Category Archives: Yemen

Functional Triage

If you’re going to read this post, you’ll need to discard some dichotomies:

  • Democrat vs. Republican
  • Left vs. Right
  • Rich vs. Poor

Those are the common divisors used to define political polarization. Let’s get under that, let’s turn the clock back ten years, to when peak oil discussions were themselves peaking. Let’s instead consider some inescapable drivers in the world today:

  • climate change
  • peak oil predicted effects, oil/food bilateral trade
  • financial system breakdown due to conceptual error

One of the key concepts that used to come up was triage. I have argued before that we’re in a massive population overshoot, see Dead Gods Of Atacama. We’ve had two centuries of overshoot, fueled first by fossil nitrates in the Atacama Desert, and then by the Haber-Bosch process. Thanks to our oil economy we can move goods … like food … globally. But what happens where there isn’t enough to go around? Or when there are places that simply aren’t going to be habitable?

2016 Fragile States

2016 Fragile States

If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime. But if you’re in a half loaded lifeboat a thousand yards away from the Titanic, you keep rowing the other way, because there aren’t enough life boats and you’ll be swamped if you try to fill your remaining seats. That might sound cruel, but it’s precisely what happened back in 1912 and I think that maybe we’re doing this to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula now.

I’ve worried over Yemen for a long time, in particular their food/water security issues. Things came to a head in 2016 and the dynamic is very different than Syria. Where are those people going to go? Saudi Arabia’s border isn’t porous like Iraq, Lebanon, or Turkey. They can’t very well motor through the Suez like Syrians crossing the 10km to Lesbos. Yemen is a famine trap today the way Somalia was twenty five years ago, with the added excitement of being a Shia/Sunni conflict.

 

There were conversations about an end to American democracy, with a development oriented authoritarian government evolving from our current system. I thought this was likely but expected it to be environmental oriented populism, not this race and religion mess that has emerged. Trump is talking about building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. That’s silly, based on what we know about our special relationship with Mexico – the unprecedented cyclical migration of labor has few parallels.

But what happens over the long haul? Mexico is agriculturally rich … for the moment. What does another 50ppm of CO2 do?  Will our southern border look like the interface between Syria and Turkey? Perhaps.

 

We are in a post-factual world with Trump in office, but these underlying forces are inescapable. We might have a superstitious world view – the denial of climate change – but the race based politics are having the same effect as a clear eyed triage would. Don’t imagine for a minute that it pleases me to notice this, or to report that this is the case, it is what it is.

Muslim Ban? Fragile States?

 

Here’s Trump’s list of banned Muslim countries in red, and the ones where he has business interests are in gold. The unlabeled one at the uper right is Azerbaijan.

Trump's Muslim Ban Countries

Trump’s Muslim Ban Countries

And here’s a fragile states index for the region.

Fragile States Worst

Fragile States Worst

The banned countries are places where the governments have basically collapsed. People are complaining about the relationship between Trump businesses and the presence or absence of a ban. I’m not justifying, nor am I criticizing, I’m just noting that here is some data that hasn’t commonly appeared in conjunction with the coverage of the issue.

This map originally appeared in Fragile States Index 2016.

Former HSV-2 Swift Destroyed Off Yemen

This is the HSV-2 Swift in good shape and under way.

HSV-2 Swift Under Way

HSV-2 Swift Under Way

She was returned to builder Incat, leased to the United Arab Emirates, and I believe the vessel is going to be salvaged after a missile attack off Yemen. This ship is largely aluminum, I see a lot of shock damage, the strike video shows a lot of fire, and all of the electronics and accommodations are torched. The engines are (I think) to the rear and can presumably be reused, but the front half of this vessel doesn’t look suitable for restoration.

HSV-2 Swift Damage #1

HSV-2 Swift Damage #1

HSV-2 Swift Damage #2

HSV-2 Swift Damage #2

HSV-2 Swift Damage #3

HSV-2 Swift Damage #3

HSV-2 Swift Damage #4

HSV-2 Swift Damage #4

Partisan made videos show the launch of a land based missile, claimed to be a Chinese made C-802, but the damage doesn’t look like 330 pounds of high explosives. There were small boats in the area that filmed the strike(s) and subsequent fire. Use of an HJ-8 anti-tank missile or similar weapon seems much more likely than a captured anti-ship missile.

The sea region around Yemen is the Gulf of Aden, which is patrolled by Combined Task Force 151, which was created due to piracy originating in Somalia. Broader regional security of the seas is provided by Combined Task Force 150. If Yemeni Houthi truly had control of a stock of C-802 they could do much more damage than torching a lightly built transport.

Fragile States Index 2016

The Fragile States Index 2016 was just mentioned on beBee and I saw a nice dataset to visualize in Tableau. Here is the original high resolution image:

2016fragilestates

And here is the image that resulted from my very simple import of the data into a Tableau workbook:

FragileStates2016Tableau.png

The states of the Mideast, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa have been an interest of mine for the past several years. Here’s a nit with Tableau, but it’s probably a deficit on my part – the only way I could make Syria visible would be to suppress the appearance of Lebanon. Tableau also treats Western Sahara as Terra Nullius, when it’s an ongoing problem between Morocco which administers it and Algeria which hosts many refugees.

MENAFragileStates.png

Here are the grimmest of the grim, seven states with fragility scores in excess of 110. Iraq is one bad summer away from joining them.

FragileStatesWorst.png

I’ve made a copy of the Fragile States 2016 workbook available. I really should start pulling in other data, but what I want here would be food and water security information, and that’s often scattered and dated.

Yemen’s Food & Water Crisis

Yemen Food Insecurity

Yemen Food Insecurity

Yesterday I saw an article that indicated Yemen’s capitol, Sana’a, could be out of water in a decade. There were some shocking statistics in that article and in the ReliefWeb article that provided the above map.

40% of Yemen’s water is used to cultivate qat, which is labeled as a narcotic, but it’s effect is similar to that of milder amphetamines. Fully 75% of all Yemeni men use this drug, which is both legal in the eyes of the government and accepted under the laws of Islam. The drug is commonly used there, as well as in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

Don’t misread this map; the conflict in Yemen follows the population distribution. The peaceful northeast is that way because it’s largely empty.

Yemen al-Queda

The food insecurity map shows areas where 50% or more of the population aren’t getting enough to eat. This map shows the other 50/50 divide in Yemen – half Shia, half Sunni.

Saudi Peninsula Shia Areas

Saudi Peninsula Shia Areas

Qat is legal to produce, legal to use, and in Yemeni culture it fills a role somewhere between what coffee and alcohol do in western culture. The legality thwarts the formation of illicit networks, but the steady profitability keeps it under cultivation despite the national hunger – it’s doing a fine job of feeding the growers. This Time article provides a good quality read on things.

But khat’s detractors say the leaf is destroying Yemen. At around $5 for a bag (the amount typically consumed by a single regular user in a day) it’s an expensive habit in a country where about 45% of the population lives below the poverty line. (Most families spend more money on khat than on food, according to government figures.) A khat-addled public is more inclined to complacency about the failings of the government, khat ceremonies reinforce the exclusion of women from power and, as is obvious to anyone finding a government office nearly empty on a weekday morning, khat is keeping the country awake well past its bedtime.

Ethnic and sectarian divides provide convenient labels for conflicts, but this drug’s grip on the population of Yemen isn’t a Shia or Sunni thing, it’s an overall cultural thing. What sort of solutions are possible here?

The U.S. has made a huge prohibition mistake with marijuana and American readers will quickly grasp what would happen in Yemen if the government tried to ban qat cultivation. The production would shift to areas outside government control and the popularity of the drug would create profit potential, leading to illicit networks that would further an insurgency.

Islam has more authority, but would a fatwa against production matter? If effective, the cultivation and associated water burden would shift to the Horn of Africa, likely setting off a chain reaction. A fatwa against consumption would reduce water consumption if the populace accepted the directive, but given how deeply qat use is embedded in the culture this would be a massive dislocation.

If an outright ban would not work the government could add a tax to the traffic, but again the illicit network angle would come into play. Rural water use is apparently entirely ad hoc; even if the political will to add a cost to producers existed, there is no infrastructure to support it.

This is a bigger issue than just Yemen or the Horn of Africa. Britain is going to ban the drug, following in the footsteps of the Netherlands, which banned the drug in early January. The Kenyans are concerned for the loss of a multi-billion dollar export and the attendant half million farming jobs. I don’t believe there are illicit network sin Yemen that transport qat, but this was a factor in Somalia.

The dynamic between food, water, and this popular, culturally acceptable stimulant are interesting. I thought this would be a single food security post when I began writing, but it appears I have much more digging to do.

Syrian & Iraqi Conflict Merging, Possibly Spreading

UN envoy: Iraq and Syrian conflicts are merging

That headline appeared in my inbox earlier and I have been dreading it. The Syrian civil war has spilled over into Lebanon, it’s encroaching on Turkey’s territory, and it’s set off troubles in neighboring Iraq, which are now merging into an end to end regional threat.

Let’s take a look at how things got this way. The Ottoman empire laid claim to Syria and Iraq between 1512 and 1566.

Ottoman Empire 1300 1683

And they lost control of the area as a result of picking the wrong side during World War I.

Ottoman Losses 1807-1924

The territory was divided between the English and French via the Sykes-Picot Agreement, with approval from the Russians.

Sykes Picot Partition Of The Mideast 1916

Sykes Picot Partition Of The Mideast 1916

The French Syrian Mandate broke up with the loss of the Sanjak of Alexandretta back to Turkey in 1939 and the independence of Lebanon in 1943.

French Syrian Mandate Territory Losses

French Syrian Mandate Territory Losses

The British Mandate of Mesopotamia became Iraq, an independent monarchy in 1932 and a republic in 1958. Today’s ethnic map is consistent with the boundaries of the original territory. Yellow is for Sunni Arabs, green is Shia Arabs, and the Kurds are in blue.

Iraq Ethnic Groups

Iraq Ethnic Groups

I have written quite a bit about Syria’s patchwork of ethnic and religious groups. Summarizing – yellow are Sunni Arabs in the interior the dun colored areas are Kurds. The coastal region of Syria and Lebanon are very diverse and intermingled.

Syrian Ethnic Groups - Detailed Map

Syrian Ethnic Groups – Detailed Map

The Syrian conflict triggered the troubles in Iraq and the U.N. envoy now reports the two conflicts are merging. I noted that this conflict was also Spilling Into Lebanon. Refugee flows are a big part of that, as they put a support load on their neighbors.

Syrian Refugee Flows

Syrian Refugee Flows

Immediately outside the troubled trio of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, are three regional powers vying for influence – Turkey, Iran, and the money men of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. I wrote about the underlying details in Today’s Tripolar Power Struggle.

Perians, Saudis/Qataris & Turks

Perians, Saudis/Qataris & Turks

Beyond the bounds of the regional players there are global concerns which include:

  • Israel’s ill advised obsession with Iran, somewhat backed by the U.S.
  • Russia’s longstanding relationship with Syria
  • Turkey’s membership in both the European Union and NATO
  • China and Russia’s disapproval of extreme sanctions against Iran
Mideast Regional Map

Mideast Regional Map

Let’s take stock of troubles in the region:

  • Egypt – military coup against Muslim Brotherhood, supported by democratic forces
  • Yemen – outright civil war
  • Bahrain – simmering discontent, sometimes violent
  • Syria – outright civil war
  • Lebanon – being sucked into Syria’s civil war
  • Iraq – being sucked into Syria’s civil war
  • Turkey – massive protests
  • Greece – bank crash, economic implosion
  • Cyprus – bank crash, U.N. brokered peace between Greeks & Turks
  • North Caucasus – long running insurgency, Chechen jihadis turning up in Syria
  • Iran – brand new government, same ol’ impossible sanctions

What, if anything, will the United States do about this?

The U.S. left Patriot missile batteries, F-16s, and 700 troops behind in Jordan this year after the annual Eager Lion exercise.

We seem to have just one aircraft carrier with its attendant carrier strike group in the region.

Information on the disposition of Expeditionary Strike Groups, which contain helicopter carriers, amphibious assault craft, and marines are not as readily available. I believe there is one on station at or near the 5th Fleet HQ in Bahrain and another active in the Mediterranean due to threats to diplomatic posts across North Africa.

We already have Bipartisan Opposition To Syrian Intervention. Today I saw further news to the effect that even the belated announcement we were going to arm the rebels faces Congressional disapproval.

President Obama is facing criticism for having an unclear strategy to resolve the Syrian conflict. Having spent the last ten years field testing neoconservative theories in the Mideast rather than applying pragmatic diplomacy, the White House’s apparent lack of strategy may be in and of itself a strategy. That last map and conflict list looks a bit like the Balkans a century ago, right before World War I engulfed Europe. Given our history in the region anything we attempt is liable to backfire badly.

The three regional powers I described in Today’s Tripolar Power Struggle each have a vision of what qualifies as good governance and only Turkey’s thinking would be vaguely familiar to American voters. “Bringing Democracy To Country X” sounds just grand, but in this part of the world we might want to substitute “a majoritarian blood bath” for the word democracy, and then see how palatable our plans sound. It’s time we listened to those who are there regarding what will and will not work.

Tripolar Power Struggle?

Arabs Persians Turks

Arabs Persians Turks

Since I wrote Post-Assad Syria: Turkey’s Perspective this whole problem of sectarian and ethnic divides has been on my mind. I received some guidance after I published the article, basically that the underlying Bipartisan Policy Center paper U.S.-Turkish Cooperation Towards A Post-Assad Syria was not ‘wrong’, but that it was dated, and overly hopeful about the nature of the Syrian conflict.

This map that I recently found – Arabs, Persians, and Turks – is a good starting point. When do you think this map was created? I think it reflects thinking from closer to the time Egypt and Syria formed the United Arab Republic than today. The population figure of 70 million for Turkey is within the last ten years, but the thinking is dated.

If I were going to draw a tripolar map today I would use …

Turkey Ethnic Groups

Turkey Ethnic Groups

Iran Ethnic Groups

Iran Ethnic Groups

Saudi Arabia Ethnic Groups

Saudi Arabia Ethnic Groups

And right in the middle I would make a point to include these guys:

Kurdistan

The Syrian conflict is a microcosm. Turkey is not keen on having a civil war right next door, Iran does not wish to lose an ally in the region, and Saudi and Qatari money men are funding radicalized Sunni rebel groups. Two of the three parties have taken action regarding the Kurds – the Syrian government made sure theirs were left out of the fighting, the Iranians reignited the Kurdish PKK insurgency inside Turkey as payback for their support of the Sunni rebels. I have not heard any news regarding Saudi or Qatari meddling with Kurdish sentiments, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, that means I haven’t dug hard enough yet.

Unlike Egypt, with is ethnically unified, largely free of sectarian disputes, and currently mired in its own troubles, the Saudi and Qatari money men represent the Arab sentiment in the Syrian civil war. And Saudi Arabia has two problems on its own borders.

The population of Yemen is nearly as large as that of Saudi Arabia, 24 million, and evenly split between Sunni and Shia. I did a backgrounder on Yemen in late December and I republished Time For Congress To Build A Better Drone Policy in mid January, other than that I have not spent much time on this country, but that is about to change.

Yemen Sects

Yemen Sects

Bahrain isn’t represented in my usual map sources but the sectarian divide has been neatly mapped by Justin Gengler.

Bahrain Sects

Bahrain Sects

Here’s a bit tighter shot of Shia dominated areas on the Saudi Arabian peninsula. The group in Yemen numbers about twelve million, the group on Saudi Arabia’s Persian Gulf coast is about three million out of a total of twenty eight million citizens.

Saudi Peninsula Shia Areas

Saudi Peninsula Shia Areas

The Comment, a note from a Jordanian reader, is what pushed me in this direction. While there are ethnic and sectarian divides, they are not as deep as our media would have us believe. Instead, it is the three regional powers here, all former empires in their own right, who are at least partially to blame for fueling conflicts based on these divides.