Yemen: Dueling Delusions


May 10, 2021: The word from rebel-held territory is that Iran is giving the orders now. This began in late 2020 after Iran sent a Quds Force general to be the Iranian ambassador to Yemen. Since 2015 the rebels have controlled the traditional Yemeni capital, where all the foreign embassies were (and a few still are) as well as headquarters for the government ministries. Most of the embassies and government ministries have left for the temporary capital of the last elected government in the southern port of Aden. Despite that, the rebels insist that because they occupy the capital and control over a third of the population, they are the real government and their opponents are southern separatists or foreigners. This ignores the fact that many of the people in rebel territory are kept in line via threats to cut off access to food, medical supplies and imported items. Tribes that try to break away risk starvation and a blockade of roadblocks and attacks on smugglers trying to get in. More and more tribes have been able to break away but the rebels have maintained a presence around many towns and cities and see the capture of Marib province as essential to maintaining their legitimacy.

The new Iranian “ambassador” came to Yemen mainly to supervise Iranian support for combat operations and take a more direct role in running the war. Quds felt so confident that they bluntly rejected recent UN and American offers for ceasefire talks and instead increased the number of offensive operations. For more than a month Quds force officers outside Yemen have boasted to foreign journalists who proceeded to publish what Quds Force was up to in Yemen. The Iranian senior clerics, who have the final say in what Iranian policy is, realized that openly discussing the direct Iranian control of rebel operations was a mistake. Quds was ordered to leave media interviews and Internet announcements to the government. This was reflected in the Shia rebels suddenly giving reasons for rejecting ceasefire negotiations. The rebel spokesmen (a Yemeni, not an Iranian general giving interviews outside Yemen) insisted they did not reject the ceasefire offers but were simply seeking “clarification.” Previously the Saudis and Yemeni government had announced willingness to try another ceasefire with the rebels. Current UN efforts to revive peace talks are stalled because of disagreements over what can be negotiated. The rebels are insisting on preconditions which makes government forces and civilians more vulnerable to rebel attacks. Even pro-rebel foreigners are criticizing the rebels for this.

Iran is taking more direct control over the Shia rebels in order use this control as part of the negotiations to end economic sanctions on Iran. If Iran pulled out of Yemen the Shia tribal forces would be defeated, as they have many times before. Quds force commanders are reluctant to give up gains made in Yemen and may have been told that they could revive support for the Yemeni Shia after the economic sanctions on Iran are lifted. Because of these sanctions Quds force saw its budget cut by half since 2017, forcing major reductions in Quds activities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Yemen was always the least expensive Quds operation and did not suffer noticeable aid cuts.

Meanwhile Yemen continues to lose foreign aid donors because of the inability to halt rebel diversion of aid to support military operations and control the non-Shia populations in rebel territory. The UN has only been able to obtain a third of the aid needed for 2021 because more aid donors find that aid funds are more effective elsewhere. There is limited aid to meet all the worldwide demands. While sending aid is often controlled by politics, if it becomes known that much of the aid is not reaching the needy in a particular country, political support for Yemen aid diminishes.

May 9, 2021: In the northwest, Shia rebels launched another cruise missile, actually an explosives laden UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), into southwest Saudi Arabia. The rebels claimed this cruise missile was programmed to attack the King Khalid Air Base, which is about 200 kilometers from the Yemen border. This cruise missile/UAV was intercepted and destroyed before it could reach the airbase. The Shia rebels insisted the UAV hit its target but whenever that happens, which is rarely, there is suddenly a lot of chatter on the Internet, often accompanied by cellphone photos, from local witnesses.

Saudi Arabia has a growing problem with Iranian UAVs used as cruise missiles. For several years Iran has been smuggling in UAV components to northern Yemen. Unfortunately for the Saudis the home province of the Shia rebels is in northwest Yemen along the Saudi border. That border is 1,800 kilometers long although only about a hundred kilometers is controlled by the Shia rebels. Even before the civil war the Saudis suffered cross-border raids by the Yemeni Shia. Those attacks increased after 2015, with the addition of Iranian rockets and missiles. By 2019 Iranian UAVs and cruise missiles were used against Saudi economic and military targets farther from the border. The Saudis were prepared for the ballistic missiles and long-range rockets and used their Patriot AMD (anti-missile defense) systems to stop the rockets and missiles headed for a populated area or an economic or military target. The Iranian UAVs and small cruise missiles were harder to detect and shoot down. The Iranians noted that and ordered the Shia rebels to increase the number of such attacks into Saudi Arabia. These attacks have been a lot more frequent in 2021.

The Saudis adopted older Israeli tactics against the UAVs, which were carrying explosives on a one-way mission using GPS to guide them along a programmed course to a specific target. These improvised cruise missiles were smaller, slower and flying lower than the original American cruise missiles that used a small jet engine and, before GPS became available in the 1990s, less accurate but effective guidance systems. The Iranian UAV/cruise missiles cost a tenth of what  a conventional cruise missile does and are easier to smuggle into Yemen and assemble locally for a single one-way mission. These UAVs were more prone to failure and some were found on both sides of the border after they crashed. But most of them worked and the Saudis turned to their American advisors for ideas. Radars that could detect the low/slow UAVs were easier and cheaper to obtain that methods for destroying them. The Saudis have apparently been using air-to-air missiles fired by their F-15 jet fighters. The Saudis are seeking a cheaper solution and Israel, their new unofficial ally, has many such solutions.

May 8, 2021: In central Yemen (Marib province) the rebel offensive continues. There are two main objectives. The most obvious one is the Marib provincial capital, which is 120 kilometers east of the rebel held national capital Sanaa. The other one is the Marib oil fields. Yemen has some oil resources and even though they are tiny compared to what Iran and the other Arab states in the region have, they were enough to supply internal needs as well as provide some for export. Production and exports halted several years ago but possession of Yemenis oil resources is a prestige thing. The Yemeni government and the Arab coalition also wanted to use Marib as a base area for a possible ground advance in the rebel held national capital Sanaa.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been supplying government areas with fuel, some of which is smuggled into rebel areas. Some of the foreign aid consisted of fuel and the aid donors objected to how the rebels distributed the fuel aid. Like food and other aid, rebels halted supplies to areas that were resisting rebel rule. The Saudis have responded to this by increasing fuel and other aid to maintain electric power supplies in government-controlled areas.

Since February most of the combat in Yemen has been in Marib. The rebels have suffered heavy casualties without much to show for it. The government forces, mainly tribal militias with access to Saudi air and artillery support have been able to regain lost ground. The rebels ignore this and insist they will prevail. Captured rebels and monitoring rebel communications revels that many of the replacement fighters are there mainly for the pay or because of rebel threats to block food aid. It’s increasingly common for daily casualties in Marib to exceed one or two hundred dead and wounded. When the Marib offensive began in February it was assumed it would follow the usual pattern of being intense for a few days or weeks and then fading. The fade never came.

Instead, the Marib combat kept escalating. Calling the fighting a rebel “offensive” was misleading, most of the time, 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. During the first six weeks of this “intense” fighting the dead and wounded amounted to nearly 500 fighters from both sides as well as a few civilians. In the six weeks those totals have doubled.

The rebel offensive was all about pushing government forces out of key areas of the province and it has failed. Some of these attacks temporarily weakened the rebels in Marib sufficiently for the government counterattacks to force the depleted rebel forces back. The February offensive began because the rebels believed the government military capabilities had been seriously diminished when UAE forces left Marib in early 2020 because of disagreements with Saudi Arabia over strategy and to concentrate all their military forces back home where they were needed to discourage any Iranian aggression. For that reason, the UAE took their missile defense systems with them and that made government military bases more vulnerable to rebel ballistic and cruise missiles attacks. The withdrawal of Arab coalition forces from Marib enabled the rebels to successfully regain control of much territory in the province. But the early gains did not continue as the offensive encouraged more Yemenis tribes to provide fighters to defend Marib and not just keep the peace in their home provinces.

May 7, 2021: The increased Iranian control in Yemen played a part in Iran and Saudi Arabia agreeing to begin secret (unannounced and officially denied) negotiations in mid-April. Such secrets do not stay secret for long and today the Saudis confirmed that the negotiations were underway. That explains the nice things Iran and Saudis have been saying about each other since late April. Iran wants the economic sanctions lifted and the Saudis want Iranian forces gone from their southern border. Making that happen is how deals are made in the Middle East. The Iranian threats against the Saudis would continue and the current Iranian government believes that with sanctions lifted they can deal with the growing unrest inside Iran against the religious dictatorship that has mismanaged Iran since the 1980s. The Saudis believe that there will be another revolution inside Iran and that justifies getting Iran out of Yemen. For both sides, it’s a gamble but because both sides are run by Islamic governments that believe God is on their side and the risk factor is somewhat diminished. To an outsider, Iran seems to be in a weaker position. Yet the Iranians have been more successful at gaining and holding onto power for thousands of years and even the wealthy Gulf Arab states recognize that.

History justifies the hopes of both sides. The Iranians have suffered major defeats in the past because of inept rulers and civil war. That helped made it possible 2,500 years ago for a weakened but seemingly mighty Persian empire to fall to the Greeks, led by Alexander the Great. This conquest was considered impossible but the pattern repeated itself 1,500 years ago when the Arabs, inspired by a new religion (Islam) did impossible (for Arabs) and conquered the Persian (Iranian) Empire. Five centuries ago, the Turks were able to block Iranian expansion into Arab lands. The Russians blocked Iranian expansion to the north and the British blocked expansion to the east. After the Ottoman Turk empire fell apart a century ago the Iranians found their imperial ambitions blocked by Russia and Western forces. Iranians have long believed that without the internal squabbling Iran could have avoided damage done by the Greek, Arab, Mongol and Western invasions. Currently the moderates (nationalists) in the Islamic government pay attention to history and the radicals (Islamic zealots) don’t. But when radicals do look closely at the past, they often become moderates and that is how the moderates are winning. That has the Iranian government scared and the Arabs encouraged, at least in the short term.

May 6, 2021: In the Arabian Sea (northwestern Indian Ocean between India and Arabia) an American destroyer halted and searched a dhow suspected of smuggling. The boarding party found the cargo was twelve tons of weapons. This included over three thousand Chinese assault rifles, machine-guns and sniper rifles. Most of the weapons were older Chinese models, still sold by Chinese manufacturers to price-conscious customers. Some Russian ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) and hundreds of RPG rockets were also included. Questioning of the crew and checking intel information indicated the dhow (a coastal cargo ship long popular in the region) came from Iran and was apparently headed for Yemen, where final delivery would probably be made by fishing boats carrying cargoes of weapons rather than recently caught fish. There are so many of these fishing boats off the Red Sea coast of Yemen that not all can be searched and the smuggler boats seek to appear less suspicious than the actual fishing boats. Iran pays what it takes to get this smuggling done and there are plenty of skilled smugglers in Yemen looking for work, no questions asked. Such cargoes used to be sent to Gaza on a regular basis but the Israeli-Egyptian blockade is tighter than ever and it is difficult to even get individuals or suitcases of cash into Gaza.

Iran is a major practitioner of “plausible deniability” and usually smuggles cheap foreign-made weapons to nations where Iran denies violating UN sanctions against weapons imports. Despite growing proof of Iranian arms exports to the Shia rebels, Iran denies it. China collaborates by producing a lot of cheap weapons mainly for sale to anyone who can pay. Bulk sales go to middlemen like Iran, who then distributes weapons to groups they deny they are arming. While not a big business for Chinese arms firms, it is profitable enough to keep production going. For legitimate customers China exports that latest, and more expensive, stuff. Iran produces its own assault rifles and other infantry weapons.

May 5, 2021: In the south the tribal leaders are calling for partition of Yemen. S ince 2015 the STC (South Transitional Council) has been backing this. STC is composed of southern tribes that want autonomy but claim they are willing to fight and defeat the Islamic terrorists as well as the Shia rebels first. Aidarous al Zubaidi, the STC leader is seen as more popular in the south than Abdrabu Mansur Hadi the last and current elected president of united Yemen. Hadi has only briefly visited Yemen a few times since 2015 and spends most of his time in the Saudi capital. This is for Hadi’s safety, given the number of assassinations going on in Aden, where the Hadi government was moved to in 2015. The Saudis and the UAE do not agree on dividing Yemen once more but for the moment it is more convenient to support the STC and efforts to defeat the Iran backed Shia rebels

Many Yemenis trace the current crisis back to the civil war that ended, sort of, in 1994. That war was caused by the fact that, when the British left Yemen in 1967, their former colony in Aden became one of two countries called Yemen. The two Yemens finally united in 1990 but another civil war in 1994 was needed to seal the deal. That fix didn't really take and the north and south have been pulling apart ever since. This comes back to the fact that Yemen has always been a region, not a country. Like most of the rest of the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa region, the normal form of government until the 20th century was wealthier coastal city states nervously coexisting with interior tribes that got by on herding or farming (or a little of both) plus smuggling and other illicit sidelines. This whole "nation" idea is still looked on with some suspicion by many in the region. This is why the most common forms of government are the more familiar ones of antiquity; kingdom, emirate or modern variation in the form of a hereditary dictatorship. For a long time, the most active Yemeni rebels were the Shia Islamic militants in the north. They have always wanted to restore local Shia rule in the traditional tribal territories, led by the local imam (religious leader). This arrangement, after surviving more than a thousand years, was ended by the central government in 1962. Yemen also became the new headquarters of AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) when Saudi Arabia was no longer safe for the terrorists after 2007. Then came ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and then an invading army of troops from oil-rich neighbors.

May 2, 2021: In the south (Dhalea province) STC forces drove Shia rebels out of the province which the rebels had long held because of the income obtained from the prosperous farms producing legal (coffee) and illegal (khat) products. The rebels had reduced their forces in Dhalea to sustain the Marib offensive and the STC saw an opportunity. A day of intense combat, causing about a hundred casualties, most of them rebels, and a withdrawal of rebel forces from areas they had controlled and exploited since 2019.

April 12, 2021: For the rebels there has been a major shift in targets for long-range weapons. Iran apparently ordered a shift to civilian targets in Saudi Arabia. This initially caused the Saudis to temporarily close some of the largest civil airports. There are continued Shia rebel attempts to attack these airports and destroy airliners and kill civilians. None these strikes have got past Saudi air defenses but the Saudis realized one cruise or ballistic missile warhead hitting any part of an airport or near one would be a major blow to the Saudi reputation for security from airstrikes or Islamic terrorist attacks. This is more important now because in 2019 the Saudis made changes to their visa laws and access to tourist attractions for all foreigners. This program was interrupted by the covid19 crises but that is now less of a problem and more tourists are beginning to arrive. The Saudi’s assume that this is why Iran has shifted its efforts to Saudi airports. The Iranians realize that many attacks can fail against such high-profiles targets but if one missile gets through, all the failed attacks are worth it. This sort of thing is a standard part of the Iranian playbook, as it the preference for using others (mercenaries or foreign clients) rather than make the attacks from Iran or using easily identifiable Iranian personnel.




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