. It is unclear how the rebels got these Zelzal-3 rockets but they are easy to identify from examining fragments of the missile after it hits the ground. These rockets were apparently on one of the few Iranian smuggling ships that got through the blockade. Zelzal-3 is a 3.9 ton missile based on the Russian Cold War era FROG (Free Rocket Over Ground) rocket. Zelzal-3 has a max range of 250 kilometers and Iran claims it can land within 300 meters of what it is aimed at. Some have been aimed at government forces inside Yemen. Because of the lack of accuracy these rockets cause few casualties. They are basically designed to be fired at large urban areas. These rockets can also be intercepted by American Patriot anti-missile missiles the Saudis use to guard their border and key bases inside Yemen. The Saudis are pressuring the UN to censor Iran for sending in these rockets.
August 29, 2016: In the south (outside Aden) an ISIL suicide car bomber attacked a new army training camp and killed over fifty new recruits and wounded many more. The local men had volunteered and were assembled in preparation for their flight to Saudi Arabia for training.