Yemen: Fantasies Crumble And Turn To Dust

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June 14, 2015: Since the war with the Saudi led Arab coalition began on March 26 th about 2,600 have been killed (half of them civilians) and over 11,000 wounded (about 40 percent civilians). Over 95 percent of the losses have been Yemenis. Saudi warplanes continue to seek out and bomb the homes of those known to be close (family and associates) of former president Saleh. The Saleh family still has a lot of power in Yemen and is seen as a silent (but vital) partner in the Shia rebellion. Long time ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh was the target of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Yemen and has been 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 approved of). Saleh was long suspected to secretly supporting the Shia rebels and that proved to be true once the Shia rebels sought to take control of the government earlier this year. The Shia rebels were a frequent headache for Saleh but after he was deposed it did not surprise most Yemenis that Saleh had quietly developed an alliance with the Shia tribes up north. About a third of Yemenis are Shia and the Shia-Saleh Coalition has attracted some Sunni support (because the Shia have always called for a reduction in corruption and more effective government). Thus the rebels are not only more united but have the support of nearly half the population.

The coalition air strikes have weakened or distracted the Shia rebels sufficiently so that the pro-government forces (a shaky coalition of tribal, separatist and Islamic terrorist militias plus a few military units) to hold onto their territory and retake some areas lost to the Shia advance before late March. Some army units 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. Some of the interested parties in Yemen are taking that into account and backing away from the Shia rebels. But the Shia rebels are not as impressed and know that they could, at the very least, inflict some embarrassing losses if the Saudis sent in troops to capitalize on the convincing Saudi use of air power. The Shia also know they are determined enough to hang onto most of the territory (most of western Yemen) they seized before the bombing began in late March. In response the Saudis have offered to negotiate.

The UN sponsored peace talks were supposed to start in Switzerland today but disagreements over travel arrangements have delayed the start of the talks at least 24 hours. The UN hopes to get a ceasefire and a withdrawal of the Shia rebels back to their homeland in the north. This, in turn, would enable a lot more aid to get in and delivered, which is more of an incentive for everyone as this war goes on and shortages in many areas gets worse.

The Saudi security forces have suffered some casualties on the ground since March 26th. These losses have been small (less than 200 dead and wounded), considering the number of men (over 30,000 troops) the Saudis have on the Yemen border. The Saudis claim to have killed far more (over 500) Shia rebels near the border so far time but this appears to be a gross exaggeration. The Saudis also know that this border area has been the scene of Sunni Shia conflict for a long time and so far the Shia have resisted conquest by being so tough that the cost (in lives and cash) was never worth the Sunni effort to crush Shia power down here. 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 largely Sunni 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 took  land belonging to the Yemeni Shia and now these long simmering disputes have added to the animosity between Saudis and many Yemenis. 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. The Yemeni Shia are more determined fighters because they are poor and have little choice.

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 Saudis do 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 Saudis are using these advantages (which include attack and transport helicopters, better communications and modern MLRS rocket systems) to build confidence among their ground troops and provide practical combat experience without risking any more embarrassing defeats. So far this is working.

In addition to lots of smart bombs many members of the coalition are also shipping in food, fuel and other aid (especially medical). This is critical because the long-term poverty and the disruptions since 2011 have caused most (80 percent, about 20 million) Yemenis to increasingly unable to obtain basics like food, water and fuel. About five million are in really bad shape when it comes to food and water. That number is growing as the air campaign and Shia occupation of Sunni areas continues.

June 13, 2015: Saudi Arabia denied bombing ancient ruins in Sanaa and blame the Shia rebels for the recent explosion there. The Saudis accuse the Shia of hiding ammo and weapons among the ancient ruins in order to protect them from attack and that some of the poorly stored ammunition went off because of the unseasonable intense heat recently.

June 12, 2015: Mortar shells fired from Yemen hit a Mosque in Saudi Arabia, killing one Saudi and wounding another. There was some damage to the mosque.

June 10, 2015: In the southeast (Hadramawt province) an American UAV missile attacked killed three AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) officials near the port city of Mukalla. A similar attack a month ago killed three AQAP members.

June 6, 2015: Shia rebels launched one of their SCUD ballistics against a major Saudi Arabian air base. But the Saudis had quietly moved at least one of their Patriot missile batteries south and two Patriot missiles were launched and the SCUD missile was destroyed before it could hit anything. The Saudis had implied that their air campaign had destroyed all of the SCUDs Yemen was believed to have. SCUDs (almost all bought from North Korea) have been in Yemen since the late 1980s. But as recently as 2002 there were only about twenty of them. Since then Yemen has obtained more and was believed to have (in 2014) six mobile launchers and about 30 missiles. At least one missile and one launcher survived the bombing campaign. The Yemeni SCUDs are believed to be older models with a max range of 300 kilometers. This means these missiles cannot reach the Saudi capital or the major oil fields. Most of the armed forces remained loyal to former president Saleh, who took good care of the military and that was one reason Saleh rule lasted for three decades. So now the Shia rebels can deploy artillery on the Saudi border, although they have to be careful of Saudi airpower and artillery shooting back.

June 4, 2015: For the first time Saudi Arabia publicly admitted that it had been secretly meeting with Israel. The Saudis explained that this was because both Israel and Saudi Arabia had mutual concerns about Iran and nothing more than that. Most Arabs know better and these meetings have been no secret even if their existence was denied officially. For a long time Arabs could not speak out in support of Israel (or even cooperation with Israel against common enemies). That has been changing since the 1990s. Cooperation against common foes (mainly Islamic terrorism and Iran) has grown since its modest beginnings in the 1980s. Saudi Arabia has always been the major supporter of greater, and open, cooperation with Israel, but never on an official level. It has long been an open secret that this relationship existed, has existed for decades and continues to be useful for both Arabs and Israelis. Israel has long urged their secret Arab allies to go public about these relationships but because of decades of anti-Israel propaganda most Arabs believed their people would violently protest against any Arab government that admitted the truth of the Arab-Israel relationship. Then again Arab leaders may simply be paying attention to opinion polls. A recent one showed that 54 percent of Saudis saw Iran as their principal foe, followed by 22 percent for ISIL and only 18 percent for Israel (long in first place).

Some Arab leaders have spoken out in favor of Israel, but usually generated more death threats for themselves and approval from other Arab leaders. Yet there was always progress, however slow, towards openness about the Arab-Israeli cooperation. This could be seen with the Arab battles with ISIL and Iran. Israel made itself useful in both areas, including the recent Saudi intervention in the Yemeni civil war. Despite all this cooperation no Arab government has yet dared to contradict the popular myth that ISIL was the creation of the U.S. and Israel. What has been denied is that that somehow Israel is secretly allied with Iran against the Arabs. Israeli cooperation with the Iranian monarchy (before the Islamic revolution of 1979) was long offered as proof. For these Arab fantasies there is always some kind of proof.  But eventually the fantasies crumble and today another one was reduced to dust.

 

 

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