Yemen: Family Feuds

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October 23, 2019: All of the Arab nations involved with the Yemen civil war are monarchies and one little known fact, at least outside the Middle East, is that monarchies often feud with each other. It’s personal, it’s medieval and normal in this part of the world. Many of these feuds have nothing to do with the current situation in Yemen or even with Iran. The feuds are often generations old and heat up or cool down depending on the moods of less than a dozen men. Such feuds are why the UAE pulled out of Yemen. The UAE and the various monarchies that comprise the UAE have long had territorial disputes with the Saudis and these are put on hold but never forgotten. Currently, there are also hard feelings between Qatar, which sides with Iran, and all the other Arab monarchies. Oman is also accused of siding with Iran and Qatar but that support is not strong and often changes. The UAE is willing to work with the Saudis when the cause is critical enough. Such was the case with the Arab Coalition which entered Yemen in 2015. The UAE and Saudi leaders still had disagreements and these grew until the UAE withdrew most of its forces. Iran takes advantage of these feuds as much as possible and the Arab monarchies are aware of this weakness but find themselves unable to completely suppress the grudges and all the problems this personal animosity creates.

Currently, the Saudis are seeking some kind of long-term ceasefire in Yemen but are wary of that effort succeeding. This is because Iranian support has enabled the Shia rebels to survive four years of Arab coalition efforts to defeat them and end Shia rebellion. UN pressure to make peace ignored the fact that restoring Shia autonomy (lost in the 1960s) in the north would make it possible for Iran to continue supplying the Shia tribes with weapons that can be used to attack Saudi Arabia. To the Saudis that is unacceptable, given the fact that the Iranians are openly calling for the overthrow of the Saudi government, and Iran taking over as the “protector of the two Most Holy Islamic cities of Mecca and Medina”. The Saudis suddenly feel more sympathy for Israel and the years of Iran-financed violence on Israel’s southern border where Gaza-based Hamas exists mainly to try and destroy Israel.

Arabia has far more real estate disputes. For example, until 1918 what is now north Yemen was controlled by the Turks (Ottoman Empire), and it wasn’t until the 1930s that the Saudi family united most of the Arabian Peninsula as Saudi Arabia. That unification also meant the ancient Ottoman province of Yemen was split in two. The northern half was now part of Saudi Arabia while the southern portion, containing prosperous cities like Sanaa and Hodeida became North Yemen. This split the Yemeni Shia Arab population in half because this former Ottoman province was largely Shia. Three decades after the split the growing oil wealth of Saudi Arabia meant the Saudi Shia tribes north of Yemen were better off economically than their Yemeni kinsmen. This reduced enthusiasm for reuniting the Yemeni Shia. There was no such oil wealth in Yemen and the Yemeni Shia felt the Sunni majority were taking more than their fair share of what little oil income Yemen produced.

Iran proposes putting Shia Moslems (led by Iran) in charge of the Moslem most holy shrines in Mecca and Medina. That would involve the elimination of Saudi rule in Arabia and many Arabs are fine with that. To many Arabs, the Saudi clan is seen as arrogant, inept and corrupt. There’s a lot of truth to that but those flaws describe most Arab states, and Iran exploits that. So did the Ottoman Turks, the British, the medieval European crusaders and the ancient Romans. The one part of Arabia that had long escaped foreign domination was the southern part, where there was a lot more rain, water and population than the rest of Arabia. The discovery of oil in the Persian Gulf, between 1900 and 1930, revealed that the largest known source of oil in the world was under and around the northern end of the gulf. First in Iran and then in Arabia, more oil was discovered and production expanded. This took about half a century but after World War II ended in 1945, there was so much oil that it was pretty cheap. It took another two decades for demand to catch up with supply and prices were so high by the 1970s that Iran and the Arab Gulf states were suddenly extremely wealthy. The only part of Arabia without any oil was Yemen. The Yemenis resented this and the oil rich Arabs did not always hide their disdain for their poor but proud cousins in Yemen.

Iran also resented the wealthy Arab oil states and was dismayed at how the Arabs had got themselves organized. First, there was the creation of Saudi Arabia in the 1920s and in 1981 the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) was formed. Its members (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) appeared to have the wealth and military power to deal with threatening local (Iran) or foreign (China, Russia, India, the West and so on) threats.

All the GCC states are monarchies and have so far managed to control pro-democracy movements. The GCC states have lots of oil and rulers who were wise enough to spread the wealth around. This has undercut efforts to establish democratic rule. Yemen, however, is perpetually broke. While technically a democracy, Yemen has actually been a dictatorship using manipulated elections to keep one party in power for decades. The GCC states are not enthusiastic about having a real democracy in Yemen, fearing that the country might end up controlled by Islamic radicals, or democrats who will support like-minded groups in other GCC states. But because Yemen is the most populous state in the Arabia peninsula, and half the population has a firearm of some sort, the GCC is not eager to send troops or police in to help the government. Iran forced the GCC to act in Yemen and the GCC was reminded why they had always been reluctant to get involved in Yemen. In Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, Iran seeks to remind the Arabs who the local superpower is and why. The Iranians have long employed a wider range of military and diplomatic tools to dominate the Arabs.

For that reason, most Moslems do not want Iran in charge of Mecca and Medina. The Iranians are Shia Moslems and Shia comprise only about ten percent of all Moslems. The Saudis are largely Sunni, a version of Islam about 80 percent of Moslems belong to. Moreover, the Iranians are not Arabs. Rather the Iranians are Indo-European and for many Moslems that is a big deal because Islam was founded by Arabs and the Moslem scriptures (the Koran) are written in Arabic. The Saudis will go to great lengths to prevent the Shia provinces in northwest Yemen from becoming an Iran base area. Meanwhile, the Iranians have convinced many of the Shia Yemenis that getting their autonomy back should be non-negotiable because without that autonomy the Yemeni Shia will be vulnerable to retaliation from all the other Yemeni groups the Shia rebels have harmed during the years of civil war.

October 20, 2019: The UN has sent personnel to staff observation posts on both sides of the front line around the Red Sea port of Hodeida. The rebels have had various ceasefires around the port for a year now and regularly violate these peace deals. The new arrangement is supposed to allow the UN observer teams to watch the ceasefire line from both sides and document any violations. This forces the rebels to go after the UN personnel in order to violate the ceasefire without leaving too much evidence behind. The rebels need to intimidate UN personnel to make it possible to continue with some smuggling and aid theft at the port. Hodeida is the main conduit for foreign and commercial goods.

October 16, 2019: Saudi and Yemeni government negotiators met with STC (South Transitional Council) leaders to try and work out a compromise deal to address STC grievances and return control of Aden to the Yemen government. The STC has held Aden since mid-August and that has been a distraction for the Saudis who are trying to deal with the Shia rebels in the north. The STC were able to grab Aden because the main Saudi ally in Yemen, the UAE, began withdrawing its forces earlier this year. The Saudis and UAE disagreed over strategy and how to handle the STC. That dispute was a major win for Iran and the Shia rebels, who are making the most of it as the Shia rebels and Saudis also try and negotiate a peace deal or long term ceasefire. A major issue is the rebel demand that they have free access to one or more Red Sea ports. That would mean no Saudi or UN inspection of what is coming in. The Saudis see this as unacceptable as it would allow Iran to bring in all sorts of weapons to use against Saudi Arabia and the heavy maritime traffic in the Red Sea.

October 15, 2019: In the south (Aden) Saudi troops have apparently taken control port and main airport as they replaced UAE forces. At the same time Shia rebels cracked down on Yemenis it suspected of disloyalty in the provinces of Jawf, Sanaa, Dhamar, Taiz, and Bayda. The rebels arrested over a hundred locals and kidnapped about a dozen men where arrest was impractical. The rebels also set up more road checkpoints. Jawf. is in the north, just east of Saada province, the Shia tribal homeland. North of Jawf is Saudi Arabia. The rebels feared a major uprising in areas they controlled, or had disputed (with the government) control. The other provinces are not as crucial to the Shia rebels.

October 11, 2019: In light of the continuing Iranian threat the U.S. has sent to Saudi Arabia two fighter squadrons plus some air defense units that specialize in anti-missile defense. The Americans had earlier helped the Saudis reorganize their air defense radars and other sensors to plug the blind sports and enabled the Iranians to send in UAVs and cruise missiles to attack a major Saudi oil facility in September. Iran denied it was them and blamed it on Yemeni rebels. All the available evidence points to the attack coming from Iran but Iran clings to the Yemen story because the Saudis and Yemen rebels are officially at war with each other while Iran and Saudi Arabia are not.

October 10, 2019: In the south (Dhalea province), heavy fighting between Shia rebels and government forces has been going on for a month as the rebels sought to retain control of the territory they had seized earlier in the year. Last June some of the rebel fighters withdrawn from three Red Sea ports because of a ceasefire, were shifted to other areas, like the border of Dhalea province in preparation for retaking one of the first provinces retaken by government forces in 2015. That offensive quickly evolved into a bloody stalemate that was broken in September with a government effort to drive the rebels out of most of the province.

October 5, 2019: In the northwest (Hajjah province) government troops spotted a rebel UAV and shot it down. The wreckage was found and the UAV was identified as Iran made. This is one area where the Shia rebels are in trouble. In 2018 Saudi troops finally drove the Shia rebels out of this province, after more than two years of fighting. This province is on the Saudi border and largely populated by Shia. But many Saudis believe Hajjah province should be part of Saudi Arabia. At one time in the 1920s, a decade before the Saudi kingdom was founded, Saudi forces conquered Hajjah province. British threats caused the Saudis to withdraw but the Saudis never forgot.

Another reason to take the province is to halt the Shia rebel smuggling that still takes place along the Red Sea coast. Pacifying Hajjah province meant making deals with the Shia tribes to assure them they would not be mistreated. To help with that the Saudis had the experience of the many Shia tribes in southwest Saudi Arabia, who have done much better economically over the decades than their Shia brethren across the border in Yemen. The Saudi pitch was classic Arabian; support the Saudi cause and the Saudis and Saudi Arabia will provide protection and aid. By January 2019 it was obvious to the Shia rebels that the key Shia tribes in Hajjah province had switched sides. The rebels shifted forces from the south to launch an offensive against their new enemy. The Saudis had persuaded the Hajour tribes in Hajjah province to accept Saudi military support to block Shia rebels from entering Hajour territory. That was a problem for the rebels because Hajour lands contained some key routes. Moreover, the Hajour tribes dominated the province, which was sometimes called “Hajour province.” The Shia rebel campaign involved attacking, or rather besieging many villages. The Saudis countered that with airdrops of food, ammo and other supplies while organizing a group operation to break the siege. This put more pressure on the rebels because this was yet another Saudis success in or near the Shia rebel home province of Saada. This is not a new situation but has been growing worse over the last two years and caused a manpower shortage for the rebels as well as a worsening morale problem. The Shia rebels are on the defensive when it comes to Hajjah province but remain active by randomly firing rockets at towns and villages. This terrorizes the civilians but also makes those civilians more determined to resist the return of the Shia rebels.

October 4, 2019: The Saudis report that two ballistic missiles fired from residential areas outside the rebel occupied capital Saana did not reach their targets in southwest Saudi Arabia but instead crashed in Saada province, which is on the Saudi border south of Najran province.

October 1, 2019: In Iran, the head of the Iranian army, during an interview with a Chinese radio journalist, confirmed that the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) was “supporting” the Shia rebels in Yemen. A few days earlier an IRGC general described that support in a little more detail. The Iranian Army, which is a larger and separate force from the IRGC, rarely operates outside Iran. An exception was made after 2014 when the IRGC was having a hard time dealing with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Syria and Iraq. The Iranian army sent several hundred (or more) officers and special operations troops to help out.

September 29, 2019: The Shia rebels held a press conference in which they claimed that, during the last three days, their forces had rampaged through parts of the Saudi Najran province, killing at least 500 Saudi troops, capturing another 2,000 and destroying over a hundred Saudi military vehicles. In Iran, an IRGC general claimed that IRGC Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them) personnel aided the Shia rebels in this Najran operation.

The Saudis denied the rebels' claims and accused the rebels of trying to distract attention from recent Saudi raids into Saada province. There is no third party proof for the rebel claims and the photos they presented could be from earlier incidents or staged. There has been a lot of this sort of “media theater”, which is a favorite tactic of the Iranians. When Iran does this back in Iran it tends to be treated as fiction pretending to be fact and there’s lots of evidence back up that assessment.

The Shia rebels did release to Red Cross officials 290 Yemeni prisoners they were holding.

September 27, 2019: The Saudis agreed to limited ceasefires in several parts of Yemen including the capital Saana. The ceasefires would take place in a few areas, but this would help the rebels rebuild their economic and military capabilities.

September 25, 2019: In northern Yemen, Iran-backed Shia rebels claim to have advanced into Saudi Arabia and attacked a Saudi base near Najran and defeated Saudi troops and Yemeni tribal militiamen the Saudis were training. The Yemeni rebels looted the base after the surviving Saudi troops and militiamen fled. Saudi Arabia denies this happened but the Saudis have not been cooperative when it comes to promptly and accurately describing Shia Yemeni rebel violence along the Saudi border. The Shia Yemeni tribesmen have consistently outperformed Saudi troops and their tribal allies. The Saudis do not like to discuss this in the media. Iran is backing attacks like this as part of an effort to force the Saudis to make peace and accept an autonomous, pro-Iran, Shia provinces on the Saudi border. There is growing support in the Saudi leadership to make a deal in Yemen and concentrate on protecting Saudi oil and the holy places from Iranian threats.

 

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