Yemen: Crippled Coalition and Non-Negotiables

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November 4, 2021: Efforts to negotiate a settlement of the issues in Yemen and end the seven-year civil war are stumbling over two “non-negotiable” issues. First, there is the Iranian refusal to give up their presence and support of the Yemen Shia. This is unacceptable to Saudi Arabia and most other Arab states because they can see what happened in Lebanon when the Iranian presence and support of the Hezbollah militia was allowed to persist. The second difficult issue is calls for partitioning Yemen again. This has been the case in the past and most Yemenis came to believe unity was preferable. With Iran refusing to give up their control of the Shia north, partition is even less acceptable. No one has come up with a viable solution yet.

Meanwhile, in central Yemen (Marib province) the Shia rebel offensive continues and after nine months has finally made some significant progress, but at great cost. Saudi airstrikes have caused most of the rebel casualties which have totaled over a thousand dead in the last year and many more wounded, On the ground the rebels have more gunmen, many of them Shia teenagers eager to prove they are warriors, or die trying. The defenders are less numerous and less willing to get killed. The Shia offensive has two main objectives. The most obvious one is the Marib provincial capital, which is 120 kilometers east of the rebel held national capital Sanaa. The other one is the Marib oil fields. Yemen has some oil resources and, even though those are tiny compared to what Iran and the other Arab states in the region have, were enough to supply internal needs as well as provide some for exports. Production and exports halted several years ago but possession of Yemenis oil resources is a prestige thing. The Yemeni government and the Arab coalition also want to use Marib as a base area for a possible ground advance in the rebel held national capital Sanaa.

In the last month the Shia rebels gained some ground, partly because they had learned to move and attack, often at night, in a way that avoided detection by Saudi aerial surveillance and airstrikes. This made it possible to carry out surprise attacks which, even if hit by airstrikes, usually demoralized, and defeated the defenders.

Since February most of the combat in Yemen has been in Marib. The rebels have suffered heavy casualties without much to show for it. The government forces, mainly tribal militias with access to Saudi air and artillery support have sometimes been able to regain lost ground. The rebels ignore this and insist they will prevail. Captured rebels and monitoring rebel communications reveals that many of the replacement fighters are there mainly for the pay or because of rebel threats to block food aid. Nine months of offensive operations have been costly, with rebel daily casualties sometimes amounting to as many as two hundred dead and wounded. When the Marib offensive began in February it was assumed it would follow the usual pattern of being intense for a few days or weeks and then fading. The fade didn’t come until May when the rebels reduced the ground attacks to deal with the morale problems all their casualties had caused. That pause did not last long and fighting soon resumed.

Calling the fighting a rebel “offensive” was misleading, as most of the time the “fighting” involved only artillery and mortar fire as well as dozens of cruise and ballistic missile strikes. The government forces respond with even more artillery fire and air strikes, all provided by the Arab Coalition. During the first six weeks of this “intense” fighting the dead and wounded amounted to nearly 500 fighters from both sides as well as a few civilians. Since then, the rebels have suffered most of the losses, which are now over a thousand dead and many more wounded. Government forces, supported by artillery and airstrikes, halted rebel attacks, some coming from three directions. Saudi pilots and ground forces have gained a lot of practical combat experience since 2015. Saudi pilots are much more accurate and surer of themselves than they were during the first two years (2015-16). On the ground the Saudis supply artillery and troops trained to quickly and accurately request and direct air and artillery support. All these ground teams have a year or more of combat experience and it makes a difference. The air strikes usually involve smart bombs directed at targets identified by Saudi air controllers on the ground. The Saudi pilots also have American Sniper targeting pods that enable them to make out individuals and identify vehicles on the ground.

Many areas controlled by the rebels are full of angry Shia and Sunni civilians who have seen less food and other foreign aid getting in and more of their sons “recruited” to fight for the rebels. That pays well, compared to anything else available and gets the family priority when food and other aid is distributed. But too many of those conscripted sons are coming back dead or crippled. The rebels try to return the bodies, which earns them some good will. In a third of their territory that is not enough so now the rebels are kidnapping more civilians and holding them as hostages to obtain compliance from families or clans. Many of those kidnapped are suspected of providing information to government forces. This is often the case for someone in the family. The hostage tactic is an ancient one in Arabia and still works, but not as well as it used to. There is still cell phone service in Yemen and bad news gets out quickly, often with pictures or video.

An Iranian Quds Force general has been running the Shia rebel operations since mid-2020 when he arrived to be the new Iranian ambassador to the Shia rebel government. The Quds general will not allow the rebels to negotiate a peace deal that includes Iranian banishment from Yemen. It’s one of those “defeat is not an option” situations for Iran and the Saudis. Yemenis are more willing to compromise but they are no longer in control.

The Arab Coalition has not been as effective at maintaining discipline and unity. Saudi Arabia and the UAE cannot agree on a common strategy and the UAE keeps withdrawing forces from Yemen. This is not helping the government cause because the withdrawal of most UAE forces from Yemen in the last year has led to more factional fighting between the separatist Sunni tribes in the south and less support for the fight against Shia rebels in central Yemen and Shabwa. The Iranians are keeping their coalition together and taking full advantage of the Arab Coalition to act like a coalition.

October 31, 2021: In central Yemen (Marib province) the Shia rebels fired two of their Iranian ballistic missiles at a madrasa/mosque compound in the Al Amound district. The compound was full of civilians and 29 were killed with many more wounded. This is a hilly area surrounded by desert that the Shia rebels have been trying to take for over a year.

October 30, 2021: In the south (Aden) there was an explosion at the Aden airport, which was apparently caused by a bomb placed on a crowded bus. The timer or remotely detonated bomb left twelve civilians dead and many more wounded. Local Islamic terrorists are the usual culprits in attacks like this. The Shia rebels prefer to use their Iranian cruise missiles (UAVs loaded with explosives) on one-way missions.

October 28, 2021: In Lebanon, the UAE (United Arab Emirate) ordered its ambassador to leave Lebanon and the next day advised UAE citizens to leave as well. This comes after Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait also withdrew ambassadors. This is the result of Iran increasing its efforts to link the battles between Lebanese Shia and the non-Shia majority with a similar conflict in Yemen. What triggered all the anti-Saudi/UAE animosity was the broadcasting of an August interview with the Lebanese Information Minister in which he compared the situation of Shia in Lebanon with that of Shia in Yemen and blamed it all on Saudi Arabia. This is pure Iranian propaganda because the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah militia was created in the 1980s with Iranian help and has since become a major component of the Iran-backed Shia paramilitary forces in the Arab world. In Yemen the Shia minority have been troublesome for several generations because they lost their autonomy.

The problems in Yemen began in 1962 and escalated after a civil war ended, sort of, in 1994. That war was caused by the fact that, when the British left Yemen in 1967, their former colony in Aden became one of two countries called Yemen. The two Yemens finally united in 1990 but another civil war in 1994 was needed to seal the deal. That fix didn't really take and the north and south have been pulling apart ever since. This comes back to the fact that Yemen has always been a region, not a country. Like most of the rest of the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa region, the normal form of government until the 20th century was wealthier coastal city states nervously coexisting with interior tribes that got by on herding or farming (or a little of both) plus smuggling and other illicit sidelines. This whole "nation" idea is still looked on with some suspicion. Therefore, the most common forms of government are the more familiar ones of antiquity; kingdom, emirate or modern variation in the form of a hereditary dictatorship. For a long time, the most active Yemeni rebels were the Shia Islamic militants in the north. They have always wanted to restore local Shia rule in the traditional tribal territories, led by the local imam (religious leader). This arrangement, after surviving more than a thousand years, was ended by the central government in 1962. Yemen also became the new headquarters of AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) when Saudi Arabia was no longer safe for the terrorists after 2007. Then came ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and then an invading army of troops from oil-rich neighbors.

Iran eventually admitted that it had been quietly supporting the Yemen Shia since the late 1990s and that aid increased after the 2011 revolution replaced a Shia “president-for-life” whose main skill was maintaining peace between the Shia separatists in the north and more numerous Sunni separatists in the south. The Shia rebels were more aggressive and managed to occupy the Sanaa, the capital in 2014 and, on the advice of the Iranians, declare the establishment of a new government. Iran saw an opportunity and provided the Yemen Shia rebels with more weapons, including short-range ballistic missiles. These were mainly for attacks on Saudi Arabia. The main Shia province is on the Red Sea and borders Saudi Arabia.

Since 2015 the Yemeni rebels have, with components and tech support from Iran, assembled and launched over a hundred ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia. The Saudis point to these Iranian ballistic missiles and Iranian UAVs as pretty clear evidence that Iran was still smuggling weapons in. Iran denies everything and when confronted with physical evidence insists that the Yemeni Shia make the stuff locally, obtaining technical help via the Internet.

In 2020 Saudi Arabia released jet fighter gun video of two large (Predator size) Iranian Shahed 129 UAVs being shot down after crossing the border into southern Saudi Arabia. These explosives-laden UAVs can reach the Saudi capital and the size of the explosion when the UAVs are hit with the cannon fire confirms the UAVs were carrying a lot of explosives. Iran keeps making these attacks because they only need score a hit once or twice, to frighten and embarrass the Saudis. Iran blames all this on the Yemeni Shia rebels, who admit they receive aid from Iran. Foreign (including UN) investigators conclude that the rebels are acting with the help of Iran and would not be able to launch ballistic missiles and UAV attacks on Saudi Arabia. The smuggling program to support these missile and UAV attacks from Yemen is high and has become one of many complaints Iranians have against their government.

The Shia situation in southern Arabia became more complex a century ago in 1918 when northern 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 because 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 the Arabian Peninsula. 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 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 sees its control of the Shia rebels in northern Yemen as the equivalent of the Hezbollah militia Lebanon. In the 1980s Hezbollah took control of southern Lebanon and eventually gained a veto power over the elected government. The Shia remained a minority in Lebanon and could not take control of the country via elections. This is similar to the Shia situation in Yemen and in both nations there is now armed and organized resistance to this Iranian presence. This is what caused the current diplomatic dispute between Iran backed politicians in Lebanon and the Arab states. The Lebanese Minister of Information was ordered by his Iranian handlers to stir up some trouble with the Sunni Arabs. The easiest way to do that was to take sides in the Yemen civil war and depict Shia rebels as defending themselves against Saudi and UAE aggression. This makes the situation worse for Iran in Lebanon because the current anti-Hezbollah violence is aimed at eliminating the Iranian and Hezbollah military and political power in Lebanon. For most Lebanese this is long overdue and they are now willing to fight another civil war to get it done. The last Lebanese civil war lasted from 1975 to 1990 and ended in a compromise that left Hezbollah intact. That turned out badly for Lebanon and the Lebanese want the Iranians gone. In Yemen it is different because the Sunni tribes in the south are willing to return to the “two Yemens.” The Saudis oppose that because Iran now has a presence in the Shia north and as long as Iran is there they have a base for continued attacks on Saudi Arabia, which they can blame on the local Shia.

October 27, 2021: In the north, Shia rebels launched five ballistic missiles into southwest Saudi Arabia. Saudi BMD (Ballistic Missile Defense) systems detected and destroyed the incoming missiles headed for the Saudi Red Sea port of Jazan near the Yemen border. Because of the effectiveness of the Saudi BMD, the Iranians have ordered the rebels to launch as many missiles at one target at once to overwhelm the BMD system. Apparently five missiles at once were not enough. The rebels have been allowed to use more of their ballistic missiles against targets inside Yemen, where there are a lot fewer BMD systems. The ballistic missiles have been used in Marib province and southern Yemen to attack military targets and non-military ones as well. Key civilian supporters are being attacked, if only to terrorize even more of the opposition.

October 26, 2021: In the south (Shabwa Province) the UAE withdrew its troops from one of the bases it maintains with the Saudis to support operations against Islamic terror groups still active in the area. The UAE withdrew because one of the local tribes accused the UAE of training local men who were planning to overthrow the tribal leadership. Power struggles within Yemen tribes is an ancient practice and it is not uncommon for a faction to accuse helpful outsiders from taking sides in an internal tribal dispute. The UAE and Saudis have both done so in the past but this time the UAE was taking a lot of heat and thought the best way to deal with it was to withdraw its small contingent and let the Saudis replace them.

October 25, 2021: In central Yemen (Marib province) Shia rebels claim to have regained control of two more districts. There are fourteen districts in Marib and the rebels claim to control or threaten at least half of them. This makes it possible to make an attack on Marib city and the oilfields. Yemen has 22 provinces (Governorates) each consisting of a dozen or more districts. There are a total of 333 districts and control of a province is usually defined as who controls, won or lost a specific district.

October 21, 2021: Saudi airstrikes outside Sanaa, the rebel occupied capital, hit several military targets.

October 17, 2021: Iran had ordered its Shia rebels to stand fast, even though the Yemeni Shia rebels are losing the war. Saudi Arabia proposes that Iran resume diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and try to work something out so the Yemeni civil war will end. Currently the Saudis cannot withdraw their forces from Yemen until the Iranian presence is gone along with all the ballistic and cruise missiles Iran smuggles in to be used for attacks on Saudi Arabia. Iran uses the same negotiating tactics against the Saudis that they have been using against the Americans and Europeans, with the same results.

October 15, 2021: In the south, of f the coast in the Gulf of Aden, an Iranian warship, the 1,500-ton corvette Alborz, reported that it fought five speed boats armed with machine-guns and other weapons that were attacking an Iranian tanker. The 50-year-old Alborz was built in Britain in the late 1960s for Iran and kept in service by the religious dictatorship since then with frequent refurbishments and little time at sea. In August Alborz, described as a destroyer, was sent to the Gulf of Aden to protect Iranian merchant ships.

 

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