30 December 2009

Yemen: More Questions Than Answers

So, how prescient was Unleashing Chiang? Just a day after this blog highlights the problems the US faces in dealing with Yemen, the Fruit of the Loom Bomber puts Yemen squarely in the national debate and Americans start to take notice.

So I've been reading the new spurt of articles out on Yemen and thinking more about how the US should approach Yemen in the past couple of days. Some thoughts and questions below.

1.) My last post stated that Islamic Jihad of Yemen was the main AQ-affiliate in Yemen, but I have since learned that IJoY has merged with the Saudi branch of AQ to form Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The group has its roots in a 2006 jailbreak of many AQ members from a jail in Sanaa.

2.) The northern Houthi rebellion is often described as a Shi'ite minority group fighting against a Sunni central government. This requires sort of a "yes, but..." President Saleh and many other leading figures are actually members of the Zaydi sect of Shi'ism--practiced by the Houthis--as well. According to the Jamestown Foundation, the Zaydi sect probably has more in common theologically with Yemeni Sunnis than with the Ayatollahs in Qom or Tehran.

3.) And what exactly is Tehran's role here? Both Sanaa and Riyadh claim that Tehran is giving support and assistance to the Houthis. This certainly doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility, given the Iranian regime's history of supporting Shi'ite groups working against Sunni regimes. But I haven't seen much actual evidence. There is, of course, clear evidence that Saudi Arabia is interfering on behalf of the Yemeni government.

Stratfor is more sure than I am. They even claim that the recent Iranian deployment of ships to the Gulf of Aden was actually in support of the Houthis and was not actually sent as a pirate deterrent, as was claimed:

While Somali pirates may be a security issue in the Gulf of Aden, this is not the only reason for the deployment. Iran is engaged in an escalating proxy battle with Saudi Arabia in the Saudi-Yemeni borderland, where Iran has been arming a Shiite Houthi rebellion to threaten Saudi Arabia’s underbelly. Iran appears to be using the naval assets to protect its supply lines to the Houthi rebels.

Though there is no shortage of weapons in Yemen, Iran has ensured that the Houthis remain well-stocked. STRATFOR sources have reported that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are training Houthis on how to produce improvised explosive devices for use in their insurgent campaign against Saudi and Yemeni forces.

According to STRATFOR sources, the traditional supply route Iran uses to arm the Houthis starts at Asab Harbor on the Eritrean coast. IRGC officers buy and transport weapons in Somalia and Eritrea, and then load them onto ships at the harbor. The ships then cross the Red Sea northward to Salif on the Yemeni coast. From Salif, the supplies pass through Hajjah and Huth in northern Yemen before reaching Saada, where the Houthi rebels are concentrated.

This route, however, has become more problematic for the Iranians ever since Saudi naval forces deployed three warships along the Red Sea coast of northern Yemen on Nov. 12 to interdict the arms, though STRATFOR is still examining Saudi interdiction tactics and the quality of the intelligence used to identify arms shipments. This traditional route is still being used to transport light arms, but given the Saudi deployment, Iran has shifted to a longer route that also begins at Asab Harbor, but then snakes around the heel of the Arabian Peninsula in the Gulf of Aden before reaching Shaqra on the southern Yemeni coast. From Shaqra, the supplies go to Marib in central Yemen, on to Baraqish and finally reach the Saada Mountains. Throughout the supply chain, bribes are paid to various tribes to facilitate the arms shipments.

The IRGC also has been involved in ferrying Hezbollah fighters to Yemen to support the Houthi insurgency. A STRATFOR source claims that around 60 of Hezbollah’s fighters have died in the conflict thus far. Their corpses were sent by boat to Asab Harbor in Eritrea, from which the IRGC flies them to Damascus. From the Syrian capital, the bodies are transported by land to the fighters’ home villages for burial.

Is an Iranian-Eritrean-Houthi-Hizbollah axis forming (can there even be a 4-pronged axis?)? Who knows?

4.) How intertwined are the 3 different problems I addressed in my previous post in Yemen: Al Qaeda, the Houthi Rebellion, & the southern secessionist movement? I really have no clue. Some expert on the teevee said that there were "jihadists" leading the southern movement. I can't imagine, though, that AQ would be much interested in helping the Houthis given their tendency to mass murder Shi'ites whenever possible.

5.) Can the U.S. aid Sanaa in the fight against AQ without indirectly helping them against the Houthis or southerners? It certainly seems that military training, equipment, and aid is fungible and that all of these skills and resources can be redirected against the regime's other opponents. Are we okay with this? Is there any way to avoid this? Do the benefits of attacking AQ outweigh the costs of propping up the Saleh regime against its domestic opponents?


  1. The Eritrean angle is completely made up by the Eritrean opposition to put wedge and further isolate the country.

    The Eritrean president challenged the media about the allegation, including the Iranian submarine base and ballistic missile non sense. He challenged the media to come with the location and GPS location, and he will take them there with courtesy of his government. There are no takers so far.