Date: Thursday, 14 January 2021
About a quarter of the 28 million Yemenis depend on food aid to avoid malnutrition or starvation. Most of the food aid comes in via the Red Sea port of Hodeida. The Shia rebels are still close enough to Hodeida to fire machine-guns or mortar shells into parts of the city where there is resistance to rebel movement or operations. This sort of thing punishes neighborhoods that don’t cooperate. The rebel forces are still close enough to the port to fire on and hit ships trying to enter the port. The rebels are using this veto power over port access to try and extract more money from the UN, which now runs the port. Ships entering the port pay user fees and, before the rebels were forced to withdraw from the port in May 2019, they considered the port user fees part of their income. The rebels also imposed many other fees on the foreign aid groups and paid for the supplies brought in as well as for moving these items, by truck, to areas where the food and other items were desperately needed. The rebels can still impose higher checkpoint fees, as long as they are not so high that traders realize that it would be cheaper to hire smugglers to get the shipments past the rebel toll keepers.
The rebel extortion efforts have backfired. T wo major donor nations (U.S. and Britain) are reducing food and other aid because the Shia rebels refuse to eliminate restrictions on auditing and supervising what happens to aid in rebel-controlled areas. American aid for rebel held areas stopped in early 2020s. The UN continues to document rebel practices that involve destroying, diverting or delaying distribution of aid in rebel held areas where the local civilians will not cooperate with the rebels. Since 2019 the rebels have been recruiting teenagers for their combat forces and many families and tribes will not cooperate. Other tribes continue to oppose the rebels for any number of reasons. No food or medicine for these either. A growing number of hostile tribes are cooperating with the rebels to avoid starvation. What it came down to what that the aid was prolonging the war. In response a lot of the aid is being halted, at least for the rebel-controlled areas.
Since the rebels were driven out of Hodeida, Saudi and UN aid groups were able to repair infrastructure that the rebels were unable or unwilling to maintain during the five years they controlled the port. Same situation in the capital, Saana, which the rebels have also controlled and not maintained. This lack of infrastructure maintenance in large urban areas was the main reason for the return of cholera.
This self-destructive attitude by the Shia rebels was also present among the separatist Sunni tribes in the south. Despite all the fighting since 2014, and similar activity in the 1990s, there are still factions in the north and south who believed unity was overrated and two Yemens was the way to go. After a few years of recent fighting, with most of the population surviving on foreign food aid, regional autonomy or national unity no longer seems relevant. Many of those hungry Yemenis have to pay Shia rebels for this “free food.” The foreign aid NGOS and the UN complain about this but the Shia rebels are armed and dangerous and the UN is not. Not armed that is. That has led to foreign donors reducing their contributions. The aid-per Yemeni fell 50 percent between 2019 and 2020. Part of that was due to the covid19 economic recession, but most of the decline was about the rebels using the aid as a source of income and using the threat of withholding all aid to Yemenis who did not cooperate.
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 neighbors who are supposed to be their countrymen. And then there is the corruption problem, where Yemen ranks as one the most corrupt nations in the world.
Most Iran-backed Shia rebels still believe time is their side as long as the Iranian support continues. Iran understands this as well and is willing to finance the expensive smuggling effort at a reduced level because of the distress it causes the Saudis. The problem with this strategy is that Iran can afford to abandon the Shia rebels while the Saudis cannot afford to have an Iranian ally on their southern border. This fighting in 2020 has left about 4,000 people dead or wounded. Most of the casualties have been civilians victimized by the rebel tactic of trying to hide combat units and supplies in residential areas to discourage air strikes. That only works some of the time.
The Shia rebels are going broke because it costs a lot of money to maintain a force of several thousand gunmen and also pay for the staff of the temporary government the rebels have established in the north. The rebels control access to over a third of the Yemeni population and these are among the most in need of foreign food and medical aid. The Arab Coalition has been 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 in 2019 and persuaded most of the foreign telecommunications firms to abandon the Shia rebels and pay the legitimate government operating from the temporary capital of Aden. As long as Iran is able or willing to make up enough of the lost rebel income, the rebels will continue. That is difficult for Iran because the revived (in 2018) economic sanctions turned out to be more of a burden that the religious dictatorship of Iran expected. That was made worse by covid19, which the Iranian clergy initially declared as something that only killed infidels (non-Moslems). This attitude enabled the virus to spread rapidly throughout Iran before the government took action. That led to more anti-government demonstrations and calls for less spending on foreign wars.
In Yemen there is also a war going on with Islamic terrorists. The remaining ones in Yemen belong to AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) or ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Both these terrorist groups are still around but largely keeping their heads down in rural hideouts. Most of these are in central Yemen and areas to the east. Baida province used to be a major AQAP base area but not so much now as more AQAP factions disperse to other areas in central and eastern Yemen. 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. Since 2017 AQAP has been under heavy attack by the Americans and Arab coalition so the Islamic terrorists 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 but 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. That’s another reason why Yemen is a slow-motion war made slower by hunger, disease and poverty.
January 10, 2021: The U.S. labeled the Yemeni Shia rebels international terrorists. The rebels, also known as the Houthis or Ansar Allah, are sponsored by Iran and regularly attack Saudi Arabia and ships from all nations in the Red Sea. Because the rebels are so dependent on Iran, the new the Iranian ambassador to the rebel government is IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) general Hassan Irloo, who had similar sanctions imposed on him two days ago. Many Western politicians, especially in Europe, oppose the designation of the rebels as terrorists and favor trying to negotiate with Iran and the rebels to achieve a peace deal. The American government and most Arab point out that the main reason Iran backs the Shia rebels is because it gives them a base from which to attack Saudi Arabia, a nation they are at war with. Iran is also at war with Israel and the United States. Iran has a record of not complying with agreed-to treaties and the Yemeni rebels do the same. Unless blocked by the U.S. Congress the Yemeni rebel designation and impact with take effect January 19th.
January 7, 2021: In the southwest (port city of Aden) a large explosion, heard throughout the city, occurred outside the main prison. There was some damage to a prison wall but nothing serious. In response the new Yemeni government, which uses Aden as a temporary capital, imposed more security measures on Aden to suppress dissident separatists or Islamic terrorist groups that are still carrying out assassinations and bombings in the city.
January 6, 2021: Israel is sending an Iron Dome battery to its Red Sea coast and may deploy other anti-missile systems there as well. Israel believes that an Iranian attack from Yemen or Iraq is more likely than one from Syria, where the Israeli military is free to attack Iranian military preparations.
January 1, 2021: In the northwest (the Red Sea port of Hodeida) a Shia rebel rocket fired into the city hit a banquet hall and killed five women attending a wedding. Such random rebel attacks are common and government forces usually respond with artillery aimed at where the rocket or mortar shell was fired from.
December 30, 2020: In the southwest (port city of Aden) three Iranian cruise missiles hit the airport shortly after members of the new Yemeni government arrived from Saudi Arabia. The officials were not harmed but the missiles killed 25 and wounded 110. The airport remained closed until January 3rd. These Iranian missiles are used by the Shia rebels more frequently indicating that the Iranian smuggling network is growing again. The rebels denied that they were responsible for the airport attack and blamed it on Saudi Arabia. Fragments of the three missiles were collected so that precise identification of the cruise missiles could be made. UN investigators are involved in the identification process and have confirmed the Iranian origins of the rockets and missiles (cruise and ballistic) used by the rebels. Also employed are Iranian UAVs equipped with explosives but these are being replaced by Iranian cruise missiles. One such UAV was shot down today as it headed for the Presidential Palace in Aden. Saudi Arabia responded with several air strikes against rebel facilities, including at least one involved in assembling cruise missiles using Iranian components.
The new government incorporates ministers from the STC (South Transitional Council), a group representing southern tribes that want autonomy but claim they are willing to fight and defeat the Islamic terrorists as well as the Shia rebels first. The Saudis and UAE (United Arab Emirates) worked out a compromise that resulted in a new Yemeni government willing to grant the southern tribes autonomy and possibly offer the northern tribes (both Shia and Sunni) a similar deal as long as Iranian influence was eliminated in the north. The southern tribes agreed to make a deal in part because the UAE backed the deal.
The UAE had been in charge of security (and aid delivery) in the south since 2015 and supported the formation of Aidarous al Zubaidi, the STC leader who was more popular in the south than Abdrabu Mansur Hadi the last and current elected president of united Yemen. Hadi has only briefly visited Yemen a few times since 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. The new cabinet ministers, especially those from the STC, are willing to operate from Aden and the south in general.
December 25, 2020: In the southeast (Hadramawt province) a n unexpected outbreak of cholera in the last few months led to an emergency vaccination of vulnerable populations in remote areas. Cholera tends to be seasonal and more common in urban areas. But now it has reached remote villages and it takes a while for UN or Saudi health officials to find out and take actions. There was some religious resistance to these “Western medicines” but because Saudi are recognized as conservative Moslems that resistance to vaccines was not a problem this time.
While the covid19 crises was little noticed in Yemen that was because the new virus turned out to be much less of a problem than the cholera epidemic, which has been going on since 2016. So far over a million people have been infected and over 2,000 of those infected dying, about half of them children. Naturally Yemenis are more concerned with cholera than with the covid19 pandemic. The cholera epidemic has been largely contained even though there were less than a hundred deaths in 2020. That is expected to decline further in 2021 because of the continuing vaccination program. The only unknown is whether the Shia rebels will again try to extort cash from foreign aid groups carrying out the vaccinations.
December 14, 2020: In Saudi Arabia a tanker off the coast near Saudi oil export facility in Jeddah an explosion occurred on a Singaporean tanker. The crew of 22 got off safely and there was some oil leakage. While fighting the fire it was obvious that the cause of the explosion was external, not internal. This is the latest of several successful Shia rebel attacks on Red Sea shipping. These attacks are the result of Iran changing its tactics in Yemen. The Shia rebels are slowly losing territory to more numerous government forces. Saudi air defenses continue neutralizing ballistic and cruise missile attacks. In response Iran has switched to attempting to disrupt Red Sea commercial traffic by damaging tankers and cargo ships using mines and remotely controlled bomb boats. The Iranians shifted to this naval strategy in early 2020 and it is starting to pay off as more and more commercial ships are suffering damage, What the Iranians need is more successful attacks on Red Sea shipping, including a few large ships being sunk. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are very vulnerable to this Iranian strategy. D isrupting Red Sea traffic interferes with the growing percentage of Saudi Arabian imports and exports that move though Red Sea ports. The Saudis want to reduce reliance on Persian Gulf ports. Red Sea security is even more critical for Egypt. Nearly 20,000 ships a year pass through the Red sea headed for the Suez Canal, which earns Egypt nearly $6 billion a year in transit fees. The new Iranian offensive is made possible because Iran successfully shifted its smuggling operations to northern Somalia where the experienced Somali smugglers were looking for work and Iran paid well and on time. The Arab naval blockade has not yet found out how to foil the smuggling boats, which hide among the many fishing boats and coastal cargo ships operating between Somalia and Yemen and north into the Red Sea.