In central Yemen (Marib province) a Shia rebel offensive that began in early February grinds on, now in reverse. Calling the fighting a rebel “offensive” is misleading because most of the “fighting” involves artillery and mortar fire as well as dozens of cruise and ballistic missiles. The government forces respond with even more artillery fire and air strikes, all provided by the Arab Coalition. Six weeks of this “intense” fighting has killed or wounded nearly 500 fighters from both sides as well as a few civilians.
The rebel offensive has failed to push government forces out of the province completely and weakened the rebels sufficiently for the recent government counterattack to force the depleted rebel forces back. The February offensive was encouraged by UAE forces leaving Marib in early 2020 because of disagreements with Saudi Arabia over strategy and to deploy all their military forces in the UAE where they were needed to discourage any Iranian aggression against the UAE itself. For that reason, the UAE took their missile defense systems with them when they left Marib and that made government military bases more vulnerable to rebel ballistic and cruise missiles provided by Iran. The withdrawal of Arab coalition forces from Marib enabled the rebels to successfully regain control of much territory in the province. But the rebels suffered hundreds of casualties in recent failed efforts to capture the provincial capital, which is 120 kilometers east of the rebel held national capital Sanaa.
While the Arab coalition also lost UAE warplanes, the Saudis have a large air force and experienced pilots because of the thousands of airstrikes carried out since 2015. That combat experience has changed the Saudi Air force, which has long been plagued by relatively low pilot quality because of nepotism (royals preferred) in recruiting pilots. All those combat operations provided a long-needed reality check on Saudi air force leadership and less capable pilots have been quietly moved to jobs that reduce risk of losing aircraft or screwing up airstrikes. The Saudis use smart bombs and guided missiles and these require skill, training and practice to become proficient with. That includes becoming efficient with the use of the targeting pods, which enable a high-flying (about 6,000 meters, safe from most ground fire) pilot to accurately see what is down there and ensure he is hitting the right target. This makes it more difficult for the rebels to move around and mass forces for attacks. The more experienced Saudi pilots find and hit the rebels more often, which was a major factor in the failure of recent rebel combat operations, both offensive and defensive. This led to the rebels using more of their Iranian ballistic and cruise missiles for attacks on government forces inside Yemen. These attacks often succeed and are a major source of government forces' casualties.
Yesterday, Ismail Qaani, the
(Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) Quds Force commander boasted to Pakistani journalists that Quds had organized 18 attacks in Yemen over the last ten days and these had done damage to Saudi Arabia and Yemeni government forces.
Qaani’s predecessor, Qassem Soleimani, proved a hard act to follow. Soleimani died in January 2020 when the Americans killed him and some Iraqi associates outside the Baghdad airport with missiles. Iran has been frustrated at its inability to carry out adequate revenge attacks on the Americans. Qaani gets most of the blame for this because Soleimani was the key to earlier Iranian success in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Qaani has presided over more defeats than victories. In 2020 Qaani sent a Quds Force general to be the Iranian ambassador to Yemen. Since the rebels control the traditional Yemeni capital, they can pretend to be a real government. The new “ambassador” is in Yemen mainly to supervise Iranian support for combat operations. Quds felt so confident that they ignored recent American offers for ceasefire talks and instead increased the number of offensive operations, which
Qaani was now boasting about to foreign journalists who proceeded to publish what Quds Force was up to in Yemen. Someone in Iran realized that approach was a mistake and ordered the Shia rebels to do some damage control. Now the rebel spokesmen insisted they did not reject the American ceasefire offers but were simply seeking “clarification.” Previously the Saudis and Yemeni government had announced willingness to try another ceasefire. All previous ceasefire deals with the rebels were eventually rendered useless by rebel violations of the terms.
In early February, the U.S. announced it would cancel its designation of the Iran-backed Shia rebels as international terrorists and cancel some smart bomb shipments to Saudi Arabia and pause the sale of F-35 stealth fighters to the UAE. This was meant to encourage the Saudis to negotiate an end to the Yemen civil war. Iran and the Shia rebels interpreted this as a victory because the Americans were making it easier for Iran to continue making attacks on Saudi Arabia via the Shia rebels who control portions of the Saudi-Yemen border. The Shia rebels want autonomy, or independence, for their traditional territories in northern Yemen while Iran wants access to the Saudi border to increase its attacks on Saudi Arabia and commercial traffic in the Red Sea. The Iranians apparently misinterpreted the American gesture and ordered the Shia rebels to increase attacks against Saudi Arabia and ground operations against government forces. This turned out to be a big mistake because the Americans interpreted it as unwillingness to even consider a ceasefire. The Shia rebels have repeatedly failed to even consider ceasefire offers or, when accepted, respect them.
The new American government has not followed through on the February pledges because they were made mainly to appease U.S. factions that helped get the current U.S. government elected. The Americans said they would resume food and other foreign aid for desperate Yemenis. That aid had been halted by the U.S. and many other foreign donors when the Shia rebels refused to stop diverting most of that aid to other uses. The U.S. offered the Shia rebels a new ceasefire proposal but the rebels rejected that and called new American peace efforts in Yemen as part of a conspiracy against Yemen.
The seven years of civil war in Yemen have caused more health-related casualties to civilians that combat casualties to fighters or nearby civilians. The rebels have used control over foreign food and medical supplies to the 70 percent of the population they control. Tribes loyal to the rebel cause prosper while others literally starve. The rebels are preparing for another round of successful deceptions of foreign aid donors to steal aid and rebuild their depleted finances.
March 14, 2021:
In the northwest (Hajjah province) government forces have pushed Shia rebels out of western portions of the province after two weeks of fighting. This is one area where the Shia rebels have been in trouble for several years and it is getting worse as the Saudi supported offensive seeks to reduce the rebel presence around the key Red Sea port of
The Shia rebels are still close enough to
fire machine-guns or mortar shells into parts of the city where there is resistance to rebel movement or operations. The Hajjah operation cuts key supply routes for rebel forces around Hodeida.
Back in 2018 Saudi troops finally drove the Shia rebels out of Hodeida, after more than two years of fighting. The Shia counterattacked in the last year, regained some territory and have now lost that. This province is on the Saudi border and largely populated by Shia. But many Saudis believe Hajjah province should be part of Saudi Arabia. At one time in the 1920s, a decade before the Saudi kingdom was founded, Saudi forces conquered Hajjah province. British threats caused the Saudis to withdraw but the Saudis never forgot.
Another reason to take the province is to halt the Shia rebel smuggling that still takes place along the Red Sea coast. Pacifying Hajjah province meant making deals with the Shia tribes to assure them they would not be mistreated. To help with that the Saudis had the experience of the many Shia tribes in southwest Saudi Arabia, who have done much better economically over the decades than their Shia brethren across the border in Yemen. The Saudi pitch was classic Arabian; support the Saudi cause and the Saudis and Saudi Arabia will provide protection and aid. By January 2019 it was obvious to the Shia rebels that the key Shia tribes in Hajjah province had switched sides. The rebels shifted forces from the south to launch an offensive against their new enemy. The Saudis had persuaded the Hajour tribes in Hajjah province to accept Saudi military support to block Shia rebels from entering Hajour territory. That was a problem for the rebels because Hajour lands contained some key routes. The Hajour tribes dominated the province, which was sometimes called “Hajour province.” The Shia rebel campaign involved attacking, or rather besieging many villages. In 2019 the Saudis countered that with airdrops of food, ammo and other supplies while organizing a groups operation to break the siege. This put more pressure on the rebels because this was yet another Saudis success in or near the Shia rebel home province of Saada. This is not a new situation but has been growing worse since 2017 and caused a manpower shortage for the rebels as well as a worsening morale problem. The Shia rebels are on the defensive when it comes to Hajjah province but remain active by randomly firing rockets at towns and villages. This terrorizes the civilians but also makes those civilians more determined to resist the return of the Shia rebels.
In the southwest (Taiz province) Shia rebels recently lost ground as a government offensive to reach the coast and disrupt rebel access to Hodeida. These attacks have, since 2018, pushed the rebels back to the point where are only a few rebel-controlled areas left in northern Taiz province. In 2019 the rebels were present in about 30 percent of the province and now it is less than five percent. Taiz city has been under government control since early 2018 and by 2019 the rebels no longer controlled any territory on a permanent basis. Taiz is the third largest city in Yemen and the province occupies a strategic location. For that reason, the province has seen nearly constant fighting for nine years now and it but is no longer the most active combat zone in the country.
March 12, 2021: In northwest (
Hodeida province) Shia rebels near
Red Sea port of Hodeida
resumed fighting with government forces in some parts of the city
The rebel forces are still close enough to the port to fire on and hit ships trying to enter the port. The rebels are using this veto power over port access to try and extract more money from the UN, which now runs the port. Ships entering the port pay user fees and before the rebels were forced to withdraw from the port in May 2019, they considered the port user fees part of their income. The rebels also imposed many other fees on the foreign aid groups and paid for the supplies brought in as well as for moving these items, by truck, to areas where the food and other items were desperately needed.
The port fees and stolen aid supplies from controlling
the largest Yemen port on the Red Sea was a great loss for the rebels. Hodeida is where most of the foreign aid comes in. The government and Arab Coalition finally broke rebel control of the port in late 2018 and negotiated a rebel withdrawal from the city in early 2919. The rebels can only raise the checkpoint fees so high before the traders realize that it would be cheaper to hire smugglers to get the shipments past the rebel toll keepers.
The U.S. has agreed to resume aid shipments to rebel areas, relying on rebel cooperation on monitoring whether the aid reaches those who need it or is stolen or heavily “taxed” by the rebels. For years the rebels have been successful at deceiving or intimidating most outside observers from reporting what actually happens to the aid. This is what led most foreign aid donors to halt shipments.
March 8, 2021: In the north, Shia rebels sent another explosives laden UAV into southwest Saudi Arabia (Asir province). Air defenses detected and downed the UAV as it headed for King Khaled Airbase. The day before the Shia rebels launched a ballistic missile at the airbase. The missile was intercepted and destroyed. Iran denies responsibility for all UAV/cruise missile/ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia.
March 7, 2021: In northeast Saudi Arabia (tanker loading port of Ras Tanura) an Iranian explosive laden UAV was intercepted before it could reach the port. Further south, a ballistic missile was intercepted as it approached Dhahran, the city where ARAMCO (the Saudi oil company) is located. The UAV was launched from an Iranian ship in the Persian Gulf while the ballistic missile came from the Iran-backed Yemen rebels. This and other recent Iranian attacks on Saudi Arabia have done some good for Iran by driving the price of oil up to $70 a barrel. This makes smuggling more Iranian oil less of a financial risk because even with the discount offered to buyers and the risk of having Iranian tankers seized.
In Saana, the rebel held capital, a detention center for about 900 Ethiopians smuggled into Yemen but detained by the rebels, experienced some violent demonstrations that was met by gunfire from the guards. This led to a fire that left over 40 migrants dead. Covid19, increased efforts by the naval blockade and more fighting inside Yemen has reduced the usual flow of illegal migrants to Yemen. There were apparently only 37,000 illegals reaching Yemen in 2020 compared to 138,000 in 2019. In
2017 about 100,000 illegal migrants came in and 2018 saw this increase another ten percent. About 90 percent of these migrants are from Ethiopia while most of the remainder are from Somalia. Until the Yemen civil war broke out in 2015 people smuggling from Somalia (Somaliland) and Djibouti was a major criminal enterprise with over 10,000 foreigners arriving each month and then being moved north, mainly to Gulf oil states where cheap labor was in demand. The smuggling gangs had arrangements, especially with tribal leaders, throughout Yemen to allow the movement of the smuggled foreigners, for a fee. After 2015 the traffic began to go both ways with thousands of Yemeni refugees reaching Somaliland, often on smuggler boats that had carried African refugees to Yemen, each month. Meanwhile the movement of Somalis (and other Africans) to Yemen continued with 100,000 arriving in 2015 and 115,000 in 2016. The civil war keeps most of these illegal migrants in UN supported refugee camps. Those with money can hire smugglers to take them across the Gulf of Aden to Sudan and from there to the Mediterranean coast and another boat to Europe. Since 2017 routes north to Saudi Arabia became usable and the people smugglers again had a way to get their customers to their destination.
March 1, 2021: During February the Shia rebels launched over 40 cruise and ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia. The exact number is unknown because a growing percentage of these weapons crash shortly after launch or suffer propulsion or guidance system failure before entering Saudi Arabia and crash. Some actually crash on the Saudi side of the border but in a remote area and are not discovered right away. This is especially true with the “cruise missiles” which are often Iranian UAVs carrying explosives and programmed for a one-way flight that is supposed to end when the UAV takes dive with its explosives rigged to detonate on contact. This is a low-tech way to create a cruise missile but the resulting weapon is not as reliable as a cruise missile designed and built as a cruise missile. Iran has some of those, but its cheaper and easier to smuggle the UAVs into northern Yemen. Since 2015 none of the missile attacks on Saudi Arabia have hit their targets although some debris from shot down missiles has caused damage or injury on the ground.
February 27, 2021: In Yemen Iran-backed Shia rebels launched more Iranian ballistic missiles at targets in Saudi Arabia. The missiles were all intercepted by Saudi BMD (Ballistic Middle Defense) systems.