Yemen: Success And The Saleh Shuffle

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May 16, 2018: The Yemen government accuses Iran of making it possible for the Shia rebels to keep going, even though the rebels have been losing for over a year and have little chance of prevailing. The Yemeni government believes that because of Iranian support the casualties from the fighting now exceed 40,000 dead and wounded. That includes a death toll of nearly 13,400 and about a quarter of those are women and children. The Shia rebels are also accused of making widespread use of mines and other hidden explosive devices. Over half a million of these have been encountered so far, mostly in areas, including residential areas that the rebels were forced out of. A lot of the military effort against the rebels involves clearing out these mines and explosive traps.

Poor morale and disunity explains the recent heavy losses (in personnel and territory) the rebels have suffered since 2017. The loss of one of their major factions in late 2017 probably hurt the rebels the most. That was the faction led by Ali Abdullah Saleh who 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 in Yemen. Saleh was a secret backer of the Shia rebels 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. So far Iran has 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.

To this end, coalition forces are advancing towards the Red Sea port of Hodeida once more. This is the largest and most developed Red Sea port in Yemen and the major conduit for food and other aid coming to rebel controlled northern Yemen. Taking the port from the rebels is not the hard part, clearing the rebels away from the vicinity of the port and the main roads out of the port is a larger problem. Unless the rebels are kept least 30 kilometers from the port (to prevent mortar and rocket fire on the port area) and tight security established in the port area (to prevent bomb attacks) the foreign shipping companies will not continue visiting Hodeida.

But the main conduit for smuggled goods was via all the aid shipments coming in through Hodeida. For most of 2017, the UN has been pressing the Shia rebels to peacefully give up control of the Red Sea port of Hodeida but the rebels have refused to consider this. Even proposals that Hodeida is turned over to a neutral third party are turned down. This is not a matter of trust, it’s a matter of survival for the rebels. In part, this is because of the smuggling. The rebels have prevented UN personnel from inspecting aid shipments (for weapons and other contraband) and the government claims the rebels have been seizing aid shipments and preventing UN personnel from verifying that the aid is going to civilians. As long as the rebels hold onto Hodeida and Iran still has powerful allies in the UN (mainly Russia and China, who can veto some measures) the smuggling can continue as can the use of food to control civilian populations that are hostile to the rebels. That food tactic has backfired and turned many civilians against the rebels. The government and coalition forces are now concentrating on taking Hodeida and other Red Sea coast areas held by the Shia rebels. This is working but it is slow going and has increased casualties among government and coalition forces. Some weapons are smuggled in via government controlled ports, like Aden. This involves more risk, and more bribes, to get trucks carrying aid or commercial goods, along with illegal weapons, to rebel controlled territory.

This won’t stop the smuggling, which is able to get ballistic missile components and other Iranian weapons into rebel controlled areas. Enough of this stuff is intercepted to make it clear that Iran is sending weapons meant to hit targets inside Saudi Arabia or take down Saudi warplanes operating over Yemen. These advanced weapons are getting through in large part because Yemen has always been “smuggler friendly.” With Iranian help (cash and diplomacy) the smuggled weapons kept the war going. This was also helped by the fact that Qatar and Oman had always been active in using Yemeni smuggling networks.

The Arabs tend to emphasize the many threats Iran represents. Saudi Arabia recently announced that if Iran resumes its work on nuclear weapons Saudi Arabia will do so as well. Most Arab nations, as well as Israel, backed the American May 8th decision to abandon the 2015 treaty that lifted many sanctions on Iran. One thing all the Semitic (Israel and Arab) nations can agree on is that Iran is a threat to all of them. That said the Arabs see Iran concentrating their fury on Israel as a bonus because the Israelis are the most militarily experienced and powerful of the Semitic nations and most able to defeat Iran. Besides Israel is also the only Semitic nation with nukes. If Iran takes a beating in Syria that would make it easier for the Arab Coalition to end the Shia rebellion in Yemen and eliminate the Iranian influence there.

Meanwhile, the Saudis are quietly getting American special operations and intelligence assistance to find Iranian ballistic missile facilities in rebel held Yemen. This indirectly involves the Israelis as the American and Israelis have been jointing developing these special operations and intelligence techniques since the 1990s when the ballistic missile threat from Iran and Iraq became a reality in the wake of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war.

The Iranian threat in Yemen is growing worse as Iran introduces new weapons. In April the Arab Coalition encountered Iranian Qusaf-1 UAVs armed with explosives. These come in the wake of Iranian ballistic missiles, naval mines, anti-ship missiles and remotely controlled boats loaded with explosives. A lot of these Iranian weapons are directed at Saudi Arabia and the Americans want to help reduce the risks these weapons create.

The Islamic Terrorists

Yemen has always been full of Islamic conservatives and radicals and many of those who founded al Qaeda came from Yemen or Yemeni families that had moved to oil-rich neighbors since the 1960s and prospered economically but not mellowed theologically. From al Qaeda came AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and in 2013 ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). ISIL and AQAP are technically enemies but have established a truce in Yemen while both concentrate on terror attacks. The massive losses ISIL has suffered worldwide in the last year has caused many surviving members to return to “more moderate” groups like AQAP. Despite that ISIL has maintained a presence in Yemen and can still carry out at least one attack every month or so. That activity is declining as more Yemenis grow disillusioned about the prospects of Islamic radicalism. Taking advantage of that at the end of April the army launched a major operation in the south. This was an effort to clear AQAP out of rural areas they had long felt safe in.

May 15, 2018: UAE (United Arab Emirates) began withdrawing its troops from the Yemeni island of Socotra (in the Gulf of Aden off the northeast tip of Somalia). The UAE forces had been there since April 30th, which angered many of its Yemeni allies who felt the UAE was trying to annex Socotra. Saudi Arabia stepped in and agreed to take over the economic development program for Socotra which the Yemeni government saw the UAE turning into an effort to make Socotra economically and politically dependent on the UAE. The UAE has always been more aggressive in this regard while the Saudis have not.

In the north Shia rebels fired another missile across the border at a military base outside the Saudi city of Jizan (which is near the border). Saudi anti-missile systems intercepted the rebel missile.

May 14, 2018: In the south (Shabwa province) an American UAV used a missile to kill three AQAP men who were driving in a vehicle along a rural road.

In the northwest Shia rebels fired an Iranian ballistic missile across the Saudi border into Jizan province where it landed in the desert near a large Saudi oil facility, which was apparently the target (as it has been several times in the past.)

May 13, 2018: On the Red Sea coast soldiers and Coalition troops drove Shia rebels out of the port town of Hima. The fighting in Taiz province and along the Red Sea coast over the last few days has forced hundreds of Shia gunmen to abandon areas they had occupied for years and get on the road to reach rebel held territory further north. This provided more targets for Coalition warplanes and the rebels suffered over a hundred dead and wounded from airstrikes in a few days.

May 12, 2018: In the southwest (Taiz province) coalition and government forces finally drove rebels from Taiz city and key roads and towns. In many cases, this meant pushing rebels out of areas they have held since 2015. The most heavily fought over area was Taiz city, near the Red Sea and the final battle involved clearing rebels out of the western part of the city and all the high ground surrounding the city. Clearing Shia rebels from most of Taiz province, especially along the Red Sea coast had been a major objective. The main purpose of the coastal drive is to find and eliminate rebel bases where missiles, naval mines or remotely controlled bomb boats are being stored and prepared for use against ships in the Red Sea. This is an Iranian idea, to make life more difficult for Saudi Arabia, Egypt and nations that depend on the Suez Canal to avoid taking the longer route around Africa. Hasn’t worked yet but could if Iran supplied anti-ship weapons sink a tanker or large freighter.

May 11, 2018: Government forces drove back Shia rebels who had long held high ground northwest of the Red Sea town of Mocha (Mokha). This follows the capture of a local military base, which was key to securing control of the road network in the area. Further south soldiers drove rebels away from high ground overlooking the Bab Al Mandab Strait. This strait is in the Gulf of Aden, between Yemen and Djibouti and astride the shipping lanes leading to the Red Sea. Soldiers also control the peninsula that extends into the Bab Al Mandab Strait. This makes it easier to monitor ships coming through and prevent rebels from attacking shipping.

May 9, 2018: Shia rebels in Yemen fired three more ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia. Two missiles were short range and were aimed at targets just across the border in Jizan province. The other missile was aimed at the Saudi capital and all three missiles were apparently intercepted by Patriot missiles.

May 7, 2018: In Sanaa, the rebel controlled capital, two Coalition air strikes hit the presidential compound, which is usually left alone. The airstrike left at least six dead. Saudi aircraft were used in both attacks and this was believed connected with the recent rebel use of Iranian ballistic missiles to attack the Saudi capital.

May 2, 2018: The UN reported that civilian losses to the fighting were much higher in April. There were at least 236 deaths in April, apparently the result of the Shia rebels being driven out of many areas and leaving behind landmines and other explosive traps. Many civilians do not want to wait to have their property checked for these devices and that leads to more civilian losses. The government offensive also brought with it more airstrikes against rebel personnel and military supplies, which are often located in residential areas.

April 28, 2018: In the south (Aden province) police raided an ISIL hideout and killed the ISIL leader all of Yemen and arrested three of his followers.

In the northwest Shia rebels fired an Iranian ballistic missile across the Saudi border into Narjan province where it exploded near a military facility and killed three Saudi soldiers. Elsewhere on the Saudi border (Jizan) Yemeni rebels shot down a Saudi surveillance UAV.

April 23, 2018: The Shia rebels selected Mahdi al Mashat to be the new chief administrative official (“president”) in Shia controlled territory. His predecessor, Saleh al Sammad was recently killed by a Coalition airstrike. Mashat is considered more radical than Sammad but that makes little difference because rebel controlled territory is rapidly shrinking and Mashat is considered to have accepted an impossible job.

April 19, 2018: In the west (Hudeida province) Shia rebel leader Saleh al Sammad was killed during a Coalition airstrike.

April 18, 2018: In the south (Abyan province) police raided an AQAP hideout and killed two AQAP leaders.

 

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