Yemen: Victories And Defeats


April 25, 2015: A month of air attacks by the Arab Coalition has done a lot of damage, killed about a thousand people (as many as half of them civilians) but the Shia rebels still control a third of the country, including the two largest cities (Sanaa and Aden). Losses from the ground fighting appear to be heavier but the air raids have done a lot of damage to the Shia rebels. At the same time the Shia rebels claim to be the only ones fighting AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) Islamic terrorists. That is generally true as these two groups are Sunni and hate Shia big time. ISIL and AQAP are also at war with each other but that seems to have been put aside for the moment because there are so many armed Shia to go after. Because of this de facto Islamic terrorist assistance counter-terrorism efforts by government forces (mostly in disarray anyway) and various Sunni tribal militias (who outnumber the Shia but are not united and often at odds with each other) have largely lapsed. The only ones fighting the Sunni Islamic terrorists are the Shia rebels and the Americans. The bombing and continued fighting has created another 150,000 refugees.   

The Saudi coalition is using smart bombs and missiles and tried to avoid civilian casualties. But the Shia paid attention to past experience with this sort of thing and noted that using human shields worked against Western nations. So the Shia moved their bases into residential areas. Actually many of the Shia fighters already lived in residential areas. The Shia forces have captured many military bases but tended to loot and leave rather than occupy the base. Apparently the Arab pilots were not dissuaded by the human shields and attacked Shia forces wherever they could find them. The coalition air strikes also went after the many military bases controlled by commanders who were neutral or siding with rebels. A primary target in each base was its major weapons (tanks, artillery, ballistic missiles and air defense systems) and ammo supplies. This resulted in many spectacular secondary explosions as smart bombs triggered ammo to detonate.

The Saudi led Arab air coalition has launched 2,500 recon and attack sorties into Yemen since March 26th. No pilots have been lost, largely because smart bombs were used and that enabled the aircraft to remain high enough to be out of range of Shia anti-aircraft weapons (heavy machine-guns and shoulder fired missiles).

The Saudis have suffered casualties on the ground since March 26th. These losses have been small (less than a hundred dead and wounded), considering the number of men (over 20,000 troops) the Saudis have on that part of the border. The Saudis claim to have killed far more (over 500) Shia rebels in the same time but this appears to be a gross exaggeration. The western border area has been occupied by Shia tribes for centuries. The current border was only established, by force, in 1934 when the Saud family created Saudi Arabia. This was done with a tribal coalition organized and led by the Sauds. Some of those tribes were Shia and are just across the border from similar Shia tribes in Yemen. The Sauds have treated their Shia tribes well and the Saudi Shia obviously live better than their Yemeni cousins. That is largely why there has been no unrest from the Saudi Shia tribes. But the Yemeni Shia have always believed that the way the Sauds drew the border 80 years ago unfairly stole some land belonging to the Yemeni Shia and now these long simmering disputes have erupted into border skirmishes. While the Saudis have more armed men on the border, men who are better trained and armed than the Yemeni Shia, these Yemeni Shia have combat experience and won skirmishes in 2009 that the Saudis have not forgotten. An investigation of the 2009 defeat revealed more of what Western (mainly American) military trainers and advisors have been saying for years; officers and NCOs are not good quality and there is little pressure from the top to improve. The same can be said for most Saudi troops. The problem is that military service is not popular as there are easier ways for a Saudi citizen to make a living (government job or unemployment benefits) and many members of the military would quit if pressured to improve their performance. The Saudis try to make up for this by purchasing all the newest and most capable weapons money can buy. That really doesn’t work well for the ground forces, although Saudi troops do have basic skills and respond to patriotic appeals, especially the danger of invasion, especially one leading an Iranian takeover of Saudi oil. So on the Yemen border Saudi troops manning artillery and mortars manage to fire accurately at Shia rebels facing them. But close combat is another matter.

These 2009 defeats (which were officially, at least in Saudi media, victories or stalemates) were very embarrassing for the Saudi monarchy because there were at least 109 Saudi dead and many more wounded and these injuries and funerals could not be completely covered up. The king does not want more such defeats. The Shia rebels tried to make something of their psychological edge by threatening to invade Saudi Arabia if the air campaign were not halted. The Saudis countered that by ordering their troops on the border to not advance, but not to retreat either and to use their superior firepower to defeat any Shia advance. That was good for the morale of Saudis troops who knew that strategy gave them an edge and greatly reduced potential Saudi casualties. The Shia rebels did the same calculation and have not attempted a major ground advance into Saudi Arabia. There have been some small night raids, apparently all or mostly by Shia and apparently none of these have succeeded. The Saudi troops have night vision equipment, so as long as those on duty at night stay awake the Shia raids will continue to fail.

The coalition air strikes have weakened or distracted the Shia rebels sufficiently to turn the tide of this war. Tribal militias have been able to hold onto their territory and retake some areas earlier lost to the Shia. More army units have decided to back president Hadi or, if they were fighting for the Shia rebels, became neutral or disbanded. The Saudis may not be a military superpower but they have weapons and cash and know how to use both to some effect. Interested parties in Yemen are taking that into account and backing away from the Shia rebels.

ISIL put a video online proclaiming the establishment of a branch in Yemen. There has been some ISIL activity in Yemen since late 2014 and in March ISIL suicide bombers attacked two Shia mosques in Sanaa during prayers, killing 137 and wounding over 300 others. The worshippers blamed the United States and Israel, who are believed by many Moslems to have created ISIL to harm Islam. But the videos and growing evidence from dead or captured ISIL men makes it clear that ISIL is a local product not another American cultural import. That revelation is also unpopular in the Moslem world.  In any event the new, and more likely true, conspiracy is that some of the Sunni tribal forces and government units are quietly cooperating with the Islamic terrorists against the Shia rebels.

Former president Saleh, the target of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Yemen, is now trying to broker a peace deal and thus regain much political power and possibly become president again. Despite being a Shia himself Saleh managed to assemble a coalition of largely Sunni groups that kept him in power for decades. That coalition fell apart in 2011 and Saleh was deposed in 2012, after he had negotiated amnesty for himself. He was replaced by Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi after elections the Shia insisted were unfair (but international observers considered fair).

Saleh did not go into exile but stayed in Yemen and quietly cultivated members of his former ruling coalition that were still loyal to him. While Saleh and the Shia rebels kept quiet about this alliance, it was obvious that Saleh had persuaded many of the military officers who benefitted from Saleh patronage (and that’s a lot of officers) to keep their units either neutral or willing to fight alongside the rebels. This is all the result of the corruption and tribal rivalries Saleh exploited so expertly for decades to stay in power. The Shia rebels made a big deal of attempting to change that but this laudable goal has been lost as a civil war developed that now involves Saudi Arabia, most Sunni Arab nations and Iran. This is Arabia and you make deals but when the deals go sour you scramble for a new arrangement. Thus many of the military commanders who sided with the Shia and Saleh are having second thoughts. Yemenis understand what is going on here as many corrupt military and police officers are themselves seeking amnesty by siding with the winner.

While the Shia still hold a third of the country the economy is collapsing, starvation is becoming a real threat and the rebels no longer appear to have a shot at winning. Saleh is now offering to negotiate, or help negotiate a peace deal acceptable to the major parties. It’s a sad commentary on the state of Yemeni politics when you realize that Saleh has a point, although he has pissed off too many Yemenis by now to become the next president. Despite that, Saleh will probably remain a powerful element in Yemeni politics.

The starvation threat is real and the result of most major shipping companies, which deliver most cargo (including most of the food) ordering their vessels to divert to other (non-Yemeni) ports. That should not be a problem as this often happens when there are major storms. But the situation in Yemen right now is worse than that. Most of the main roads into Yemen come from Saudi Arabia via northwest Yemen. But that is where the Shia rebels come from and those roads are subject to attack by Saudi warplanes and the Saudis have closed those border crossings. There is one main road not from Saudi Arabia and that comes from the east (Oman) and runs along the coast. Most of eastern Yemen (Hadramout province) is thinly populated but as you approach the more densely populated areas you reach parts of the coast controlled by al Qaeda. The major ports are all unavailable because most are either controlled by Shia rebels or Islamic terrorists. The largest port (Aden) is controlled by the government but the Shia rebels are currently inside the city trying to take control of the place. So the Port of Aden is off limits for the major shipping companies. Worse, the Shia rebels have blocked food from entering Aden by road in an effort to force the government defenders to surrender. While the battle for Aden has kept the Shia from claiming it as their own, all the violence has meant that Aden is no asset for the government either. For the residents of Aden, this battle is a catastrophe.

At the moment the only alternative is for cargo ships to go to a non-Yemen port and turn the cargo over to a local shipping company that is willing (for a higher fee) to risk going to a “disputed port” and deliver the cargo. The owners of the cargo, assuming they are not the government of Yemen, can then endeavor to deliver it to its customers (retailers or wholesalers). That will drive the costs up and delay deliveries. A lot of the food is foreign aid and the aid groups will have to negotiate with various warring parties before the aid can be delivered to the hungry Yemenis who need it. In anticipation of these delays the prices of food are already rising (doubling or more) in some places. People will go hungry and some will be hungry for a long time if they are in an area that is difficult for trucks to reach because of fighting or bandits. The UN is trying to negotiate some form of truce deal to allow food to reach a population that imports 90 percent of its food.

One minor victory for the Saudi led coalition (Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, Egypt, Sudan, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt) has been the humiliation of Iran because Sudan joined the coalition. Sudan has been a long time (and well paid) ally of Iran. But the UN has indicted the Sudanese president for war crimes (for his massive attacks on Sudanese Moslem civilians in Darfur) and it was only the willingness of the Sunni Arab nations to restrain the UN that kept the Sudanese leader out of prison. Now it was payback time and Sudan paid their debt. At the same time the Saudis suffered a notable diplomatic defeat as well. Most Moslem majority nations (that contain most of the world’s Moslems) did not actively support the Arab coalition’s operation in Yemen. Most Moslems see this as an Arab-Iran dispute and feel no reason to get involved. Thus Saudi diplomats insist that Arabs are not at war with Iran, but with rebels in Yemen who happen to be Shia. At the same time Arab newspapers in the Gulf area are pointing out that non-Arab Moslem states need the oil-rich Arabs more than the other way around. That may be true, but few of those other Moslem states are willing to die for the Arabs.

Egyptian public opinion supported sending fighter-bombers and a few warships, but not ground troops, against Yemen. Too many Egyptians remember the last Egyptian involvement in a Yemeni civil war. That one got 10,000 Egyptian troops killed between 1962 and 1967 and is unfairly blamed for the Egyptian defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. Egypt’s new president (a former general) is not enthusiastic about sending troops into Yemen either but Egypt needs the loans and gifts from the wealthy Gulf oil states. Egypt has agreed to send troops to Saudi Arabia for “joint maneuvers” with Saudi forces. That will probably take place near the Yemen border and could quickly turn into the land invasion if the Saudis felt they had no other choice. The Gulf Arabs do have a legitimate reason for keeping a lot of their troops out of Yemen. Iran is more and more threatening and while Pakistan refused to send troops they did promise to come in with troops if Egypt were invaded. The only likely invader is Iran, so Pakistan, also dependent on Saudi generosity, has not entirely backed away. Besides, Pakistan is Sunni and has nukes which is some protection against threats from a future nuclear armed Shia Iran. Meanwhile the growing violence in Yemen has caused nearly 1,500 Egyptians to flee their jobs there and return to Egypt.

April 24, 2015: Former president Saleh called on the Shia rebels to pull out of cities (especially Sanaa and Aden) so peace talks can begin. This is what the UN wants. Saleh appears to have told the Shia rebels that negotiation is their best bet now.

In Iran the Saudi ambassador was called on to justify the recent interception (by Saudi fighters) of two Iranian cargo aircraft trying to deliver aid supplies to Yemen. The Saudis led coalition has established a land, sea and air blockade of Yemen to prevent any resupply for the Shia rebels. The Saudis are trying to arrange food supplies for Yemeni civilians but the Shia rebels are not cooperating with this effort. The UN is trying to convince both sides, but especially the Shia rebels, to allow “humanitarian access”. The Shia rebels are willing to negotiate on that, but the Saudis are not allowing any Iranian ships or aircraft in because they fear the Iranians will try to sneak in weapons, as they have done so often elsewhere over the last three decades. Iran has, so far, not threatened to escalate with their armed forces.

April 23, 2015: An Iranian convoy of nine ships (seven small cargo vessels plus two small warships) that was headed for Yemen has turned around while still off Oman. The presence of an American naval task force may have had something to do with this. As a result of this on the 25th an American carrier and a cruiser moved back into the Persian Gulf to support operations against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Seven other U.S. warships remained close to the Yemeni coast. The U.S. said its warships were there to ensure free passage of all vessels, not to help enforce the recent UN arms embargo against the Shia rebels.

April 22, 2015: In the southwest (Taiz) Shia rebels captured an army base held by troops loyal to president Hadi. Arab warplanes soon arrived to bomb the base sufficiently to destroy most of it.

April 21, 2015: Saudi Arabia announced that its coalition’s air campaign had done its job and would cease operations. This was a gesture to the Shia rebels who were supposed to stop fighting and enter peace talks. The Shia did not stop fighting and the air attacks soon resumed. An American carrier task force moved out of the Persian Gulf towards the Yemeni coast.

April 19, 2015: The general commanding the 15,000 troops along the eastern portion of the Saudi border came out and pledged his loyalty to president Hadi. Like many army commanders this general had remained neutral as the Shia rebels continued to advance. But now that advance has stalled and Saudi forces facing him along the border have been encouraging cooperation. This may have involved a discreet cash payment to the general as this is how the Saudis have long operated with important tribal leaders in Yemen. In a public announcement Saudi Arabia pledged $274 million in humanitarian aid but only if the Shia rebels would step aside and allow the aid in.

April 17, 2015: In the southeast (the port city of Mukalla) several hundred AQAP men arrived in a convoy and took control of an army base outside the city. From there more AQAP men advanced and took control of the port city itself. The Arab air coalition did not respond by bombing the army base now occupied by the Islamic terrorists. To the east in the nearby port city of al Shihr a tribal militia took control and seized the oil export terminal located there. This gave tribal militias and their AQAP allies control of Hadramout province, the largest in Yemen, The province is mostly desert and contains about five percent of Yemen’s population.

April 15, 2015: Saudi Arabia declared that its coalition had established control of all sea, land and air access to Yemen and was nearly finished destroying all identified Shia rebel military facilities.

April 14, 2015: The UN Security Council passed a resolution calling on the Shia rebels in Yemen to stop fighting, withdraw from cities and military bases and negotiate. The resolution also justified efforts to block arms deliveries to the Shia rebels. Russia could have vetoed this resolution but instead simply abstained.

April 13, 2015: In the south (Shabwa province) tribal militias took control of the main natural gas export terminal, after driving away the government guards. Earlier the tribal forces had seized two nearby military bases. AQAP had been attacking the security forces in this area with growing frequency, causing hundreds of casualties. AQAP is believed to be allied with some of these tribal militias.

In the southeast (Hadramout province) a senior AQAP leader was killed, apparently by an American missile fired from a UAV. Ibrahim Suleiman Rubaish was the chief religious leader of AQAP and was briefly held in Guantanamo Bay in 2006 before being transferred to a Saudi prison, from which he soon escaped and fled to Yemen to join AQAP.       

April 12, 2015: A Russian warship and two Russian airliners evacuated 650 people including about 150 non-Russians.

April 10, 2015: Pro-government tribal militiamen fighting in Aden captured two Iranian military advisors. 




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