Yemen: Saudi Troops Lead the Counteroffensive


August 16, 2015: Shia rebels retreated from Shabwa province allowing pro-government forces to regain control. This was arranged by providing the rebels with safe passage out of the province. Shabwa is the fifth rebel-held province returned to government control since this offensive began in early July. First Aden, the major port city, was taken by pro-government forces in mid-July followed by the provinces of Daleh, Lahj and Abyan. All this was aided by some troops from neighboring countries, which sent in a mechanized combat brigade (about 3,000 troops and over a hundred armored vehicles). This unit has come to be called the Arab Brigade because about half the brigade consists of UAE (United Arab Emirate) troops, including many UAE men with family ties to Yemen and knowledge of local dialects and customs. The rest of the brigade is largely Saudi. This brigade has an additional advantage in that they can quickly call down smart bomb attacks from Arab jet fighters overhead.

By late July several hundred Saudi, Emirati, Egyptian and Jordanian military trainers and advisors had established a camp outside Aden to train, equip screen (for Islamic radicals) pro-government forces. Two or more battalions of Saudi mechanized troops have also crossed into northeast Yemen along with about as many Yemeni troops trained and equipped in Saudi Arabia.

Since March the fighting has left over 4,300 dead (nearly half of them civilians) and caused an economic and food crises for about 80 percent of the 21 million Yemenis. The chaotic violence in most of the country is the main cause. Not only has aid been impossible to move everywhere it is needed, but donors are increasingly refusing to give because of the chaos and corruption. Less than twenty percent of the money needed has arrived. Many potential donors believe there are better places to send aid, where the stuff will get to those who need it. The advance of pro-government forces means more law and order and the possibility of aid getting through and economic activity resuming. That has been delayed in some areas by landmines some Shia rebels left behind. In the last month over a hundred people, most of them civilians, have been killed by these mines and the Shia rebels have been asked to stop using them since they only slow down the advance and don’t stop it.

The Shia rebels lost Aden just as the new UN sponsored treaty with Iran was agreed to on July 14th. The Shia rebels now realize that the treaty will help Iranian military efforts in Syria and Iraq, as more cash and fewer import restrictions means it is easier to get modern weapons and military gear. However, all this won’t do much for Iran in Yemen, mainly because there is still a blockade (by Arab and Western warships and warplanes) around Yemen. The Saudis and their Arab allies have managed to put the Iran backed Shia rebels on the defensive. This was most visible recently as the Arab Brigade led the way as victorious pro-government militias advanced north killing or driving away Shia rebels who try to stop the advance. The Saudis and other Arab states continue to provide air support for the victorious pro-government forces. Iran feels humiliated and won’t forget.

The Shia rebels have also lost most of their non-Shia allies. When the Shia rebels came south in 2013 they did so demanding some real progress in dealing with the corruption. This resonated with most Yemenis but while many of the Shia rebels saw reform as their main goal this revolution got sidetracked into a campaign to conquer the entire country. Sensing that the rebel cause is in great danger the Shia rebel leadership recently requested peace talks with the government and their Arab allies. That will be difficult because this will involve explaining the cause of defections by so many veteran Yemeni officers. These men were still loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who secretly allied himself with the Shia rebels in an effort to regain power. The Saleh family still has a lot of power in Yemen and has long been seen as a silent (but vital) partner in the Shia rebellion. Long time ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh was the target of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Yemen and earlier made some attempts to broker a peace deal and thus regain much political power and possibly become president again. That was turned down. Despite being a Shia himself Saleh managed to assemble a coalition of largely Sunni groups that kept him in power for decades. That coalition fell apart in 2011 and Saleh was deposed in 2012, after he had negotiated amnesty for himself. He was replaced by Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi via elections the Shia insisted were unfair (but international observers approved of). Saleh was long suspected to secretly supporting the Shia rebels and that proved to be true once the Shia rebels sought to take control of the government earlier this year. The Shia rebels were a frequent headache for Saleh but after he was deposed it did not surprise most Yemenis that Saleh had quietly developed an alliance with the Shia tribes up north. About a third of Yemenis are Shia and the Shia-Saleh Coalition has attracted some Sunni support (because the Shia have always called for a reduction in corruption and more effective government). Thus the rebels are not only more united but by late 2014 had the support of nearly half the population. Those advantages began to disappear when the Shia rebels sought to seize control of the government in February and now the Shia rebels are retreating.

The Shia rebels on the Saudi border continue firing mortars and rockets at nearby Saudi bases and towns. Saudi artillery and warplanes are quick to seek out and attack any Shia forces who fire across the border. That has been going on for years and does not appear to have changed. Since March the Shia rebels defending their northern homeland area have been more active and this apparently still leads to a dozen or so casualties a week on the border.

In the southeast (Hadramawt province), AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) rebels continue to control the port city of Mukalla and most of the province. The only ones fighting AQAP there are the Americans, via UAV missile attacks. In the northern portion of the province there are some pro-Shia army units that seem to have an unofficial truce with AQAP. The only opposition on the ground are small groups of former AQAP members who have joined ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant).  Islamic terrorists take credit for some of the terror attacks against Shia in the capital. ISIL and AQAP are technically at war with each other but that seems to have been put aside for the moment because of the Shia threat and the open involvement of Shia Iran. Because of this de facto Islamic terrorist help against the Shia rebels the counter-terrorism efforts by government forces has largely lapsed. The only ones fighting the Sunni Islamic terrorists are the Iran-backed Shia rebels and the Americans.

August 14, 2015: In the southwest (Taiz) pro-government forces have captured most of the city but the retreating Shia rebels continue to shell the city randomly.

Off the west coast (al Hudaydah) a group of warships led by a Saudi vessel approached the coast and exchanged fire with Shia rebel artillery. These battles have been occurring more frequently and are usually a prelude to a land offensive to drive Shia rebels from a coastal area.

August 12, 2015: In the southeast (outside the port city of Mukalla) five AQAP men were killed by an American UAV missile strike. Since early July over thirty AQAP men have been killed by these UAV attacks.

August 9, 2015: In the southwest (Abyan province) pro-government forces captured Zinjibar, the provincial capital. Pro-government forces were greatly aided by units of the Arab brigade, which consists largely of heavily armed professional troops from the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

August 6, 2015: At a Saudi police special operations base near the Yemen border a suicide border attacked the base mosque during noon prayers. Fifteen people were killed including ten police commandos (SWAT).

August 5, 2015: In the northeast (Hadramout) a battalion size Saudi Arabian task force (about 800 troops in armored vehicles) crossed the Yemen border into territory controlled by the Shia until June, when local tribal militias drove the Shia out. Most of eastern Yemen consists of Hadramout province which is thinly populated. The more densely populated areas are down south along the coast and many of these are controlled by al Qaeda.  

In the northwest (Hajjah province) a Saudi AH-64 helicopter gunship made a hard (high speed) landing south of the border. Shia rebels say they shot it down with a missile while the Saudis said it was because of component failure. Photos show an intact AH-64 that obviously suffered some damage during a hard landing.

August 4, 2015: In the south (Lahij province) pro-government forces recaptured the al Anad airbase, the largest airbase in the country. This attack was led by Saudi LeClerc tanks and other armored vehicles from the recently arrived Arab Brigade.  The Shia rebels took al Anad in March and that was a major loss to U.S. counter-terror operations in Yemen. Al Anad had long been used by American personnel stationed there to help with American UAV and intelligence operations in Yemen as well for training Yemeni specialists. With the departure of these American troops from al Anad and the closing of the U.S. embassy the United States had no way of keeping track of the half a billion dollars’ worth of military aid (including a lot of weapons and equipment) it had given to Yemen. The UAV operations continued from other airbases in the region but intelligence collection was not be as effective as it used to be.

August 2, 2015: An Arab brigade of 3,000 Saudi and UAE troops completed coming ashore (via cargo and amphibious ships) in Aden and promptly moved north.

August 1, 2015: Senior officials of the government, including the prime minister, began arriving by air in Aden. These officials had fled to Saudi Arabia during February and March. The officials were there to supervise aid and reconstruction efforts.

July 30, 2015: In the south (Abyan province) five AQAP men were killed by an American UAV missile strike.

July 29, 2015: A previously unknown hacker group, the YCA (Yemen Cyber Army) took credit for the hacks that obtained the trove of Saudi Arabian government emails the group recently released. The main thing the emails revealed was that Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Arab countries use their money as a tool to influence political and diplomatic decisions in the Middle East and worldwide. These revelation were not surprising, but some of the details were. The emails show that the Saudis continue to support Islamic terror groups, even though many of these same groups want to seize control of Saudi Arabia and establish a religious dictatorship (and execute every member of the House of Saud they can grab along the way). The Saudis are looking at the big picture and the perceived greater danger posed by Shia Iran, which wants an Iranian Shia clergy controlling the holy places in Saudi Arabia. In this scenario Iran would also control the Saudi oil. This is the ultimate Saudi nightmare and they are trying to buy and bribe their way out of it. That, however, won’t make their past activity disappear. It also appears that Iran and Russia were behind this hack because the Iran backed Shia rebels in Yemen do not have the technical resources to crack the formidable network defenses the Saudis are known to have built. In fact, not all departments of the Saudi government appear to have been hacked. This is indicative of the high-end defenses the Saudis have bought, which isolates different bureaucracies networks so hacking one does not get you into all the others.





Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close