Yemen: Yemen February 2024


February 17, 2024: In late 2023 and into early 2024, Shia rebels in Yemen, armed by decades of smuggled Iranian weapons shipments, sought to block commercial shipping from entering the Red Sea by firing rockets and missiles, as well as sending out speed boats carrying explosives or armed men who try to attack or board commercial ships and force the crew, at gunpoint, to move the ship to a pirate friendly port in nearby Somalia. The threats begin at the entrance to the Red Sea, which passes through the 26 kilometer wide and 50 kilometer long Bab-el-Mandeb strait. The rebels do not control any territory near these narrow straits. Rebel controlled territory is over a hundred kilometers north of the straits. The Houthi rebels are launching rockets and guided missiles at commercial ships that get close enough to the shore to hit. Most ships remain out of range and the rebels sometimes send out speed boats carrying armed men to board and take control of cargo ships. Some boats carry explosives, and the operator leaves the boat as it is aimed at a ship where the explosives are detonated remotely or when the boat hits a ship. Western warships destroy most of these boats and armed guards on some cargo ships can do the same.

The Americans imposed economic sanctions on the Shia rebels, who consider themselves the true government of Yemen. These sanctions make it more difficult and sometimes impossible for the Yemen rebels to use any money they have in foreign banks. Holding a lot of cash inside Yemen is dangerous and prevents the rebels from moving that money around to buy things they need.

The United States also sent ships equipped with electronic warfare equipment to disable the communications of Iranian ships that were supplying the Yemen Shia rebels with target information.

The United States, Britain, Canada, Bahrain, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles, and Spain offered to send warships to protect commercial shipping using the Red Sea to reach the Suez Canal and ports in the Mediterranean Sea and beyond. Most of these nations decided not to send warships and left it to the Americans and a few other nations to deal with the situation. These nations believed it was easier to let commercial shipping use the longer and more time consuming route around the southern tip of Africa.

Egypt, which operates the Suez Canal and earns $10 billion a year in transit fees, is offering to provide repairs for any commercial ship damaged by the Yemen Shia rebel attacks. Egypt and Iran are enemies and reducing Suez Canal income is a win for Iran, which supported the Yemen rebels for more than a decade to make that success possible.

The warships include an American aircraft carrier, whose aircraft join land based aircraft from Persian Gulf bases to attack Yemen Shia rebel forces and munitions, especially missiles used against commercial shipping. Many of the foreign warships in the Red Sea have defensive weapons that can intercept Shia rebel missiles. All these efforts have been sufficient to greatly reduce but not eliminate the attacks by the Yemen rebels on Red Sea shipping.

The current security efforts in the Red Sea are a continuation of anti-piracy efforts that began in 2008 and have continued since then, mainly near the African or Somali coast but close enough to deal with threats on the Arabian Peninsula or Yemen side of the Red Sea route to the Suez Canal. Somali pirates were the main threat twenty years ago, but they were eventually eliminated with help from Western and other countries, such as China, that send a lot of their seaborne trade through the Red Sea.

For over a decade the Iran-backed Shia rebels were losing the civil war with the Sunni Arab Yemenis in the south. The Sunnis were the majority but not as unified as the Shia in the north. It wasn’t until a decade ago that Iran admitted that it was supporting Yemen Shia rebels with weapons and advisory personnel. The Shia rebels refused to make peace, in part because of continued Iranian support and partly out of fear of the consequences. Yemen has proved to be an embarrassment for Iran and the Saudi/UAE backed Yemen government. The other Arabs are not willing to suffer the heavy casualties a quick victory would require. The war drags on and won’t end until more Arab states like Saudi Arabia fight back and force Iran to halt its support of the rebels. Iranian withdrawal is always a possibility because of growing popular protests in Iran against the expensive foreign wars in Syria and Yemen plus the increased Western naval forces in the Red Sea.

Iran smuggled in more and more weapons that were not intended for the ongoing Yemen civil war but for use against targets designated by Iran. Until late 2017 there was not much progress in the Yemen civil war, a development that favored Iran. By early 2018 the Shia rebel coalition began unraveling and Iran suddenly had its own domestic uprising to deal with back home. Worse, the U.S. government changed in early 2017 and the new president was much more aggressive dealing with Iran. There was also a radical new government in Saudi Arabia with a young Crown Prince in charge and organizing more effective resistance to Iranian aggression. That played a role in causing the Yemen unrest evolving into a full-scale civil war in 2015. That was when Shia rebels sought to take control of the entire country. Neighboring Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, quickly formed a military coalition to halt the Yemeni rebel advance. The Arab coalition succeeded and by 2016 pro-government forces were closing in on the rebel-held capital.

The coalition did not go after the capital itself because of the expected heavy casualties and property damage in the city. The coalition concentrated on rebuilding the Yemeni armed forces, recruiting allies from the Sunni tribes in the south and eliminating al Qaeda and ISIL groups that had grown stronger as the Shia rebels gained more power. As the fighting intensified in early 2015 Iran admitted it had been quietly supporting the Shia rebels for a long time but now was doing so openly, and that support was increasing. The UN got the government and rebel Shia Houthi forces to accept a cease fire in 2022. Now the Houthis have Western warships and combat aircraft attacking them because of the continuing Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping. Iran is allied with China and Chinese commercial ships are not fired on as they enter the Read Sea and head for Suez.

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 Yemen’s 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 nation concept 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 like kingdoms, emirates, or modern variations in the form of hereditary secular dictatorships like North Korea.

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 Shia tribal territories, led by the local imam, a religious leader who was often involved in military planning. 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 (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) when Saudi Arabia was no longer safe for the terrorists after 2007. Now there is ISIL and an invading army composed of troops from oil-rich neighbors. By late 2017 the rebels were slowly losing ground to government forces who, despite Arab coalition air support and about five thousand ground troops, were still dependent on Yemeni Sunni tribal militias to fight the Shia tribesmen on the ground. While the Shia are only a third of the population, they are united while the Sunni tribes are divided over the issue of again splitting the country in two and with no agreement on who would get the few oil fields in central Yemen. Many of the Sunni tribes tolerate or even support AQAP and ISIL.

Yemen is the poorest region of the Arabian Peninsula, although the only one that receives enough rain each year to permit farming. Instead of food, other crops are encouraged. Much of the Yemeni agricultural crisis is caused by the fact that Yemen's economic situation has been rapidly deteriorating since the late 20th century. This is largely because the government has done nothing to deal with the overpopulation and water shortages in Yemen, as well as Khat. The last item is 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 and has to be smuggled in. The Khat profits go to the warlords. The Shia rebels are seen by other Yemenis as just another gang of armed men seeking to establish themselves as warlords in part of Yemen.

There is some truth to that, but the Shia rebels cannot ignore the wishes of their Iranian backers. That’s why the Iranian smuggling pipeline continues to operate, and the Yemen rebels were able to buy additional weapons from other sources because they received cash from nations or groups hostile to the Arab Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Shia rebels were from northern Yemen and controlled the border with Saudi Arabia. Over the last decade the rebels launched more and more attacks on Saudi targets. The rebels obtained more powerful weapons as well, including Iranian ballistic missiles, which were disassembled so they could be smuggled from Iran to Yemen, where Iranian technicians supervised the missiles being assembled and launched into Saudi Arabia. In the last few years, the rebels have received longer range ballistic missiles that can hit Saudi and UAE oil production facilities on the Persian Gulf coast. The rebels also fired more missiles at targets passing the Yemen Red Sea coast controlled by the rebels. This has always been a potential threat to ships using the Red Sea to reach the Suez Canal in Egypt, at the north end of the Red Sea. At the end of 2023 Iran ordered the Yemen rebels to open fire on shipping in the Red Sea, which moves along the Yemen coast on its way to or from Saudi ports or the Suez Canal. Ships unable to use the canal must take the longer route around the southern tip of Africa. This takes more time and increases costs for the shipping company and their customers. The Western response was more warships in the Red Sea and more aerial firepower attacking hostile targets in Yemen. Iranian-backed groups throughout the region are now under attack. [Jim, only Israel is attacking Hezbollah, and that has nothing to do with the Red Sea.




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