Yemen: A Remarkable Lack Of Trust


May 14, 2019: The Red Sea port of Hodeida is now able to resume operations. Normally Hodeida handles 70 percent of the emergency aid (food, medicine, fuel) for people in northern Yemen. There are still government suspicions that the “local militias” that took over when the rebels left the three ports are in fact allies of the rebels. The UN inspectors were unable to verify that but insisted the UN was now in control of the ports. The government points out that, before the rebels were forced to withdraw from these ports, the UN personnel supervising the aid shipments were unable to inspect suspicious cargoes which, the government points out, obviously contained major weapons shipments. How else do you explain the appearance of nearly a hundred Iranian long-range missiles used in attacks on Saudi Arabia? Most of these missiles were shot down by Saudi missile defense systems and there were plenty of missile fragments left to analyze and conclusively prove what model of Iranian missile they were. The UN agreed with that and condemned Iran. There have been no more Iranian missiles smuggled in since the ports were shut down in late 2018 by a land and a naval blockade. Now the UN plans to resume imports at Hodeida without Yemeni government forces checking incoming shipments. Or at least that’s what the rebels want and the UN is willing to concede that just to get the aid shipments moving again. This issue will be a major item at the Jordan peace talks.

One thing is clear, the Shia rebels have grown noticeably weaker and less effective. There have also been more rebel press releases describing imaginary missile and UAV attacks on Saudi Arabia or Arab Coalition forces in Yemen. While the rebels have made such attacks before there has been very little of that in 2019. Real attacks leave behind evidence (fragments of destroyed UAVs and missiles as well as damaged property and casualties, or at least people who witnessed the attacks). No such evidence for the many claimed attacks in 2019. This appears to be straight out of the Iranian playbook. For decades the Iranians claimed all manner of accomplishments that were fictional but effective at encouraging their supporters in Iran and elsewhere. These imaginary Shia rebel attacks apparently serve the same purpose.

Plunder Poverty

Ever since early 2017, the UN has urged the Shia rebels to peacefully give up control of the Red Sea port of Hodeida but the rebels refused to seriously consider this until finally forced to do so recently because of the continued presence of government forces around the port and Arab Coalition warships blocking access to the port. Even proposals that Hodeida be turned over to a neutral third party are turned down. This was not a matter of trust; it was a matter of survival for the rebels. In part this was because of the smuggling. The rebels have prevented UN personnel from inspecting aid shipments (for weapons and other contraband) and the government claims the rebels have been seizing aid shipments and preventing UN personnel from verifying that the aid is going to civilians. Meanwhile lots of evidence accumulated of how the rebels looted aid shipments. The rebels also obtained weapons and other contraband hidden among the aid shipments. Iran paid for most of that smuggling, in addition to using small craft pretending to be fishing boats, to land less bulky weapons (rifles, ammo, explosives, small rockets). The cell phone photos and videos of this got out even as the rebels made it more difficult for foreign journalists to get in unless they were from friendly nations (Iran, China, Lebanon and a few others). Since late 2018 there have been no significant aid shipments coming in via Hodeida and the growing shortages in rebel-controlled territory forced the rebels to give ground and withdraw from the ports.

As long as the rebels held onto Hodeida, and Iran still has powerful allies in the UN (mainly Russia and China, who can veto some measures), the smuggling could continue. This was necessary for the use of food to control civilian populations that are hostile to the rebels. Over time that food tactic backfired and turned many civilians against the rebels. By the end of 2018, the government and coalition forces concentrated on taking Hodeida and other Red Sea coast areas held by the Shia rebels. That has apparently worked but it has been slow going and increased casualties among government and coalition forces. Some weapons are still smuggled in via government-controlled ports, like Aden. This involves more risk, and more bribes, to get trucks carrying aid or commercial goods, along with illegal weapons, to the rebel-controlled territory.

Taking Hodeida does not stop the smuggling, which was able to get ballistic missile components and other Iranian weapons into rebel-controlled areas. Enough of this stuff was intercepted to make it clear that Iran was sending weapons meant to hit targets inside Saudi Arabia or take down Saudi warplanes operating over Yemen. These advanced weapons are getting through in large part because Yemen has always been “smuggler friendly.” With Iranian help (cash and diplomacy) the smuggled weapons kept the war going. This was also helped by the fact that Qatar and Oman had always been active in using Yemeni smuggling networks.

A major factor in the rebel withdrawal was the growing weakness of Iran. For over a year Iran has suffered growing popular protests against the religious dictatorship that has run, and ruined, Iran since the 1980s. That plus persistent (since 2013) low oil prices and the revival of American sanctions a year ago have caused Iran to sharply cut spending on its overseas wars (Syria, Gaza, Iraq and Yemen). Smuggling weapons is expensive and Iran has much less to spend on that. Moreover, many of their most successful techniques have been discovered and disrupted. The Shia rebels have few other economic resources without the Iranian aid and now they are seeking to eventually make peace on the best terms they can get. The Shia tribes of the north have been doing that for centuries.

May 13, 2019: New UN sponsored peace talks began in Jordan. A major topic of discussion is how to divide the revenue from the three ports the rebels withdrew from. This revenue sharing was part of the December peace deal but the precise terms (who would get what, when and how) had not been addressed. That revenue is for paying Yemen civil servants in both government and rebel-controlled territory. In rebel areas, much of that pay is “taxed” to keep the rebels going. Because of the Hodeida blockade, most civil servants in rebel areas have not been paid much, if at all, in 2019.

The Yemeni government is again accusing the UAE (United Arab Emirates) of supporting southern separatists in Yemen and continuing to expand its military presence and influence in the Yemeni Socotra Islands. The main island is in the Gulf of Aden, 380 kilometers south of Yemen and 240 kilometers from the northeast tip of Somalia. The population is 60,000 and the island (and a few much smaller ones) lies within busy shipping lanes from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea. Yemen accuses the UAE of seeking to support Socotra separatists (which are currently few in number) to demand more economic links with and investment from the UAE. Saudi Arabia sides with Yemen on this issue. Exactly a year ago the UAE began withdrawing its troops from Socotra. The UAE forces had been there for two weeks, which angered many of its Yemeni allies who felt the UAE was trying to annex Socotra. Saudi Arabia stepped in and agreed to take over the economic development program for Socotra which the Yemeni government saw the UAE turning into an effort to make Socotra economically and politically dependent on the UAE. The UAE has always been more aggressive in this regard while the Saudis have not.

May 12, 2019: UN inspectors confirm that the Shia rebels are withdrawing from port areas as agreed. Government Coast Guard personnel are moving in to take control of the port areas and check for any problems. The government points out that these “coast guard” personal are locals and got their jobs with the permission of the rebels. There is a trust issue here

May 11, 2019: A month after the Shia rebels said they would finally implement the December peace deal that was supposed to reopen the Red Sea port of Hodeida, Saleef and Ras Isa, they are finally moving their forces out of these areas today and turning security over to local forces. The departure of the Shia rebels, especially from Hodeida, is essential for delivering emergency food and other aid to northern Yemen. Iran had persuaded the Shia rebels to stall but that advice lost its appeal as the rebel situation worsened everywhere, not just at Hodeida. Iran had problems of its own at home and elsewhere and as not been able to help much. Per the December peace deal, the Shia rebels have until the 14th to get all their forces at least five kilometers from the ports. At that point, both the government and rebel forces will move their troops back 18 kilometers from the ports and their heavy weapons (artillery and long-range rockets) 30 kilometers.

The Shia rebels have not given up control over all the export facilities near Hodeida. The rebels still control a large oil tanker (the Safer) moored 50 kilometers northwest of Hodeida and until seized by the Shia rebels in 2015, a key element for exporting Yemeni oil. At the time of its capture the Safer had about a million barrels of oil on board and the rebels have not allowed anyone to examine the Safer since then, despite warnings that without maintenance explosive gasses build up in the storage tanks and that creates the risk of large explosions and a massive oil spill into the Red Sea. The rebels were demanding that the oil on the Safer be sold and they receive most of the proceeds. The government refused to allow this.

The government revealed that it had recently shot down eleven rebel UAVs equipped with explosives. These UAVs were sent to attack the Yemen parliament which has resumed meeting in the southeast (Hadramawt province). There is still some threat from these Iranian supplied UAVs, but while these are smaller and easier to smuggle in there appears to be a limited number of them left in Yemen because of the numerous Arab air raids during 2019 against bases they operate from. While the ballistic missile attacks have been halted there has only been a reduction in the use of armed (with explosives) UAV attacks. Government forces first encountered Iranian UAVs equipped with explosives in early 2018. There were a few successful attacks with these UAVs used as cruise missiles but since late 2018 the coalition has been quick to detect and destroy these UAVs, either in the air or on the ground.

May 5, 2019: UN inspectors were finally allowed to check grain silos outside Hodeida that hold 51,000 tons of grain. While the silos are controlled by government forces the nearby Shia rebels can fire on roads into the area and that makes it impossible to move the grain out to starving Yemeni civilians. Several days later someone shelled the silos, hitting two of them but not starting any fires. One of the silos hit contained grain. The Shia rebels had, since September 2018, blocked access to the 51,000 tons of grain the UN had stored in silos near milling equipment on the outskirts of Hodeida. In February it was estimated that 30 percent of the grain was already suffering from rot and unsuitable for milling or human consumption. Initially, that grain was sufficient to feed nearly four million people for a month. Now the UN is bringing in grain experts to assess how much of the grain is still edible. Some of the rotted grain can be treated and used as cattle feed but the emphasis is on milling as much good grain and possible and turning the flour into bread.

May 3, 2019: In the southeast (Hadramawt province), some civilians spotted a roadside bomb, apparently planted by Islamic terrorists for use against security forces. The civilians phoned police and while waiting for the bomb disposal techs to show up some of the civilians believed that they could disable it. They were wrong and the explosion left six civilians dead.

May 1, 2019: Arab coalition warplanes attacked the UAV maintenance and operations facilities at the Sanaa airport. The Shia rebels continue to obtain larger, fixed-wing commercial UAVs which they modify to carry explosives and act as cruise missiles to automatically head for the target via the GPS guidance capability in most commercial UAVs. With this approach, the UAVs cannot be jammed and must be shot down. These larger UAVs need an airstrip to take off from and a building where the arming and other modifications take place. These facilities keep moving around because in the last year the Arab coalition intelligence has found the location and promptly hit it with an air strike. This has played a major role in reducing the number of such UAV attacks in 2019.

April 27, 2019: Iran-backed Shia rebels claim to have fired 15 Iranian Zelzal long range (200 kilometers) GPS guided rockets at Arab Coalition forces. The Arab Coalition did not report any such attacks and the rebel announcement may have just been a propaganda effort to encourage its own supporters. The Zelzal rockets weigh nearly four tons each, are 9.4 meters (30 feet) long and 610mm (24 inches) in diameter. It these rockets land somewhere it is noticed. Supplies of these rockets have been halted since government forces surrounded the port of Hodeida in late 2018. The Shia rebels claimed they built the Zelzal 3’s locally which may be partially true as the Zelzal 3 would be easier (or at least cheaper) to smuggle in if it were disassembled in Iran, sent in as components and then assembled in Yemen by Iranians experienced in such things. While there may be few, any, Zelzals left in Yemen there are still plenty of commercial UAVs which the rebels have weaponized (by attaching explosives and detonators). Government and coalition forces claim to have destroyed over 140 of these UAVs since 2017, either by shooting them down or destroying them on the ground. The rebels can still obtain these UAVs because they are commercial items that are widely available in stores or by mail. Recovering and examining fragments of destroyed UAVs will eventually lead you to the supplier (or at least the last legal one). Nothing has been made public about investigations seeking the source of these UAVs but that is normal. You don’t want the smugglers to know how close you are to catching them. In any event, there are still rebel attacks using UAVs but there are fewer of them in 2019.

April 19, 2019: Across the Gulf of Aden, off the north coast of Somalia, pirates captured a Yemeni dhow. The anti-piracy patrol eventually learned of it and after five days captured the five pirates responsible and freed the dhow and its crew. During those five days, the pirates used the captured dhow to attack ships far offshore. This is how the anti-piracy patrol learned of the captured dhow and its conversion into a high seas pirate mothership. Even far from shore (beyond where pirate speedboats launched from land, not a mothership) foreign commercial ships are still alert to the pirate threat and that is why in the few days before the anti-piracy patrol caught up with them, the pirate attacks on three ships failed and simply made it easier for the anti-piracy patrol warships to catch up with them.




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