Yemen: Some Retreat, No Surrender


July 9, 2021: The United States has resumed its criticism of Shia rebel refusal to negotiate until restrictions on smuggling and control of food aid in the north were removed. This comes two weeks after an American announcement that they were changing their negotiating strategy in Yemen by recognizing the Shia rebels as a legitimate rebel movement rather than a terrorist organization and tool of Iranian foreign policy. That foreign policy is often controlled by the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) that was created in the 1980s to protect the religious dictatorship that rules Iran. The American policy change was bad news for the Saudis and the Yemeni government because Iran has been visibly in charge since late 2020, after Iran sent a Quds Force (the IRGC branch that handles foreign wars) general to be the Iranian ambassador to Yemen. Since 2015 most of the embassies and government ministries have left for the southern city of Aden, which is the temporary capital elected government the rebels are trying to replace. Iran is one of the few countries to recognize the rebels as the legitimate government and now Iran has an official ambassador in the capital. 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.

While the rebels hailed the American policy change, this did not halt rebel activities that were clearly done for the benefit of Iran. This included increased use of naval mines and remotely controlled bomb-boats directed towards commercial traffic in the Red Sea. The naval mines are a recognized danger to all ships and in early 2020 shipping companies warned their ship captains that naval mines, of the contact type, were floating into the Red Sea from the north Yemen coast. That coast is off the Shia rebel home province of Sadaa and the rebels had been releasing a few of these mines periodically for years in an effort to disrupt Red Sea shipping traffic to and from Saudi Arabia. The currents generally flow north in this part of the Red Sea, towards the major Saudi Red Sea port and the entrance to the Suez Canal. The floating contact mines are a 19th century development that has been improved on for over a century and is still used because it is cheap and effective. Iran has provided the Shia rebels with these mines which are normally kept in place by a cable or chain between the mine and an anchor on the sea bottom. The Shia rebels cut the cable and let the mines drift into the Red Sea. American warships are part of the international naval blockade of Yemen, to prevent smuggling and to deal with the mines, which are a danger to the warships as well as commercial shipping. During 2020 there was a major effort to locate and neutralize these free-floating mines. By the end of 2020 over 160 mines were found and neutralized. The rebels continued putting mines in the water during 2021 and the number found and neutralized remained at 2020 levels. The Shia rebels continued putting these mines in the water after the June 25 American announcement that they would stop treating the rebels like a terrorist organization.

The rebels also continued their use of UAVs turned into flying bombs for attacks on targets in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In the last month these attacks have been particularly heavy. On one day Saudi air defenses detected and destroyed 17 of these UAVs, which the rebels did not try to use in swarm attacks to overwhelm air defenses. This often works inside Yemen, but rarely against Saudi targets.

IRGC leaders were 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. Yemen was the only IRGC operation that was able to attack arch-enemy Saudi Arabia directly and that counted for something. The Yemen operation was allowed to continue. The new (since January 2021) American government believed they could negotiate an Iranian departure from Yemen, Iraq and Syria. So far, Iran has refused to consider giving up their operations in places like Yemen.

Iran had already found an effective way to attack Saudi Arabia by arming Shia rebels in Yemen with over a thousand ballistic missiles and UAVs during the last seven years. Most of these were aimed at southwestern Saudi Arabia. Less than one percent of those UAVs and missiles hit anything of consequence in Saudi Arabia. Iran is seeking to carry out a similar campaign against Israel using Iran backed militias in Syria. That has not been working out so far because Israeli intelligence capabilities and airstrikes have been much more effective in Syria than Saudi efforts in Yemen. This despite the fact that Israel and Saudi Arabia have similar aircraft, smart bombs and air defense systems.

While not as efficient as the Israelis, Saudi pilots and ground forces have gained a lot of practical combat experience in the last six years. Saudi pilots are much more accurate and surer of themselves than they were during the first two years (2015-16). On the ground the Saudis supply artillery and troops trained to quickly and accurately request and direct air and artillery support. All these ground teams have a year or more of combat experience and it makes a difference.

July 6, 2021: In central Yemen (Baida province) Shia rebels lost another of the 20 districts in the province. The rebels were also losing control of two more districts. Yemen has 22 provinces (Governorates) each consisting of a dozen or more districts. There are a total of 333 districts and control of a province is usually defined as who controls, won or lost a specific district. In Baida there have been a lot of districts changing hands in the last seven years. For several years Islamic terrorist groups controlled several districts and often defended them against Shia rebel attacks. The unofficial alliance between Islamic terrorists and the government forces ended because the Islamic terrorists would also seek to control lightly defended government occupied districts. Local tribal militias also played a role in fighting the rebels and providing sanctuary for Islamic terror groups. Some of the tribes received military and other aid from the Saudis as well as some air support.

In the south (Abyan province) a missile or explosive carrying UAV hit an army camp, killing three soldiers and wounding 22. The target was the base mosque.

July 3, 2021: In the northwest (the Red Sea port of Hodeida) two Shia rebel remotely controlled bomb boats were detected and destroyed near the port. The rebels were apparently sending them after ships seeking to use the port.

July 2, 2021: In the north Saudi air defenses shot down a rebel UAV apparently headed for the southwestern Saudi city of Khamis Mushait in Asir province.

July 1, 2021: In central Yemen (Marib province) the Shia rebels were forced to retreat after a five day long offensive failed and a government counteroffensive, supported by airstrikes, found the rebels too weak and dispirited to resist.

June 27, 2021: In central Yemen (Marib province) the Shia rebels lost another battle, with over 80 dead in three days. Government forces, supported by artillery and airstrikes, halted rebel attacks coming from three directions. Government forces lost 29 dead. Altogether there were several hundred wounded.

June 23, 2021: In the south (the port of Aden) two rival STC (South Transitional Council) brigades clashed again, leaving two dead and fifteen wounded. Three weeks of this fighting has paralyzed the distribution of foreign aid in the city of Aden. The factions cannot agree on who should control what in Aden and because of that essential maintenance on power plants and other infrastructure is stalled. This is unpopular with most Aden residents and is making the city unlivable. The UAE has been in charge of security (and aid delivery) in the south since 2015 and supported the formation of the STC in early 2017. The 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.

June 22, 2021: The U.S. seized 35 Iranian news sites owned and operated by the IRGC. All these sites used an American hosting service, because the U.S. hosting services are the most efficient and resistant to hacker disruption. Because Hezbollah and the IRGC are internationally recognized terror organizations their assets, once located, can be seized. This American move was in response to the rigged (as they traditionally are) presidential election in Iran that put Ibrahim Raisi, an infamous mass-murderer and recognized war-criminal, into office. Putting Raisi into such a public position is another example of how desperate Iran is to make clear to opponents in Iran, Iraq and elsewhere what they are up against. Raisi takes office on August 3rd and is a known hard-liner who soon made it clear that after he took power Iran would not negotiate until the 2017 sanctions were first lifted. Nations seeking to negotiate a new peace deal with Iran soon discovered that Raisi had the support of the religious dictatorship in Iran as well as the IRGC.

June 19, 2021: In the northwest (the Red Sea port of Hodeida) Shia rebels forced a ship carrying 12,600 tons of food aid to leave the port without unloading the grain that the UN needs to feed many civilians in rebel-controlled territory. The rebels no longer have access to the port area but are close enough to fire machine-guns or mortar shells into parts of the city where there is resistance to rebel movement or operations. This includes the docks. The rebels demand free access to the docks and unloaded supplies. This enables the rebels to prevent inspection of some aid shipments that contain weapons. The rebels allow enough food in to feed their own civilian supporters but either divert (to markets) or halt food aid for the growing number of civilians that openly oppose the rebels. The government brings in food aid through Aden. They could supply food for civilians in rebel-held territory but the rebels will seize those shipments. Hodeida has long been the main port on the Red Sea for imports and exports for northern Yemen.

Further north the rebels launched at least 17 explosives equipped UAVs at targets in Saudi Arabia. All the UAVs were intercepted.

June 13, 2021: In the south (Abyan province) pro-government militiamen found and arrested the AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) leader and several of his followers who were responsible for several recent bomb attacks on government forces in Abyan. The AQAP leader was known to be skilled at building and using bombs and eventually several of the captured AQAP admitted they were responsible for the recent attacks. These bombs often kill or wound civilians, which encourages civilians to call in sightings of AQAP members.




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