Yemen: Hold Hodeida If You Want To Live

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August 9, 2018: The government offensive is still stalled, two months after it began, to take the Red Sea port of Hodeida. While government forces keep getting closer to Hodeida, and the other major city rebels hold, the capital Sanaa, the fact remains that despite Arab coalition assistance, especially air and naval power, the Shia rebels are still able to halt or delay any ground offensive. The basic problem here is that despite combat losses and defections (of non-Shia allies) the rebels can still put nearly as many fighters on the ground as the government. When the civil war began it was accompanied by the collapse of the Yemeni military. Many army and air force units joined the rebels. Army units that did not defect suffered heavy losses from desertion. That triggered the formation of the Arab coalition (led by Saudi Arabia) but the coalition could not bring in enough ground troops to immediately replace what the Yemen Army has lost through defection and desertion. Rebuilding the Yemen Army is still underway but in the meantime, the Shia rebels have a large force of combat veterans and leaders who have adapted to the coalition use of airstrikes and armored vehicles. The rebels use a lot of landmines and disperse defenders in the face of a ground attack. This provides few targets for coalition aircraft and most of the rebels behind the minefields are well-hidden snipers. That leaves using ground forces to get past this sort of defense but the coalition cannot afford to take a lot of infantry casualties because that would be unpopular back home. The rebels know this and make the most of it.

The landmines have become a major problem and the Arab coalition mine clearing troops have already cleared or disposed of over 40,000 of the mines. This includes mines the rebels have not had a chance to use yet. Because the rebels keep poor records of where they plant them and have no plans to remove them, the orphaned landmines are going to be a problem for a long time. The rebel-held capital is defended by at least 60,000 mines and many of these will still be in the ground long after the war is over.

The Shia rebels, especially with the help of Iranian media, have an effective information warfare program going for them. A recent example were rebels claiming that coalition airstrikes hit a crowded market and a hospital in Hodeida. This fell apart when the coalition was abler to provide high-resolution satellite and other aerial photos of the attack sites which clearly show the damage was done by mortar shells, not smart bombs or missiles.

Iran has also been a big help with getting weapons smuggled in. This is expensive but the local smugglers are experienced and resourceful. If you can pay, you get what you want. Iran has the cash and connections to get it done (usually via smugglers who have no permanent connection with Iran) on an even larger scale. Another major assist from Iran is financial. Iran not only provides some cash but also provides technical assistance in finding ways to extract cash from bankrupt and poverty-stricken areas of Yemen the rebels control. Much of the cash comes from foreign aid, something the UN does not like to discuss in public. Foreign aid operations involve a lot of goods that are easy to sell on black (or legitimate) markets. The aid effort includes a lot of cash to pay for all manner of expenses involved in getting the goods to the people who need it most. By controlling the Red Sea port of Hodeida the rebels had access to major portions of that aid related cash. The UN had to pay docking and unloading fees (that were jacked up as high as possible, because of “war risk” or whatever). The UN knew it was being plundered by the rebels but Hodeida was the only port with the facilities (piers and unloading equipment) to move large quantities of aid. Some smuggling was also done via the massive aid shipments but the main benefit of Hodeida for the rebels was a source of cash and stuff that could be sold (like much of the aid). The government forces advancing slowly towards Hodeida realize this and the advance is slow because they want to capture the port area intact and minimize their casualties while doing so. The rebels are vigorously defending Hodeida, even more so than the capital Sanaa to the east. Hodeida is more important. Without Hodeida, there is a lot less cash and other goodies. Without Hodeida, it is more difficult to launch attacks on ships offshore. Without Hodeida, it will be easier for the government to reduce or halt aid to the rebel home areas in the northwest. Without Hodeida, the rebels don’t have a chance of obtaining any type of victory or decent surrender terms. The loss of Hodeida means the rebels have lost a valuable bargaining chip for all sorts of deals. The rebels will do whatever they can to hold onto Hodeida.

Iranian Support Fades

Western and Arab intelligence agencies report that over the last few months there has been a reduction in Iranian efforts to smuggle weapons into Yemen. This is all about popular protests back in Iran calling for a halt in support of the Yemen rebels. In Iran there is growing popular resistance to the government spending money on overseas military operations while the average Iranian suffers from chronic poverty, a recent collapse in the value of the Iranian currency (it now costs twice as much to buy dollars as it did a few months ago), higher inflation and growing unemployment. People are also protesting the Iranian government spending at least $2.5 billion in 2018 supporting foreign terrorists like the Shia rebels in Yemen, the Assads in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and Shia militias in Iraq. This is in addition to over $14 billion Iran admits it has already spent on supporting the Assads in Syria since 2012. The Iranian protestors need little encouragements as they have been shouting “Down With The Palestinians” and criticism of the Syrian War as well. This unrest, which has been occurring more frequently since late 2017, was noted by those receiving this Iranian support. The war in Yemen is less expensive than Syria but in 2017 is believed to have become as expensive as supporting pro-Iran militias and politicians in Iraq. The Yemeni rebels are seeing less support from Iran when they need it the most. Iran encourages the Yemeni rebels to do whatever they can to hold on to the Red Sea port of Hodeida if only because is the least expensive way to smuggle military equipment into Yemen. Smuggling weapons into Yemen is a high-risk business for professional smugglers and they expect to be paid.

The economic problems in Iran are partly the result of the Americans resuming sanctions in November. The United States announced this decision in March and that set off a financial panic in Iran, which was already suffering from massive government corruption and decades of mismanagement of the economy.

August 8, 2018: In the north (Amran province) rebels fired a ballistic missile towards the Saudi city of Jizan. Saudi air defense intercepted the missile over Yemen. There were no casualties in Saudi Arabia but debris from the intercepted missile landed in Yemen where it killed one Yemeni and wounded 11 others. By Saudi count that makes 165 ballistic missiles fired towards Saudi Arabia by the rebels since 2015. Most of these missiles have been intercepted by Saudi Patriot anti-missile missiles. None have yet done any significant damage and many fragments of the intercepted missiles have been collected and identified as made in Iran. Confronted with this evidence Iran simply denies it.

August 7, 2018: In Iran, a senior IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) general revealed that Iran had asked the Shia rebels to attack two Saudi tankers near the Bab al Mandab Strait during July and the rebels did so. This caused Saudi Arabia to halt tanker movements for a week. The damage to the tankers was minor but tie incident indicated the rebels could have used a more powerful weapon (naval mine or larger missile) that would do a lot more damage.

August 6, 2018: In the north (Amran province) rebels fired a ballistic missile towards a target in the Saudi city of Narjan. Saudi air defense intercepted the missile. There were no casualties in Saudi Arabia

August 5, 2018: In central Yemen (Baida province) there was heavy fighting between government forces and Shia rebels as the troops sought to push the rebels out of the few areas the rebels still control there. Most of Baida province is controlled by Sunni tribes, many of them hospitable to Islamic terrorists (or anyone with a lot of cash). Baida is where most of the American UAV attacks on AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) members take place. The American UAV attacks continue in Yemen and many of the attacks are not announced. So far in 2018, there have been about 30 attacks. As in 2017 (when there were 131 attacks), the ones in 2018 have been mainly against AQAP and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) camps and key personnel in central Yemen (especially Baida province). This greatly reduces Islamic terrorist capabilities in Baida, which had long been an Islamic terrorist stronghold. East of Baida province are Shabwa and Hadramawt provinces. The later stretches from the sea to the Saudi border and is largely desert. Along with Baida, these two provinces used to host most of AQAP personnel and base areas. But in the last year, AQAP has been under heavy attack by the Americans and the Arab coalition and responded by shifting more of their terror attacks to the government and Arab coalition forces. AQAP took credit for 273 attacks in 2017 and in the first six months of that year, some 75 percent of these attacks were against the Shia rebels. But in the second half of 2017, half the attacks were against fellow Sunnis (government and coalition forces). In 2018 the remaining AQAP are mainly fighting for survival against the government and coalition forces.

August 4, 2018: Saudi Arabia resumed oil tanker movement through the Red Sea and the narrow Bab al Mandab strait to the Gulf of Aden. Saudi Arabia closed the Bab al Mandab to oil tanker traffic on July 26th after several Shia rebel attacks on tankers as they passed Shia held coastal areas of Yemen. Normally tankers carrying nearly five million barrels of oil pass through Bab al Mandab each day. That’s about 3.4 percent of the world total. The Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf sees even more (17 percent of the world total).

August 3, 2018: The Yemen government and the Shia rebels have agreed to attend UN-sponsored peace talks in Switzerland during September. No one has much confidence that these talks will achieve anything. The rebels refuse to negotiate anything to deal with the Red Sea port of Hodeida. Yet the rebels say they are ready to make peace if the right terms are offered. So far the rebels have been asking for more (amnesty, autonomy and cash) than the government is willing to give.

August 2, 2018: Israel announced that if Iran backed Shia rebels in Yemen blocked the Bab al Mandab strait Israel would intervene militarily. Bab al Mandab is also used by the Israelis, who have a port on the Red Sea as well as the use of the Suez Canal.

August 1, 2018: Yemen has resumed production in its oil fields and 500,000 barrels were moved by tanker trucks to the Rezum oil export facility on the Gulf of Aden. Oil production and exports were halted since 2015 by the civil war.

July 31, 2018: In the north Shia rebels fired short-range rockets across the border at a village in the Saudi province of Jizan. There were no casualties.

In the south (Aden) a roadside bomb wounded a local politician and three others. No one took credit for the attack.

July 30, 2018: In the south (Aden) the chief intelligence officer for the airport was murdered by gunmen on a motorcycle.

July 21, 2018: In the south (Shabwa province), Yemeni special operation troops found three AQAP camps and destroyed them. This operation took several days and involved a clash with AQAP men that left six of the Islamic terrorists dead. The effort to clear AQAP out Hadramawt, Abyan (Aden) and Shabwa provinces has been going on since late 2016 but became more intense since early 2017 when the United States increased its effort to find and kill key AQAP personnel, especially the many who were based in Shabwa. This was mainly done from the air using UAVs for surveillance and attacks using guided missiles and smart bombs. As a result of the air operations, the remaining AQAP groups became more vulnerable to detection and attack on the ground. There are also some ISIL groups out in the hills and they will fight with AQAP men as well as soldiers.

July 18, 2018: In central Yemen (Marib province) a roadside bomb was used to attack a convoy the Yemeni vice-president and some senior army officers were traveling in. The vice president was unhurt but one general was killed and several other people wounded.

Much to the chagrin of Iran, Sudanese forces continue to serve with the Saudi Arabian-led coalition operation in Yemen despite recent losses in Yemen. Sudan has all but terminated its long-term alliance with Iran and made it clear it will back the pan-Arab effort. The Egyptian Navy in the Red Sea has been supporting Saudi Arabian coalition operations in Yemen.

July 17, 2018: In the south (Ibb province) seven Shia rebels died during a battle with a local tribal leader. Ibb is one of the areas where the rebels are losing control, often to local tribes rather than government forces. Ibb province is northeast of Taiz province, another area where the rebels are losing ground.

July 15, 2018: In the north Shia rebels fired short-range rockets across the border into the Saudi province of Jizan. Three Saudi civilians were wounded.

 

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