Yemen: Suicidal Stubbornness


August 7, 2019: Evidence of the extent of the corruption among UN staff in the handling of foreign aid in Yemen is growing despite energetic efforts by the Shia rebels and the corrupt UN employees to interfere with investigations. The most blatant example of this occurred last October when a group of UN investigators were waiting to fly out of Yemen from Sanaa airport. The investigators had collected a lot of evidence of the corruption and most of it was on their laptop computers. But before they could board their plane, armed Shia rebels came in and seized their laptops, and then allowed the UN personnel to leave. It was later discovered that some of the corrupt UN officials found out about the investigations and let the Shia rebels know. This incident led to more donor nations refusing to supply aid unless the UN cleaned up the corruption problem. The UN has not been able to do that. This has led to reduced availability of aid and some areas of the rebel-controlled north have gone months without food or medical aid. That is not as much of a loss as it appears because the rebels had been stealing most of the aid for many of these areas.

The UN aid worker corruption is nothing new. It has always been a problem but got a lot worse since the 1990s. This was most visible with the Iraq “Oil for Food” scandal. Saddam Hussein paid UN officials millions of dollars to ignore Iraqi violations of the UN sanctions. Lesser cases of corruption began showing up more frequently in aid operations. This was often cloaked in the need to “feed the people.” That meant paying local thugs (rebels or Islamic terrorists) whatever they demanded to allow some of the food and other aid through. It soon became accepted practice in many disaster areas that the UN had to pay to play Good Samaritan. The bad behavior spread to the peacekeepers, who also began discovering money-making opportunities. Demanding bribes, running brothels and selling their own weapons are all now a problem.

The UN corruption in Yemen included massive plundering of emergency aid as well as allowing Iranian weapons smuggling to proceed on a massive scale. The exposure of all this corruption and the freeze in aid has reduced the amount of Iranian weapons getting in.

Left Behind

The UAE (United Arab Emirates) withdrawal of most of its forces from Yemen, which began in late June, is largely complete. There are still a few thousand UAE military personnel in Yemen acting as trainers, advisors and intelligence personnel. The UAE played the lead role in training the 90,000 troops and militiamen that now form the core of the Yemeni Army. The UAE and Saudi Arabia still provide financial support for the Yemeni forces as well as food and medical aid for civilians.

The UAE pulled out because of the growing Iranian threat. The UAE also pointed out that their military effort in Yemen was not meant to be open-ended, and that during four years of effort the UAE has trained and equipped local troops or militiamen and sent billions of dollars’ worth of other aid. The UAE noted that the Shia rebels have been greatly weakened over the last year and are having manpower and morale problems. There has been a lot less fighting this year because of that as well as less need for airstrikes. Despite the UAE withdrawal, the Saudis and Yemen military can handle the military situation. Most of the troops around Hodeida are Yemeni or Sudanese. The UAE troops still in Yemen are largely near the southern port of Aden, where UAE forces have long been a major presence. The withdrawal of the well-equipped and trained UAE forces means a ground offensive, to end the rebellion, is less likely but not impossible.

There was some friction between the UAE and the Saudis because the UAE wanted to seize Hodeida by force, despite the threat of heavy casualties to all the armed forces involved as well as civilians in the city. That, the UAE believed, would force the rebels to make peace. The UAE believed the rebels could not be trusted. The Saudis disagreed and went along with a UN proposal to negotiate with the rebels for a peaceful rebel withdrawal from the city. That agreement was made in December 2018 but the rebels refused to implement it until May and as of June were still violating the terms of the agreement.

One could say the UAE was fed up with the UN, the Saudis and the Yemenis (both rebel and pro-government). The UAE is too polite and diplomatic to come right out and say this openly. The UAE misgivings were no secret but they were never proclaimed as the official UAE policy. These differences are about attitudes towards corruption. According to annual surveys (Transparency International), the Saudis are more tolerant of corruption than the UAE. That is important in Yemen which, in 2018 ranked 176 out of 180 nations in a worldwide survey of corruption. That’s basically unchanged from 175 in 2017. Progress, or lack thereof, can be seen in the annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index where countries are measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea/14, Yemen/14, Syria/13, South Sudan/13 and Somalia/10) have a rating of under 15 while the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85. The current Yemen score is 14 (down from 16 in 2017) compared to 49 (49) for Saudi Arabia, 70 (71) for the UAE, 62 (64) for Israel, 10 (9) for Somalia, 62 (63) for Qatar, 28 (28) for Lebanon, 28 (30) for Iran and 35 (32) for Egypt. In other words, the UAE is the least corrupt nation in the regions (edging out Israel) while Saudi Arabia is not. Iran is worse and Yemen is one of the very worst.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the core of the Arab Coalition supporting the Yemen government against the Iranian backed Shia rebels from the north. The Saudis are mainly concerned about eliminating an Iranian ally operating on the southwestern border of Saudi Arabia and posing a threat to maritime traffic in the Red Sea. This is also of major concern for Egypt, which depends on Suez Canal transit fees for a major portion of its foreign currency income. Persian Gulf oil states depend on the Suez Canal to ship oil to Europe and receive exports from Europe. Since the Coalition arrived in 2015 the Saudis have concentrated on air operations and defending their northern border and the Red Sea. The UAE concentrated on the south, the Islamic terrorist threat there and rebuilding the Yemen armed forces. The UAE feels most of its work is done and it does face an increasingly aggressive Iran in the Persian Gulf.

Yemen was a mess before the current war and four years of fighting have made things worse. Over 90,000 Yemenis have died and most are dependent on foreign aid to survive. The Shia rebels are losing but their Iranian patrons have convinced enough of the rebel leadership to hold out for terms the Saudis cannot tolerate; autonomy for the Shia tribes who have always controlled much of the northwest border with Saudi Arabia. The longer the Shia tribes refuse to make peace the worse the retribution will be. It is unclear to what degree Iranian support is sustaining this suicidal stubbornness. Whatever the case, this will not end well for the Yemeni Shia nor Yemen in general.

Sporadic Violence

There are no areas in the country where there is sustained fighting and there aren’t a lot of “front lines.” Control is exercised with military checkpoints on main (and some secondary) roads. Some of these checkpoints are fortified military bases housing over a hundred gunmen whose task is to hold the road at all costs. Not all roads are guarded with checkpoints and vast areas of the country can be traversed, with varying degrees of difficulty and greater expenditure of fuel, if you have a local guide to show you the way. This is where the rebels are at a disadvantage because except for their supply of commercial and larger Iranian UAVs, the coalition has a better aerial view of the combat zone. Moving large forces in vehicles by road is more dangerous for the rebels. Vehicle movements tend to be individual or small groups of vehicles pretending, if they are rebels, to be civilians. Ambushes by both sides are common. The rebels have adapted but they remain at a tactical disadvantage. Their situation has gotten worse with the loss of control over the foreign aid coming through the Red Sea port of Hodeida. That scam has been coming apart as donor states grow fed up with the blatant theft by the rebels and much of the aid not reaching those it was intended for.

The Islamic terrorists in the south have been more active in the last month. AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is 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 that year, 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.

An Ancient Curse Abides

Aside from the basic problem that Yemen has been a mess for decades, there are some major unresolved disputes. Because of the 2015 war, Yemen is truly broke, disorganized and desperate. The Arab Spring hit Yemen hard and upset the "arrangement" that left one group of tribal, criminal and business leaders in charge for over three decades. The country is fragmented again, just like it has always been. Many Yemenis trace the current crisis back to the civil war that ended, sort of, in 1994. That war was caused by the fact that, when the British left Yemen in 1967, their former colony in Aden became one of two countries called Yemen. The two Yemens finally united in 1990 but another civil war in 1994 was needed to seal the deal. That fix didn't really take and the north and south have been pulling apart ever since. This comes 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 region, the normal form of government until the 20th century was wealthier coastal city-states nervously coexisting with interior tribes that got by on herding or farming (or a little of both) plus smuggling and other illicit sidelines. 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.) For a long time, the most active Yemeni rebels were the Shia Islamic militants in the north. They have always wanted to restore local Shia rule in the traditional tribal territories, led by the local imam (religious leader). This arrangement, after surviving more than a thousand years, was ended by the central government in 1962. Yemen also became the new headquarters of AQAP when Saudi Arabia was no longer safe for the terrorists after 2007. Then came ISIL and then an invading army of troops from oil-rich neighbors.

August 6, 2019: The Arab coalition continues to refuse the Sanaa airport to be opened for regular commercial flights. While this prevents many civilians from flying out for urgent medical care, it also cuts off a key smuggling route. The foreign aid groups tend to ignore this, in part because many of these aid groups are involved (often for “humanitarian reasons”) in the corruption. That corruption has become more visible of late, and the airport remains closed except for carefully arranged (by the coalition) flights.

August 5, 2019: In Yemen, the Saudi air force shot down another explosives equipped Shia rebel UAV headed for a target in Saudi Arabia. The Iranian backed Shia rebels still receive some weapons from Iran. The ballistic missiles are too difficult to smuggle in now but the small UAVs are another matter.

August 2, 2019: In the south (Abyan province), AQAP gunmen attacked a militia base and killed 19 soldiers. Hours later government reinforcements arrived and attacked. This drove AQAP out if the base. One Islamic terrorist was killed and another captured.

August 1, 2019: In Yemen, the Iran-backed Shia rebels claim to have used an Iranian ballistic missile and UAVs to attack a military ceremony in the port city of Aden, which is the temporary capital of Yemen. The Shia rebels have held the traditional capital since 2015. Whether these Aden attacks used suicide bombers or long-range weapons 36 people were killed, all of them soldiers of the separatist STC Southern Transitional Council. This led to accusations that Islah (an Islamist Party in the south), which is allied with the STC against the Shia rebels, passed on information about the military ceremony that the Shia were able to hit with an airstrike (via GPS guided UAV or ballistic missile). Normally Islah and STC are rivals and despite the temporary alliance against the Shia rebels both groups continue to be suspicious of each other. To further complicate matter the UAE supported the SCT. Saudi Arabia tolerates Islah, which the UAE doesn’t trust. A second attack was made on an Aden police station using a suicide bomber which left over twenty dead.

July 29, 2019: The Arab coalition carried out airstrikes on residential areas of Sanaa (the national capital occupied by the Shia rebels) where the rebels were believed to be storing and maintaining their Iranian UAVs. The Shia rebels nearly always put military facilities in residential areas to deter airstrikes because of the risk of civilian casualties. Although that doesn’t work with Arab air forces it does provide pictures and video of civilian casualties that can be used to make the Arab Coalition look bad in Western media. Iran is essential for this last step because Iran has always been more successful at manipulating Western media.

In the northwest (across the border in the Saudi province of Asir), Iranian UAVs were launched by the Shia rebels in an attempt to cause some damage and casualties in Saudi Arabia. This one was aimed at the airport outside Abha, the capital of Asir province and 230 kilometers from the border. The Saudis reported that there were no explosions at the airport, indicating that the explosives armed UAV apparently crashed along the way.

July 25, 2019: The Shia rebels claim to have launched another UAV attack Abha airport in southwestern Saudi Arabia. There were no reported explosions at the airport.

Sudan will keep its troops in Yemen, where thousands of them have served with the Arab Coalition ground forces since 2015. The recent change of government in Sudan did not change the Sudanese relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has been a financial supporter of Sudan, not any particular Sudanese government.

July 20, 2019: The Arab coalition carried out airstrikes on several residential areas of Sanaa (the national capital occupied by the Shia rebels) where the rebels were believed to be storing and maintaining their Iranian ballistic or air defense missiles. Multiple explosions were heard and seen on the outskirts of the city. The Arab Coalition is receiving more, and better, information from supporters inside the capital. The rebels are increasingly paranoid about the loyalty of populations they control. That’s because the rebels are losing and have less money and other goods to distribute to maintain loyalty. Meanwhile, the coalition aerial surveillance improves and with the added boost from more local informants it is harder for the rebels to keep military assets concealed from airstrikes.

July 19, 2019: In the south (Abyan province), AQAP gunmen attacked a rural checkpoint, killing five policemen and wounding three others. The attack was repulsed but this was a rare incidence of Islamic terrorists making attacks like this. For the last year, AQAP and ISIL have been quiet but with the departure of UAE troops in the south, they are now bolder, although not a lot more successful.

July 17, 2019: In the northwest (across the border in the Saudi province of Jizan), Iranian UAVs were launched by the Shia rebels reached the Jizan airport and the explosion did some damage. The airport soon reopened. Asir province, to the north of Jizan province, are the two favorite targets for UAV attacks. Jizan has a longer border with Yemen and has long been subject to attacks by Shia rebels using short-range rockets or mortars. The rebels would also fire machine-guns across the border. The capital of Jizan also has an airport that is often a target for Shia rebels UAV attacks. Since March the Shia rebels have launched dozens of these UAVs against the Abha and Jizan airports or, less frequently, other economic targets in Asir and Jizan provinces. A few of the UAV attacks have succeeded because the small UAVs fly low and slow and are more difficult for radars to detect. But the Saudis have made adjustments to their air defense systems since the UAVs first appeared late in 2018 and now most of the UAVs are spotted and destroyed. But some are hitting targets. Because of the small quantity of explosives carried these UAVs don’t do much damage. A lot of these UAVs are getting into Yemen because lately there are at least five or six of them a week launched at targets in Saudi Arabia. Most are detected and shot down but with that many being sent across the border come are going to reach their target.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contribute. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   contribute   Close