Yemen: The Impossible Schemes

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November 19, 2018: The rebel coalition is visibly dissolving. The non-Shia tribes and groups, especially those in and around Sanaa (the rebel-occupied national capital) are losing confidence in the Shia rebels and their leaders. Over the last year, a growing number of these non-Shia leaders have defected. Although the rebels deny morale and unity problems they recently made a public call for deserters, especially Shias, to return to the fighting. Army and coalition troops have reported that a shortage of rebel fighters have become a major factor in the rebels inability to resist ground attacks as effectively as they used to. For this reason, the rebels are eager to obtain a ceasefire or truce. This would enable them to rebuild their strength and be ready for another round of fighting. That is more likely than a peace agreement. The Shia rebels and their Iranian backers are both obsessed with self-destructive, and dangerous for bystanders, goals. The Shia rebels want their autonomy back. The Sunni majority in Yemen opposes autonomy or weapons for the Shia up north because those two things have made the Shia tribes a constant source of trouble for centuries. Iran wants world domination, starting with control of Saudi Arabia and most of the Middle East. Iran also seeks to destroy Israel and the United States. Neither Iran nor the Yemeni Shia have a reputation for honoring promises, treaties or anything that limits their activities. In short, negotiations may seem smooth but compliance will be in short supply. Expect both sides to resist implementing an actual, working, ceasefire or truce.

The Shia rebels have a lot of problems right now. Poor morale and disunity rapid escalated in 2017 because of heavy losses (in personnel and territory) the rebels suffered that year. The loss of one of their major factions (led by Ali Abdullah Saleh) in late 2017 hurt the rebels the most. Saleh was ousted as Yemeni president in 2012 and refused to quit politics. Saleh demonstrated that he could not be ignored by providing the rebels with support from many army units. Saleh had ruled Yemen for decades before the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings unified his many opponents. Saleh was a secret backer of the Shia rebels after he was ousted and until they seized the capital in 2014. By then it was obvious that Saleh was the main reason so many veteran military commanders, and the troops they led, went over to the rebels. In late 2017 Saleh sought to switch sides because he was more of a Yemeni nationalist than Shia zealot and saw how this war was going. Saleh was negotiating a deal but the rebels found out and killed Saleh in early December 2017. Tarek Mohamed Abdullah Saleh, the brigadier general son of Saleh, united the many pro-Saleh factions who were willing to switch sides. This loss weakened the Shia rebels sufficiently to allow the government and Arab coalition ground forces to advance without taking heavy losses and gain a lot of ground. So even though Saleh is dead he is still a factor in the wars. After the loss of Saleh Iran persuaded the Shia tribes to keep on fighting because Iran believes Saudi Arabia is more likely to walk away than Iran. But the younger Saleh now has a force of several thousand former rebels who are eager to crush the rebellion as soon as possible. That enabled the government forces to clear most non-Shia areas of rebels. That put millions of more Yemenis under government control but also caused problems because food and other aid for these civilians came through the rebel-held Red Sea port of Hodeida. The rebels cut those supply lines once their gunmen were pushed out of an area. The two major ports in the south (especially Aden) do not have the port capacity to replace the Hodeida based aid delivery. Moreover, the roads out of Aden were inadequate compared to Hodeida.

The upcoming peace talks in Sweden will see access to foreign aid used as a major bargaining tool. The rebels have the edge here as long as they maintain control of the Hodeida port. Currently, government forces are within mortar and machine-gun fire (a few kilometers) range of the port. The rebels have responded by planting thousands of landmines and explosive traps near the port area. Clearing these explosive devices has already become a major chore for the army. All but one of the roads out of the port area are now controlled by government forces. The rebel-controlled road goes north, straight to the rebel homeland. Food and other foreign aid are let through government controlled roads, often only after extensive searches for weapons and other military gear. Hodeida remains the major entry point for smuggled weapons and military supplies, which is why the rebels have never allowed (as the Shia had agreed) the UN to inspect all incoming aid. Road inspections are not as effective as port inspections and some weapons are still getting in. Also, the rebels are still able to divert additional food to their home provinces in the northwest (on the Saudi border). This could enable to Shia rebels to make a last stand although in the past the Shia tribes have never gone that far. Then again, the Shia tribes never had the degree of Iranian support they have now. That support has included large shipments of Iranian ballistic missiles and rockets. These are primarily for use against Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt can both identify with what Israel is going through with Hamas and Hezbollah rocket attacks because Iranian sponsored Shia rebels in Yemen have been firing rockets, ballistic missiles and, mortar shells and machine-gun bullets into Saudi Arabia for three years now, killing over a hundred civilians and soldiers on the border. The Saudis have found the American made Patriot anti-missile missiles very effective in stopping nearly all the ballistic missiles. The shorter range rockets are another matter and there have been discussions about obtaining the Israeli Iron Dome anti-rocket system.

This rocket and missile threat to Saudi Arabia will make negotiating a Yemeni peace deal difficult. The Yemeni Shia have always been hostile to the Saudis but now it has moved beyond that. The Saudis will not accept any peace deal that does not guarantee a halt to the rocket and missile attacks. That means more government control of the Shia tribal areas of Yemen than before the rebellion began. That will be difficult for the Yemeni Shia to accept but for the Saudis nothing less is acceptable. Continued rocket and missile attacks would be evidence of Saudi inability to defend its own borders and the Saudi citizens that live there. Iran knows this too but the UN is less concerned about that sort of thing.

Iran continues to supply the Shia rebels with weapons and equipment despite energetic efforts to block the smuggling. The naval patrols off Yemen enforcing the blockade have to contend with hundreds of small craft operating near them each day, more than can be searched. But enough smuggler boats have been detected and caught since 2015 to make it clear that this smuggling route was still active. It was also interesting to note where the weapons were coming from. As of late-2018 North Korea was still exporting weapons like rockets, small arms and ammo to Yemen, as well as Libya and Syria. Whenever there is a successful interception the Saudis will increase their naval patrols near where it happened and search more fishing or cargo boats. If nothing else that causes the boat operators to dump their illegal weapons cargo overboard before the boarding party reaches them. Some boats refused to be searched and are fired on. This form of smuggling is more important as the government forces move closer to driving the rebels out of Hodeida and making it possible for all cargoes to be thoroughly searched. That will cut off the supply of Iranian ballistic missile components, which have, over the last two years, allowed more than two hundred of these short-range ballistic missiles to be assembled in northern Yemen and eventually fired into Saudi Arabia.

One very under-reported Iranian contribution to the Shia rebel effort is an effective media manipulation effort. Not as massive or well-equipped as the ones created by China and Russia (the main practitioners of this) but the Iranians do pretty well spinning news of events in Yemen to favor, as much as possible, the Shia rebels. The Iranians know what appeals to mass media, especially in the West, and what does not. Thus anytime a coalition airstrike kills civilians (or rebels who can be described as such) the Iranians see that pictures and stories are supplied to news media worldwide. Coverage of the nasty things the Shia rebels do to hostile civilians in areas they control is not reported because no journalists are allowed in rebel areas. Thus it is only later that it becomes known that the rebels were using civilians as human shields or letting them use a road the rebels know is constantly watched and most vehicles seen on it are hit with an air strike. The “hit anything that moves” policy can isolate a rebel force under attack and make the rebels easier to defeat.

The Iranians will also send out stories of rebel-controlled civilians going hungry when that can be blamed on the coalition, the Yemeni government or the West. Another technique is to make false claims of damage from Shia ballistic missile or UAV attacks on Saudi or UAE targets. These claims are eventually found to be false but Iranian media experts know that if you can get some traction with the initial story that is what most people will remember. Truth isn’t what counts here but supplying what editors are seeking at the moment.

November 18, 2018: The Shia rebels said they would halt their use of ballistic missiles (all Iranian) for attacks on neighbor countries and government forces in order to obtain a ceasefire.

November 17, 2018: The Shia rebels agreed to peace talks and several hours later launched four ballistic missiles at targets in Saudi Arabia. All four missiles were intercepted and destroyed. In the southwest (Taiz province) army forces continued advancing and cutting off supply routes for the remaining rebel forces in the province.

November 15, 2018: In the northwest (Hodeida province), the Arab Coalition ordered a halt in its offensive operations against the port of Hodeida. Still controlled by the rebels it is the main port on the Red Sea and where 80 percent of food and other aid enter the country. This halt is in response to UN pressure to join peace talks to be held in Sweden. The Arab Coalition halt in operations allows civilians, foreign aid workers and foreign aid to leave the city. The rebels still control portions of the city center.

November 14, 2018: In the northwest (Hodeida province), the rebels fired ballistic missiles at Arab Coalition forces inside Hodeida city near the port. The missile missed and landed in the Red Sea.

November 12, 2018: In the northwest (Hodeida city), soldiers, supported by Arab Coalition artillery and airstrikes, fought their way into the city, especially along the Red Sea coast and are now a few kilometers from the port area. This fighting has been going all this month and the rebels say they will allow the port to be destroyed in defending it rather than surrender it.

November 11, 2018: In the north (the rebel-held capital Sanaa), rebel forces clashed with a pro-rebel tribe north of Sanaa. The clash was over rebel forces raiding a wedding celebration. The rebels had declared that weddings much be conducted without music or firing of guns into the air. This was an unpopular rule that many pro-rebel tribes refused to obey. In this case, fighting left two rebels and four tribesmen dead before a ceasefire could be arranged.

November 9, 2018: American officials announced that the United States will halt providing aerial refueling for Saudi warplanes operating over Yemen. No date was given for when this would go into effect. American aerial tankers currently provide about 20 percent of the aerial refueling for Saudi aircraft in Yemen. The Saudis can work around the loss of the American aerial refueling support.

November 6, 2018: In the northwest (Hodeida city), port workers report that the Shia rebels have begun planting explosive devices inside the port area itself. The port workers don’t know where all the explosives have been placed and the numerous Shia gunmen in the port are warning workers away from some areas which apparently do contain hidden explosive devices.

November 2, 2018: While the American UAV attacks continue in Yemen there number has greatly declined in 2018. There were none at all in October and only two in September. Many of the attacks are not announced at least not right away. So far in 2018, there have been about 36 attacks. As in 2017 (when there were 131 attacks), the ones in 2018 have been mainly against AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) camps and key personnel in central Yemen. This greatly reduces Islamic terrorist capabilities in Baida, which had long been an Islamic terrorist stronghold. East of Baida province is Shabwa and Hadramawt provinces. The later stretches from the sea to the Saudi border and is largely desert. Along with Baida, these two provinces used to host most AQAP personnel and base areas. But since 2017 AQAP has been under heavy attack by the Americans and the Arab coalition and the Islamic terrorists have responded by shifting more of their attacks to the government and Arab coalition forces. AQAP took credit for 273 attacks in 2017 and in the first six months of that year, some 75 percent of these attacks were against the Shia rebels. But in the second half of 2017, half the attacks were against fellow Sunnis (government and coalition forces). In 2018 the remaining AQAP are mainly fighting for survival against the government and coalition forces. There was only one UAV attack on ISIL this year (in January) because ISIL is much reduced in size and capabilities. AQAP is more acceptable to more Yemenis in the south and survives. By mid-2017 Islamic terrorist attacks had declined more than 90 percent versus three years ago. AQAP and ISIL are still in Yemen and apparently keeping their heads down and rebuilding. The Islamic terrorists are awaiting the outcome of the current civil war as that will have a major impact on their goals and options.

October 26, 2018: Saudi warplanes carried out numerous airstrikes on some portions of the Sanaa airport and a nearby military airbase. The airstrikes avoided any areas having to do with commercial aviation operations at the airport and instead his support facilities the Saudis suspect are used to support ballistic missile and UAV operations.

 

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