Yemen: Iran Gets An Unwelcome Reality Check

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October 12, 2015: For Iran Yemen is a rare defeat and one that is getting worse. The Iran-backed Shia rebels are not willing to give up and that creates more problems for Iran. This is all because the Shia tribes of north Yemen had been independent, or at least autonomous, for centuries. But in the 1960s that autonomy was officially taken away and that has not been forgotten. Since then the Shia tribes have demanded the return of their autonomy. That demand was not popular with most Yemenis until 2011 when the Shia tribes used to the Arab Spring unrest to create reform movement including suppression of corruption and more autonomy for the Shia tribes of the north and some of the Sunni tribes of the south. All this was popular with many Yemenis and the Shia tribes had a growing number of non-Shia tribes quietly supporting them. Actively supporting the Shia was difficult because most Yemenis are Sunni and that still prevents close cooperation between the two religious sects. Moreover, many Sunnis throughout Arabia believe Iran backs and controls rebellious Shia living in the Arabian Peninsula. It turned out that the Iranian support was real and the Shia tribes support for good government and autonomy was mostly a cover for Iranian efforts to turn Yemen into another Syria or Lebanon (two countries where Iran backed Shia minorities dominate the government.) Iran made no effort to hide this support once the Shia tribes seemed on the verge of seizing control of all Yemen in early 2015. This caused the non-Shia support for the rebels to disappear and for neighboring Sunni states (led by Saudi Arabia) to intervene militarily. That was very rare because the Gulf Arabs prefer to bring in foreign troops (as allies or mercenaries) for situations like this. Not this time and all the troops involved were from Arabia. This was costly in terms of Arab lives, especially the many Yemeni civilians killed by Arab air strikes and the growing number of Arab soldiers who have died in combat.

Iran appears to have conceded the military defeat but is still fighting on the media front, giving lots of coverage to Arab “war crimes” committed by Arab pilots against Yemeni civilians. The Iranians really don’t care much about dead Arab civilians but do care about the bad effect these Arab air operations are having on Iranian morale. It is now obvious to Iranians that the despised Arabs can carry out an extensive and lengthy air campaign. The targets could just as well be Iranian cities and it has always been an Iranian nightmare that the Arabs would actually learn to operate all those expensive weapons they have bought from the West. Thus the most important casualty in Yemen is Iranian arrogance towards Arab military capabilities.

Iran has convinced the Shia rebels to accept a UN peace proposal but it appears that not all the Shia tribesmen are willing to go along. Some of the Shia tribal leaders fear retaliation for all the death and damage the Shia rebellion has caused. Over 5,000 people have died so far and the economy is in ruins. These Shia want some more concrete guarantees that there will not be equally devastating retaliation after “peace” is achieved. So while the UN scrambles to get a ceasefire implemented the Arab offensive continues. If there is no ceasefire by the end of the year the capital will be captured and the Shia tribes will face a final battle in their home territories of the north.

In the southwest (Taiz) pro-government forces have captured most of the province but some Shia rebels continue to hold out. This resistance won’t last much longer because Shia strength in the province and territory held has been gradually shrinking since August. The Arab air strikes are constant and pro-government tribes have cut regular access to rebel held bases outside Taiz. The Shia resistance has been so stubborn in Taiz because province has lengthy Red Sea coastline which is useful for smugglers to bring in weapons and other aid from Iran. But now that the Shia rebels have lost control of the Taiz coast and the the narrow strait into the Red Sea the Iranian smuggling operations along the Red Sea coast are much more difficult. There are still Red Sea smugglers who will (for a much larger fee) move stuff in but if there are no friendly coastal areas to land the cargo the effort is wasted.  The government forces have also captured most of the central Yemen province of Marib which brings them close to the capital (Saana).

Saudi Arabia has its lobbyists in the West working overtime to deal with accusations, especially those sponsored by Iran, that the Saudi led Arab coalition air attacks in Yemen has killed more civilians (more than 2,000) this year than Israel did during their 2014 war in Gaza with Hamas. That conflict saw 2,100 Palestinians killed and about two-thirds of them were civilians. The Palestinians, and their Arab allies in the UN, want Israel prosecuted for war crimes because of this. There is much less clamor for the Saudis to be similarly prosecuted.  The Iranians are working this angle as much as they can, along with accusations (mostly false) that Arab forces and their tribal allies are interfering with foreign aid efforts to desperately hungry or sick Yemeni civilians. Iran has been less successful defending the Shia rebels from all sorts of misbehavior accusations. When there is a war between Shia and Sunni things tend to get ugly. It is no secret that Arabs tend to be brutal when fighting each other and treat civilians badly. The Saudis and other Arab states prefer to keep this out of Western media while continuing to operate as they always have. Western governments, although not most Western media, are cooperating as best they can about Yemen and looking the other way.

October 11, 2015: Israel revealed that is has received a rescue plea from the 150 or so Jews still living in Yemen. After World War II there were about 50,000 Jews in Yemen and they had been there for over a thousand years. But the creation of Israel caused most of them to leave. Some remained but now ISIL has demanded that the Yemeni Jews convert, leave or die. In addition the Shia rebels have been urged by Iran to kill or hold for ransom any Jews they can find in Yemen. Apparently there is an Israeli rescue operation underway and is seems that Israel is depending on its unofficial anti-Iran alliance with the Gulf Arab oil states to help.

October 10, 2015: Sunni Arab troops regained control the Bab Al Mandab strait, in the Gulf of Aden, between Yemen and Djibouti and astride the shipping lanes leading to the Red Sea. Arab troops seized control of key areas in southwestern Yemen, mainly the peninsula that extends into the Bab Al Mandab strait. This now closes the Red Sea to any Iran arms shipments direct from Iran. More important to the Arabs (and Egypt) was the fact that Shia control of the Bab Al Mandab strait was a potential threat to Suez Canal traffic. The canal fees are a major source of income for the Egyptian government. Saudi Arabia also exports oil and imports many other goods via that narrow (40 kilometers max) strait. Last week Arab forces seized control of Perim Island, which is in middle of the straits and normally contains a coast guard base. The small Shia garrison fought to the death in a battle that lasted a few hours.

October 6, 2015: The Shia rebels agreed to a UN peace proposal that would have the Shia leave all territory they seized control of (especially the capital, Saana) since early 2015. Since March the Yemen government has benefitted from air support provided by a Saudi led Arab coalition. In August the Arabs sent in ground troops as well. The Yemeni government and the Arab coalition do not trust the Shia rebels and want the Shia to withdraw before a ceasefire. The Shia rebels don’t want to withdraw without some safety guarantees for their leaders and homelands in the north. This is delaying the implementation of any peace deal. Meanwhile the Saudi border remains a war zone, at least for border guards at their posts (the border is largely closed) or on patrol. There are several casualties among the guards each week because of gunfire, RPG rockers and mortar shells from the Yemeni side.

In Aden ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) used two suicide bombers to attack government facilities in the port city and left fifteen dead. Most of the casualties were soldiers of the Arab Coalition. The same day there was another ISIL suicide bombing on a Shia mosque in Saana, leaving seven dead. The government blamed the Shia rebels for the Aden attacks but ISIL (which is violently anti-Shia) claimed credit and was probably responsible. ISIL has also attacked Shia targets, especially in rebel occupied Saana (the capital). There are not many ISIL members in Yemen, perhaps a few hundred. They are at war with everyone, especially al Qaeda and its allies, which have more than ten times as many members. Once the Shia rebels are defeated the Arab Coalition will have to decide if they want to go after the Islamic terror groups, most of whom see the governments in Arabia, especially Saudi Arabia, as enemies and in need of destruction. Al Qaeda (and even ISIL) still have some supporters in Arabia, but these are a small minority. The majority of Arabs would like al Qaeda and ISIL to just disappear or go away.

October 4, 2015: The Shia rebels are withdrawing troops from the central Yemen province of Marib and pulling these forces back to defend the capital, Saana.

October 2, 2015: Arab and pro-government forces began clearing out Shia rebels who could fire at ships passing through the Bab Al Mandab strait, which is the entry to the Red Sea. At the same time air strikes up north destroyed a key bridge on main road between Saana and the Red Sea coast.

The Saudi supported Yemen government has cut diplomatic relations with Iran. The Yemen capital (Saana) is controlled by Iran backed Shia rebels and the government (now in Aden) says that Iran diplomats have 48 hours to get out of the country and their Saana embassy. After 48 hours the Iranian embassy in Saana will be a legitimate target for Arab warplanes. What triggered all this was the recent seizure of an Iranian ship loaded with weapons that were headed for Yemen.

September 30, 2015: Off the coast of Oman ships of the Yemeni blockade seized an Iranian fishing boat and found Iranian weapons apparently destined for the Iran backed Shia rebels in Yemen. This sort of smuggling has been going on for years but this time the Yemen government threatened Iran with retaliation. The crew of the smuggling boat said they were headed for Somalia, which has been another regular destination for Iranian weapons. Similar supplies of Iranian weapons were recently seized inside Bahrain, an Arab ruled country bordering Saudi Arabia. Iran claims that Bahrain actually belongs to Iran.

September 24, 2015: There was an ISIL suicide bombing on a Shia mosque in Saana, leaving 30 dead.

 

 

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