Yemen: The Message From Iran Is Clear

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August 29, 2016: The two year old civil war is currently stalemated with most of the conflict taking place in the media. The latest (last week) peace proposal was, as usual, accepted by the government but rejected by the rebels because they refuse to surrender their heavy weapons. This includes artillery and armored vehicles seized from military bases as well as ballistic missiles that have been fired at targets in Saudi Arabia (so far unsuccessfully) and government held areas in Yemen. The Saudis know they are vulnerable to one of those rebel ballistic missiles hitting a major oil facility. That would be a major blow to Arab resolve because this is the threat Iran has long posed. The American and Israeli firms that supply anti-missile systems have told senior Arab leaders that there is always a small chance a missile will get through. During the current campaign Saudi Patriot anti-missile systems have intercepted all rebel ballistic missiles aimed at important (lots of people or oil facilities) targets.

But the message is clear; Iran has a lot more of these missiles and can fire dozens at a time. The Arab Gulf states produce more oil than Iran, have more oil facilities to attack and a lot more to lose. Moreover perception (rather than truth) is important, especially in this part of the world. Currently the perception is that the Arab missile defenses work. But if one ballistic missile gets through than the perception will change. That would also cause oil prices to go up, if only temporarily. All this would be a major victory for Iran and that’s the main reason Iran is backing the Yemen rebels. The Arabs also are at risk of losing domestic support for their effort to put down the Yemeni rebels. That support would go away quickly if too many Arab troops got killed. Iran wins just by keeping the civil war going and that bit of cleverness is typically Iranian and the major reason the Arabs fear Iran, and have feared Iran for thousands of years. .

While Iran denies it is sending weapons there is lots of physical evidence to prove otherwise. Yet the Arab blockade is pretty tight. Iran apparently has to pay huge fees to the most skilled (or desperate) smugglers to get small shipments through. Iran is most useful in other ways, like mustering its media resources, and those of its allies Russia and China, to support the Yemeni rebels by playing up civilian casualties from the fighting, especially because of Arab air attacks. The Iranian propaganda ignores the rebel use of civilians as human shields. Iran also plays down the civilian casualties caused by rebels firing shells, bullets and rockets across the border into Saudi Arabia. Because China and Russia have largely state controlled mass media and world-wide reach in many different languages, Iran is making the rebels appear more virtuous, and the government more evil than they actually are.

The reality is that the Shia tribes of Yemen look out for themselves at the expense of others, as do most of the other tribes in Yemen. There is much talk of curbing corruption in Yemen but little interest in doing that equally with everyone. In other words every tribe has their own list of grievances and things that must be put right. The fundamental problem in Yemen, and many other nations worldwide, is lack of trust and willingness to compromise. Thus the rebels refuse to accept the government that was elected after former “president-for-life” Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced out in 2012. This new government is much less tolerant of Shia than Saleh, who is Shia but trusted by a lot of Sunnis. Yet the Shia tribes didn’t wait long before declaring the new government illegitimate and in need of replacement. Virtue has a price some Yemeni tribes were not willing to pay.

That is the main reason for the rebel unwillingness to surrender their heavy weapons. A lot of these heavy weapons were actually turned over to the rebels by commanders still loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The rebels are in debt to Saleh for things like that and insisting that any peace deal include “no retaliation” against the pro-Saleh commanders and tribal leaders who joined the rebel cause. The government and their Arab allies are willing to make compromises on the disloyal officers and much else, but not on the rebels desire to keep their heavy weapons.

Iranian backing for the rebels makes things worse because this turns the Yemen mess into part of the Iranian effort to make Shia Islam supreme in the Moslem world. This conflict has been going on for over a thousand years and for the last few centuries the Sunni (about 80 percent of all Moslems) have been clearly in charge with Shia the largest (at ten percent of all Moslems) and most militant of all the minority sects. Most Gulf Arabs are Sunni but Iran (a largely non-Arab state that has long dominated the region) became Shia in part to differentiate themselves from the Arabs.

So the Yemeni civil war is about more than corruption and disagreements over who gets what. Former president Saleh saw to that when he helped make the Shia tribes (who have been troublesome for centuries) more of a threat than usual. Saleh is a Shia who ran Yemen for decades by brokering deals between all the factions. He took a cut but even the most demanding tribes went along because what Saleh was doing was preferable to anarchy. Then came 2011 and the Arab Spring uprisings. Saleh proved adroit in dealing with this and resigned with an amnesty deal. But rather than retire he secretly arranged for his old allies in the military and many Shia and Sunni Yemeni tribes to effectively oppose and overthrow the elected government that succeeded him. Saleh also had contacts among Sunni Islamic terrorist groups that were surviving in Yemen because of Saleh’s willingness to make deals with anyone. That included Iran. All this was understandable (if not acceptable in this case) to his Arab neighbors but Westerners (especially the Americans) found it incomprehensible. It wasn’t, it was just the way things are done in this part of the world. That is the main reason this region is so backward and ravaged by violence but that’s another issue.

The months of peace negotiations have had some success in getting many local agreements to allow safe passage of relief supplies. That’s because this was recognized as crucial for both sides. Most Yemenis are now dependent on foreign food aid and that includes a lot of pro-rebel civilians. So both sides generally allow the aid convoys to pass, although sometimes trucks are stopped and searched for items (like weapons and military equipment) they are not supposed to be carrying.

The Cost

Two years of fighting between Shia rebels and the elected Yemeni government is believed to have cost Yemen over $14 billion in economic losses, over 6,500 dead and driven nearly three million people from their homes. Some 80 percent of the 27 million Yemenis depend on foreign aid to survive. Nearly $4 billion in property damage has been suffered in the cities of Sanaa, Aden, Taiz and Zinjibar alone. Over 6,500 have died, most of them civilians, and some 20,000 wounded. The economy along with health care and education systems are barely functioning.

In response to all this the wealthy Arab states who form most of the Arab coalition force in Yemen are supplying a lot of economic aid in areas where the government is in control. This is an effort to fix the economic problems in Yemen and is something Iran can’t do. This is a defeat for Iran but gets little publicity outside the region. But things like medical aid (including moving serious cases outside Yemen for treatment) and new vehicles and building supplies to replace what has been lost means a lot. Early on the Saudis also put a lot of pro-government militia members on the payroll but a lot of that had had to be cut back when tribal leaders were found taking most of the pay (they were supposed to distribute) for themselves. One solution to this problem is the current effort to hire 5,000 southern Yemenis for a Saudi sponsored border patrol force. The Saudis are supplying the training, weapons, money and supervision. The pay will be good but the work will be dangerous because the Saudis expect the border patrol to stop hostile (to Saudi Arabia) activity on the Yemeni side of the border and not just take a bribe and go on your way. Whatever happens these border guards will help repair the economy and might also help with Saudi border security.

This aid is also why Islamic terrorist groups like AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) have lost so much local support (along with membership and income) in 2016. During the months when the truce was holding the Arab forces concentrated on the Islamic terrorists in the south and greatly reduced this threat.

That truce ended in early August when the Arab coalition resumed their air attacks on the rebels, mainly on the rebel held capital (Saana). There had been no attacks since May as several rounds of peace talks were held. The Iran-backed Shia rebels in Yemen don’t believe the Saudi led Arab coalition is willing to risk the losses necessary to take the capital Sanaa. The rebels know that the public support in the Gulf oil states for participation in the Yemen war would rapidly erode if there were a lot of casualties among their troops. So far the rebels have been right about this.

The Arab coalition has used a lot of air power and armored vehicles to protect their troops and this has largely worked. The Arab Coalition have not officially disclosed its losses but reports in the local media indicate there have been several hundred dead so far as well as more than a dozen jets and helicopters (crashed or shot down) and more than twenty tanks (mainly American M-1s) and even more less well protected armored vehicles destroyed or damaged beyond repair. The Saudis have about 400 M-1s in Yemen and the Saudis and other coalition states have more than a thousand other armored vehicles there as well. Since early 2015 Saudi Arabia has had M1A2S tanks in Yemen and is believed to have several hundred there (or on the Yemen border) now. There have been some media reports of Saudi M1A2S losses, including several videos of the Shia rebels there doing some serious damage to these tanks. Iranian media has mentioned at least five M1A2S tanks lost and the Shia rebels captured at least two, which were apparently hunted down and destroyed by Saudi warplanes.

Saudi Arabia is also suffering civilian casualties, from persistent Shia rebel attacks across the border. The Saudis shoot back but that has not stopped the attacks. Other solutions are being tried but Saudi Arabia is running into problems with Saudi tribes living along the border with northeastern Yemen who refuse to leave the area so a buffer zone can be created. This is mainly the border with the Saudi Arabian province of Jizan and the government is paying the people evacuated high prices for their property and helping them find homes elsewhere in the area. This is all about the Yemeni Shia rebels who continue firing mortar shells and rockets at Saudi towns and villages. The Saudis retaliate with artillery or air strikes and this has become part of an endless cycle of retaliatory attacks. There have not been many Saudi civilian casualties but the Saudis want to minimize the risk of there being more of them. In southwestern Saudi Arabia there are three border provinces (Jizan, Asir and Najran) that are adjacent to the northwestern Yemen region that the Shia rebels come from. Najran covers most of the threatened border and most of the half million people in Najran are Shia, but loyal to the Saudi king. The provincial capital (also called Najran) has a population of 240,000 and is close enough to the Yemen border to be the target of frequent Yemeni rebel artillery and rocket attacks because of that.

Yet the Saudis cannot afford to leave a hostile Iranian-supported enclave on their southwestern border and it appears the Saudis feel they have to do whatever it takes to prevent the Iran backed Shia rebels from remaining active.

In the south (outside Aden) an Islamic terrorist suicide car bomber attacked a new army training camp and killed at least a dozen new recruits and wounded many more.

August 28, 2016: In the northwest Yemeni Shia rebels fired a rocket at the Saudi town of Najran and killed two civilians and wounded five.

August 26, 2016: In the northwest (Hajjah province) a Saudi airstrike on a gathering of Shia rebels killed at least twenty of the rebels. Further south in Taez province heavy fighting continued, leaving over 30 dead, most of them Shia rebels.

Reports of a Yemeni rebel missile hitting a Saudi oil facility in southwestern Saudi Arabia caused a brief panic in the oil markets and the world oil prices briefly rose two percent. What actually happened was that a rocket fired from Yemen hit the fuel storage area for an electrical power plant near the Saudi town of Najran. This town is a frequent target of Yemeni rebel rocket attacks but since the rockets are unguided they rarely hit anything of value. But so far this month the rockets have damaged both a water treatment facility and the electrical power plant.

August 24, 2016: In the south (Shabwa province) an American UAV fired a missile at a moving vehicle and killed four AQAP men. Further north (Marib province east of the national capital Sanaa) another American UAV fired a missile at a vehicle and killed three AQAP men. There have been three UAV attacks in August. On the 4th missiles destroyed a checkpoint manned by AQAP men and killed three of them. In July there were two UAV missile attacks on AQAP targets in Yemen during July. The attack on July 8th killed one Islamic terrorist while the one on the 16th killed six and wounded one. There are far fewer attacks on ISIL because they are fewer in number and more dispersed.

August 23, 2016: In the southwest (Taez province, inland, near the Red Sea coast) heavy fighting continued in and around Taez City where Shia rebels continue to hold some neighborhoods. There have been over a hundred casualties in the last 24 hours. The Shia resistance continued in Taiz because the province has a lengthy Red Sea coastline which enabled smugglers to bring in weapons and other aid for the Shia rebels even though the rebels gradually lost control of most of the Taiz coast. This made smuggling operations along the Red Sea coast more difficult but obviously not impossible. There are Red Sea smugglers who will (for a much larger fee) get stuff in although the naval patrols have become more intense in an effort to halt all aid to the rebels. Since early 2015 over a third of the deaths in the Yemen civil war have occurred in and around Taiz city. Apparently some of the smuggling efforts are succeeding.

August 20, 2016: In the northwest Yemeni Shia rebels fired a rocket at the Saudi town of Najran and killed one civilian and wounded six others.

August 16, 2016: In the northwest Yemeni Shia rebels fired artillery shells at the Saudi town of Najran and killed seven civilians. The Saudis accuse the Yemen rebels of increasing their cross border mortar, artillery and rocket attacks since the 13th and killing at least fifty people, most of them civilians, in Saudi Arabia.

August 15, 2016: In the south (east of Aden) an AQAP suicide car bomber attacked a military checkpoint along the coast and killed four soldiers and wounded six others.

August 14, 2016: The Saudi government has announced a bonus (of one month’s additional salary) for Saudi personnel serving in Yemen. This comes after Saudi troops worked with Yemeni forces to clear AQAP out of Zinjibar and Jaar, the two largest cities in Abyan province and well as several smaller towns in Abyan. Most of the fighting took place about 50 kilometers east of Aden. Since late 2015 AQAP has been a constant presence in Abyan and frequently operated in Zinjibar and Jaar. This most recent offensive killed over 40 AQAP gunmen and put a lot of AQAP supporters in jail and shut down several locations in those cities that AQAP was operating from. The troops involved in this operation lost three dead, plus a dozen or more wounded.

In the south (Aden city) police found and raided a building used by three AQAP members to rig a car with explosives so a suicide bomber could use it for an attack in Aden (the largest port in the city) against a military target.

Elsewhere in the south (Lahj province, just north of the port of Aden) gunmen murdered three Yemeni military officers working with the Arab Coaslition. The three killing took place at different times and locations over a 24 hour period in the provincial capital (al Houta). Yemeni Shia rebels, who are still active in this area, are believed responsible.

In the northwest Shia rebels fired a rocket across the border and hit a water treatment plant in the Saudi town of Najran. Six plant workers were wounded.

August 10, 2016: In the northwest a Saudi policeman across the border in Saudi Asir province was killed by a Yemeni man (a legal resident of Saudi Arabia) who ran the victim over and then got out and stabbed the policeman to death. When arrested he said he belonged to ISIL. That arrest led to six other Yemenis in the area being arrested.

 

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