Yemen: Where Regional Alliances Live Or Die

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July 27, 2022: The Shia rebels say they will not renew the ceasefire that expires on August 2nd. This ceasefire was first agreed to in April and renewed in June for another two months. The UN sponsored peace talks were to consider a six-month extension but the Iran-backed Shia rebels have turned down that proposal, insisting that the ceasefire was not working for them. Iran is not openly participating in the current ceasefire talks but controls what the Shia rebels will agree to. Iran opposes any ceasefire terms that further disrupt Iranian weapons smuggling. Iran wants to continue smuggling in ballistic and cruise missiles, which are brought in broken down, to be assembled under Iranian supervision in Shia territory and then fired at targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Shia rebels have suffered heavy casualties since 2021 because of failed efforts to gain more territory as well as defending areas they have long occupied.

The April ceasefire was generally adhered to and that could be measured by the reduction (by more than 50 percent) in civilian casualties. This is not usually the case. Past ceasefires are seen as futile because the Shia rebels violated so many of them and, until recently, showed no interest in change, especially since Iran support is crucial to the maintenance of the Shia military efforts.

The current peace talks are different because the Shia and the Yemeni government both agree that allowing Yemen to be a battleground for the Iranian campaign to replace Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Moslem world is not good for Yemen. Then there is the situation in Iran. Yemeni Shia are aware of significant popular opposition in Iran to the Yemen war. The Saudis and UAE were always reluctant participants in the war but could not withdraw as long as Iran was attacking them from Shia rebel-controlled northern Yemen. This encouraged the Yemen government to seriously consider some kind of Shia autonomy and sufficient guarantees that the autonomy would not later be taken away. The problem with the autonomy proposal is that Iran has a veto.

Shia rebels risk an internal civil war if they attempt to defy Iranian orders. These orders are delivered by Iranian embassy in Sanaa, the rebel occupied Yemen capital. The current Iranian ambassador is a former Quds Force general and many other “diplomats” are veteran Iranian Quds Force officers. Quds Force is a branch of the Iranian IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), a separate military force formed in the 1980s to protect the religious dictatorship that has ruled Iran since the 1980s. The Quds Force is a component of the IRGC that specializes in instigating, supervising, and sustaining foreign rebellions and terror campaigns that might expand Iranian power and keep potential enemies on the defensive.

The IRGC is also the main component of the radical faction in the Iranian government. The radicals, who put the expansion of Iranian power above everything else, are at war with the “nationalists” in the Iranian leadership that want to emphasize improving the economy and living standards for Iranians. Most of the religious rulers of Iran see the nationalists as a threat and have given radicals, including the Quds Force, more authority, and resources since 2021. Yemen is seen as the cheapest and most successful of Iran’s overseas wars. Since late 2020 the Iranian ambassador in Yemen has been a former Quds Force general who is in Yemen more as a Quds Force commander than a diplomat. This ambassador doesn’t make many requests, but he does issue a lot of orders. The ambassador also has access to Iranian intelligence reports on what Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the Yemeni government are up to. Iranian intel may have concluded that an Arab coalition (Saudis, and the UAE) training program in southern Yemen was a success and is turning Yemeni Sunni volunteers into well trained, armed and led soldiers. There are about 14,000 of these well paid (by the Coalition) volunteers who are organized into seven brigades. These are referred to as “Giants” or “Happy” brigades and the first three were declared ready for action in June. Members of the other four brigades are still undergoing training and paying attention to how the first three brigades do in action. But there is no large-scale combat for these three brigades to participate in. Such combat would include a renewal of Saudi air support. These brigades include trained air controller teams that can quickly call in air strikes to support brigade advances and attacks, as well as defense. If these brigades perform as intended, the Shia rebels would be in trouble because they have never faced a Yemeni combat force like this before. Some of the volunteers for the brigades came from northern Sunni tribes that have been attacked or threatened by the Shia rebels and would like to see that threat eliminated.

These brigades are the latest effort by the Arab Coalition to train and equip Yemenis to fight effectively. Similar troops were used in 2018 to clear Shia rebels from the Red Sea coast south of the port of Hodeida. Similar forces were trained by the Saudis for use in eastern Yemen to limit Iranian smuggling efforts or protect Sunni tribes from Shia rebel harassment. Even before the current ceasefire efforts to recruit and train the seven new brigades were underway.

Iran sees these brigades as a real threat to the Iranian presence in Yemen and suspects the Saudis are planning to do what the Iranians would do in a similar situation, as in abandon the cease fire and unleash an unexpectedly effective attack on the enemy. That’s a possibility and the Shia rebel refusal to renew the ceasefire allows the rebels to unleash some their own Iran-supplied and Quds directed surprises.

Meanwhile the Yemeni government has also gone through some changes. In April 2022 president Hadi was forced to resign because of corruption and general ineffectiveness. Hadi agreed to officially transfer his power to a Presidential Council, whose eight members were selected earlier by the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) in consultation with many prominent pro-government officials. The council is led by Rashad al Alimi, a former interior minister. The other seven members include governors of Marib and Hadramawt provinces, STC (South Transitional Council) leaders, a Suuni tribal leader in the north who has formed an anti-Shia coalition, and several military commanders, including a member of the Saleh family that ruled Yemen before the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. The council members accurately represent the key pro-government factions in Yemen. All of these members want peace, but without the continued Iranian presence. This new government was able to use the ceasefire to reorganize and upgrade the Yemeni army.

The new Presidential Council made it easier for the Saudis and the UAE to negotiate with Yemeni factions, including many Shia ones, to work out a peace deal. The war has dragged on for eight years mainly because Iran got involved and injected religious issues. For most Yemenis the war was about maintaining the cohesion of the nation. For Iran and the Shia rebels it’s also about religion. The Iranian religious dictatorship is 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 Mecca and Medina. 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 Iranian claims.

The main battlefield for control of Mecca has become Yemen, where Iran-backed Yemen Shia rebels began a civil war in 2014 and with Iranian support have survived Saudi efforts to prevent the Shia-controlled northwestern 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.

It was difficult for the Shia rebel leaders to realize they had made a mistake accepting Iranian weapons and “guidance.” The Iranians and the Shia rebels had different goals and priorities. It became obvious that most Iranians as well as most Yemenis opposed the war in Yemen. At that point it became preferable for the Shia rebels to negotiate with the Yemeni government without Iranian “guidance” and threats. Long ago the Shia and Sunni in Yemen learned that it was preferable to tolerate each other and unite when Yemen was threatened. That balance was disrupted during the 1990s as Yemen was once again a united country, The Sunni majority refused to address those complaints because many of the united government leaders were Shia. For many Yemeni Shia, those Shia government officials were out for themselves, not the Shia community in Yemen. Now that there is general agreement on that, there is an opportunity to end the war and create a more lasting peace.

Iran accepts ceasefire agreements they can exploit. The best example of Iranian and rebel disdain for ceasefire agreements 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 for a timeout (peace talks). The UN persuaded the Yemen government and its Arab Coalition 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 troops. Rebels accused the government of violating the agreement. By 2020 it was clear that the rebels 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 backers were intent on maintaining control of northwest Yemen so the rebels could use Iranian cruise and ballistic missiles to attack Saudi Arabia.

July 26, 2022: As the ceasefire nears its expiration date on August 2nf, the Shia rebels have increased the number of ceasefire violations. Most of this violence is directed at civilians, with several hundred dead or wounded in the last few weeks because of Shia rebel artillery, sniper and landmines placed near active roads or paths. The Yemenis accuse the UN officials of ignoring or playing down this increase in rebel violence in a desperate effort to get the rebels to renew the ceasefire. To many Yemenis the UN appears to consider placating the rebels and Iran as more important than preventing civilian casualties. UN personnel in Yemen are accused of being intimidated by Iran. Sometimes this intimidation gets personnel when UN officials traveling in rebel-controlled territory are prevented from moving about freely or are physically restrained and have their recording devices and collected evidence of violations seized. Iran officially denies they are in charge but the Iranian embassy in Sanaa is run by known Iranian military officers with a background in supervising Iranian operations in foreign countries like Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen.

July 22, 2022: In the northwest (outside the Red Sea port of Hodeida) seven children (10 to fifteen years old) were walking along the ceasefire line near the city airport when one of them triggered a Shia rebel landmine. The explosion killed four of the children and wounded the other three. The Shia rebels don’t have enough gunmen to watch the entire perimeter and use mines to keep hostile forces out, or at least show them down and alert the rebels. Some of these mines do go when local livestock grave too close to the line. That has made it clear to the local civilians the mines are real and should be avoided. Children don’t always pay attention to such warnings. Anti-personnel mines are a minority (a few percent) of the explosive objects children or livestock sometimes step on and detonate. The most common landmine is designed to destroy or damage vehicles. These are frequently placed in dirt roads and trails. Most (about 60 percent) of the explosive objects are grenades, bombs and shells that did not explode after landing or were never used and abandoned. The Saudi financed EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) project in Yemen has removed or destroyed over 250,000 explosive objects since 2010.

July 20, 2022: In central Yemen (Baida province) Shia rebels began firing on Khubzah, a remote pro-government Sunni village with about 2,000 inhabitants. This attack left 18 civilians dead or wounded so far. Rebels surrounded the village for a week before opening fire. The village is in rebel-controlled territory and the government is gathering a force large enough to reach the village before the Shia rebels can cause more death and destruction. The rebels don’t consider this a violation of the ceasefire but rather an internal security matter.

June 30, 2022: There was an unpublicized meeting at an Egyptian resort town at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Military and air-defense experts from Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel attended to discuss a U.S. sponsored regional air defense network called MEAD (Middle East Air Defense Alliance). All the nations involved have been using American air defense systems, especially Patriot and THAAD. In addition, Israel not only purchased Patriot, but also developed a similar but superior system called David’s Sling as well as the unique Arrow anti-ballistic missile system. Israel also developed and uses Iron Dome against rocket and mortar attacks as well as new systems that can detect and destroy low and slow cruise missiles which Iran has successfully used to evade Saudi air defenses and attack oil infrastructure targets. Israel is the only state in the region to manufacture and launch its own space satellites. Israel is also the only nation in the region with nuclear weapons and multiple methods for delivering them.

MEAD can either just share data between members about the presence and activity of Iranian missile and rocket threats to member states (especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE) or actively coordinate the use of each nation's detection and air-defense systems against the Iranian threat.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been regularly attacked by Iranian ballistic missiles and cruise missiles launched by Iran-backed Shia rebels in northern Yemen. This need for Israeli air defense systems played a role in the 2020 American sponsored effort to secure diplomatic recognition of Israel by Arab states in the Middle East, and led to Israel exporting some air defense systems to the UAE for protecting commercial aircraft from missile attacks. The Saudis are reluctant to actively participate in MEAD because they currently have a ceasefire in Yemen which, since April, has halted missile and rocket attacks on Saudi territory. The question is how long will the ceasefire last before the Iranians break it or fail to renew it because the Saudis fail to meet new Iranian demands. Keeping the Saudis out of MEAD is one Iranian goal, but not at the cost of weakening Iranian control over the Shia rebels. The Saudis are one of the most conservative states in the region, regarding that as a strength not a weakness. This means the fate of MEAD depends on what happens in Yemen.

 

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