Yemen: Stubborn, Stalemated, Starving
By Strategy Page, January 13, 2023
Jan 13, 2023 - 4:29:31 PM

The usual six-month long cease fire between the Shia rebels and the Yemen government and their Arab (mainly Saudi Arabian) allies has been somewhat unusual in that fighting has not returned to pre-ceasefire levels, probably because the rebels are having resource and personnel problems. The Saudis are mostly concerned with rebel missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and shipping in the Red Sea. The key to the ceasefire was the rebels halting their attacks on Saudi Arabia and Red Sea traffic while the Saudis halted their use of air and artillery strikes against rebel targets everywhere in Yemen. The STC (South Transitional Council) and many government troops spent the ceasefire period going after Islamic terrorist groups AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in the south. The major reason the rebels agreed to a ceasefire was a decline in Iranian support due to lack of funds plus unrest at home. The Iranian weapons, cash, advisors and smuggling network supercharged the Shia rebels, enabling them to keep fighting the more numerous and better armed force arrayed against them. Iran has been openly supporting the Shia rebels since 2014 and later admitted that less visible support had been supplied since 2011.

Growing economic sanctions on Iran and eventual Saudi and American success in discovering details of the Iranian smuggling operation finally worked. By 2021 the Shia rebels became more interested in negotiating than fighting. The rebels were losing and were forced into survival mode. They were not giving up, the Yemeni Shia have never done that, but their effort to conquer and rule all of Yemen was suspended. The Iranian situation got much worse after September 2022 when nationwide anti-government protests began and have continued. The Yemeni government accuses the rebels of turning to looting of government facilities in areas they control. For a long time that worked but now it doesn’t because the loss of Iranian financial support put an end to the “understanding” that prevented or limited looting.

Even without being officially renewed, the ceasefire is continuing because neither side wants to risk the heavy casualties a resumption of full-scale fighting would mean. Iran is technically at war with most of the Arab oil states as well as Israel, the United States and anyone else who gets in their way. Given the growing number of countries that oppose Iran or are losing patience with Iranian troublemaking, there is something of a deathwatch attitude towards Iran. At least for the rest of 2023 not much is expected to change in Yemen.

There are older, more persistent problems that beset Yemen. These currently include;

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 formation of the STC. 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 most recently “elected” president of united Yemen. Hadi has only briefly visited Yemen a few times since becoming president in 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. The tribes always manage to regain it but this time they are trying to revive an autonomy they lost over fifty years ago and are doing it with the backing of Saudi archenemy Iran. The Shia tribes are persistent because they see themselves on a Mission From a Shia God sponsored by Iran.

The Saleh Loyalists. Ali Abdullah Saleh and his clan lost national power in 2012 and wanted it back. Saleh demonstrated that he could not be ignored and sided with the Shia rebels. Saleh ruled Yemen for decades before the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings unified his many opponents. Unfortunately, Saleh decided to switch sides again in late 2017 and was negotiating a deal with Hadi when the rebels found out and killed him in early December 2017. Tarek Mohamed Abdullah Saleh, the brigadier general nephew of Saleh, united the many pro-Saleh factions who were willing to switch sides. This weakened the Shia rebels, but not fatally so. The Saleh clan is still out there, but not as powerful as it was when the elder Saleh was still alive.

Al Qaeda. 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 suffered worldwide during 2016-17 caused many surviving members to return to “more moderate” groups like AQAP. Despite that ISIL has been seen surviving and perhaps even gaining strength in Yemen.

The Sunni-Shia War. This one is mainly between Iran (the largest Shia nation) and the Sunni-dominated GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab oil states in the Persian Gulf). Iran wants to replace Saudi Arabia as the guardian of the most holy Islamic sites in Mecca and Medina in 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 Saudis are most at risk here because the Shia rebel “homeland” is a northern Yemen province on the Saudi border. The Saudis cannot afford to have an Iran-backed Shia faction on their southern border.

Failed State

It’s not just the many conflicts that make Yemen such a mess. There are other, more fundamental problems. The Saudis have no problem with Yemen fragmenting. Many Yemenis insist that the country is not becoming a failed state, because modern Yemen has always been a failed state. The problems of tribalism, religious radicalism and corruption make it impossible for Yemen to function as a country.

The continued popularity of dividing the country in two is partly about what little oil Yemen has, as it is in the south and that’s where the Sunni separatists are. Islamic terrorists (mainly AQAP) are also in the south and willing to help the separatists. Most southerners just want peace and some prosperity. There are enough devoted separatists in the south to provide sanctuaries and support for Islamic terrorists. Most southerners realize that a new (separatist run) government in the south would be as corrupt as the one they have now and the ones Yemen has had for thousands of years. As a result of all this and years of fighting, it is more difficult to bring foreign aid into the south, which needs it the most, because AQAP believes such aid, even though most is from Moslem countries, is tainted and should be prevented.

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 and protect ships moving between Britain and India. The Ottoman Turks maintained their control over 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.

All this corruption and lack of unity is related 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 such as 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 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 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 address the problems of overpopulation, water shortages and 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.

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 in Arabia nearly a century ago, Yemen had long been the most populous, powerful and pleasant part of Arabia because it was the only part of Arabia with regular rains. This was thanks to the annual Indian Ocean 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 concept of a unified Yemen was largely created by Cold War politics and how Britain handled a threat to their seaborne trade in the early 19th century. That was when Britain took control of Aden. This was partly to shut down the many pirates operating out of there, who were increasingly going after British ships traveling between Asia (India, Southeast Asia and China) and Britain. Only Aden was needed but the British made deals with the tribes that occupied most of southern Yemen coast and had long depended on Aden and other southern ports for supplies and such. Britain made Aden and the smaller southern ports more prosperous with new trading opportunities and provided more benefits for the interior tribes. Most importantly the tribes still had their autonomy, as well as British protection from outsiders. The Suez Canal opened in 1869 and over the next few decades larger, more efficient, steam powered metal vessels supplanted and replaced wooden sailing ships. That meant a lot more trade moving past. Aden and South Yemen became more prosperous.

When the British left in the early 1960s, as part of a widespread abandonment of colonies by European nations, there was some unrest and fighting in the newly independent South Yemen. This was because Aden was much less religious and traditional with a better educated population and it was no surprise that Aden and some other South Yemen cities were dominated by local communists. From 1970 until the fall of European communism in 1989, South Yemen was a communist state, subsidized by the Soviet Union, and the only such one in the Arab world.

Most of that enthusiasm for communism was centered in Aden and its suburbs. This is where most of the South Yemen population lived and where an even larger proportion of its GDP came from. A few other coastal cities had the same type of population and political attitudes, giving the urban population control of politics as well as the economy. The tribal minority, out in the desert and semi-desert inland areas, was much more religious and traditional. But over the centuries the urban and tribal populations had learned to get along and respect each other’s customs.

It was different in northern Yemen, where the urban population was not as dominant and the tribal population was economically better off and about as religious and conservative as their southern counterparts. The problem was the northern and southern tribes saw each other as “foreigners”. This is a common situation in tribal cultures, which includes the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. Yet even then there was some enthusiasm for a united Yemen in the north and south.

With the collapse of European communism and the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991 the Russian subsidies stopped and unification was suddenly much more appealing. After a few years of haggling, and occasional fighting, Yemen was united by 1994. At that point there were still factions in the north and south who believed unity was overrated and that two Yemens was preferable. That is no longer the case, not with most of the population surviving on foreign food aid. Many of those hungry Yemenis have to pay Shia rebels for this “free food.” The foreign aid NGOs (non-government organizations) and the UN complain about this but the Shia rebels are armed and dangerous and the UN is not. Not armed that is.

There is resistance to admitting that Yemen is a failed state, one of those areas, like Somalia and Afghanistan, that were never united for long and are basically several smaller entities that are not really interested in unity with their neighbors who are supposed to be their countrymen. And then there is the corruption problem. Yemen has long been recognized as one of the most corrupt places on the planet and the civil war has not changed that because Yemen has long been at the bottom of the list.

The most corrupt nations are usually North Korea, Yemen, Syria, South Sudan and Somalia. The least corrupt at the top of the list are New Zealand and Denmark, Finland, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Netherlands, Canada and Luxembourg, followed by the industrialized states that are democracies, or at least well-run monarchies. A classic example of the impact of a socialist police state versus free market democracy is Korea. North Korea is one of the most corrupt while South Korea is closer to the top of the list.

January 11, 2023: The Shia rebels lost eight men in a clash with government forces on the ceasefire line. Five of the dead were described as leaders (as two colonels and five lieutenants), which indicates an ambush or a surprise attack using artillery.

January 6, 2023: In the south (Abyan province) seven STC militiamen were killed and many more wounded by a roadside bomb. It was apparently AQAP members who placed and detonated the bomb. The STC forces have been very active in Abyan province seeking AQAP personnel and their hideouts.

An American warship intercepted another smugglers boat traveling Iran to the Red Sea coast of Yemen controlled by the Shia rebels. This was a dhow (traditional wooden cargo ship) that was found to be carrying 2,116 AK-47 rifles for the Shia rebels in Yemen. This is the third such interception in three months. There is a naval blockade of the Yemen coast and the Americans provide an interception force closer to the Iranian ports the smuggling boats leave from with their hidden cargoes. The Americans appear to have improved their intelligence on how the Iranian smuggling to Yemen operates. Information may also be coming from inside Iran where a lot of Iranians are seeking to overthrow their government and halt expensive overseas operations like the civil war in Yemen. Were it not for Iranian support, the Yemeni rebels would have been defeated long ago. The Iranian aid to the Yemeni rebels is not subtle. There are many Iranians specialists from the IRGC Quds Force in Yemen. These are led by a retired Quds Force general who is the Iranian ambassador to rebel controlled Yemen, which is about a third of the country, including the capital. The rebels are on the defensive because Iranian aid has been sharply reduced in the last year because of the blockade and increased economic sanctions on Iran.

January 5, 2023: The United States announced a $5 million reward for information on the location of Ibrahim Al Banna (aka Abu Ayman Al Masri), one of several senior leaders of AQAP, which has been based in Yemen since it was founded in 2009. Al Banna is the last of the founding members of AQAP. Back then he was middle-management but has slowly moved up the ranks because so many senior leaders have been killed. For example, in early 2021 AQAP confirmed that their leader, Qassim al Rimi, a personal friend of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, was killed by an American airstrike in November 2020, along with two of his associates. Khalid Batarfi was named the new (and current) AQAP leader. AQAP has been less active since 2017, waiting to see how the civil war will end. Yemen 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. ISIL forces in Yemen are even fewer and also less active. Banna has been recognized as one of the key AQAP members since 2014 and counter-terrorism agencies have kept detailed records on his activities.

Since 2017 AQAP has been under heavy attack by the Americans and the Arab coalition and AQAP responded by shifting more of their attacks from Shia rebels to the government and Arab coalition forces. ISIL and AQAP were fighting each other a lot after mid-2018 and since early 2020 ISIL has not been very active. ISIL lost this war and some ISIL factions are known to be hiding out in Shia rebel territory. That requires offering some cooperation with the Shia rebels and that apparently includes useful intel on what is going on in the rest of Yemen, where ISIL still has fans. ISIL and AQAP are both trying to rebuild, especially after the losses (including defections) during its battles with each other.

December 3, 2022: An American warship intercepted another fishing boat traveling Iran to the Red Sea coast of Yemen controlled by the Shia rebels. Over 50 tons of munitions were found and removed.

Source: Ocnus.net 2022