Yemen: The Very Phony Ceasefire


January 15, 2019: The December 18th ceasefire around the Red Sea port of Hodeida has failed and the Shia rebels have resumed most of their combat operations including attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia using Iranian ballistic missiles and UAVs carrying explosives. The December 18th deal was supposed to make it possible for food and other aid to be unloaded from ships and sent off on trucks to an increasingly desperate and hungry population in northern and central Yemen. The ceasefire halted a government offensive that was about to capture the port facilities and the Shia rebels indicated that would (one way or another) probably lead to major damage to the port facilities.

The ceasefire terms called for the rebels to withdraw their forces from the port area by January 1st and from all of Hodeida a week later. This was to be monitored by 40 UN personnel. This process could not get started until the shooting stopped and that never happened. That is how previous ceasefire agreements have unraveled and this one was no different. The rebels often went through the motions but some complication always seemed to appear that kept the UN inspectors out of the port area and blocked any supervision of how aid was being handled (and often misdirected or stolen by the rebels).

The government is at a disadvantage here because the rebels have been stealing and stockpiling (on their northwestern Yemen homeland) or selling much of the food and other aid. Their core supporters were taken care of but the majority of Yemenis in need of that foreign aid were not. Major damage to Hodeida port facilities would mean delays in getting aid in from the two major southern ports (which do not have the capacity Hodeida has). Rebuilding Hodeida port facilities would take over a year although some unloading could begin within a month or so of an end to the violence around the port that would allow repair equipment and personnel to get in. The rebels could be really nasty and leave Iranian naval mines in the waterways the port depends on. That would make it more times consuming to restore use of the port. The rebels have already planted thousands of landmines and explosive traps in and around the port area. The government forces have been clearing those as they advanced and that did slow the advance. But the rebels could not stop the advance and the rebels know they will eventually lose and all these obstructions are mainly to encourage the government and neighboring Saudi Arabia to leave the Shia tribes with some autonomy and little retaliation for all the mess this failed rebellion has caused.

Another reason the war is still stalemated is Iran, which has persuaded the Shia rebels that continued resistance is possible with Iranian support and that this strategy will eventually result in lasting gains for the Shia minority in northwest Yemen. Iran might appear to be overconfident what with growing popular unrest in Iran and opposition to these foreign wars. Even though supporting Yemeni rebels is relatively cheap compared to similar operations in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq most Iranians want it all halted. At the same time, the Gulf Arabs (led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE) do not want a pro-Iran Shia Arab entity in southern Arabia and are willing to keep fighting to get what they want. There are no popular protests in the rest of Arabia about the fight against the Iran-backed rebels. There is general agreement that it is not a good idea having an Iranian ally sitting on the Red Sea coast where Iranian anti-ship missiles can mysteriously appear (along with less visible naval mines underwater) to block traffic in the Red Sea. This would be a major disaster for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel who all depend on free access to the Red Sea.

The Saudis have a major incentive to shut down the Red Sea port of Hodeida; the port made possible major smuggling efforts to get Iranian weapons (especially long-range missiles) to the rebels, who then fire those missiles at targets deep inside Saudi Arabia. These missiles have, so far, done little damage because of the Saudi anti-missile defenses (Patriot PAC 3 anti-missile missiles). The fighting that has shut down Hodeida has also halted the delivery of these missiles (which are broken down and smuggled in as smaller items that are reassembled under the supervision of Iranian technicians). Because of this keeping Hodeida under siege and largely inoperative benefits the Saudis because it is much more difficult to smuggle in large Iranian missiles using the smaller smuggler boats (coastal fishing boats and cargo transports). Currently, all of these small boat smuggling efforts only appear to be carrying small arms, ammo and short-range rockets (and mortar shells). The rebels are not getting any more of the large Iranian UAVs because of this and have to rely on the commercial quad-copters which are much easier to obtain via commercial shipments. In the weeks following the start of the December 18th ceasefire more cargo unloading took place at Hodeida and the rebels managed to keep most UN inspectors away. So the way was clear for the Iranian smuggling to resume. In the last two weeks, the rebels have resumed their use of ballistic missiles and explosive carrying UAVs to hit targets in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Even the UN is losing patience by increasingly blaming the rebels for the failure of the ceasefire deal.

The Shia rebels and their Iranian backers are both obsessed with self-destructive, and dangerous for bystanders, goals. The Shia rebels want their autonomy back. The Sunni majority in Yemen opposes autonomy or weapons for the Shia up north because those two things have made the Shia tribes a constant source of trouble for centuries. Iran wants world domination, starting with control of Saudi Arabia and most of the Middle East. Iran also seeks to destroy Israel and the United States. Neither Iran nor the Yemeni Shia have a reputation for honoring promises, treaties or anything that limits their activities. In short, negotiations may seem smooth but compliance will be in short supply. Expect both sides to resist implementing an actual, working, ceasefire or truce.

The Shia tribes never had the degree of Iranian support they have now. That support has included large shipments of Iranian ballistic missiles and rockets. These are primarily for use against Saudi Arabia. Because of that Saudi Arabia can both identify with what Israel is going through with Hamas and Hezbollah rocket attacks because Iranian sponsored Shia rebels in Yemen have been firing rockets, ballistic missiles and, mortar shells and machine-gun bullets into Saudi Arabia since 2015 killing over a hundred civilians and soldiers on the border. The Saudis have found the American made Patriot anti-missile missiles very effective in stopping nearly all the ballistic missiles. The shorter range rockets are another matter and there have been discussions about obtaining the Israeli Iron Dome anti-rocket system.

This rocket and missile threat to Saudi Arabia will make negotiating a Yemeni peace deal difficult. The Yemeni Shia have always been hostile to the Saudis but now it has moved beyond that. The Saudis will not accept any peace deal that does not guarantee a halt to the rocket and missile attacks. That means more government control of the Shia tribal areas of Yemen than before the rebellion began. That will be difficult for the Yemeni Shia to accept but for the Saudis nothing less is acceptable. Continued rocket and missile attacks would be evidence of Saudi inability to defend its own borders and the Saudi citizens that live there. Iran knows this too but the UN is less concerned about that sort of thing.

January 14, 2019: The Shia rebels say they fired another Badr ballistic missile into Saudi Arabia. This one was aimed at the Saudi military base in Narjan province in southwest Saudi Arabia. Normally the Saudis quickly announce that the missile was intercepted and there were no casualties. But in this case, there has been no announcement and that may mean the missile got through to a target.

On November 18 the Shia rebels announced a halt of their ballistic missile and drone attacks as a show of good faith and to encourage Yemeni agreement to a ceasefire in the Red Sea port of Hodeida.

January 13, 2019: In the north (across the border in Saudi province of Jizan), Shia rebels used an Iranian Ababil UAV carrying explosives to attack a military base near Jizan. The Saudis did not report such an attack. The Yemeni rebels said they would halt their UAV and ballistic missile attacks if the Arab coalition halted all its air attacks.

January 12, 2019: The UN openly complains about rebel interference with the ceasefire and Hodeida port operation. The rebels responded by accusing the UN of trying to turn over Hodeida to hostile (to the Shia) powers like America, Britain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Since these accusations were used the Shia refused to meet with UN negotiators. The government was still willing to talk but the UN negotiators were now being shut out by the Shia. Most Yemenis see these tactics as typical of the Shia tribes in the north. Foreigners are unsure what to do when faced with this sort of thing. In Hodeida, there was gunfire and explosions heard most of the day. The fire was coming from the rebels and government forces.

January 10, 2019: In the south (Lahj province, just north of the port of Aden), Shia rebels used an Iranian Ababil UAV carrying explosives to attack a scheduled parade and ceremony at an airbase. The UAV was caught on video diving down and exploding over the area where senior officials were standing. The explosion killed seven and wounded at least a dozen. One of those killed was the chief intelligence officer of the Yemen Army. This attack could have been made with the UAV navigating on its own and following pre-programmed instructions to dive on a particular location and explode. The ceremony attacked was scheduled and the location of where the senior people would be was known. The Iranians have used this tactic before. In 2017 four UAVs that Shia rebels used to attack Saudi and UAE air defense radars were not locally made as the rebels claimed but were smuggled in (disassembled) from Iran via Oman hidden in truckloads of non-military goods. The four UAVs were identified as Ababils which are made in Iran and provided to several Islamic terror groups so far. In Yemen, the Ababils are used to try and incapacitate Saudi Patriot air defense systems. If you know where the air defense radars are you can use the GPS guidance of the Ababil to send the UAV, armed with an explosive warhead, to destroy or damage the radar. Ababil is an 83 kg (183 pound) UAV with a three meter (ten foot) wingspan, a payload of about 36 kg (80 pounds), a cruising speed of 290 kilometers an hour and an endurance of 90 minutes. The Ababil under radio control can operate as far as 120 kilometers from its ground controller. But it also has a guidance system that allows it to fly a pre-programmed route and then return to the control of its controllers for a landing (which is by parachute). The Ababil can use its GPS guidance to fly over 300 kilometers in “cruise missile” mode.

The Shia rebels took credit for the UAV attack and said there would be more. The day after the attack the Arab air coalition attacked what they believed was the base the UAVs were operating from.

January 5, 2019: In the south (Abyan province), AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) gunmen attacked a checkpoint and left two pro-government militiamen dead. This was apparently a side effect of the major battle with AQAP in the area yesterday.

January 4, 2019: In the south (Shabwa province), Yemeni special operation troops sought to capture a rural AQAP base and were met with heavy gunfire. The soldiers eventually prevailed but not until six soldiers and nine AQAP (and tribal allies) died. The soldiers also persuaded tribal elders to help by convincing armed tribesmen not to work for AQAP. 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. As a result of the air operations, the remaining AQAP groups became more vulnerable to detection and attack on the ground. There are also some ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups out in the hills and they will fight with AQAP men as well as soldiers. There seem to be no ISIL groups left in this region and not many AQAP but the search, and the occasional battles, continue.

January 1, 2019: In central Yemen (Marib province), the first UAV missile attack of the year killed Jamel al Badawi, the man responsible for planning the year 2000 suicide boat bombing of a U.S. destroyer refueling at Aden. That attack killed 17 American sailors and wounded 40 more.

The U.S. carried out 36 UAV missile attacks in Yemen during 2018. These were against Islamic terrorist groups operating in central and southern Yemen. The last such attack was in September. One of the 2018 attacks was against ISIL while all the others were against AQAP targets. There were 144 UAV attacks in 2017 and 44 in 2016.

December 31, 2018: The UN threatened to halt food shipments to Yemen if the Shia rebels did not stop stealing portions of this aid and interfering with the distribution of the rest. The rebels responded that they were surprised to hear these accusations. This stealing and interference has been an issue for years and the UN tried to deal with it quietly and that did not work. The government forces also pointed out that the major aid shipments coming through the rebel-controlled port of Hodeida often contained weapons and military equipment that the rebels retrieved while preventing UN personnel from conducting inspections.

The government reported to the UN that between December 18 and 30 the Shia rebels carried out 268 attacks, killing 23 government troops and wounding 163. Most of these attacks were small, several mortar shells or small rockets or some machine-gun or sniper fire. But they were all ceasefire violations and the Yemeni government wanted to know why the UN does not recognize those violations because in many cases UN personnel were in the area. A year ago a UN investigation concluded that Iran was indeed smuggling weapons, large (ballistic missiles and UAVs) and small (pistols and rifles) into Yemen for the Shia rebels.

December 29, 2018: In Hodeida, the rebels turned over control of the port area to pre-war Yemeni coast guard personnel, who turned out to be allies of the Shia rebels. This was not obvious at first but when these new security personnel proved just as uncooperative with UN inspectors it became clear what had happened. To make matters worse the rebels continued to open fire in and around Hodeida often enough to keep most additional UN personnel away. The UN had a ceasefire deal but they did not have access.

December 25, 2018: During the first week of the Hodeida ceasefire the rebel violations became more common and the government forces suffered ten dead and 143 wounded in and around Hodeida city.

December 19, 2018: In the northwest, Shia rebels violated the port of Hodeida ceasefire 27 times in the first 24 hours.

Iran condemned Sudan for agreeing to send more troops to Yemen to support the Saudi Arabian-led pro-government coalition. Sudan supplies thousands of troops in part because the Saudis pay well and much of the money goes to the Sudan government but enough goes to the soldiers to make it an attractive proposition.

Saudi Arabia carried out an airstrike against the rebel-controlled Sanaa (the national capital) airport. The specific target was an Iranian UAV which the rebels were apparently operating from the airbase which is supposed to be free of any military activity.

December 18, 2018: The UN arranged ceasefire around the Red Sea port of Hodeida began today.


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