Yemen: Iranians Taking Notes, Just In Case

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May 28, 2015: The Saudi-led Arab coalition airstrikes have done the most damage in the capital (Sanaa) where some 2,000 structures have been destroyed or damaged. Sanaa contains several major military bases and numerous military warehouses. All of these targets have been hit, often multiple times. Over 600,000 civilians have fled the areas (mainly in western Yemen) where the bombs are falling. It’s difficult to get accurate numbers on casualties because the Shia rebels exaggerate civilian losses and minimize the number of their fighters who are killed or wounded. It appears that there are as many as 10,000 casualties so far. Many of them are civilians, in part because the Shia rebels know that even the Arab pilots will try to avoid crowded residential areas and that’s where the rebels try and put the living quarters for their fighters and storage sites for weapons, ammo and other supplies. The Arab coalition does have to respect this somewhat because the Saudi informant network is still active inside Yemen but few of those informants will continue providing information if it gets family or friends killed. Nevertheless the raids have hurt the Shia rebels, as the radio chatter and informant network report them having problems moving safely and keeping their forces supplied with food, fuel and military items. Nine weeks of bombing have hit most military targets (including Shia held airfields and ports) at least once and aerial surveillance is constantly looking for evidence of efforts to repair damage so another attack can be made. Despite all the bombings the Shia rebels still hold on to a lot of western Yemen. The ability of the coalition to supply pro-government tribesmen (often by air via parachute or landing in crude air strips) has given the Shia rebels more armed opposition at a time when Shia military capabilities are declining because of the blockade and air attacks.

The tempo of the air raids has been high with over 120 aircraft involved on some days. Apparently nearly all the bombs dropped have been GPS or laser guided. This is done from high enough (over 3,000 meters) altitude to avoid anti-aircraft fire. While the U.S. has no aircraft or personnel directly involved (except for warships monitoring the naval blockade) the Americans have been sharing their experience with the Saudis and assisting with intel (especially from satellites) and technical assistance in general. This is the first large-scale air campaign the Arab Gulf states have carried out and they see it as a useful training exercise if they should ever have to fight Iran. In turn the Iranians on the ground are taking notes, just in case.

Iran is sending more Quds Force (which creates and supports pro-Iran terrorists worldwide) to Yemen, although getting them into the country is more difficult because of the blockade. It now appears that Iran did have a few Quds Force operatives with the Shia rebels for a few years and moved in hundreds more in the months before the blockade was imposed on March 25th.

This war in Yemen marks a major change in how the Gulf Arab states operate. The Gulf Arabs have a long history with Iran and other hostile outsiders. The solution has always been to seek unity and outside allies. In the 19th century, the coastal emirates (city states that depended on trade, pearls, and fishing) allied themselves with Britain, for protection against the Turks (who controlled what is now Iraq), Iran (always a threat to the Arabs), and the interior tribes of Arabia. Britain was interested in suppressing pirates (which often operated out of the emirates) and halting Turkish expansion. In 1971, seven of the emirates formed a federation: the UAE. There were immediate disputes with Saudi Arabia about where the land and water borders should be. Some of those disputes are still unresolved. The Saudis consider themselves the leader of Arabia, but many in Yemen, Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE often disagree. There is lots of friction. Nevertheless, in 1981, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was formed by Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE was the chief organizer of the council and has constantly quarreled with Saudi Arabia over leadership issues. But when it comes to outside threats, especially the Iranians, there is less quarrelling and a lot more cooperation. It's uncertain if this will be enough to thwart the Iranians. Only an actual war will reveal the reality of the situation. The GCC went to war for the first time in 1990, to help get Iraq out of Kuwait. In that conflict the GCC was a minor partner, at least as far as the fighting went. But in Yemen the GCC forces are carrying most of the weight and determined not to fail. For the GCC sates this is seen, ultimately, as a matter of life or death.

The Shia rebels also have contempt for the Saudi military and continue to fire across the border and dare Saudi troops to advance into Yemen. The last few times there has been ground combat between Shia rebels and Saudi troops the Saudis have lost. Ultimately the Saudis want to change this perception.

While most foreigners have fled Yemen there are some exceptions. Somalia faces a unique problem as thousands of Somali refugees in Yemen are trying, without much success, to flee back to Somalia. There are over 300,000 Somalis just across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen, most of them there illegally. Foreigners, particularly illegal migrants, have become a target in Yemen. The most hospitable and accessible refuge for Somalis in Yemen is Somalia. But only about 7,000 have made it back to Somalia (usually Puntland and Somaliland up north) so far. The rest in Yemen try and stay out of the way and survive.

The best bet for the Somalis is to get cozy with the Somali government as that government controls enough of the port of Aden to bring in more and more shiploads of relief supplies (mainly food, fuel and medical). Moreover the Somalis are Sunnis and many of them back Sunni Islamic terrorism. So getting close to the Shia rebels is not a good option. The Yemeni government is using these supplies to obtain support from Yemenis who are not already backing the government.

Peace talks were supposed to start today in Switzerland but have been postponed once more. While the Shia rebels are willing to talk, the Yemeni government refuses to participate until the Shia rebels pull out of the towns and cities they have occupied this year. This the Shia rebels refuse to do that because control of those places is the one big thing they can trade. The Shia rebels believe that the humanitarian disaster (starving civilians and those without access to clean water, electricity or much help at all) may well force the Arab coalition to back off. Saudi Arabia seems pretty determined to achieve victory no matter what the cost. After all, the Shia rebels live right on the Saudi border and have long been a problem (as smugglers, not people firing across the border). Most Yemenis are just fed up with the inability of their leaders (Sunni or Shia) to work together for the common good and no one really has the respect of most of the population (which is a third Shia, two-thirds Sunni and the Sunnis are divided over separatism and support for Islamic terrorism.)

May 27, 2015: Saudi Arabia has sanctioned two Hezbollah leaders because the Saudis are certain that Hezbollah has personnel in Yemen aiding the Shia rebels. The Saudis long supported Hezbollah (more in words than in deeds) because Hezbollah was in direct contact with Israel, which all Arab states still officially consider the enemy. In fact Israel has become an active, if unofficial, ally of the Arab oil states in their war against ISIL and Iran. The Saudi sanctions make it more difficult for Hezbollah to do business in Arab nations.

May 26, 2015: In the south (al Dali province) pro-government tribesmen drove out the Shia rebels after weeks of fighting. Al Dali is a small province north of Aden with a population of about half a million (two percent of Yemen’s population). To the southwest, in Taiz province, fighting between Shia rebels and pro-government tribesmen continues. The tribesmen have a considerable advantage because of air support and have become more adept at using it during their battles with the Shia rebels.  

May 25, 2015: Up north on the Saudi frontier fighting between Shia rebels and Saudi troops have left the Haradh border crossing, the largest one for people and vehicles, largely destroyed.

May 24, 2015: Egypt announced that it would contribute ground troops to deal with the Yemeni rebels if necessary. This is a change in policy as before Egypt said it would only send in ground troops if Iran attacked Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are not confident in the ability of their ground forces to win a quick and decisive ground battle in Yemen. Anything less would reflect badly on the Saud family which created the kingdom in the 1920s after years of victories by the pro-Saud tribal warriors. It has always been assumed by most Saudis that Saudi troops were still capable of kicking ass. To discover otherwise would stir up internal opposition to Saud family rule of the kingdom. It has been known (in Saudi Arabia and throughout the region) for decades that the Saudis had lost their military edge. But because of all that oil wealth the Arab language media has not dwelled on the situation.

May 23, 2015: An Iranian ship carrying 2,800 tons of aid for Yemenis docked at Djibouti, which is across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. This is a compromise solution to Iranian efforts to dock at a Yemeni port despite threats by Arab countries and the United States to sink the ship if it tried to unload in Yemen. There was fear that the ship also contained weapons and other military equipment for Iran supported Shia rebels in Yemen. The UN will inspect the Iranian ship in Djibouti and if no illegal cargo is found, supervise the movement of the supplies to Yemen. One reason Iran went along with this is that the UN now has evidence (mostly from the Americans) that in the recent past four Iranian cargo ships docked at Shia rebel held ports in Yemen after using deceptive measures (turning off their transponders, which is illegal for maritime safety reasons, and frequently changing course) until they managed to reach a Shia held port in Yemen to unload. The naval patrols are much tighter now that the Arab coalition went to war with the Shia rebels in Yemen in late March. Since then Iranian aircraft and ships have been barred, by threats of force, from entering Yemen.

An Iranian aircraft with 20 tons of relief supplies tried to land at Djibouti but was turned away. The air freighter had tried to land in Yemen but damaged airfields and threats from coalition fighters turned the Iranians away towards Djibouti. After failing to get permission to land in Djibouti the aircraft flew back to southeastern Iran.

May 22, 2015: ISIL took credit for the bombing of a Shia mosque in Sanaa that left 13 wounded. The bomb was placed in the mosque and detonated remotely or via a timer. ISIL and AQAP are at war with each other in Yemen but appear to have an informal truce at the moment, at least until the Shia rebels are defeated.

May 18, 2015: Two Iranian warships caught up with the Iranian cargo ship trying to force its way past the blockade around Yemen. This bluff did not work and Iran agreed to dock elsewhere.

May 15, 2015: In the southeast (Hadramawt province) AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) Islamic terrorists have allied with separatist tribesmen to keep Shia rebels and pro-government forces out. AQAP also banned the use of Khat. This is a popular move for many Yemenis. Most of the water consumed in Yemen is used for growing Khat, which only contributes a few percent of the GDP. Khat is a plant that has grown in Yemen for thousands of years. Khat leaves when chewed give you more of a buzz than caffeine or nicotine, but less than stronger drugs. It is addictive and until the 1950s was grown by farmers for their own personal use as a stimulant. Khat was used like that long before anyone figured out how to use coffee beans to produce a stimulating liquid. One thing that kept Khat local was the fact that the leaves quickly (a few days after being picked) lose their potency. In other words, Khat did not travel well while coffee beans and tea leaves did. That all changed after World War II when roads, trucks and air transport became widely available. Suddenly Khat had an international market for those who could afford to pay and had a taste for it. Yemen was the one Khat growing area that was close to affluent Khat consumers; namely people in the Arab oil states of the Persian Gulf. The other area where Khat grew easily was Ethiopia, which was deep in Africa surrounded by poverty and far from anyone able to pay for Khat. Yemen was the only Arabian state without a lot of oil but with the largest population. Khat was suddenly a way to make a lot of money. Despite the fact that many nations (including most of those in the Middle East) outlawed Khat (because of its unfortunate side effects, especially the addiction) the stuff was very popular with those who grew up with it. This included many people in Yemen. With all that oil wealth came a demand in the Arab oil states for workers. The pay was good and Arabs were preferred. This led to millions of Yemenis going off to the Arab Gulf States to work. Some got rich and nearly all sent money home. So much money was being sent back that by the end of the 20th century such remittances comprised over a quarter of the Yemeni GDP. That began to shrink after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and threatened Saudi Arabia. Many Yemenis backed Iraq and Islamic terrorism and the Arab oil states took this as an unfriendly act and fired a lot of their Yemeni employees. It did not go unnoticed that the bin Laden family came from Yemen and made their fortune in Saudi Arabia. These days the remittances are only a few percent of GDP. But before the collapse in remittance income after 1990 many Yemenis developed a taste for Khat, and so had many Saudis, even though Khat was illegal in Saudi Arabia. Thus the demand for Khat increased, but mainly for export. The oil money may be gone, but the curse of Khat remains and most of it is now smuggled into Saudi Arabia.

May 13, 2015: A five day “humanitarian pause” began which is supposed to halt all fighting and allow relief supplies to travel freely. Some fighting did continue but most of the supply trucks were allowed to move freely and make deliveries. The UN had brought in, via the Shia controlled Red Sea port of Hodeida and government controlled Aden lots of relief supplies. The naval blockade force allowed the UN ships to pass and the ceasefire allows the supplies to be moved from Hodeida and Aden to people throughout southwestern Yemen.  The ceasefire ended on the 17th and the fighting air strikes resumed.

May 11, 2015: In the southeast (Hadramawt province) an American UAV missile attacked killed four AQAP officials near the port city of Mukalla.

May 10, 2015: A Moroccan F-16 crashed in Yemen. The Shia rebels claim to have shot it down but equipment problems were more likely. The pilot was killed.

 

 

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