Yemen: Never Underestimate The Big Lie

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November 29, 2017: In the last month the Arab coalition has become more aggressive on the ground and keeps advancing slowly, just to let the Shia rebels know that long-term, they will lose. But everyone knows the coalition does not want to take a lot of casualties by quickly seizing all or most of the rebel held territory, or even just the capital Sanaa. While the Arab coalition has control of the air and can accurately hit targets anywhere in the country, on the ground the government and the coalition do not have enough troops to maintain order throughout the entire country.

Meanwhile the Iran backed Shia rebels and some Sunni groups control most of the northwest (to the Saudi border), the capital and key towns and cities that must be fought over and garrisoned before the government can claim more territory. The government and coalition forces have taken most of the Red Sea coast but have not got enough troops to stop the rebels from moving about and continuing to receive weapons and other equipment smuggled in by Iran.

Large areas in the east and south are controlled or, more frequently contested by separatist tribes that will work with AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), especially if the local AQAP faction contains members from that tribe and AQAP pays it way. Because of longstanding popular support for Islamic terrorism in these parts of Yemen as well continued support from wealthy Arabs in the region (including Saudi Arabia) AQAP survives. But it is not thriving. Attacks are still carried out but less frequently. American surveillance and airstrikes are having an effect on AQAP but that does not change the fundamentals; tribal support and cash flow.

The Arab coalition has internal disagreements which limit what the group can do. What all the coalition members share (aside from oil wealth) is fear of Iran. What is going on in Yemen reinforces that fear. Iran has created a serious threat to the Gulf Arabs while spending far less than the half billion dollars a month the Yemen effort is costing the Arab coalition. Iran has only a handful of Iranians in Yemen. Most of what are described as “Iranians” in Yemen are Lebanese (Shia Arabs belonging to Hezbollah). The Iranians have always been able to do a lot more with a lot less and this worries the Arabs more than anything else.

Qatar

Since June 5th, when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE (United Arab Emirates) and Bahrain cut diplomatic, economic and military relations with Qatar over problems that had long been kept quiet, not much has changed. All four countries are monarchies and the ruling families have long histories and long memories. What happened in June was that one of the major Arabian clans, the one that rules Qatar, was called out for bad behavior (at least by local standards). In short, Qatar was accused of betraying the other Arabian monarchies and backing ancient enemy (of Arabia) Iran. This is not about religion or commerce, it’s about loyalty and unity.

In the region it was widely known that Qatar had long provided aid and assistance to the Shia rebels in Yemen. Actually that was no surprise as Qatar, like many of the small coastal Arab states in the Persian Gulf have long survived by being open to work with anyone. What was different this time, according to the Saudis, was that Qatar actively worked with Iran to promote the Yemeni Shia rebellion in 2014 that nearly took over all of Yemen by early 2015. Qatar denies this extreme version but its fellow Arabian states side with the Saudis and since June the evidence continues to pile up.

On June 5th 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 came 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 was 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 depends how much pressure can really be applied to Qatar, which has close ties with Iran, Turkey and the United States. Six months on Qatar is still open for business and entertaining new offers.

November 27, 2017: In the northwest (the port village of Salif, north of Hodeida) a small cargo ship with commercial goods was allowed through the blockade for the first time in three weeks.

In central Yemen (Baida province) American UAVs used missiles to attack AQAP Islamic terrorists in two locations over the weekend, killing at least ten of them. Several of the dead were later confirmed as key AQAP members. This follows two airstrikes a week ago (10th and 20th) in Baida that left over a dozen AQAP personnel dead or badly wounded.

Last month most of the American UAV activity was directed at ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) camps in Baida province. These attacks killed nearly a hundred ISIL members, mainly in Baida, wounded at least as many and seems to have caused ISIL to seek another remote area to hide in and set up a training camp. These were the first major American air attack against ISIL in Yemen this year. ISIL and AQAP cooperate but maintain separate facilities and now the attacks are concentrating on AQAP, which has always been the dominant Islamic terror group in central and southern Yemen. ISIL attacks are largely in Aden and nearby urban areas. It is easier to hide small groups (cells) of ISIL members in the cities, as long as you move around a lot and keep the cells small. The targets in Baida were larger bases.

November 26, 2017: In the northwest (the port city of Hodeida) a ship carrying foreign aid was allowed to pass the blockade and dock. This comes after the port was closed for three weeks by the Saudi blockade.

In the south (Lahj province, just north of the port of Aden) police raided a home where some AQAP men were believed hiding. The two men in the house opened fire and one was killed (and later identified as a senior AQAP leader) and the other captured. One policeman died in the gun battle.

November 25, 2017: In the north (rebel held Sanaa) aid related flights were allowed to land and take off from the airport outside the capital for the first time since early November. The first flights arriving carried vaccines to protect over half a million children from things like whooping cough, diphtheria, tuberculosis, meningitis and so on.

November 24, 2017: Saudi Arabia said it had proof that the ballistic missile components used for the missile that had been fired at the Saudi capital on the 5th was smuggled in through the port of Hodeida. The one specific rebel (and Iranian) vulnerability has always been the Red Sea port of Hodeida which currently is the only way for the rebels to accept legitimate imports. Those aid shipments contain a lot of smuggled items. The smuggling is no secret and UN officials are unable to do much to stop it. Russia will also use its veto to block any serious UN moves to investigate or punish Iran for this sort of thing. Help with this “Information War” edge Iran has is one reason for the increasingly active and public Arab alliance with Israel. It is no secret in the Arab world that the Israelis have been most effective is dealing with these propaganda and Information War tactics, usually when used by Iran, the Palestinians or increasingly numerous anti-Israel groups in the West.

Hodeida has been the main port for the delivery of foreign aid for civilians in rebel held areas and, in theory, government controlled areas. The UN has been, without much success, trying to get the rebels to allow the UN to police the port and basically control the smuggling and diversion of foreign aid the rebels have been engaged in. Evidence of rebel theft of foreign aid and depriving civilians of essential supplies is piling up and has become difficult to ignore. But Iran has organized an effective media and diplomatic campaign to divert pressure from Hodeida to the impact of the Arab coalition airstrikes on Yemeni civilians. These casualties are largely the result of the rebels deliberately moving and hiding in the midst of civilians. This does offer a lot of protection but does not make the rebels immune to air attack. Iran would use air power the same way the Arabs do and have when they had the opportunity during the 1980s war with Iraq. It was Iran that began using ballistic missiles against Iraqi cities (which were closer to the border than major Iranian cities were). These tactics are being used once more in Yemen but have been thwarted so far by Arab anti-missile defenses. But the Iranians are much better at manipulating the mass media and UN politics (where the Arabs have spent a lot more money for access and influence over the past few decades) and are demonstrating that and enjoying the pain it is causing the Arabs.

November 22, 2017: In the south (Aden) a car bomb exploded outside the Finance Ministry compound leaving two dead and three wounded.

November 20, 2017: The United States presented evidence of an Iranian international counterfeiting program which included producing large quantities of counterfeit Yemeni currency.

November 17, 2017: Saudi Arabia made public its evidence of Iranian missiles in Yemen. This became a critical issue for the Saudis last July when a Yemeni rebel ballistic missile was fired deep into Saudi territory. This one was intercepted about 69 kilometers south of Mecca and a nearby airbase. Rebels later admitted that the missile was aimed at the King Fahad airbase in Taif province. The Saudis accused Iran of trying to disrupt the annual Haj pilgrimage at Mecca. Examination of the debris indicated it was another Iranian designed Burkan missile.

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 at least 800 kilometers. Iran had done this before and called this the Qiam missile. In Yemen this makes it theoretically possible to his the Saudi capital or one of the larger Saudi bases. These modified Burkan/SCUDs 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 since then at least eight have been fired. All were intercepted. It appears that Iran has been able to smuggle in enough components to enable the Shia rebels and their Iranian technical advisors to build new Burkans.

The Iranians employ their standard response to the Saudi evidence. In short the Iranians deny everything and insist that the Shia rebels built these ballistic missiles themselves using components from black market smugglers. If pressed the Iranians will blame Israel. After all many Moslems in the region believe that ISIL and al Qaeda are creations of the United States and Israel as were the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. Never underestimate the effectiveness of the big lie frequently repeated. For many folks that sort of thing is comfort food for the mind and highly addictive.

November 16, 2017: In the south (Aden) the government appointed mayor (or “governor”) of the port city and temporary capital of the elected government, attempted to resign. The reason was the massive amounts of corruption present in the city making it difficult to get anything done. President Hadi, who spends most of his time in Saudi Arabia (it’s safer and that is where the money and Hadi’s major supporters are) refused to accept the resignation and agreed to do something visible about the corruption. The “everything is for sale” atmosphere has long been a major problem in Yemen and at the root of most all of the problems that afflict the country. The corruption is why the Shia rebels were able to gain the support of many Sunni tribes and quickly occupy most of the country in 2014-15. The Shia rebels did really want to reduce the corruption but have since been shown to be pretty corrupt themselves. On another level the corruption simply makes it difficult to do any kind of profitable and sustainable business in Yemen. For example a recent international survey, of Global Competitiveness, ranked 137 countries on how well the local conditions (low corruption, economic freedom and opportunity and robust economy) facilitated the ability of that nation to compete in global markets. The top five were Switzerland, the United States, Singapore, Netherlands and Germany. Saudi Arabia was number 30, Israel 16, UAE 17, Qatar 25, Egypt 100, Iran 69, China 27, India 40 and so on to the bottom five; Mauritania, Liberia, Chad, Mozambique and Yemen. Being last in this survey is a dubious distinction but it explains much of what goes on in Yemen.

November 6, 2017: Saudi Arabia declared a total blockade on rebel held ports and air space. This was in response to another ballistic missile fired into Saudi Arabia. This was a longer range Iranian missile that was intercepted near the airport outside the Saudi capital. Saudi intel had already been collecting debris from earlier ballistic missiles believed to be Iranian and this one was later confirmed to be a Burkan. Saudi Arabia called this an act of war but did not announce a military response.

November 5, 2017: In the south (Aden) an ISIL suicide car bomb and over a dozen ISIL gunmen attacked the security headquarters compound and after hours of fighting leaving over 30 dead, most of them civilians or soldiers.

November 4, 2017: Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) the Saudi crown prince (and soon to be king as his father plans to abdicate soon) launched a major anti-corruption operation in Saudi Arabia, arresting or detaining hundreds of wealthy Saudis, many of them members of the extended Saud family. This, and his coming assumption of the throne, will keep MBS from doing anything drastic in Yemen, but once he is king (and deals with any opposition) big changes in strategy and tactics used to deal with Iran (and Yemen and so on) are expected. That is not likely to happen until 2018. But with MBS you never know.

 

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