The Shia rebels now say they will finally implement the December peace deal that was supposed to reopen the Red Sea port of Hodeida, which is essential for delivering emergency food and other aid to northern Yemen. Iran had persuaded the Shia rebels to stall but that advice lost its appeal as the rebel situation worsened everywhere, not just at Hodeida. Iran had problems of its own at home and elsewhere and as not been able to help much.
While the rebels have stolen and stockpiled a lot of food and other aid, their coalition continues to unravel and lack of aid coming through Hodeida is one reason. The rebels seemed unstoppable in 2014 because they could depend on the cooperation or neutrality of many Sunni tribes and all the Shia tribes in the north. That cooperation often came in the form of reliable neutrality. After 2016 there were a lot fewer neutral Sunni tribes and some had turned against the rebels. Key neutral tribes in the northwest (the rebel homeland) are renouncing their neutrality and fighting, or just blocking rebel movement. A key rebel loss has been in the northwest (Hajjah province), which was taken by Saudi forces in 2018 after more than two years of fighting. This province is on the Saudi border and largely populated by Shia. 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 for the Saudis to take the province is to halt the smuggling that still thrives along the Red Sea coast. Pacifying Hajjah province meant making deals with the Shia tribes to assure them they would not be mistreated. To help with that the Saudis had the experience of the many Shia tribes in southwest Saudi Arabia, who have done much better economically over the decades than their Shia brethren across the border in Yemen. The Saudi pitch was classic Arabian; support the Saudi cause and Saudi Arabia will provide protection and aid.
By early 2019 it was obvious to the Shia rebels that the key Shia tribes in Hajjah province had switched sides. The rebels shifted forces from the south to launch an offensive against their new enemy. With Saudi assistance, the Hajjah tribes were able to keep the rebels out. That was a problem for the rebels because Hajjah contained some key routes long used by the Shia rebel tribes inland. This put more pressure on the rebels because this was yet another Saudis success in or near the Shia rebel home province of Saada. This is not a new situation but has been growing worse since 2016 and caused a manpower shortage for the rebels as well as a worsening morale problem.
The Shia rebels have become weaker in other respects. Their failure to meet the terms of the December 2018 Hodeida ceasefire backfired. The Arab Coalition brought in food from the less capable Gulf of Oman ports and are working to expand the capabilities of those ports. In the meantime, there was less food aid for the areas once dependent on supplies coming in via Hodeida. The Yemeni government was able to do something about the shortages while the Shia rebels simply made matters worse without helping the rebel coalition or the core rebel Shia tribes back north in Saada province. Iran had no solutions because the blockade was remarkably effective and Iran did not have the resources for anything new and ambitious that could change the situation.
The Shia rebels demonstrated that they have fewer and fewer options. The rebels have lost the ability to launch more ballistic missiles at key targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The rebels have few if any, ballistic missiles left. Moreover, the Saudis and UAE have been able to shoot down all of the missiles that were going to hit an important area (and not land in an unpopulated area, as many of the missiles have done). Another threat that the rebels pose, but will not admit openly, is that they will try to destroy Hodeida port facilities and food storage sites before they leave the city. Recently the rebels decided that trashing Hodeida was not a practical option. Damaging the port would reduce aid supplies to rebel-held areas and it would obviously be the fault of the rebels. Food would be available from the government, bringing it in via Gulf of Oman ports. Finally, the rebels need the forces concentrated around Hodeida elsewhere. The government and Arab coalition forces are advancing on several fronts and if the rebels don’t send reinforcements there will be major losses of territory.
The Arab Coalition is also slowly taking apart the legal income sources the rebels had because they captured the national capital in 2014 and held on to it. That meant they maintained control over vital, and profitable (via taxation) industries. One of the most valuable, the telecommunications business, has been generating about $60 million a month in taxes since the rebels seized the capital. The Arab coalition created a rival national telecommunications authority and has persuaded most of the foreign telecommunications firms to abandon the Shia rebels and pay the legitimate government operating from the temporary capital of Aden. The rebels have already lost enormous sums because Hodeida is closed and all those bribes, extortion payments and stolen aid are no longer available.
The 2017 cholera epidemic was never completely suppressed and has revived with about 200,000 new cases so far in 2019. The original 2017 outbreak got out of control because the Shia rebels refused to allow the UN to fly in half a million doses of vaccine early on. The rebels insisted that they be first supplied with ambulances and other medical equipment their fighting forces needed. This delayed the vaccination program and the rebels continued to tolerate contaminated water supplies in areas they controlled. With the deadlock at Hodeida, the rebels had even fewer resources to deal with the water supply problems and growing poverty in their territory. The resurgence of cholera is a very visible example of the problems in rebel territory. The rebels are less prepared to deal with the epidemic than they were in 2017.
In mid-2017 it was believed that the epidemic had peaked. It had but many victims were still incapacitated and the conditions that enabled the outbreak were unchanged. By mid-2017 about a million people had been infected in 22 of 23 provinces and about 2,300 died. This all began in April 2017 when living conditions in the capital 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 was all because the rebels have not put a priority on maintaining the quality of the water supply. Iran blamed the people fighting the rebels, especially Saudi Arabia. But the main problem was the rebels, who tried to use the cholera outbreak to extort militarily useful aid from the UN and other foreign aid groups. 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.
Islamic Terrorists Feuding And Waiting
(Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) are still around but largely keeping their heads down in rural hideouts. Most of these are in central Yemen (
Baida province) and to the east. Anywhere an Islamic terrorist can find a hospitable tribe, they can usually arrange refuge. AQAP has few active members left in Yemen and the only remaining local support is from some separatist Sunni tribes in the south and east. In the south (Shabwa province), Yemeni special operation troops have been finding and raiding the few remaining rural AQAP hideouts there.
Since 2017 AQAP has been under heavy attack by the Americans and the Arab coalition and the Islamic terrorists have responded by shifting more of their attacks to the government and Arab coalition forces. AQAP took credit for 273 attacks in 2017 and in the first six months of 2017, some 75 percent of these attacks were against the Shia rebels. But in the second half of 2017 half, the attacks were against fellow Sunnis (government and coalition forces). In 2018 the remaining AQAP are mainly fighting for survival against the government and coalition forces. AQAP is more acceptable to more Yemenis in the south and survives more easily. By mid-2017 Islamic terrorist attacks had declined more than 90 percent versus 2014 and the decline continued into 2018. In the last year, there have been very few prominent AQAP or ISIL attacks in Yemen.
AQAP and their tribal allies have reached the point where tribal elders are willing to try convincing armed tribesmen not to work for AQAP. The effort to clear AQAP out Hadramawt, Abyan (Aden) and Shabwa provinces has been going on since late 2016 but became more intense since 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. As a result of the air operations, the remaining AQAP groups became more vulnerable to detection and attack on the ground. There are also some ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups out in the hills who will attack AQAP but are currently avoiding government forces. There seem to be only one or two ISIL groups left in this region and not many more AQAP but the search, and the occasional battles, continue. The two Islamic terrorist groups have been attacking each other during the last year, usually via assassination. Bombings attract too much attention and require a lot more effort. Islamic terrorists have long found refuge among Islamic conservative tribes in rural areas of Yemen. The offer of refuge goes away if the government gets determined about searching for Islamic terrorists. In cases like that the Islamic terrorist guests will move on rather than anger their host if the government forces come by and find the tribe harboring Islamic terrorists. Currently, AQAP and ISIL take the long view, that eventually the civil war will be over and it will be possible for Islamic terror groups to again recruit, rebuild and get back into action.
April 16, 2019: The government revealed that it had shot down eleven rebel UAVs (equipped with explosives) sent to attack the Yemen parliament which has resumed meeting in the southeast (Hadramawt province). There is still some threat from Iranian UAVs, but while these are smaller and easier to smuggle in there appears to be a limited number of them left in Yemen because of the numerous Arab air raids during 2019 against bases they operate from. While the ballistic missile attacks have been halted there has only been a reduction in the use of armed (with explosives) UAV attacks. Government forces first encountered Iranian UAVs equipped with explosives in early 2018. There were a few successful attacks with these UAVs used as cruise missiles but since late 2018 the coalition has been quick to detect and destroy these UAVs, either in the air or on the ground.
April 15, 2019: The government and rebels agreed to implement the terms of the December 2018 deal to demilitarize Hodeida port facilities and adjacent food storage sites. That agreement was to have been implemented in January but the rebels refused to cooperate. The new agreement is supposed to have assurances that aid will go where it is supposed to. The details of which forces will move to where and when have been agreed to but not made public. In the past, the rebels would debate such details endlessly as a delaying tactic. The only thing that gives hope this time around is that the bels have been moving forces from Hodeida to deal with emergencies elsewhere and the rebel supply situation is pretty bad, especially for the civilians they rule over.
April 13, 2019: In the southeast (Hadramawt province), the government convened parliament for the first time, in Sayoun city since the Shia rebels seized control of the capital in 2015. The last parliamentary elections were held in 2003 and none have been held since. The Arab Coalition and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) has endorsed the use of members elected in 2003. The government was only able to get 138 members (out of 301) to this parliament, so there is not a quorum (majority of members) present to officially conduct business. Since 2003 about 40 members have died and at least 50 are in rebel-held areas. The whereabouts of the others are unknown, unclear or a member does not want to get involved yet. Since the government has managed to move the Election Commission from Sanaa, it has been possible to make plans for new elections, even if people in rebel-held areas will be unable to vote.
April 10, 2019: The coalition carried out airstrikes against two targets in the capital Sanaa. One strike was against a launching area for armed UAVs and another was a building used to modify or repair the Iranian UAVs used for attacks.
April 9, 2019: In the south (Dhalea province), a rebel short-range ballistic missile apparently aimed at a populated area in the province, missed and landed in some farmland. With the continued stalemate around the port of Hodeida, the rebels have shifted forces to other areas, like the border of Dhalea province in preparation to retaking one of the first provinces retaken by government forces in 2015. The missile attack was apparently in support of that offensive, which never got going and rebel forces were forced back by a government attack. The rebels lost control of Shaddad Fort Mountain, some key high ground in northern Dhalea province.
April 8, 2019: The United States designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization. This includes the Quds Force which supports many illegal, and some legal Iranian and Hezbollah operations worldwide. This terrorist designation means it is more difficult, but not impossible, for IRGC and Quds Force personnel to move around and operate in nations that are not close Iranian allies (like Syria, Lebanon as well as parts of Iraq and Yemen).
April 7, 2019: In the north Saudi, air defenses shot down a rebel UAV apparently headed for a target in southwestern Saudi Arabia (Asir Province).
April 6, 2019: In the north (Sanaa province), government forced advances closer to the rebel-held capital Sanaa.
April 2, 2019: In the northwest (Hodeida province), major fighting broke out between the Shia rebels and government forces in the port of Hodeida. The fighting, which consisted of lots of mortar and artillery shells fired by government and rebel forces, was concentrated outside the city near the airport and Red Sea mills, where foreign aid food supplies are stored. The shelling was over after a few hours and there were no reports of casualties.
In the north, Saudi air defenses shot down two rebel UAVs apparently headed for the southwestern Saudi city of Khamis Mushait in Asir province.
April 1, 2019: The U.S. revealed that there have been eight American UAV attacks in Yemen so far this year. Two were in January and the rest in March.
While the American UAV attacks continue in Yemen the number has greatly declined since 2018, when there were 36 attacks. In 2017 there were 131 attacks and all have been mainly against AQAP and ISIL camps and key personnel in central Yemen.
March 23, 2019: In the north (Sanaa province), coalition airstrikes hit two caves outside Sanaa city where the rebels were believed to be storing Iranian UAVs and related equipment.