Yemen: Factions Speak Louder Than Words

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December 28, 2017: In the capital (Sanaa) the Shia rebels moved quickly after killing former president (and major ally) Ali Abdullah Saleh on December 4 th the rebels sought to arrest as many Saleh supporters as they could and some 3,000 caught but nearly as many escaped the city or went into hiding. The network of Saleh supporters in rebel territory, despite the pressure from the Shia rebels, managed to get most members of the Saleh clan out of the capital. Many rebels were more loyal to Saleh than to the Shia cause and the Shia tribal leaders from the far north who provide most of the rebel field commanders. By the end of the year rebel defenses in several areas (around the capital and in Baida province) were suddenly less substantial because of desertions and fighters ordered to the capital or other locations that seemed more valuable and vulnerable. The rebels issued press releases (that pro-Iran media amplified) insisting that all was well. But it wasn’t because the front lines were shifting and more rebel (or rebel leaning) factions were seeking to discuss peace with the government and the Arab coalition.

Government forces are advancing in central Yemen (Baida province), where Islamic terrorists were more of a problem for government forces than Shia rebels. That is no longer the case as the Islamic terrorists are largely gone (or staying out of sight) in Baida because since early November most of the American UAV activity was directed at AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) camps in Baida province. These attacks killed over a hundred Islamic terrorists, most of them from ISIL, wounded at least as many and seems to have caused ISIL to seek another remote area to hide in and set up a training camp. These were the first major American air attack against ISIL in Yemen this year. ISIL and AQAP sort of cooperate (mostly by not attacking each other) but maintain separate facilities and now the attacks are concentrating on AQAP, which has always been the dominant Islamic terror group in central and southern Yemen. ISIL attacks are largely in Aden and nearby urban areas. It is easier to hide small groups (cells) of ISIL members in the cities, as long as you move around a lot and keep the cells small. The American targets in Baida were larger camps and bases and vehicles moving Islamic terrorist personnel and supplies around.

AQAP appears to be suffering heavy losses. Not just from the American air and ground attacks but also from desertions. Many AQAP members are moving over to the smaller but more fanatic ISIL. That is one reason why ISIL continues to survive in Yemen. It is also believed that some of the ISIL personnel who fled Iraq and Syria recently have made their way to Yemen. That is not too difficult as many ISIL members come from Arabia (mainly Saudi Arabia and Yemen). That’s another reason why ISIL and AQAP get along in Yemen, because the tribal connections are important and killing fellow tribesmen bring shame (and often retribution) on the family.

In the south (Shabwa province) the government has cleared nearly all the province, especially the oil fields, of rebel forces. The AQAP presence was pervasive until mid-2017 but now AQAP activity in the province is rare. Shabwa province is north of Hadramawt province and Mukalla (a major port and the largest city in the province). The effort to clear AQAP out Hadramawt, Abyan (Aden) and Shabwa has been going on since late 2016 but became more intense in early 2017 when the United States increased its effort to find and kill key AQAP personnel, especially the many who were based in Shabwa. This was mainly done from the air using UAVs for surveillance and attacks using guided missiles and smart bombs. The American have made over 120 airstrikes in Yemen this year, most of them in Shabwa and Baida.

The outbreak of cholera eight months ago has peaked but many are still incapacitated and the conditions that enabled the outbreak are unchanged. About a million people were infected in 22 of 23 provinces and at about 2,300 died. This all began in April when living conditions in Saana declined to the point that there was an outbreak of cholera (that is spread by infected water and food). The disease spread from the capital and intensified. This is all because the rebels have not put a priority on maintaining the quality of the water supply. Iran blames the people fighting the rebels, especially Saudi Arabia. But the main problem is the corruption. Aid groups complain that they have to divert money from buying and importing food to medical supplies in order to deal with the cholera outbreak. Asking donor states (and private foundations or individuals) for more money doesn’t work when the destination is a place like Yemen. Because of the Internet donors can more easily exchange information on the success or failure of their efforts. Yemen most frequently comes up on the losing side because of the rampant corruption and banditry.

December 26, 2017: In the west (Hodeida province) government forces killed a Shia rebel field commander and three of his staff in a clash near the coast.

December 21, 2017: In the northwest (the port city of Hodeida) more ships carrying foreign aid have been allowed to pass the blockade and unload. Since November the port has been closed frequently by the Saudi blockade. The problem is smuggling. Government forces have captured most of the coastal areas the rebels had access to. That makes it more difficult for the rebels to smuggle in military supplies any other way except through Hodeida. For most of 2017 the UN has been pressing the Shia rebels to peacefully give up control of Hodeida but the rebels have refused to consider this. Even proposals that Hodeida be turned over to a neutral third party are turned down. This is not a matter of trust, it’s a matter of survival for the rebels. In part this is because of the smuggling. The rebels have prevented UN personnel from inspecting aid shipments (for weapons and other contraband) and the government claims the rebels have been seizing aid shipments and preventing UN personnel from verifying that the aid is going to civilians. As long as the rebels hold onto Hodeida and Iran still has powerful allies in the UN (mainly Russia and China, who can veto some measures) the smuggling can continue as can the use of food to control civilian populations that are hostile to the rebels. But Iran is losing UN support for what is going on in Yemen. Worse Russia and China are no longer ready to veto anything the Iranians don’t like. For the moment Iran can still depend on UN ineffectiveness but the ill-will there is growing. .

December 20, 2017: In the north (Marib province, east of the capital) two American UAV attacks killed six AQAP members, including the “Minister of Propaganda” Abu Hajar al Makki.

In the south (Ibb province) an air strike killed three Hezbollah military advisors from Lebanon.

December 19, 2017: In the northwest another rebel ballistic missile was shot down by Saudi Patriot anti-missile missiles after it crossed the border headed for the Saudi capital (Riyadh in central Saudi Arabia). It is believed that the Yemeni rebels have, with a lot of help from Iran, launched dozens of ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia since early 2015. The Saudis point to these Iranian ballistic missiles and Iranian UAVs as pretty clear evidence that Iran was still smuggling weapons in. Iran denies everything and when confronted with physical evidence insists that the Yemeni Shia made they stuff locally, obtaining technical help via the Internet.

December 7, 2017: The Iran backed Shia rebels in Yemen are losing more local allies. Over the last week fighting in the rebel controlled capital has caused at least 800 casualties as it became known that former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and many of his supporters were planning to switch sides. The tensions and growing violence became more visible since August when Shia rebels in the Yemeni capital placed Saleh under house arrest. Forces loyal to Saleh had clashed in the capital the day before the arrest and continued sporadically ever since. Tensions between Saleh, a long-time ally of the Shia rebels, had been developing since late 2016. The Shia rebels are losing territory and popularity and Saleh was apparently seeking to make a deal with the Saudi-backed Yemen government. Saleh was always willing to make deals but in early December he decided to seek refuge outside of Iran-controlled territory and was killed on the 4th while trying to flee the capital. In the days before and after Saleh’s death more Saudi airstrikes in the capital appeared to be in direct support of pro-Saleh forces. Saleh was buried on the 9th. While the Shia rebels still control the capital the loss of Saleh will cost them at least a third of their current supporters, especially the non-Shia ones and veterans of the pre-2011 Yemeni military. The fighting in the capital diminished by the middle of December but at the end of the month the capital was still tense.

December 3, 2017: In Yemen the Iranian embassy compound in the capital Sanaa caught fire. The cause appeared to be nearby fighting between pro and anti-Iran factions. Some Iranian diplomatic staff are now trapped in the smoldering embassy.

December 2, 2017: In Yemen a prominent Shia politician (Ali Abdullah Saleh) announced he was seeking a negotiated peace with the elected government that replaced him and the Arab coalition that halted the Shia rebel attempt to take over the entire country. Even before the Saleh announcement there had been more fighting in the rebel held capital as the Iran backed rebel coalition visibly split.

December 1, 2017: The U.S. and Germany revealed that they had detected and disrupted an Iranian currency counterfeiting operation that had already produced several hundred million dollars’ worth of Yemeni currency. This was apparently used to bolster the Iran-backed Shia rebels in Yemen while at the same time weakening the Yemeni government and their Arab allies. The Iranian currency counterfeiting was carried out by the of IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them). Laws were broken in Germany to obtain the special materials needed to make the counterfeit bills.

 

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