The main problem with Yemen is that while most countries outside Yemen want a peace deal the many armed factions fighting in Yemen do not. Further complicating the situation is Iran using the largest faction (the Shia rebels of the north) to enable Iran to launch long range ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia without having to take responsibility. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has to take responsibility for the air campaign over Yemen and the naval blockade to keep out Iranian weapons and other support. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have no problem with trying to use human shields to protect their armed forces from air attack but while the Saudi anti-missile defenses (Patriot systems) succeed in prevent any of those ballistic missiles from hitting (so far) a city or military base the civilian losses from the Arab Coalition air campaign are quite visible and for Western mass media an irresistible “war crime” story.
Meanwhile inside Yemen itself there are several wars going on simultaneously and that sort of thing is difficult to make headlines out of so it does not become news outside Yemen and especially outside the Middle East. A brief description of these internal conflicts explains much about the current violence in Yemen;
The North-South Divide.
This one is centuries old and was last “mended” in the 1990s. The possibility of a split has returned because the UAE (United Arab Emirates) has been in charge of security (and aid delivery) in the south since 2015 and supported the formation of the STC (South Transitional Council) as a means of maintaining peace and order down there. This group is composed of southern tribes that want autonomy but are willing to fight and defeat the Islamic terrorists as well as the Shia rebels first. Aidarous al Zubaidi, the STC leader is seen as more popular in the south than Abdrabu Mansur Hadi the last and current elected president of united Yemen. Hadi has only briefly visited Yemen a few times since 2015 and spends 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). 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. After that, who knows?
The Shia Tribal Autonomy War.
This has been going on forever as well and is all about the traditional autonomy some of the northern Shia tribes long enjoyed but was taken away several times in the last century but the tribes always manage to regain it. The tribes are persistent because they see themselves on a Mission From God. Plus now they have considerable support from Iran, which is at war with Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arabs in general.
The Saleh Loyalists.
Ali Abdullah Saleh lost power in 2012 and wanted it back. He demonstrated that he could not be ignored. Saleh ruled Yemen for decades before the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings unified his many opponents in Yemen. But in late 2017 Saleh sought to switch sides because he was more of a Yemeni nationalist than Shia zealot and was negotiating a deal to switch sides. The Shia rebels found out about that and killed Saleh three months ago (early December) and are still dealing with that because the many pro-Saleh factions are armed and even if they pledge loyalty to the rebels can never be trusted. This loss has weakened the Shia rebels sufficiently to allow the government and Arab coalition ground forces to advance (without taking heavy losses) and gain a lot of ground. So even though Saleh is dead he is still a factor in the wars. So far Iran has persuaded the Shia tribes to keep on fighting because Iran believes Saudi Arabia is more likely to walk away than Iran.
Yemen has always been full of Islamic conservatives and radicals and many of those who founded al Qaeda came from Yemen or Yemeni families that had moved to oil-rich neighbors in the last fifty years and prospered economically but not mellowed theologically. From al Qaeda came AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and in 2013 ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). ISIL and AQAP are technically enemies but have established a truce in Yemen while both concentrate on terror attacks. The massive losses ISIL has suffered worldwide in the last year has caused many surviving members to return to “more moderate” groups like AQAP. Despite that ISIL has maintained a presence in Yemen and can still carry out one or more attacks a month.
The Sunni-Shia War.
This one is mainly between Iran (the largest Shia nation) and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab oil states in the Persian Gulf led by Saudi Arabia). Iran wants to replace Saudi Arabia as the guardian of the most holy Islamic sites in Mecca and Medina (western Saudi Arabia near the Red Sea). The GCC and Iran are using Yemen as a battlefield and no one likes this. But for Iran it is a cheap way to annoy and demean the Saudis.
The one common thread in most of these conflicts is the extreme corruption and tribalism that cripples the Yemeni economy and efforts to run a fair and efficient government. These vices have long existed in Yemen which until the 20th century was not a unified country but an ever changing collections of coalitions. Nationalism is not particularly popular in what is called Yemen, but factionalism is.
Making peace with the Shia rebels was long complicated by the fact that a major rebel faction was led by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who considered the elected president (Abdrabu Mansur Hadi) who followed him to be illegitimate. It’s unclear exactly what Saleh wanted other than getting some of his political power back, plus a little revenge. Many (nearly half) of these security forces were very loyal to former president Saleh even after he was deposed in 2012. Saleh used that loyalty to quietly persuade the Shia tribes up north to try and take over the country rather than just demand their autonomy back. Saleh himself was a Shia but always got along well with Sunni politicians and tribal leaders. Because of this many military units sided with the Shia rebels or disbanded when the Shia tribes moved south in 2014. Some remained loyal to the government but they make up only about ten percent of the government forces at the time when the split came. In late 2015 Saleh came out of the shadows and admitted he was with the Shia rebels. This was no surprise to most Yemenis as it was Saleh’s ability to assemble and manage 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, after he had negotiated amnesty for himself. Saleh was killed at the end of 2017 when he sought to switch sides but despite that his loyalists are still a factor in Yemeni politics and the Hadi government is welcoming those factions while the Shia rebels are trying to convince (or intimidate) as many as possible to keep fighting.
The Shia and Saleh insisted that the 2012 elections to select a successor to Saleh were unfair. International observers declared the elections fair (at least by Yemeni standards). Saleh was believed to want more amnesty guarantees so he could leave the country without fear of someone prosecuting him. Meanwhile the Sunni majority in Yemen opposes autonomy or weapons for the Shia up north because those two things have made the Shia tribes a constant source of trouble for centuries. The Sunnis want the man they elected (Hadi) recognized as the ruler of all of Yemen. Meanwhile many Sunni tribes in the south want more autonomy, which some interpret as secession and the creation of two Yemens (as there used to be before the unification wars of the 1990s). Iran admitted its support for the Shia rebels about the same time Saleh did. But Iran has been unable to provide much tangible support because the coalition air and naval blockade has been effective. Most, if not all, recent Iranian smuggling attempts via ship were detected and blocked. That did not last because this part of world contains some of the most expert smugglers on the planet. If you know the right people and are willing to pay high fees you can get anything to just about anywhere. Yemen has always been “smuggler friendly” and with Iranian help (cash and diplomacy) that kept the war going because Qatar and Oman had always been active in using Yemeni smuggling networks. But the main conduit for smuggled goods was via aid shipments. For most of 2017 the UN has been pressing the Shia rebels to peacefully give up control of the Red Sea port 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
The War in 2018
The Iran supported rebels are losing ground and popular support. This means more rebels are being captured and many of those captives speak freely of being trained and indoctrinated by Lebanese Hezbollah Shia who admit they are working for Iran. There are apparently also a few Iranian advisors as well, who have been a big help in reorganizing rebel forces since the Saleh factions became a lot less reliable by the end of 2017. Prisoners also speak of their Iranian weapons and Iranian support in general. Most UN members agree with this evidence but Iran regularly depends on a Russian veto to block UN resolutions condemning Iranian meddling in Yemen. What further angers the UN is the fact that the Shia rebels have, more than once, expressed interest in a peace deal but then were apparently convinced by Iran to stop short of agreeing to any peace deal and demand more concessions. Iran denies all this but most of the UN officials in Yemen have seen ample evidence of Iranian influence and that has led to more public criticism of Iranian interference of UN peace efforts.
The Shia rebels are having a hard time maintaining an effective defense against relentless government and Arab coalition advances on the ground. The Shia rebels have lost of their local support because the rebellion appears to have failed and most Yemenis don’t approve of the Iranian interference. Back in Iran it is no secret that the Iranian government sees the Yemen operation as a relatives inexpensive way to torment and embarrass their Arab enemies. Not inexpensive according to most Iranians but so far the Iranian hardliners remain in charge.
Another problem for Iran in Yemen is a change of Saudi military leadership. In late February the young crown prince of Saudi Arabia (Mohammad bin Salman or MBS) replaced several senior military commanders, including the head of the land forces and the Strategic Missile Force (Chinese long range missiles aimed at Iran). This was apparently an effort to generate some better performance and new ideas in the Yemen operations. MBS has been working on major reforms in the military but he had to work through some higher priority items first. His Defense Ministry reforms involve over thirty major moves, including changes in senior military leadership and new personnel policies. This includes allows Saudi women to participate in the military. Pakistan and other Arab countries have long done this and even found success in several areas, including using women as military pilots, including fighter pilots. Most Saudis are aware that back when Islam was founded Arab women (including the Prophet Mohammed’s wife) sometimes rode with their husbands into battle and were consulted on military decisions. Saudi women are well aware of this and have been demanding some action.
The United States, France, Germany and Britain have openly accused Iran of violating the 2015 treaty (that lifted economic sanctions) with continued Iranian covert support of Shia rebels in Yemen. Iran responds to this criticism of Iranian actions in Yemen (as well as Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon) by insisting that it had an obligation to aid these nations in their fight against American and Israeli threats. This justification is unpopular with most Iranians who want their government to pay more attention to real problems inside Iran rather than imaginary ones overseas. Leaders of Iran backed groups in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hamas in Gaza and Shia rebels in Yemen openly boast of their financial and other support from Iran and continue to receive it.
Because of the continuing civil war Yemen is one of the most miserable nations on the planet, but not the most miserable. The UN sponsored World Happiness Index shows Yemen is in the bottom five with only Tanzania, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Burundi being more miserable. The top ten are all the usual suspects (Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia). Ironically Yemen is the most miserable nation in the Middle East while Israel is the least miserable (being 11th on the world list). The rest of the rankings are similar to the corruption survey. Thus the U.S. is at 18th place on the Happiness List, the UAE at 2o, Saudi Arabia at 33, Kuwait at 45, Russia at 59, Japan at 54, South Korea at 57, Libya at 70, Turkey at 74, Jordan at 90, China at 86, Pakistan at 75, Venezuela at 102, Lebanon at 88, Somalia at 98, Palestinian Territories at 104, Egypt at 122, Iran at 106, Iraq at 117, Bangladesh at 115, Burma at 130, India at 133, Afghanistan at 145, Yemen at 152, Syria at 150 and at 156 (last place) Burundi. Communist dictatorships like North Korea and Cuba block access to data needed for the survey and were not rated but it is rumored they are not happy places.
March 18, 2018: Two months after it was first announced Saudi Arabia transferred $2 billion to the Yemen Central Bank to support the exchange rate of the Yemeni currency and keep food (and other) prices down in Yemen. This worked and the value of the Yemeni currency (the rial) immediately rose ten percent (against the dollar) and that rise continues. The Shia rebels looted the Central Bank of at least four billion dollars and that contributed to a rapid decline in the purchasing power of the rial.
March 17, 2018: The Yemeni government appointed a brother of recently killed rebel supporter and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh as head of the army reserve. This is a largely ceremonial position but it is a sign to the Saleh loyalists still operating in rebel territory that their loyalty to the elected government will be rewarded.
In central Yemen (Marib province) soldiers at a checkpoint searched a truck carrying commercial cargo and found that it had assault rifles hidden underneath. The driver admitted that the weapons were for the Shia rebels. The local smugglers have a reputation for getting just about anything through if the customer can pay what it costs but the driver did not know who was financing this shipment. Further south (Bayda province) six soldiers were killed in a clash with Shia rebels.
March 16, 2018: In the north UAV aerial surveillance by the Arab coalition paid off when three Shia rebel vehicles were spotted carrying weapons (landmines and rockets) for a cross border attack. An airstrike destroyed the vehicle. Despite losses like that the Shia rebels continue getting fighters and weapons to the border where they cause casualties among civilians and border guards.
March 15, 2018: The American UAV attacks continue in Yemen and many of the attacks are not announced. So far in 2018 there have been 22 attacks. As in 2017 (when there were 131 attacks) the ones in 2018 have been mainly against AQAP and ISIL camps and key personnel in central Yemen (especially Baida province). This greatly reduces Islamic terrorist capabilities in Baida, which had long been an Islamic terrorist stronghold.
March 14, 2018: Saudi and Shia rebel officials admitted that they had been holding secret peace negotiations since January. This angered the Yemeni government, whose senior officials spend most of their time in Saudi Arabia. But the Saudis also revealed that despite 70 meetings in Oman the rebels would not agree to restore the unity of Yemen. For example the Shia tribes not only wanted their autonomy restored in Saada, their home province on the Saudi border but wanted to retain control of the national capital Saana.
March 13, 2018: In the south (outside the city of Aden) an ISIL suicide car bomber attacked a government military training camp and killed ten people.
March 12, 2018: The U.S. is using its considerable influence in Oman and Qatar to persuade these states to crack down on the Iranian arms smuggling in Yemen. There two Arabian states depend on American support to protect them from Saudi hostility because Oman and Qatar continue (as they have for centuries) trading with Iran. The direct American pressure will produce some action but the question is how much.
March 11, 2018: The U.S. warned that Iran is succeeding in building up a stock of anti-ship missiles, naval mines and remotely controlled bomb boats on rebel held areas of the Red Sea coast. These would threaten, as they already have, military ships maintaining the blockade as well as commercial shipping in the Red Sea (a vital sea lane for Saudi Arabia and, because of the Suez Canal, Egypt.)
March 10, 2018: In the south (Abyan province) soldiers arrested six AQAP members including the man in charge of AQAP finances and some of his subordinates. The arrests were made possible by intel provided by the Arab Coalition which has long devoted a lot of resources to what AQAP was up to and those intel resources, plus aerial surveillance and lots of cash to buy information has made life miserable for AQAP despite many AQAP supporters in southern tribes. In the last week that intel advantage has led to the destruction of AQAP storage sites for ammo, rockets and explosives. This loss limits the AQAP ability to carry out carry out terror attacks.
March 7, 2018: During the last week there were increasing demonstrations in Shia rebel territory, especially in and around Sanaa (the capital) over increased rebel taxes on fuel and other essentials.
March 6, 2018: In the northwest (south of the port city of Hodeida) an Arab Coalition airstrike hit a gathering of Shia rebels and is believed to have killed at least a hundred of them. At the same time there were airstrikes at rebel targets, especially ammunition storage facilities, along the Red Sea coast. The airstrikes destroyed at least nine rebel military vehicles and a factory that produced explosives.
March 5, 2018: In north (Sanaa city) government and Arab coalition forces took control of the last rebel positions in the Nam Mountains east of Sanaa. Last month these troops pushed rebel forces out of the Al Nakhash Mountains some 40 kilometers northeast of Sanaa.
In the south (Aden) a senior security official was murdered by an Islamic terrorist death squad in the city.
March 1, 2018: Iran called for negotiations to work out an end to the fighting in Syria and Yemen. This is another way of saying “we can’t win so what will you offer us so we stop trying.” Iran told its Arab neighbors (especially the Arab oil states led by Saudi Arabia) that there should be some discussions about dealing with mutual problems. In other words Iran wants to negotiate. Iran is not doing very well in Yemen and is encountering resistance in Iraq to increased Iranian influence. Relations with the Turks are not so good (they never have been, for about a thousand years). Iran apparently wants some kind of truce with the Arabs as preparations proceed to launch an attack on Israel. Most Arabs and many Iranians believe that is a dumb thing to do but the Iranians also know the Arabs would be content to just watch Iran and Israel go at it, especially if the Arab states were kind of neutral. Meanwhile Iran counts its support for Qatar as a victory as Saudi led threats against Qatar over relationships with Iran and Arab neighbors were neutralized. Qatar did most of the work, having long developed good relations with the West and the Turks and basically made themselves invulnerable to the Saudi led threats. Two weeks later the Saudis announced that secret peace talks with Shia rebels came to nothing, apparently because Iran would not approve.