The young crown prince of Saudi Arabia (Mohammad bin Salman or MBS) replaced several senior military commanders, including the head of the land forces and the Strategic Missile Force (Chinese long range missiles aimed at Iran). This was apparently an effort to generate some better performance and new ideas in the Yemen operations. MBS has been working on major reforms in the military but he had to work through some higher priority items first. His Defense Ministry reforms involve over thirty major moves, including changes in senior military leadership and new personnel policies. This includes allows Saudi women to participate in the military. Pakistan and other Arab countries have long done this and even found success in several areas, including using women as military pilots, including fighter pilots. Most Saudis are aware that back when Islam was founded Arab women (including the Prophet Mohammed’s wife) sometimes rode with their husbands into battle and were consulted on military decisions. Saudi women are well aware of this and have been demanding some action.
Since 2015 the operations in Yemen have shown that the Saudi Air Force. Navy and Air Defense forces were competent but the ground forces have been less successful. This is most embarrassing along the Yemen border where Yemen Shia rebels, who have always lived along the border, have turned over a hundred kilometers of border into a very dangerous area for Saudi civilians or security personnel. The continued ballistic missile attacks from Yemen on Saudi Arabia are also embarrassing. The Saudi Air Defense units have prevented these missiles from hitting any important targets but Saudis wonder why the Saudi ground forces in Yemen since early 2015 have not found and destroyed these missiles before they are launched.
The Saudi crown prince, and soon to be king as his father plans to abdicate soon, launched a major anti-corruption operation in 2017, arresting or detaining hundreds of wealthy Saudis, many of them members of the extended Saud family. This, and his coming assumption of the throne, delayed MBS from doing anything drastic in Yemen. But now he feels confident enough, even without being king, to make big changes in strategy and tactics used to deal with Iran (and Yemen and so on). This was expected to happen in 2018 and here it is.
MBS is seen as one of the brightest (he has a degree in law) of the top Saudi royals. In addition to being the crown prince he was, in January 2016, appointed the youngest Minister of Defense ever. MBS is ambitious and has proved himself capable to handling the Saudi bureaucracy. Since 2014 he has been working on a plan to move Saudi Arabia away from dependence on oil income. In April 2016 he announced that his plan has been accepted and he will implement it. MBS considers this economic plan more important than what is happening in Yemen. The UAE ambassador apparently agreed with that assessment and the need for the Saudis to reform their economy as well as the more recent military reforms.
Iran Slithers To Success
The United States, France, Germany and Britain have openly accused Iran of violating the 2015 treaty (that lifted economic sanctions) with continued Iranian covert support of Shia rebels in Yemen. Iran responds to this criticism of Iranian actions in Yemen (as well as Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon) by insisting that it had an obligation to aid these nations in their fight against American and Israeli threats. This justification is unpopular with most Iranians who want their government to pay more attention to real problems inside Iran rather than imaginary ones overseas. Leaders of Iran backed groups in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hamas in Gaza and Shia rebels in Yemen openly boast of their financial and other support from Iran. Most UN members agree with this problem and Iran recently needed a Russian veto to block a UN resolution condemning Iranian meddling in Yemen. What further angers the UN is the fact that the Shia rebels have, more than once, expressed interest in a peace deal but then were apparently convinced by Iran to stop short of agreeing to any peace deal and demand more concessions. Iran denies all this but most of the UN officials in Yemen have seen ample evidence of Iranian influence and that has led to more public criticism of Iranian interference of UN peace efforts.
The Shia rebels are having a hard time maintaining an effective defense against growing government and Arab coalition advances on the ground. The Shia rebels have lost of their local support because the rebellion appears to have failed and most Yemenis don’t approve of the Iranian interference. Back in Iran it is no secret that the Iranian government sees the Yemen operation as a relatives inexpensive way to torment and embarrass their Arab enemies. Not inexpensive according to most Iranians but so far the Iranian hardliners remain in charge.
In the southwest (Taiz province) government and Arab coalition forces have spent most of the month taking back areas the rebels have held since 2015. The government forces have been advancing as part of an operation to clear Shia rebels from most of Taiz province, especially along the Red Sea coast. Currently the main purpose of the coastal drive is to find and eliminate rebel bases where missiles, naval mines or remotely controlled bomb boats are being stored and prepared for use against ships in the Red Sea. This is an Iranian idea, to make life more difficult for Saudi Arabia, Egypt and nations that depend on the Suez Canal to avoid taking the longer route around Africa.
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. In 2017 government forces were pushing inland from the Red Sea town of Mocha (Mokha) to open a land route to Taiz. The major obstacle remains the Khalid bin al Waleed military base, which was surrendered to the rebels in 2015 by soldiers loyal to the former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. The base is 30 kilometers east of Mocha and held out until mid-2017 but the rebels were not completely driven out of the 12 square kilometer base. Government forces are also advancing from east of Taiz as well in order to prevent any rebel reinforcement of rebels still around the Khalid base. So far this year the rebels have been losing more ground and dozens of dead in Taiz province every week but it is slow going.
In the southeast (Hadramawt province) army forces have cleared AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) out of several more towns and villages they were using as bases. These counter-terrorist operations in Hadramawt have been going for most of the month and are continuing. AQAP has not got the manpower to oppose these advances, not as long as the government forces have air support. On the government side the main problem is obtaining sufficient troops or paid militia to ensure that these localities remain free of AQAP. This clearing effort includes coastal areas around Mukalla (a major port and the largest city in the province). The effort to clear AQAP out Hadramawt, Abyan (Aden) and Shabwa provinces has been going on since late 2016 but became more intense since early 2017 when the United States increased its effort to find and kill key AQAP personnel, especially the many who were based in Shabwa. This was mainly done from the air using UAVs for surveillance and attacks using guided missiles and smart bombs.
Since late December the government forces and their Arab Coalition allies have been on the offensive just about everywhere. While that has gained much territory the UN aid providers point out that this offensive has caused nearly 100,000 additional refugees as civilians flee their homes to get away from the fighting. One reason for the offensive was a major defection from the rebels when former dictator Saleh sought to switch sides but was caught by the rebels and killed. That made the pro-Saleh rebels angrier and up to a third of the rebel gunmen either switched sides or became neutral.
The Shia rebels had a lot of non-Shia tribes on their side initially, especially since the Shia made a convincing case that corruption was a major problem in Yemen and had to be confronted and controlled. That did not happen. Yemen has long been considered one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. In 2017 Yemen ranked 175th out of 180 countries compared to 170th out of 176 in 2016 in worldwide surveys on corruption. Yemen is now one the five most corrupt nations in the world and seems likely to hold that dubious distinction for a while.
Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Syria/14, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/9) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85. The current Yemen score is 16 (14 last year) compared to 18 (17) for Iraq, 40 (41) for Turkey, 49 (46) for Saudi Arabia, 48 (48) for Jordan, 28 (28) for Lebanon, 30 (29) for Iran, 71 (66) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 62 (64) for Israel, 15 (15) for Afghanistan, 32 (32) for Pakistan, 40 (40) for India, 29 (29) for Russia, 41 (40) for China, 17 (12) for North Korea, 73 (72) for Japan and 75 (74) for the United States. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. Fixing an existing culture of corruption has proved a most difficult challenge and Yemen is one the most striking examples.
February 26, 2018: In the south (Shabwa province) air and ground forces of the Arab coalition destroyed several AQAP bases and established checkpoints on key roads the Islamic terrorists were using.
February 25, 2018: Government and Arab coalition forces took control of the Al Nakhash Mountains some 40 kilometers northeast of Sanaa.
February 24, 2018: In the south (Aden) ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) claimed responsibility for two suicide car bomber attacks in the port city. These were the first such ISIL attacks in over a month and left at least twenty dead and many more wounded.
February 23, 2018: In central Yemen (Marib province) an Arab coalition Patriot air defense system used anti-missile missiles to shoot down five ballistic missile the rebels fired at military bases in the area. These bases are less than 180 kilometers from the rebel held capital of Sanaa. All the ballistic missiles were intercepted (or missed their targets). The Patriot systems have been guarding this Marib area since mid-2016 and regularly intercepts rebel ballistic missiles (now largely supplied by Iran).
February 18, 2018: In central Yemen (Baida province) an American UAV used a missile to kill an AQAP commander and his driver. Baida continues to be where the United States concentrates most of its airstrikes (usually via UAVs). During 2017 there were 114 of these airstrikes, most of them towards the end of the year and largely going after AQAP and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) camps and key personnel in and around Baida. This greatly reduced Islamic terrorist capabilities in Baida, which had long been an Islamic terrorist stronghold.
Pakistan announced it is sending another thousand troops to Saudi Arabia to operate a military training program for more than 10,000 Saudi troops. The Pakistanis have a lot of recent experience dealing with Islamic terror groups and irregular warfare in general. The Pakistanis are expected to pass those skills on to Saudi officers and troops. Pakistan has already supplied Saudi Arabia with security advisors and trainers and that has worked out well.
February 10, 2018: In the southwest (Taiz province) government forces advancing along the coast captured a rebel base and found eleven ballistic missiles.
February 5, 2018: In the northwest another rebel ballistic missile was shot down by Saudi Patriot anti-missile missiles after it crossed the border headed for Asir province. This ballistic missile appeared to be headed for the city of Khamis Mushait rather than the nearby King Khalid Air Base. In March 2017 there was a similar attack involving four ballistic missiles, at least one of them headed for the air base. The Arabs point to these Iranian ballistic missiles and Iranian UAVs 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.
February 2, 2018: Saudi and UAE officials have worked out a truce deal with the Yemeni separatists that had, during the last week of January, forced their way into the port city of Aden demanding that changes be made in the composition of the current elected (UN recognized and Arab coalition backed) Hadi government. The southern separatists complain that the current administration in the south is corrupt, incompetent and not serving the needs of the people. That is largely because the Hadi government does not control all of the south. There are still large areas controlled by tribes that are independent or support Islamic terror groups. All the tribes believe they are not getting their fair share of financial and other support. The Aden invaders belong to the STC (South Transitional Council), which is recognized by the Arab coalition (especially the UAE) that is leading the battle against the Shia rebels. The two major members of that coalition, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have divided some of the responsibility for the fighting and maintaining security. The UAE looks after Aden and has had good relations with the STC but not enough to prevent the current violence that has, in the last four days caused several hundred casualties and at least 40 dead. The UAE and Saudi Arabia sent some senior officials to Aden to negotiate with the STC.