In central Yemen (Marib province) the Shia rebel offensive is stalled and the rebels are now trying to hold their positions while directing ballistic and cruise missile attacks at military and civilian targets in the province. There are two main objectives for the rebel operations in Marib. The most obvious one is the Marib provincial capital, which is 120 kilometers east of the rebel held national capital Sanaa. The other one is the Marib oil fields. Yemen has some oil resources and, even though those are tiny compared to what Iran and the other Arab states in the region have, were enough to supply internal needs as well as provide some for exports. Production and exports halted several years ago but possession of Yemenis oil resources is a prestige thing. The Yemeni government and the Arab coalition also want to use Marib as a base area for a possible ground advance in the rebel held national capital Sanaa.
Since February most of the combat in Yemen has been in Marib. The rebels have suffered heavy casualties without much to show for it. The government forces, mainly tribal militias with access to Saudi air and artillery support have been able to regain lost ground. The rebels ignore this and insist they will prevail. Captured rebels and monitoring rebel communications reveals that many of the replacement fighters are there mainly for the pay or because of rebel threats to block food aid. Over three months of offensive operations it became common for daily casualties to exceed one or two hundred dead and wounded. When the Marib offensive began in February it was assumed it would follow the usual pattern of being intense for a few days or weeks and then fading. The fade didn’t come until May when the rebels reduced the ground attacks to deal with the morale problems all their casualties had caused.
Initially the Marib combat kept escalating despite lack of progress. Calling the fighting a rebel “offensive” was misleading, as most of the time the “fighting” involved only artillery and mortar fire as well as dozens of cruise and ballistic missile strikes. The government forces respond with even more artillery fire and air strikes, all provided by the Arab Coalition. During the first six weeks of this “intense” fighting the dead and wounded amounted to nearly 500 fighters from both sides as well as a few civilians. During the next six weeks those totals have doubled and that proved too much for the rebels.
The rebel offensive was all about pushing government forces out of key areas of the province and it failed. Some of these attacks temporarily weakened the rebels in Marib sufficiently for the government counterattacks to force the depleted rebel forces back. The February offensive began because the rebels believed the government’s military capabilities had been seriously diminished when UAE forces left Marib in early 2020 because of disagreements with Saudi Arabia over strategy and to concentrate all their military forces back home where they were needed to discourage Iranian aggression. For that reason, the UAE took their missile defense systems with them, which made Yemeni government military bases more vulnerable to rebel (Iranian) ballistic and cruise missiles attacks. The withdrawal of Arab coalition forces from Marib enabled the rebels to successfully regain control of some territory in the province. But the early gains did not continue as the offensive encouraged more Yemenis tribes to provide fighters to defend Marib and not just keep the peace in their home provinces.
The Iranian Veto
The Iranian IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) openly controls the Shia rebels. Saudi Arabia blames Iran for the failure of the Yemen rebels to seriously negotiate a peace deal. It’s not for want of trying. Since mid-April secret (unannounced and officially denied) negotiations between Saudis and Iran sought to end the Yemen fighting. The best offer Iran made was for a halt to rebel attacks on Saudi Arabia in return for Saudi assistance getting around key elements of the economic sanctions. Iran proposed that the Saudis work with Iran to smuggle Iranian oil to customers either as Iranian oil or by pretending it is Saudi oil. The Saudis were willing to back the lifting of sanctions if Iran withdrew from Yemen, thus forcing the rebels to negotiate a peace deal. The Saudi have also been talking to some of the rebel factions, and discovered that a growing number of rebels want peace but are overruled by the Iranians, who supply weapons, advisors, media support and some cash to keep the civil war going.
Such secret talks do not stay secret for long and when pressed the Saudis confirm, often unofficially, that such discussions have taken place. This is typical for the Middle East, where Israel has, for decades, conducted unofficial and discreet talks with most Arab states. That explains the nice things Iran and Saudis will occasionally say about each other when such talks are underway. Iran wants the economic sanctions lifted or at least modified and the Saudis want Iranian forces gone from their southern border. Making that happen is how deals are made in the Middle East. So far, the Iranians are unwilling to give up their ability to launch missile attacks on Saudi Arabia from northern Yemen. The Iranian government believes that getting economic sanctions lifted can be accomplished without leaving Yemen. This has led to a disagreement between the IRGC and the Iranian government, which has had growing problems with the independent minded IRGC. This has come up in negotiations Iran is conducting the Americans and Europeans to lift the sanctions. With a new government in the United States since January the Iranians believed they could get the sanctions lifted. This has proved difficult because it is no longer secret that IRGC-run operations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen were seriously weakened after the sanctions were reinstated by the Americans in 2017. At the time it was also becoming clear that widespread anti-government protests inside Iran were largely about IRGC grabbing most of the money provided by the 2015 treaty that lifted sanctions. Iranians were told that this additional cash and export sales would be used to raise the standard of living in Iran. That did not happen and Iranians were calling for the end of the religious dictatorship and the IRGC that exists mainly to keep that government in power. The IRGC cracked down against the protests, killing over a thousand Iranians and wounding and arresting tens of thousands. The “IRGC veto” became an issue in Europe as the Iranian negotiations have not been able to assure the Americans and Europeans that the IRGC can be made to support any sanctions deal that involves a reduction in IRGC activity in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
All this leads the Saudis to believe that there will be another revolution inside Iran and the misbehavior of the IRGC will be a major reason. For both sides, it’s a gamble but because both sides are run by Islamic governments that believe God is on their side and the risk factor is somewhat diminished. To an outsider, Iran seems to be in a weaker position. Yet the Iranians have been more successful at gaining and holding onto power for thousands of years and even the wealthy Gulf Arab states recognize that.
The word from rebel held territory in Yemen is that Iran has been visibly in charge since late 2020, after Iran sent a Quds Force (the IRGC branch that handles foreign wars) general to be the Iranian ambassador to Yemen. Since 2015 the rebels have controlled the traditional Yemeni capital, where all the foreign embassies were, and a few still are, as well as headquarters for the government ministries. Most of the embassies and government ministries have left for the temporary capital of the last elected government in the southern port of Aden. Despite that, the rebels insist that because they occupy the capital and control over a third of the population, they are the real government and their opponents are southern separatists or foreigners. This ignores the fact that many of the people in rebel territory are kept in line via threats to cut off access to food, medical supplies and imported items. Tribes that try to break away risk starvation and a blockade of roadblocks and attacks on smugglers trying to get in. More and more tribes have been able to break away but the rebels have maintained a presence around many towns and cities.
The new Iranian “ambassador” came to Yemen mainly to supervise Iranian support for combat operations and take a more direct role in running the war. That meant keeping the rebels under Iranian control no matter what. Quds felt so confident that they bluntly rejected UN and American offers for ceasefire talks and instead increased the number of offensive operations. For more than a month after the Quds general took over in Yemen, Quds force officers outside Yemen boasted to foreign journalists about what the Quds Force was up to in Yemen. The Iranian senior clerics, who have the final say in what Iranian policy is, realized that openly discussing the direct Iranian control of rebel operations was a mistake. Quds was ordered to leave media interviews and Internet announcements to the government. What the Iranian leaders could not do was order the IRGC to shut down their operation in Yemen, or Syria or Iraq.
Iran is taking more direct control over the Shia rebels in order to use this control as part of the negotiations to end economic sanctions on Iran. If Iran pulled out of Yemen the Shia tribal forces would be defeated, as they have many times before. Quds force commanders are reluctant to give up gains made in Yemen and may have been told that they could revive support for the Yemeni Shia after the economic sanctions on Iran are lifted. Because of these sanctions Quds force saw its budget cut by half since 2017, forcing major reductions in Quds activities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Yemen was always the least expensive Quds operation and did not suffer noticeable aid cuts. Yemen was the only IRGC operation that was able to attack arch-enemy Saudi Arabia directly and that counted for something.
June 8, 2021: In the north (Jawf province) government forces killed a rebel brigade commander and dozens of his subordinates while the rebels were trying to capture key terrain defended by government forces supported by Saudi air power. The airstrikes continue to be decisive, especially for defeating rebel advances. This battle was part of a larger operation connected to rebel efforts to block government access to Marib province.
June 7, 2021: In the south (Aden) two rival STC (South Transitional Council) factions have paralyzed the use of foreign aid in the port city of Aden. The factions cannot agree on who should control what in Aden and because of that essential maintenance on power plants and other infrastructure is stalled. This is unpopular with most Aden residents and is making the city unlivable. The UAE has been in charge of security (and aid delivery) in the south since 2015 and supported the formation of the STC in early 2017. The STC 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. The Saudi-backed Yemen government went along with a peace treaty with the STC that the UAE proposed and signed in 2019. This arrangement has not yet been implemented because some STC factions do not agree on the terms. This includes disputes over which STC factions control the port of Aden. Since 2015 southern tribes that comprise the STC have been demanding autonomy, if not partition of Yemen and the creation of the STC is seen as a temporary fix. For most of its history Yemen has not been united and the current problems with the Shia rebels and the STC are the norm, not an exceptional event. The problem in the south continues to be that many tribes cannot agree on how to share power within the STC.
June 6, 2021: In the north (Sanaa) the leaders of Hamas and the Yemen rebels met in a very public event. Hamas, a Sunni Arab Islamic terror group in Gaza, is one of the few Sunni groups openly supported by Iran. This meeting was all about Iran showing off how well it controls and coordinates the overseas Islamic terror groups it often denies having any influence over. The Hamas visit was unpopular with Yemeni Sunnis because most Yemenis are hostile to Israel and inclined to support the Palestinian goal of destroying Israel. Yemenis saw Hamas praise of the Yemeni rebels as an insult to Yemenis Sunnis, who are at war with Shia rebels that are increasingly using Iranian guided missiles against Sunni civilians.
June 5, 2021: In central Yemen (Marib province) the Shia rebels fired a ballistic missile at Marib city, the provincial capital. The missile landed near a residential area, killing 14 civilians. That attack was followed by a cruise missile (explosive armed UAV) strike nearby that killed three more civilians and destroyed two ambulances sent to deal with the ballistic missile attack. The rebels claim both attacks were aimed at a military base in the city and demanded that an independent investigation be conducted. In the past the rebels blocked efforts for an independent investigation of claims that Arab Coalition airstrikes on military targets in urban areas had only killed civilians. The rebels use civilians as involuntary human shields and automatically claim any airstrike on military targets near civilians only hit civilians. This deception, a standard procedure in the Middle East, tends to fall apart as cell phone videos by local civilians eventually get out. By then the damage has been done because a correction of an earlier media story always has less impact on public opinion than the original lie.
June 4, 2021: Saudi Arabia agreed to lift the air blockade of Sanaa airport so that a group of Omani officials and rebel leaders from pro-peace factions could meet with senior rebel officials and discuss ways in which peace negotiations could proceed. Getting the Omanis involved was a clever move by the Saudis because Oman has always been on good terms with Iran. This was the reason why Iran continued to get weapons, ammo and missile and UAV components into the Shia rebel stronghold in northwest Yemen. Oman shares a 293-kilometer border with Yemen and the Saudis knew the Omanis were tolerating Iranian weapons smuggling. It took several years of negotiations and other efforts before the Saudis managed to make the Oman smuggling route much less effective than the water route through the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea. That route is guarded by the naval blockade and Iran has to spend a lot of money to hire experienced smugglers that can get past that.
In southeast Yemen (Mahra province) the Oman smuggling route is controlled by the local Mahra tribe, which lies astride the Yemen/Oman border. Marah province borders Saudi Arabia in the north and Oman in the east. The Saudis and Omanis have locked down their mutual border. The Yemen/Oman border has received help from Saudi troops who have been in Mahra province since 2017. The Saudis were only concerned about the Iranian arms smuggled to the Shia rebels via nearby ports in Mahra and Oman. Most of the Mahra smugglers cooperated, if only because long-term it is better to do business with the Saudi government than be at war with them. The Iranians paid well for moving arms across the border but the Saudi troops operated checkpoints and patrols that made it difficult to get the smuggled weapons to rebel-controlled territory 300 kilometers to the west. The Oman government helped by arranging talks between the Saudis and Mahra tribal leaders from Oman and Yemen. Eventually a deal was worked out and Iran lost regular use of the Oman land route to the Yemen rebels.
While Oman maintains good relations with Iran, it also maintains even better relations with the United States and Britain. The Saudis are an ally, so Oman does not take orders from the Saudis but does get along with them. Such is not the case with Qatar, which sides with Iran, in part because of family feuds with the other Arab monarchies. Arabia is ruled by monarchies and the royal families have numerous links via past marriages, with the other Gulf dynasties and the resulting family feuds as well.
Qatar is a smaller Gulf state that actually borders the Gulf. Oman controls one side of the Strait of Hormuz (the entry to the Persian Gulf) but is, like Yemen, outside the Gulf. Oman is sometimes accused of siding with Iran and Qatar but that support is not strong and often changes. Ultimately Oman sides with the ethnic (fellow Arab) and distant Western allies against Iran. Only Qatar has been accused of being too cooperative with Iran. The fact is that most of the smaller (than Saudi Arabia) states bordering the Gulf have long-standing business and personal relationships with Iraq that have survived many changes in the Iranian government over the last century.
These relationships between Iran and the Arabian states became clear in 1981 when the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) was formed. Its members (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) appeared to have the wealth and military power to deal with threatening local (Iran) or foreign (China, Russia, India, the West and so on) threats. At the moment the religious dictatorships in Iran are seen as the major threat. Not the Iranian people, but the Iranian religious fanatics who are now openly disliked by most Iranians.
Within the GCC smaller members are willing to work with the Saudis when the cause is critical enough. Such was the case with the original Arab Coalition being formed and entering Yemen in 2015. The UAE and Saudi leaders of the coalition still had disagreements and these grew until the UAE withdrew most of its forces in late 2019. Iran takes advantage of these feuds as much as possible and the Arab monarchies are aware of this weakness but find themselves unable to completely suppress the grudges and all the problems this personal animosity creates.
June 2, 2021: The Shia rebels released a video online showing the rebels firing an ATGM (anti-tank guided missile) at a Saudi (American made) M1A2 tank in Yemen. The video shows the missile hitting the tank but apparently not inflicting much damage. The Saudis have lost some M1A2s in Yemen, usually due to anti-vehicle mines and the inability (because of continued enemy fire) to haul the immobilized tank out of the area for repair. In such cases it is standard procedure to use thermal and explosive devices to destroy the tank from the inside, so that all that is left is a burned-out hulk.
June 1, 2021: The government revealed that the Shia rebels had been hiring some of the illegal African migrants in Yemen to replace heavy losses. In Marib province government forces have been reporting Africans among the dead rebels. This has never been seen before as the Yemeni and Somali people smugglers pay various factions to allow their customers (the illegal migrants) to head north for countries that will hire illegals because of local labor shortages. Further investigation found the rebels were offering the illegals with combat experience, and some knowledge of Arabic, up to $100 a month to fight for the rebels. This seemed like easy money for the migrants that qualified and they could resume their trip north after earning a few hundred dollars. What the African recruits did not realize was that the fighting in Marib Province had cost the rebels thousands of fighters (dead, wounded, captured or deserters) and replacements were needed. One reason for the halt in the ground offensive was the unwillingness of the Africans to be cannon fodder, although most were still willing to carry a gun for a few months if it was for providing security or defending against government attacks.
The rebels have also had problems getting teenage Yemeni boys to take up arms. To deal with that the rebels have set up Summer Camp programs for the teenagers that include the usual Summer Camp activities, but with mandatory indoctrination sessions stressing the need to join the rebels and fight for a better Yemen. Parents are largely hostile towards efforts to recruit their sons for the rebel forces and the rebels have been having more difficulty recruiting these kids. This was especially true with the heavy casualties in the Marib fighting this year.
May 26, 2021: Saudi Arabia claimed responsibility for the construction of an air base on an uninhabited island at the southern entrance to the Red Sea. In April commercial satellite photos showed the base construction and initially no one would take credit for it. The UAE was mentioned as a suspect but denied any involvement, even though until 2019 UAE troops were responsible for security in the area. Forgotten was the fact that in mid-2019 Saudi troops replaced UAE forces along the Red Sea coast, especially the Bab al Mandeb Strait, which is the narrow southern entrance to the Red Sea that Shia rebels have frequently tried to block with various types of attacks, as in small boats loaded with explosives, naval mines and rocket fire from the shore. Saudi troops also took over the two smaller Red Sea ports; Midi (north of Hodeida) and Mocha (south of Hodeida). A primary reason for the Arab Coalition ground forces taking control of the Red Sea coast as far north as Hodeida was to reduce the risk of rebel attacks on warships and commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The UAE had also occupied some of the small islands in the Bab al Mandeb Strait and those UAE troops were believed to have left in 2019 as well but it was never reported that Saudi forces had replaced them.