Yemen: Another Dispute Waiting To Be Escalated


June 14, 2019: In the far north, the Shia rebels launched five explosives armed UAVs towards targets in Saudi Arabia. All were detected and shot down before reaching their target. These UAVs seemed to be headed for Abha airport but flight operations at the airport were not interrupted. While rebel attacks like these are easy to trace back to Iran, other Iranian attacks in the Persian Gulf have, so far, not yet been linked to Irian via physical evidence. In Yemen, even the UN agreed that the missiles and UAVs being used by the rebels were Iranian. Since May Iran has apparently responded to setbacks in Yemen with undeclared attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf. The Shia rebel attacks targets inside Saudi Arabia were trying to do the same using Iranian UAVs and cruise missiles. The recent attacks in the Persian Gulf are apparently using torpedoes and limpet mines (placed to the hull via magnets and detonated by timer or remotely) . On May 15th four tankers were hit with what appeared to be dud torpedoes, or training torpedoes (which have a non-explosive warhead), or something that did not do much damage.

On June 13th two tankers apparently attacked with limpet mines that did explode and cause fires. This attack was just outside the Persian Gulf, in the Gulf of Oman. The water is deeper and it is more difficult to find evidence on the sea floor below. The Persian Gulf is shallow and it is less difficult to send camera equipped UUVs (Unmanned underwater vehicles) down there to find and retrieve such debris for analysis. The U.S. provided surveillance video of Iranians in a small boat at night removing a limpet mine that did not go off. The attacks in the Persian Gulf and adjacent Gulf of Oman are also aimed at the oil tanker traffic in general because any damaging attacks send insurance rates way up, making it more expensive to ship oil. Iran is unable to export much oil because of American sanctions but does not want to go to war over it. These unacknowledged attacks on tankers are a favorite Iranian tactic. The Iranian government will keep denying responsibility even when evidence of Iranian involvement is found. If the Arabs or Americans attack Iran the unpopular religious dictatorship there hopes to rally the Iranian people behind them. That is essential because since 2017 more and more Iranians are regular demonstrating against their religious government.

Ceasefire Evasions

The Red Sea port of Hodeida ceasefire agreement has actually been in force for a month. The agreement includes two smaller ports and allows foreign aid to come in and be distributed. Normally Hodeida handles 70 percent of the emergency aid (food, medicine, fuel) for people in northern Yemen. There are still government suspicions that the “local militias” that took over when the rebels left the three ports are in fact allies of the rebels. The UN inspectors now believe that the new port security personnel are legitimate. The UN has been in control of the ports since mid-May. The government had complained that before the rebels were forced to withdraw from these ports the UN personnel supervising the aid shipments were unable to inspect suspicious cargoes which, the government points out, obviously contained major weapons shipments. How else do you explain the appearance of nearly a hundred Iranian long-range missiles used in attacks on Saudi Arabia? Most of these missiles were shot down by Saudi missile defense systems and there were plenty of missile fragments left to analyze and conclusively prove what model of Iranian missile they were. The UN agreed with that and condemned Iran. There have been no more Iranian missiles smuggled in since the ports were shut down (by government forces surrounding with ground forces and a naval blockade) in late 2018. Now the UN has resumed imports at Hodeida without Yemeni government officials checking all incoming shipments. Or at least that’s what the rebels want and the UN is willing to concede that just to get the aid shipments moving again.

The known rebel combat units withdrawn from the vicinity of the three ceasefire port were sent to oppose government advances from the south and east. The government forces have been slowly advancing on the rebel-held capital Sanaa for over a year. A growing shortage of rebel fighters, especially older and more experienced ones, is making it more difficult for the rebels to defend all the territory they control in northwestern Yemen. The UN has been complaining to the rebels that they did not remove all their military equipment or destroy their trenches and bunkers around Hodeida. The rebels plead poverty and a shortage of personnel and the government insists that is no excuse. The government has witnessed UN officials regularly being lied to and deceived by the rebels and not holding the rebels accountable. This sort of thing is still going on in Hodeida where many rebels or pro-rebel civilians still operate openly as rebels. For example, the UN provided equipment, vehicles, training and salaries for demining teams to clear Hodeida of rebel explosive traps and landmines. Many of the deminers were rebels or worked for the rebels in Hodeida. Hiring these men made sense to the UN as they knew the city and even knew where many of the explosive devices were placed, or likely to be found. But these deminers will sometimes drive through the city flying rebel and Hezbollah flags. This is done to remind Hodeida residents the rebels are still around. In fact, the government accuses the UN of tolerating the presence of rebel combat forces still camped near Hodeida. Government forces are also still just outside the city. In part that because the government and rebels both believe there is the possibility of the fighting inside the city being renewed.

Unsettled Business

The mid-May, UN sponsored, peace talks in Jordan were mainly about how to divide the revenue from the three ports the rebels withdrew from in May. This revenue sharing was part of the December peace deal but the precise terms (who would get what, when and how) had not been addressed. That revenue is for paying Yemen civil servants in both government and rebel-controlled territory. In rebel areas, much of that pay is “taxed” to keep the rebels going. Because of the Hodeida blockade, most civil servants in rebel areas have not been paid much, if at all, in 2019. After a few days of deadlock the Jordan talks were declared over and all concerned agreed that the port revenue issue was still not resolved. Four weeks later and the issue remains unresolved. This is another unresolved dispute waiting to be escalated.

What with all the continued fighting and deceptions there are still some basic items that matter to all Yemenis; food, safety and cholera. The 2017 cholera epidemic was never completely suppressed and has revived with about 200,000 new cases so far in 2019. The original 2017 outbreak got out of control because the Shia rebels refused to allow the UN to fly in half a million doses of vaccine early on. The rebels insisted that they be first supplied with ambulances and other medical equipment their fighting forces needed. This delayed the vaccination program and the rebels continued to tolerate contaminated water supplies in areas they controlled. With the deadlock at Hodeida, the rebels had even fewer resources to deal with the water supply problems and growing poverty in their territory. The resurgence of cholera is a very visible example of the problems in rebel territory. The rebels are less prepared to deal with the epidemic than they were in 2017. Cholera is endemic (always present) in Yemen and gets out of hand when public health services are allowed to deteriorate or are trashed by widespread violence. The rebels allowed the current cholera outbreak to get out of control because the rebels are more desperate than the government. The Shia tribes of the north have always been a minority in a majority Sunni region. For centuries the Shia tribes felt they were outsiders and were frequently persecuted. The  Shia rebels see Iran as a powerful and reliable ally, most Yemenis see Iran as taking advantage of the Yemeni Shia and a growing number of Yemeni Shia are quietly agreeing. Saying that out loud while in Shia rebel-controlled territory is not safe.

Hot Spots

There is still some intense fighting going on in at least two areas. In the southwest (Taiz province) Shia rebels are still present in about a fifth of the province, even though Taiz city has been under government control since early 2018 and the rebels no longer control any territory on a permanent basis. The provincial capital, 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 eight years now and it is still one of the most active areas for fighting in the country.

In the south (Dhalea province) some of the rebel fighters withdrawn from the three ceasefire Red Sea ports were shifted forces to other areas, like the border of Dhalea province in preparation to retaking one of the first provinces retaken by government forces in 2015. Earlier in 2019, the rebels lost control of Shaddad Fort Mountain, which is key high ground in northern Dhalea province. The recently arrived rebel reinforcements have generated more fighting but not much movement in the front lines.

June 13, 2019: In the north, coalition airstrikes hit several suspected weapons storage sites outside the capital. This was apparently in response to the Shia rebel use of a cruise missile to attack a Saudi airport the day before. The Saudis have air defense systems that can detect and destroy cruise missiles but these are not deployed near the Yemen border.

June 12, 2019: The Shia rebels claim to have used an actual cruise missile for an attack on the Abha airport in southwest Saudi Arabia (Asir province). The Saudis reported that some form of explosive device hit the terminal building, and exploded while penetrating the terminal roof. Inside 26 people were wounded. Eight had to be taken to a hospital for treatment while the Other 18 were treated at the scene. Flight operations resumed several hours after the attack and terminal roof was quickly patched.

The Shia rebels said they carried out a similar cruise missile attack in December 2017 against a construction site (of a nuclear power plant) in the UAE United Arab Emirates). Such an attack was never reported and the UAE says there was never any explosion at that site, or anywhere nearby. The Shia rebels may have launched one of these cruise missiles on December 3rd, 2017 and the missile failed somewhere over the desert areas it would have to cross to reach the UAE. The Shia rebels released a video of their cruise missile and it appears to be an Iranian copy of the Russian Cold War era KH-55, an air-launched cruise missile. Iran was known to have obtained some of these from Ukraine in 2001 and by 2005 had reverse-engineered them into a ground-launched cruise missile, the Soumar. This one looked like the KH-55 and had a claimed range of over 2,000 kilometers. In 2019 Iran announced an upgraded design, the Hoveizeh which had a range of 1,300 kilometers but was more reliable and was claimed to have countermeasures to get past American air defense systems. The original KH-55 was a 1.6 ton, six meter long 514mm diameter missile propelled by a small turbofan engine. The KH-55 was based on earlier American cruise missile designs and these weapons were never considered high-tech. Production of the original KH-55 began in 1981 (after ten years in development) and several variants and upgrades are still being built by Russia and China and, apparently Iran. These cruise missiles are smaller and lighter than the 3-4 ton ballistic missiles Iran has been smuggling into Shia rebel-held coastal areas of Yemen. The cruise missiles are somewhat easier to sneak in as the cruise missile can be disassembled into smaller parts. The Iranian cruise missiles have been used in the Syrian civil war, but not in large numbers. Collecting and examining all the missile debris from the Abha attack would enable the missile to be identified.

June 9, 2019: In the north, the Shia rebels launched two explosives armed UAVs towards Jizan airport in southwest Saudi Arabia, near the Yemen border. Both were detected and shot down before reaching their targets.

June 5, 2019: In the far north Shia rebels celebrated the end of Ramadan by advancing across the nearby Saudi border (Najran province) where many of the bunkers along the border are lightly manned because many of the militiamen who guard portions of the border go home to their families to celebrate the end of Ramadan. The rebels briefly occupied about twenty of these positions, before retreating when Saudi forces appeared.

June 4, 2019: In the Red Sea, off Yemen, a Saudi military transport helicopter came to the aid of an Iranian freighter (the Saviz) anchored in international waters 150 kilometers northwest of the Yemeni port of Hodeida. An Iranian sailor was flown from the Saviz to a Saudi hospital for emergency treatment. The Iranian request for medical evacuation was done via the UN because the two nations have no diplomatic relations. This is one of those curious situations so common to the cultures of the region. The Saviz has been anchored (outside the shipping lanes and in plain sight) since late 2017. Apparently, the ship, which is regularly resupplied by other Iranian merchant ships, is unarmed but there are also several speedboats on the deck and men in IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) uniforms are regularly seen on deck as well. The Saviz apparently serves as a mothership for small, fast, smuggling boats that can carry limited quantities of small items ashore and get away with it. The Saudis have not shut down the Saviz apparently because of some unofficial understanding that as long as Iran does not resume putting naval mines in the shipping channel and firing missiles at passing military and commercial traffic, the Saviz would be left alone. The Saviz may well be the main source of the additional UAVs the Shia rebels are getting and using. But as long as none of these UAV attacks do any serious damage, the Saviz will be left alone. Eventually, the truth about the Saviz will come out and join that many other strange tales of the mysterious Middle East.

May 24, 2019: In Yemen, the UN is openly accusing the Shia rebels of stealing food aid and blocking distribution to starving civilians that opposed the rebels. To get aid shipments resumed the rebels were forced to allow UN air personnel to travel with the food convoys to ensure they reached the intended recipients. That was supposed to halt the rebel theft and diversion of aid shipments. The Iranian IRGC advisors apparently convinced the Shia rebels that they could do as they pleased with the UN people along because Iran would tie the UN up for weeks, if not longer, by backing Shia rebels claims that the UN observers are lying.

May 23, 2019: Shia rebel radio and TV stations broadcast calls for Yemenis to donate money to help Lebanese Hezbollah. The pledge drive did not dwell on Iran sharply cutting its cash aid to Hezbollah in 2019. These cuts are another side effect of the economic sanctions on Iran that the Americans revived in 2017. Hezbollah advisors, technical experts and trainers have been in Yemen since at least 2015.

May 17, 2019: The commander of the Iranian IRGC alerted all his forces (mainly those who are armed and on the payroll) in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen to prepare for war with the West. This is because Iran is now in a lot more trouble back home. The IRGC is not declaring war, just rattling the saber to see what happens. In addition to killing people, the IRGC likes to make threats.

May 14, 2019: In Yemen Iran-backed Shia rebels used small UAVs equipped with explosives to damage two pumping stations that were part of a major oil pipeline delivering oil to Red Sea oil export facilities. The damage was not serious and exports were not interrupted.




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