The UN is accusing the Shia rebels of deliberately blocking delivery of food aid to areas that face starvation without it. This is being used to persuade the UN to apply more pressure on the government and the Arab Coalition forces to halt their attacks on the rebels. The Shia rebels are growing desperate because their military and economic situation has gotten much worse in 2018. Since the beginning of the year, the Shia rebels have suffered from a sustained and widespread cash shortage and have been unable to pay many of the government employees in Sanaa. Because of that the loyalty of these unpaid (some since late 2017) civil servants is suspect and the rebels appear to be losing control of the capital. Over the last few months, there have been more public protests against the rebels in the capital and that has led to arrests and beatings. Some of those arrested are hit with large fines that are, in effect, a ransom. The cash shortage is made worse as the rebels lose control of more territory, and population. The rebels can extract cash from people in areas they control, as well as take a portion of foreign aid as another form of taxation. With the port of Hodeida surrounded by government forces the rebels, despite still controlling the port area, can no longer make as much money as they used to off aid and commercial cargo being unloaded at the port. In response, the rebels have blocked some ships from unloading. In some cases, this is done to raise black market prices on items the rebels control (like fuel) or until the cargo owner pays the rebels additional “fees.”
The government offensive against the rebels has been moving into more rebel territory all year and as rebel-controlled territory shrinks rebel morale plummets. The Arab coalition sees victory as inevitable because the rebels are not only growing weaker but Iran, their only foreign supporter is also less able to get support (especially weapons and cash) to the rebels.
Yemen itself will still be a mess after the rebels are defeated. The separatist Sunni tribes down south still want to partition Yemen into two nations. AQAP has good relations (often family or tribal) with these tribes and continues to find sanctuary in these tribal areas. The lack of good tribal connections is what doomed the local ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) franchise, which has all but disappeared after years to losing battles with AQAP and airstrikes by missile-armed American UAVs. Without a functioning government in Yemen, the country will turn into a haven for gangsters and Islamic terrorists, something no one in the region really wants.
The conflict in Yemen has been a war with no winners and no “good guys.” The basic problem is that too many Yemenis don’t want to be Yemenis. The country was a patchwork of independent tribes and cities when the English East India Company took control of some Yemeni ports in the 1830s and 40s to support ships going from Britain to India. The Ottoman Turks still controlled most of northern Yemen until 1918 (when the Ottoman Empire collapsed). Britain took over from the Ottomans and established the borders of modern Yemen. But Yemen was still not a unified country. When the British left Yemen in 1967, their former colony in Aden became one of two countries called Yemen. The two parts of Yemen finally united in 1990, but a civil war in 1994 was needed to seal the deal. That fix didn't really take, and within a decade the north and south were pulling apart again.
This came back to the fact that Yemen has always been a region, not a country. Like most of the rest of the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa (northeast Africa) region, the normal form of government, until the last century or so, were wealthier coastal city-states, nervously coexisting with interior tribes that got by on herding or farming (or a little of both). This whole "nation" idea is still looked on with some suspicion by many in the region. This is why the most common forms of government are the more familiar ones of antiquity (kingdom, emirate or modern variation in the form of a hereditary dictatorship.) Yemen is still all about the tribes. The national government is a bunch of guys who deal with foreigners and try to maintain peace among the tribes. Controlling the national government is a source of much wealth, as officials can steal part of the foreign aid and taxes (mostly on imports or royalties from oil).
This lack of nationalism means a lack of cooperation or willingness to act in the public interest. Much of the Yemeni agricultural crises is caused by the fact that Yemen's economic situation has been rapidly deteriorating for more than a decade. This is largely because the government has done nothing to address the problems of over-population, water shortages and Khat (a narcotic plant that is chewed fresh, requires a lot of water to grow and is worth a lot of money in Saudi Arabia where it is illegal.) There is little willingness to cooperate. Feuding, fighting and blaming others for the mess are the preferred methods for dealing with the problems. Before oil was discovered 80 years ago Yemen had long been the most populous, powerful and populous part of Arabia because it was the only part of Arabia with regular rains (thanks to the annual monsoon). Most of the oil deposits were at the north end of the Persian Gulf and Yemen lost out there. Yemenis had long despised the less affluent Arabians to the north, but since oil arrived the Yemenis have become despised and they did not take it well. Resentment, envy and a sense of entitlement have combined with the lack of unity to produce Yemen that is a nation in name only. Few others in the region have much sympathy for the Yemenis who are seen as the main cause of their own problems and the main obstacle to solving them. Since that is all you have to work with it is no wonder that Yemen came to be such a perennial disaster area.
The Iran Connection
Iran continues to supply the Shia rebels with weapons and equipment despite energetic efforts to block the smuggling. The naval patrols off Yemen enforcing the blockade have to contend with hundreds of small craft operating near them each day, more than can be searched. But enough smuggler boats have been detected and caught since 2015 to make it clear that this smuggling route was still active. It was also interest to note where the weapons were coming from. As of late-2018 North Korea was still exporting weapons like rockets, small arms and ammo to Yemen, as well as Libya and Syria. Whenever there is a successful interception the Saudis will increase their naval patrols near where it happened and search for more fishing or cargo boats. If nothing else that causes the boat operators to dump their illegal weapons cargo overboard before the boarding party reaches them. Some boats refused to be searched and are fired on. This form of smuggling is more important as the government forces move closer to driving the rebels out of Hodeida and making it possible for all cargoes to be thoroughly searched. That will cut off the supply of Iranian ballistic missile components, which have, over the last two years, allowed more than two hundred of these short-range ballistic missiles to be assembled in northern Yemen and eventually fired into Saudi Arabia.
One very under-reported Iranian contribution to the Shia rebel effort is an effective media manipulation effort. Not as massive or well-equipped as the ones created by China and Russia (the main practitioners of this) but the Iranians do pretty well spinning news of events in Yemen to favor, as much as possible, the Shia rebels. The Iranians know what appeals to mass media, especially in the West, and what does not. Thus anytime a coalition airstrike kills civilians (or rebels who can be described as such) the Iranians see that pictures and stories are supplied to news media worldwide. Coverage of the nasty things the Shia rebels do to hostile civilians in areas they control is not reported because no journalists are allowed in rebel areas. Thus it is only later that it becomes known that the rebels were using civilians as human shields or letting them use a road the rebels know is constantly watched and most vehicles seen on it are hit with an air strike. The “hit anything that moves” policy can isolate a rebel force under attack and make the rebels easier to defeat.
The Iranians will also send out stories of rebel-controlled civilians going hungry when that can be blamed on the coalition, the Yemeni government or the West. Another technique is to make false claims of damage from Shia ballistic missile or UAV attacks on Saudi or UAE targets. These claims are eventually found to be false but Iranian media experts know that if you can get some traction with the initial story that is what most people will remember. Truth isn’t what counts here but supplying what editors are seeking at the moment.
Of late the Iranian media efforts have been having problems, mainly because of events back in Iran. Iranians, in general, have noted that the overseas wars their government is waging, especially in Syria and Yemen, were more evidence of many lies Iranians were told about the state of Iranian military technology. In Syria, there were no Iranian warplanes or anti-aircraft systems. All the aerial successes were carried out by modern Russian jet fighters operated by the Russian Air Force. There were some Iranian UAVs in action but all they seemed to do when used against the Israelis is promptly get shot down. Meanwhile, the Israeli Air Force regularly bombed Iranian bases. In Yemen Arab pilots in modern warplanes were using smart bombs to regularly hit the Iran-backed Shia rebels. Worse, over a hundred Iran made ballistic missiles had been fired into Saudi Arabia and all were shot down by the Arabas using American Patriot air defense systems. These criticisms are causing more Iranians to doubt any government news coming out of Syria and Iran and Western media pick up that popular criticism in Iran and make life miserable for Iranian media manipulators.
This is all about the return (since May) of economic sanctions to Iran. That has forced changes in spending patterns. Before the current crisis, the Iranian defense budget had skyrocketed to $15 billion in 2017. While that is one of the lowest defense budgets in the region it more than triples when you add money spent on supporting foreign wars (Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Gaza and many smaller operations worldwide). No other nation in the regions spends that much on foreign wars. The fact that Iran keeps spending more on defense and foreign wars is no secret to most Iranians and a primary reason for the continuing protests. Iranians have noticed that spending that directly impacts the lives of ordinary Iranians has gone down and that gets worse as their currency (the rial) gets weaker. For example, the inflation is now 14 percent, versus less than ten percent (for the first time in 26 years) in early 2017. Yemen may still be an opportunity for Iran but given the growing popular unrest inside Iran, Yemen is no longer seen as a high priority.
Wanted Dead Or Alive
The U.S. has increased its reward for AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) leader (since 2015) Qasim al Rimi to $10 million. In addition, there is now a $5 million reward for Khalid Saeed al Batarfi, who joined AQAP in 2010 and quickly became a key combat commander and close associate of Rimi. Both men have been al Qaeda members since the 1990s and were in Afghanistan before the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001. Both of these man have been organizing attacks in the West as well. The rewards are for information leading to the capture or death of the two men. These rewards are frequently paid out, but quietly in order to hide the names of those who earned the money.
AQAP survives in Yemen because of veteran Islamic terrorists like Rimi and Batarfi. AQAP arose after the 2008 defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq and the earlier (2005) in Saudi Arabia (where a lesser insurrection was quickly crushed). Many Iraq and Saudi based al Qaeda survivors fled to Yemen and formed AQAP in 2009. This meant the remnants of the Saudi al Qaeda organization (several thousand full and part-time members) fled to Yemen and merged with the Yemeni al Qaeda branch. AQAP also benefitted from hundreds of Iraqi al Qaeda members who arrived after the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-8. Growing unrest in Yemen (against the long-standing Saleh dictatorship) enabled AQAP to recruit locally and take over several towns in the south by 2011. That triggered more widespread violence which is still going on. Through it, all AQAP has survived if not exactly thrived. Despite the senior al Qaeda leadership remaining in Pakistan, the most active, and dangerous, international terrorism operations were coming out of AQAP. As a result of this, al Qaeda is urging Islamic radicals everywhere to try and organize and carry out terrorism operations wherever they are.
October 18, 2018: In the northwest (Hajjah province) a Saudi slow motion (to reduce Saudi casualties) offensive is accelerating after more than two years of fighting. This province is on the Saudi border and largely populated by Shia. But 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 the Saudis never forgot. Another reason to take the province is to halt the smuggling that still takes place along the Red Sea coast.
October 17, 2018: In the northwest (Hodeida province) Shia rebels launched an attack to reopen the main road from the port of Hodeida to the rebel-held capital Sanaa. The rebels were repulsed, losing at least 70 dead. Without control of the road, the rebels cannot shift combat forces Hodeida, which is surrounded by government forces. Aid shipments are allowed to use the road, but they are inspected by government forces to ensure they do not contain military supplies.
October 15, 2018: The Shia rebels released a French citizen who was imprisoned in June when he brought his malfunctioning (the fresh water supply was leaking) boat into the port of Hodeida. The Frenchman was on his way to India. Saudi and Omani officials were responsible for persuading the rebels to let the Frenchman go. It is uncertain what the rebels got in return.
The elected Yemen president fired his prime minister for mishandling economic matters and appointed a younger man who has experience in that area.
October 10, 2018: In the northwest (Hodeida province) soldiers shot down an Iranian UAV that was found to be carrying explosives.
October 2, 2018: Saudi Arabia has transferred another $200 million to the Yemeni Central Bank to maintain the value of the Yemeni currency. The Saudis have already sent $2 billion for this currency support.
October 1, 2018: The Saudi naval patrol off the Red Sea coast detected and destroyed two remotely controlled boats carrying explosives. The two boats were apparently headed north for the Saudi port of Jazan and were destroyed before they got there. These radio controlled boats have become a favorite weapon of the rebels even though few of them are successful. The tech and instructors (on how to use it) were supplied by Iran. The rebels have also been putting more naval mines into offshore waters, especially in areas where they have lost control of the local coast (and thus the ability to land smuggling boats there). The UAE and Saudi Arabia have sent several mine clearing boats to the Red Sea to deal with this.
September 25, 2018: A team of British experts confirmed that components used in landmines and roadside bombs in Yemen were Iranian. There was similar evidence found in Saudi Arabia when components of destroyed ballistic missiles were collected and examined. Iran denies everything.
September 6, 2018: The Shia rebels refused to show up for UN-sponsored peace talks in Switzerland until the Arab coalition supporting the Yemen government meet rebel demands for more free access to the rebel-controlled Sanaa airport. That would enable Iran to smuggle in more weapons via air. Iran really doesn’t care if peace is achieved in Yemen because Yemen is the least expensive foreign war they support and it enables Iran to fire ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia and get away with it.
September 5, 2018: In Yemen, another Iranian ballistic missile was fired into Saudi Arabia by rebels. As with more than a hundred Iranian rockets and ballistic missiles, it was intercepted by a Saudi air defense system. In this case, the interception took place over a residential area and 23 civilians were wounded by falling debris. That debris will be collected and added to the growing body of evidence that Iran was supplying the rebels with components that are assembled in rebel-controlled territory with the help of Iranian and Lebanese (Hezbollah) experts.