Yemen: Kingdom Come

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March 4, 2022: The Yemen government and the Arab Coalition, especially Saudi Arabia, have convinced the UN that peace talks with the Shia rebels are futile because the Shia have violated three ceasefire agreements and show no interest in changing their attitudes, especially since Iran support became more crucial to the maintenance of the Shia military efforts.

The turning point for the UN was the 2018 agreement to halt the successful government campaign to take control of the Red Sea port of Hodeida. This is the second largest port in Yemen and the main entry point of foreign aid for Yemenis in Shia controlled territory. Despite UN monitoring, Hodeida was also where a lot of Iranian military aid was smuggled in. In 2018, as government forces were about to drive rebel forces from the Hodeida city and port.

The rebels appealed to the UN to hold peace talks and persuade the government to halt its offensive. The UN persuaded the Yemen government and its Arab Coalition allies to halt operations and the rebels signed an agreement whereby they would withdraw their forces from the port area so that government troops could replace them. The rebels withdrew some of their forces then moved them back in and attacked the government forces, The rebels accused the government forces of violating the agreement. By 2020 it was clear that the rebels had never intended to withdraw and the ceasefire deal was revealed as yet another ploy to enlist the UN to assist the rebels in avoiding a defeat. Not only did the rebels maintain their control of areas near the port, but increased their attacks on shipping in the Red Sea while denying that they were responsible. More key UN members came to conclude that the Shia rebels and their Iranian backer were intent on maintaining control of northwest Yemen so the rebels could use Iranian cruise and ballistic missiles, as well as armed UAVs, for attacks on Saudi Arabia. Evidence, often authenticated by UN inspection teams, showed that Iranian-made weapons were being used for more and more attacks against Saudi Arabia, as well as inside Yemen. The Iranian weapons were assembled and launched from rebel held areas in northwest Yemen.

Religious Politics

Then there was the religious justification angle. Religion played a major role for both the Iranians and Shia rebels. T he Iranian religious dictatorship was obsessed with replacing Saudi Arabia as the guardian of Mecca and Medina, the most important religious shrines for all Moslems. Arabs have always controlled these two cities near the Red Sea coast, 780 kilometers north of Yemen Shia territory. Even when the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) controlled the area, they put a proper (descendants of Mohammed) Arab family in charge of the religious facilities. The Turks profited from what the many annual pilgrims spent when they arrived. Iran wants to change all that and the Saudis, with the support of most Moslems, oppose that.

The main battlefield for control of Mecca is in Yemen, where Iran-backed Yemen Shia rebels began a civil war in 2014 and with Iranian support have defeated Saudi efforts to prevent the Shia provinces in northwest Yemen from becoming an Iranian military base area. The Yemen Shia rebels are led by members of the Houthi tribe, which Iran supports because ultimately Shia controlled northwestern Yemen would be ruled by a religious dictatorship with the Houthi tribe providing the hereditary leaders of the Yemeni Shia state.

There are about nine million Shia in Yemen (40 percent of the population) and most belong, like the rebels, to the Zaidi sect that the Houthis dominate. In 2009 only a few hundred thousand Zaidi were up in arms against the government, and not all of them were actively resisting the advancing troops. The Houthi religious leaders, despite their disagreements with Iran over what form of Shia beliefs was superior, accepted Iranian offers of support in regaining self-rule for the Zaidi Shia in Yemen as well as the million Zaidi across the border in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis established this division of Zaidi Shia in the early 1930s as they were establishing the borders for the new kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Before that the Zaidi in the mountains of northwest Yemen had maintained their independence for centuries. The Ottoman’s left the Zaidi alone as long as there was no interference with Turkish administration of Mecca, Medina and the Red Sea port that brought in pilgrims and cargo.

When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918, the Zaidi created a Shia kingdom led by the Houthi religious and tribal leaders. That ended when the Saudi clan moved south in 1930 to establish the borders of their new kingdom. The Saudis recognized the hill country of what is now northwest Yemen as a good place to put the border. The Sunni majority in Saudi Arabia made any Shia uprising, or cooperation with their Zaidi brethren on the other side of the new border highly unlikely. The Yemen Zaidi lost their autonomy in 1962 as the rest of Yemen finally united as one country. Zaidi resistance to this local domination began small and grew to the point where the goal of full autonomy seemed much closer. What made it even more real were Iranian pledges to support that effort and reunite with the Zaidi trapped in Saudi Arabia since the 1930s.

The Iranians 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. It’s an impossible situation for the Saudis because the Iranians want to use Shia controlled areas in northern Yemen as a perpetual base for attacks on Saudi control of Mecca and Medina. The Iranians have also displayed a preference for violating any treaty they enter into.

February 28, 2022: The UN, including Russia, voted to classify all the Yemen Shia rebels as terrorists. Before this only a few Yemen Shia rebel leaders were classified as terrorists. This new designation means weapons exports to the Shia rebels are illegal. Russia had a choice; to support its Iranian ally in Syria and other questionable endeavors, or support Russia’s legitimate economic links with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This was demonstrated as the UAE, with a temporary seat on the UN Security Council, abstained in a vote condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia, one of the five (along with China, France, Britain and the U.S.) permanent members, was able to veto the measure, which had the support of 11 Security Council members and 76 other countries and openly condemned the Russian action. That’s 45 percent of the membership, while only a handful of nations, most notably (Iran, North Korea and Cuba) openly support the Russian actions.

February 27, 2022: In the northwest, Arab Coalition airstrikes hit 25 rebel targets in the last 24 hours. This was retaliation for continued rebels use of cruise missiles against targets in Saudi Arabia and government-controlled areas of Yemen. Earlier today Saudi air defenses detected and shot down an Iranian cruise missile that crossed the border into Jizan province.

February 24, 2022: In the northwest, Arab Coalition airstrikes hit 28 rebel targets in the last 24 hours.

February 23, 2022: The United States sanctioned a Yemeni businessman living in Sweden and a Greek businessman operating out of the UAE for operating a smuggling and trading operation consisting of five front companies created by Iran to generate over ten million dollars for the Shia rebels in Yemen. This network concealed that it was created and controlled by Iran to get money to the Shia rebels that Iran has openly supported since 2015 and covertly for over a decade before that. This network was designated a terrorism support operation. Despite this the United States has still not reimposed the terrorist designation the Shia rebels had until a new American government lifted that in 2021. This was supposed to make the Shia rebels more willing to negotiate a peace deal. Instead. it revealed the extent to which the Shia rebels were controlled by Iran. This was something else that many Western governments have been slow in recognizing.

February 22, 2022: In the northwest, rebel attacks using Iranian UAVs equipped with explosives have twice in the last two weeks been intercepted while trying to attack Saudi airports outside cities near the Yemen border. These airports are less than a hundred kilometers from missile and UAV launching sites in northern Yemen controlled by Shia rebels. For years the Shia rebels used long range rockets and short-range ballistic missiles against these targets with little success. The cheaper Iranian UAVs proved more effective because that are more difficult to detect and intercept. In the two recent cases the UAVs were intercepted so close to the target that their explosives blew in the large airport terminal glass windows and injured over two dozen passengers and staff. The attack today wounded sixteen, with three victims in critical condition.

February 21, 2022: In the northwest (across the border in the Saudi province of Jizan) Saudi air defenses detected and intercepted an Iranian cruise missile headed for the airport outside the city of Jizan. The Red Sea port of Jizan is 80 kilometers north of Yemen and frequent target for Shia attacks using Iranian cruise missiles, UAVs and ballistic missiles.

A Saudi airstrike against a prison in rebel territory killed or wounded over a hundred prisoners.

February 18, 2022: In the northwest (near the port of Hodeida) the Arab Coalition forces detected and destroyed another Shia remotely controlled boat full of explosives. These are used to attack Red Sea shipping at night.

Across the border in the Saudi province of Jizan, security forces spotted and destroyed two remotely controlled Shia rebel bomb boats headed towards a floating platform that was a key component of the oil unloading operation at the Red Sea port of Jizan (80 kilometers north of Yemen).

February 16, 2022: For the first time Iran openly admitted that a satisfactory peace in Yemen is only possible if Iran gets a new treaty lifting economic sanctions and not imposing any restrictions on Iranian nuclear research or ballistic missile development.

 

Article Archive

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