Yemen: The Shipping News

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June 7, 2017: The Shia rebels are stalling efforts to negotiate a peace deal. This is seen as an example of Iranian influence because it’s the sort of tactic Iran has often used for a long time. In this case Iranian advisers have convinced Yemeni Shia rebel leaders is that their best chance of coming out of all this intact is to hang on for a bit longer. Waiting for exactly what is a mystery, at least to the public.

Some secrets have been revealed. For example Iran has quietly put several hundred Iranian and Lebanese (Hezbollah) advisers and technical experts into Shia controlled northwestern Yemen since early 2015. In that time about fifty of these Iranian personnel have been killed or captured. But the rest have been very effective. But this has not stopped the government forces from advancing although it has slowed them down.

In the north government forces are now within 20 kilometers of the rebel held national capital Saana. Living conditions in Saana continue to decline and in April there was an outbreak of cholera (that is spread by infected water and food). This is because the rebels have not put a priority on maintaining the quality of the water supply and now there have been nearly 10,000 cases of cholera with over a hundred deaths so far. Iran blames the people fighting the rebels, especially Saudi Arabia.

Another public health problem is the heavy use of landmines by the Shia rebels. At first these were mainly used to slow down the advance of government troops and keep unfriendly populations from misbehaving. The rebels used some anti-vehicle but mainly anti-personnel mines. The Shia rebels also use roadside bombs, as do the Islamic terrorists. Since 2014 the rebels appear to have planted about half a million landmines, most of them to in areas where there is no fighting at the moment but lots of civilians wandering around. Nearly 700 people, mostly civilians, have died from these mines so far with about as many wounded, many losing a limb. The only mine casualties that get much media attention are the Saudi soldiers killed by mines planted on the border by rebels who sneak over at night just to do that on some dirt trail or road.

Yemen signed the international treaty banning landmines and destroyed its own stocks in 2002. The Shia are using black market mines from smugglers. These mines are Cold War surplus from East European stocks. Many East European nations had their many Cold War arms warehouses looted when communist rule collapsed in 1989 and most of those weapons ended up on the black market.

The government offensive along the west coast has driven the rebels away from nearly all of the 450 kilometer Yemeni Red Sea coastline. In January the rebels had access to nearly all of it and now they don’t. At this point the Shia rebels are largely confined to using the Red Sea port of Hodeida. This has been the main port for the delivery of foreign aid for civilians in rebel held areas and, in theory, government controlled areas. Government forces are closing in on Hodeida and that will make it more difficult for the rebels to smuggle in military supplies. The UN is trying to persuade the Shia rebels to peacefully give up control of Hodeida but the rebels are not interested. Even proposals that Hodeida be turned over to a neutral third party are turned down. This is not a matter of trust, it’s a matter of keeping control of the key port for handling foreign aid for most people in rebel controlled territory. Then there is the smuggling. The rebels have prevented UN personnel from inspecting aid shipments (for weapons and other contraband) and the government claims the rebels have been seizing aid shipments and preventing UN personnel from verifying that the aid is going to civilians. The rebels are putting up a strong defense around Hodeida and that slows down the advance but cannot stop it. As long as the rebels hold onto Hodeida and Iran still has powerful allies in the UN (mainly Russia and China, who can veto some measures) the smuggling can continue as can the use of food to control civilian populations that are hostile to the rebels.

Since late 2015 much of the violence has been in southwestern Taiz province, which has always been heavily fought over mainly because it has a lengthy Red Sea coastline which enabled smugglers to bring in weapons and other aid for the Shia rebels. The most heavily fought over area continues to be Taiz city, near the Red Sea. Government forces have been slowly driving rebels out of the city. For over a month government forces have been pushing inland from the Red Sea town of Mocha to open a land route to Taiz. The major obstacle is the Khalid bin al Waleed military base, which was surrendered to the rebels two years ago by soldiers loyal to the former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. The base is 30 kilometers east of Mocha and continues to hold out. Government forces are also advancing from east of Taiz as well in order to surround the Khalid base and force it to surrender. In the north government forces have taken high ground east of the capital (Saana) within sight of the city and established positions to observe and call in accurate artillery and rocket fire when large groups of rebels assemble or move. The fulltime observations posts also make it easier to keep track of the pro-government Sunni militias also operating in the area but not willing to operate like a military unit (and do what the senior army commander wants).

For A Few RPGs More

The Shia rebels are again threatening commercial shipping entering or leaving the Red Sea. The latest tactic appears to involve putting several heavily armed rebel fighters on one of the many local cargo or fishing boats that operate along the coast and then have the Shia fighters fire RPGs at seagoing tankers or cargo ships. In late 2015 government forces regained control the Bab Al Mandab strait, in the Gulf of Aden, between Yemen and Djibouti and astride the shipping lanes leading to the Red Sea. This included the peninsula that extends into the Bab Al Mandab strait. This made it easier to monitor ships coming through, especially those that might be carrying Iran arms shipments. More important to the Arabs (and Egypt) was the fact that rebel control of the Bab Al Mandab strait was a potential threat to Suez Canal traffic. The canal fees are a major source of income for the Egyptian government. Saudi Arabia also exports oil and imports many other goods via that narrow (40 kilometers max) strait. Government forces also seized control of Perim Island, which is in middle of the straits and normally contains a coast guard base. The small Shia garrison fought to the death in a battle that lasted a few hours.

June 5, 2017: The Shia rebels now refuse to deal with the UN negotiator (Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed) because they accused him of bias. No proof was given but it appears that Cheikh Ahmed (a career Mauritanian diplomat with a reputation for honesty and fairness) resisted pressure from the rebels and Iranian agents to be more cooperative to the rebel demands. Cheikh Ahmed has been the chief negotiator and mediator in Yemen for a year now and has managed to get both sides to at least agree on what they will haggle over and what they will not. Further peace negotiations will be delayed weeks or months as the UN seeks another negotiator or convinces the rebels that the current negotiator must stay.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE (United Arab Emirates) and Bahrain cut diplomatic, economic and military relations with Qatar. Ambassadors were expelled, borders were closed and Qatar was made to feel very unwelcome. Yemen and several other Moslem nations followed the suit. In addition Qatar was expelled from the coalition that sent forces into Yemen in early 2015. Qatar contributed about a thousand troops, apparently with the understanding that they would not be required to do any heavy fighting. Thus the Qatari troops have been stationed in the north, to guard a usually quiet portion of the border with Saudi Arabia and only reported six of their troops wounded (or injured) during their time in Yemen.

The expulsion comes after years of disagreements over support for Islamic terrorism and the perception among Arab states that Qatar could not be trusted. Cutting ties with Qatar is partly retaliation against the Qatar based and subsidized al Jazeera satellite news network which often reports on real or imagined (depending on who you ask) bad behavior by Sunni Arab security forces, including the Arab coalition bombing campaign murder of civilians and trying to pass that off as a clash with Islamic terrorists. While that happens, al Jazeera also gives sympathetic treatment to Islamic radical and terrorist groups, especially in Egypt and Syria, that hardly anyone else (Moslem or otherwise) has much sympathy for . Qatar also openly supports Palestinian terror group Hamas, although they recently ordered some senior Hamas leaders to leave Qatar for another sanctuary. Al Jazeera reporters have a hard time avoiding arrest ( or worse) in Egypt and other Moslem states but they are often abused by Islamic terror groups as well. Qatar is also seen as siding with Iran in the current struggle between Shia Iran and the Sunni Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia. This sort of behavior is not uncommon in the region and the small Arab Gulf states like Qatar, Kuwait and the member states of the UAE have survived for centuries using these methods. One could say Qatar has been too successful and the current unpleasantness is the price of that success. As is the local custom secret meetings will be held, demands discussed and agreements made. How long this takes will depend on how long Qatar can last without its imports, which supply all the food and just about everything else. The expulsion cut off half of that immediately and a naval blockade would be disastrous.

May 31, 2017: In the south (Aden) pro-GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab oil states in the Persian Gulf) militia gained control of the airport outside the port of Aden. This came after a night of fighting that left one gunman dead and over a dozen wounded. The airport had been controlled by a militia loyal to GCC backed president Hadi. Since late April southern separatists have been threatening violence in Aden to protest the removal of Aden governor Aidarous al Zoubeidi. Local Sunnis saw this as another case of the GCC interfering with Yemeni politics. Hadi removed his fellow southerner as governor of Aden because the two did not agree on how to handle the demands of the southern tribes for more autonomy and a larger share of the oil income. To further complicate matters the GCC members are not in agreement on how to handle this problem. In February this led to an embarrassing feud between Hadi and UAE military leaders, who had ordered GCC forces to refuse permission for an aircraft carrying Hadi to land at the Aden airport. Hadi then had Yemeni forces loyal to him besiege the airport. The Saudis tried to calm things down but failed and that led to Hadi dismissing the governor of Aden and other officials seen as unwilling to obey Hadi.

Elsewhere in the south (west of Aden) in the Bab Al Mandab strait two motor boats came close to a tanker and RPG rockets were fired. Three rockets hit the tanker, doing minor damage. The tanker crew reported that the two speedboats did not appear to have any boarding equipment and were probably not pirates. In any event Somali pirates rarely operated this far north but Shia rebels have fired on warships in this area in late 2016 using an Iranian anti-anti-ship missile fired from shore. That was easier to deal with than a few heavily armed rebels on a small local ship. Getting an anti-ship missile on one of these small boats is very difficult but RPGs and even small ATGMs (Anti-tank guided missiles) are much easier to use. All this is right out of the Iranian playbook.

May 23, 2017: In central Yemen (Marib province) an American Special Forces raid on an AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) base left seven AQAP men dead. Local tribal leaders, who either tolerate or openly support AQAP, claimed that several tribal members in the area were killed or wounded. Some of the raiders were lightly wounded because they encountered a lot of armed opposition, some of it from local tribesmen. The raid was mainly to obtain information. The U.S. has increased its use of UAVs in Yemen for surveillance and missile attacks on key AQAP personnel. All this has caused AQAP and ISIL to spend more effort just surviving.

May 22, 2017: In the north a large crowd in Saana (the rebel controlled capital) surrounded and threatened the vehicle carrying the UN negotiator (Cheikh Ahmed) as he was driven from the airport to the UN compound. He was not injured but noted that the rebels were not happy to see him.

May 19, 2017: Saudi Patriot anti-missile missiles intercepted another rebel ballistic missile fired deep into Saudi territory. This one was intercepted about 200 kilometers from the Saudi capital. That means it had a range of over 670 kilometers. Several days later the Saudis confirmed that the interception occurred and an examination of the debris indicated it was Scud with Iranian designed modifications to improve range. This type of Scud was used extensively during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. The Saudis were particularly annoyed at the Shia continuing to fire ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia. None of these missiles have hit anything of value mainly because Saudi anti-missile systems (U.S. Patriot PAC-3 missiles) were able to shoot down missiles that were headed for a populated area. The Shia rebels captured a number of SCUD and SS-21 ballistic missiles when they moved south in early 2015. Many army units joined the rebels, including troops who knew how to operate these missiles. In 2016 Iran apparently brought in some technical personnel and smuggled in some needed components so that Yemeni Scuds could be modified to increase their range (with a smaller warhead) to about 800 kilometers. This would make it theoretically possible to his the Saudi capital or one of the larger Saudi bases. These modified SCUDs (called Burkan by the rebels) are not very accurate but they can hit somewhere in a large city or military base, providing the rebels with some positive propaganda. The first Burkan was fired in late 2016 and this one was launched just before the visit of the American president.

A growing number of Iranian weapons are being found in Yemen, including large rockets as well as ballistic missiles that apparently come in via the UN administered port of Hodeida. Weapons and missile components are hidden in aid shipments. The Arabs point to these Iranian missiles, UAVs and other items as pretty clear evidence that Iran was still smuggling weapons in. Iran denies everything and when confronted with physical evidence insists that the Yemeni Shia made they stuff locally, obtaining technical help via the Internet. That works with some things but not with ballistic missile mods.

 

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