Yemen: Iran Strikes At Sea

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December 14, 2020: In the north, across the border in Saudi Arabia a tanker off the coast near the oil export facility at Jeddah, an explosion occurred on a Singaporean tanker. The crew of 22 got off safely and there was some oil leakage. While fighting the fire it was obvious that the cause of the explosion was external, not internal. This is the latest of several successful Shia rebel attacks on Red Sea shipping.

These attacks are the result of Iran changing its tactics in Yemen. The Shia rebels are slowly losing territory to more numerous government forces. Saudi air defenses continue neutralizing ballistic and cruise missile attacks. In response Iran has switched to attempting to disrupt Red Sea commercial traffic by damaging tankers and cargo ships using mines and remotely controlled bomb boats. The Iranians have been shifting to naval strategy for most of 2020 and it is starting to pay off as more and more commercial ships are suffering damage, What the Iranians need is more successful attacks on Red Sea shipping, including a few large ships being sunk. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are very vulnerable to this Iranian strategy. D isrupt ing Red Sea traffic interferes with the growing percentage of Saudi Arabian imports and exports that move though Red Sea ports. The Saudis want to reduce reliance on Persian Gulf ports. Red Sea security is even more critical for Egypt. Nearly 20,000 ships a year pass through the Red sea headed for the Suez Canal, which earns Egypt nearly $6 billion a year in transit fees.

The new Iranian offensive is made possible because Iran successfully shifted its smuggling operations to northern Somalia where the experienced Somali smugglers were looking for work and Iran paid well and on time. The Arab naval blockade has not yet found out how to foil the smuggling boats, which hide among the many fishing boats and coastal cargo ships operating between Somalia and Yemen and north into the Red Sea.

Starvation and Disease

The covid19 crises was little noticed in Yemen. Covid19 turned out to be much less of a problem than the cholera epidemic, which has been going on since 2016. So far over a million people have been infected with cholera and over 2,000 died, about half of them children. Naturally Yemenis are more concerned with cholera than with the covid19 pandemic. The rebels are not alarmed at the covid19 threat, which is understandable given the number of diseases still active throughout rural and urban Yemen.

There were no verified covid19 cases in Yemen until mid-April, and most were found in Aden or rebel held Sanaa. The rebels deny that there are any covid19 infections in Sanaa but foreign aid and diplomatic officials know better. For most Yemenis covid19 is not considered a major threat. Cholera, malnutrition and much else are more immediate and more lethal threats throughout Yemen.

An even greater threat is malnutrition. About a quarter of 28 million Yemenis depend on food aid to avoid malnutrition or starvation. Most of the food aid comes in via the Red Sea port of Hodeida. The Shia rebels are still close enough to Hodeida to fire machine-guns or mortar shells into parts of the city where there is resistance to rebel movement or operations. This sort of thing punishes neighborhoods that don’t cooperate. The rebel forces are still close enough to the port to fire on and hit ships trying to enter the port. The rebels are using this veto power over port access to try and extract more money from the UN, which now runs the port. Ships entering the port pay user fees and, before the rebels were forced to withdraw from the port in May 2019, they considered the port user fees part of their income. The rebels also imposed many other fees on the foreign aid groups and paid for the supplies brought in as well as for moving these items, by truck, to areas where the food and other items were desperately needed. The rebels can still impose higher checkpoint fees, as long as they are not so high that traders realize that it would be cheaper to hire smugglers to get the shipments past the rebel toll keepers.

Self-Inflicted Wounds

Despite all the fighting since 2014, and similar activity in the 1990s, there are still factions in the north and south who believed unity was overrated and two Yemenis was the way to go. After a few years of recent fighting, with most of the population surviving on foreign food aid, regional autonomy or national unity no longer seems relevant. Many of those hungry Yemenis have to pay Shia rebels for this “free food.” The foreign aid NGOS and the UN complain about this but the Shia rebels are armed and dangerous and the UN is not. Not armed that is. That has led to foreign donors reducing their contributions. The aid-per Yemeni fell 50 percent between 2019 and 2020. Part of that was due to the covid19 economic recession but most of the decline was about the rebels using the aid as a source of income and using the threat of withholding all aid to Yemenis who did not cooperate.

There is resistance to admitting that Yemen is a failed state, one of those areas (like Somalia and Afghanistan) that were never united for long and are basically several smaller entities that are not really interested in unity with neighbors who are supposed to be their countrymen. And then there is the corruption problem.

Most Iran-backed Shia rebels still believe time is their side as long as the Iranian support continues. Iran understands this as well and is willing to finance the expensive smuggling effort at a reduced level because of the distress it causes the Saudis. The problem with this strategy is that Iran can afford to abandon the Shia rebels while the Saudis cannot afford to have an Iranian ally on their southern border. This fighting in 2020 has left about 4,000 people dead or wounded. Most of the casualties have been civilians victimized by the rebel tactic of trying to hide combat units and supplies in residential areas to discourage air strikes. That only works some of the time.

In response to this grim reality (for the rebels), the Saudis are trying to get the Yemeni government to grant the southern tribes autonomy and offer the northern tribes (both Shia and Sunni) a similar deal as long as Iranian influence was eliminated in the north. The southern tribes have agreed to make a deal in part because the UAE backed this because the UAE had been in charge of security (and aid delivery) in the south since 2015 and has supported the formation of the STC (South Transitional Council). This group is composed of southern tribes that want autonomy but claim they are willing to fight and defeat the Islamic terrorists as well as the Shia rebels first. Aidarous al Zubaidi, the STC leader is seen as more popular in the south than Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, the last and current elected president of united Yemen. Hadi has only briefly visited Yemen a few times since 2015 and spends most of his time in the Saudi capital. This is for Hadi’s safety, given the number of assassinations going on in Aden, where the Hadi government was moved to in 2015. The Saudis and the UAE do not agree on dividing Yemen once more but for the moment it is more convenient to support the STC and efforts to defeat the Iran backed Shia rebels

In the last two years the Arab Coalition lost most support from the UAE, its second-largest contributor. At the same time the Yemen government lost support from many of the southern Sunni tribes that, like the northern Shia tribes, want autonomy. This separatism has always been present in Yemen, which is historically a collection of independent tribes and large coastal cities.

The Shia tribes of the north are losing support from their long-time northern allies but not enough to fatally weaken the combat power of the rebels. As long as the rebels have access to some cash and food aid, they can bribe uncertain allies to remain with the rebels. This strategy has discouraged foreign donors and resulted in less and less aid as donors spend their money on less corrupt disaster areas.

December 11, 2020: In the south government and STC forces withdrew from contested areas. This was compliance with the peace deal between the government and STC in November 2019 but stalled since then by disagreements over who has to do what and when to finalize the agreement that would include form a new government that was more representative and included more STC ministers. The STC militias would also be merged into the existing government forces. Saudi Arabia recently persuaded both sides to carry out the terms of the 2019 agreement because Saudi troops would be present to ensure that both sides complied.

December 9, 2020: In the northwest (off the Red Sea port of Hodeida) warships of the Arab Naval Blockade spotted and destroyed rebel remotely controlled boats headed to the Red Sea shipping channel. The two boats were filled with explosives, which was obvious when gunfire used to sink the boats also triggered the onboard explosives.

December 8, 2020: The U.S. placed sanctions on Iranian IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) general Hassan Irloo, the new ambassador to Yemen. Irloo replaces the last Iranian ambassador, who left Yemen in 2015 when the civil war escalated. The old ambassador was for the pre-civil war Yemen government. Irloo long served in the IRGC Quds Force and is an ambassador to the rebel government one, not the one recognized by the UN and most of the world. Like another Quds commander who serves as the ambassador to Iraq, Irloo does not report to the Iranian Foreign Ministry but to the IRGC headquarters. Before he got the Yemen assignment little was known about Irloo except that he was a Quds officer who was rising in the ranks for accomplishments that were kept secret. This is common with Quds commanders, mainly because Quds is seen as a terrorist organization and successful Quds commanders tend to be responsible for a lot of death and destruction carried out in the name of Shia Islamic domination of the world. In reaction to that Israel and the United States have been tracking down and killing the more notorious Quds commanders. Irloo had to be smuggled into Yemen and that was accomplished by the end of October. The arrival of Irloo was reassuring for the rebels, who have been on the defensive for more than a year. Despite that the legitimate Yemeni government has internal problems that the rebels may be able to take advantage of.

December 7, 2020: In the south (Abyan Province) al Qaeda gunmen attacked a group of STC militiamen before dawn and killed five of them. The Islamic terrorists then fled and none were apparently injured. Al Qaeda has been relatively quiet for the last year, but there have been a few attacks.

December 4, 2020: In the southeast (Mahra province) someone tried to use about twenty small boats to board a passing cargo ship. The armed security team on the ship opened fire and the boats fled. The shipping channel north is close to the Yemen coast and the port of Nishtun. There have been several attacks on shipping in this area over the last few years. Islamic terrorists were found to be responsible.

In the southwest (port city of Aden) another outspoken critic of Islamic terrorism was murdered in a drive-by shooting. The victim was a university professor. Al Qaeda or ISIL was believed responsible.

November 30, 2020: In central Yemen (Marib province) a Shia rebel ballistic missile hit an army base, killing several soldiers. Another such missile apparently malfunctioned and crashed not far from where it was launched in the northwestern rebel-held Saada province. When UAE forces left Marib earlier in the year they took their missile defense systems with them and that has made army bases more vulnerable.

November 28, 2020: In central Yemen (Marib province) there was heavy fighting between rebel and government forces. With the assistance of Arab Coalition airstrikes, the rebels were pushed back. The air strikes have become more effective because of steady improvements in the quality and timeliness of aerial reconnaissance and surveillance. These are operations monitor the movements of rebel forces on the ground, especially when then concentrate for an offensive. This enables air strikes to frequently disrupt rebel attack plans and inflict a lot of casualties. The Marib fighting has been going on for several days and was most intense today as the rebels acknowledged defeat and retreated. There has been similar, but less intense combat in provinces adjacent to Marib.

Further north another rebel ballistic missile, launched from inside the capital Sanaa, failed to go far and landed near a village outside the city. Rebels quickly arrived at where the defective missile had crashed and ordered civilians to stay inside until the landing site was examined. The Iranian missiles are smuggled in disassembled and put back together and launched under the supervision of Irian technicians. Iranians would also show up to examine the wreckage of a failed missile to try and determine what went wrong. There have been a lot of ballistic missile failures this year and it is unclear if the main cause is poor quality control back in Iran or errors made during the assembly of the missiles in Yemen.

November 27, 2020: In the south (Abyan Province) STC militia and government forces exchanged artillery fire, leaving 13 STC gunmen and government troops dead. There have been several incidents like this since the July truce negotiated by STC and government leaders. None of the incidents was serious enough for the truce deal to be abandoned.

Saudi air strikes took place throughout rebel territory. This was retaliation for a successful cruise missile attack on a Saudi oil facility on the Red Sea coast, about 860 kilometers north of Yemen. The damage to the oil facility was minor but the implications were not. Years of defeating all Iran-supported attacks by Shia rebels in Yemen have been more successful of late.

November 23, 2020: In the north, Iran-backed Shia rebels used an Iranian Quds 2 cruise missile to successfully hit a Saudi oil facility in Jeddah, a town about 860 kilometers from the Yemen border. The Yemeni rebels claim they launched the Quds 2 in northern Yemen about 20 kilometers from the Saudi border. Commercial satellite photos showed a damaged oil storage tank in Jeddah, which apparently the only damage.

Further south on the Red Sea coast (200 kilometers north of Yemen), something caused an explosion on the hull of a tanker that had just unloaded several hundred thousand barrels of oil for a local power plant. A small amount of oil left in the tanks seeped into the Red Sea. It is unclear if this was a naval mine or an explosive delivered by some other means.

November 22, 2020: In the north, across the border in Saudi Arabia, the first meeting between the Israeli leader and the Saudi crown prince was held in a Saudi Red Sea coastal town. The Saudis denied the meeting took place and the Israelis had no comment. The Israeli leader was accompanied by the head of Mossad (the Israeli CIA). For months it has been rumored that the Saudis were reaching out to Israel for help in dealing with Iranian aggression in the Arabian Peninsula. The Saudis are particularly concerned about Yemen, which has always been a troublesome southern neighbor. The official Saudi position for over half a century is that Israel must be destroyed. That has turned into efforts to establish formal diplomatic, trade and military links with Israel. Most Arab leaders see this as necessity to deal with Iran and other real or potential foreign threats from Turkey, Russia, China and so on. While Arab leaders have accepted the need for such a change, most of their subjects have not and recent opinion surveys confirm this threat.

November 20, 2020: In Yemen the Arab Coalition has found and removed 157 naval mines Iran-backed Shia rebels placed in the Red Sea. Many of the mines were supplied by Iran as are most of the weapons and explosives the Shia rebels use.

November 13, 2020: In the northwest (across the border in the Saudi province of Jizan) security forces spotted and destroyed two remotely controlled Shia rebel bomb boats headed towards a floating platform that was a key component of the oil unloading operation at the Red Sea port of Jizan (80 kilometers north of Yemen).

 

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