Yemen: Rebels Retreat Before Government Offensive

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January 26, 2022: The Shia rebel ground offensive in central Yemen (Marib Province) is over with the rebels retreating when attacked, and the government forces are doing a lot of attacking supported, by airstrikes and artillery fire. These airborne surveillance and attack operations were much heavier in central Yemen, where the Shia offensive continued for so long. The heavy Shia casualties became an issue, but Iran insisted the offensive continue to make the most of continued use of missiles and armed UAVs on targets in Saudi Arabia and now the UAE (United Arab Emirates). The missile and AUV attacks on Saudi Arabia were supposed to help but didn’t. Iran smuggled in more ballistic missile and UAV components, at great expense, carried on some attacks against the UAE itself, and demanded that the UAE stop fighting the Shia rebels in Yemen. That did not work. Although the UAE will take losses from a decline in tourism activity because of the Iranian attacks, they know that once you obey one Iranian demand, there will be more. Iran wants to control all of the Arabia Peninsula and especially the pilgrim city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Despite generous Iranian support and ambitious goals, the Shia rebels have had enough of ground fighting. Iran insists it still has the edge in Information War. This is all about manipulating foreign media to make Iran and the Shia rebels look good, while portraying their opponents as war criminals. This does not always work but it is effective often enough to continue with this media campaign of lies and self-serving distortion.

The defeat of the Shia rebels was also due the years of military training for southern tribesmen by Saudi and UAE instructors. The tribal warriors slowly turned into soldiers and became a lot more effective in combat while taking fewer casualties. The Saudis also developed better relations with Sunni tribes near their Yemen border. Only a small portion of that border is occupied by these Shia tribes, who for decades were ignored, as were the Sunni tribes that occupied most of the border. The Saudis have improved relations with the Yemeni Sunni tribes along the border and provided economic and military aid to those under attack by the Shia rebels.

Part of the military training was to make tribal warriors more familiar about how airstrikes and artillery fire are called in and what the limitations of air support are. As a result, heavy airstrikes against rebel targets in the northwest (Hodeida province) became much more effective. That was one reason why the government offensive has been pushing back Shia forces, especially those near the Red Sea port of Hodeida. In the southwest (Taiz province) Shia rebels continue losing ground as a government offensive to reach the coast and disrupt rebel access to Hodeida succeeded and continues.

The rebels made some progress in Marib during late 2021 but there were already reports that some rebel factions were refusing to send any more of their men into this battle. By the end of 2021 the rebel attackers were stalled or in retreat, and taking heavy casualties all over Yemen. Iranian Quds Force commanders in Yemen were ordered to so some damage control.

While the Iran-backed Shia rebels are losing, they still refuse to make peace, in part because of continued Iranian support and partly out of fear of the consequences of dealing with the Saudis and other members of the Arab coalition, as well as the many Yemen Sunnis they abused.

Yemen has proved to be an embarrassment for Iran and the Saudi/UAE backed Yemen government. The other Arabs are not willing to suffer the heavy casualties a quick victory would require. The war drags on into 2022 and will continue until Iran halts its support. Iranian withdrawal is a possibility because of growing popular protests in Iran against the expensive foreign wars in Syria and Yemen.

Until late 2017 there was not much progress in the Yemen fighting, a development that favored Iran. But by early 2018 the Shia rebel coalition began unraveling and Iran suddenly had its own domestic uprising to deal with back home. Worse, the U.S. government had changed in early 2017 and was much more aggressive dealing with Iran. There was also a radical (for Arabia) new government in Saudi Arabia with a young Crown Prince in charge and organizing more effective resistance to Iranian aggression. That played a role in causing the Yemen unrest evolving into a full-scale civil war in 2015. That was when Shia rebels sought to take control of the entire country. Neighboring Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, quickly formed a military coalition to halt the Yemeni rebel advance. The Arab coalition succeeded and by 2016 pro-government forces were closing in on the rebel-held capital. The coalition did not go after the capital itself because of expected heavy casualties and property damage in the city. The coalition concentrated on rebuilding the Yemeni armed forces, recruiting allies from the Sunni tribes in the south and eliminating al Qaeda and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups that had grown stronger as the Shia rebels gained more power. As the fighting intensified in early 2015 Iran admitted it had been quietly supporting the Shia rebels for a long time but now was doing so openly, or at least trying.

Many Yemenis trace the current crisis back to the civil war that sort of ended in 1994. That war was caused by the fact that, when the British left Yemen in 1967, their former colony in Aden became one of two countries called Yemen. The two Yemens finally united in 1990 but another civil war in 1994 was needed to seal the deal. That fix didn't really take and the north and south have been pulling apart ever since.

This comes back to the fact that Yemen has always been a region, not a country. Like most of the rest of the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa region, the normal form of government until the 20th century was wealthier coastal city states nervously coexisting with interior tribes that got by on herding or farming or a little of both plus smuggling and other illicit sidelines. This "nation" idea is still looked on with some suspicion by many in the region. This is why the most common forms of government are the more familiar ones of antiquity like kingdom, emirate or modern variation in the form of a hereditary secular dictatorship. For a long time, the most active Yemeni rebels were the Shia Islamic militants in the north. They have always wanted to restore local Shia rule in the traditional Shia tribal territories, led by the local imam (religious leader). This arrangement, after surviving more than a thousand years, was ended by the central government in 1962. Yemen also became the new headquarters of AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) when Saudi Arabia was no longer safe for the terrorists after 2007. Now there is ISIL and an invading army composed of troops from oil-rich neighbors. By late 2017 the rebels were slowly losing ground to government forces who, despite Arab coalition air support and about five thousand ground troops, were still dependent on Yemeni Sunni tribal militias to fight the Shia tribesmen on the ground. While the Shia are only a third of the population, they are united while the Sunni tribes are divided over the issue of again splitting the country in two and with no agreement on who would get the few oil fields in central Yemen. Many of the Sunni tribes tolerate or even support AQAP and ISIL.

With the Iranian smuggling pipeline much reduced, the Shia rebels and their Iranian sponsors are now on the defensive and seeking a tolerable way out of the mess they made. They are aided by the UAE and Sudan pulling their troops out of Yemen and the southern separatists refusing to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in defeating the rebels. Those disagreements have been resolved so that the southern tribes and UAE are supporting the upcoming government offensive to liberate the north.

Failed State Handicaps

Yemen has long been rated as one of the most corrupt nations in the world. Corruption is measured annually in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index (CPI). It is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations are usually North Korea, Yemen, Syria, South Sudan and Somalia. The least corrupt are New Zealand and Denmark, Finland, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Netherlands, Canada and Luxembourg, followed by the industrialized states that are democracies, or at least well-run monarchies. A classic example of the impact of a socialist police state versus free market democracy is Korea. North Korea is one of the most corrupt while South Korea is in the top third of the 180 nations rated.

A major obstacle in reducing corruption is the persistence of corruption based on tribal allegiance. This is a common problem in Africa and many other parts of the world. The least corrupt nations have been most successful in leaving tribalism behind. The major reason tribalism survives is because, lacking the presence of an effective (high CPI) nation-state, a tribal government is usually the best, or at least most accessible and reliable alternative.

A major misunderstanding many political and military leaders make is to underestimate the amount of time it takes to fundamentally change a nation from a source of war and disorder to one of peace, prosperity and unity. The fundamental misunderstanding is that the lack of civil society, as in a widely accepted set of cultural and political practices that create widespread trust, means that there is no quick fix for a chaotic area mired in war and mayhem. It takes decades or generations of sustained effort to achieve a civil society. Without a civil society to work with the best you can do is pacify. That’s why so many peacekeeping efforts never seem to end. On the other hand, nations with a civil society, like Japan and Germany after World War II, can change swiftly and effectively. That is why nations with lots of corruption and not much human development are so prone to violence and wars that never seem to end.

The worst of these troublesome areas have come to be described as failed states. That is, an area that never was a unified and stable state and is still cursed with a fundamental political instability. Some examples are Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and many African states that were created by colonial rulers who underestimated the durability of tribal traditions and the difficulty of creating a civil society.

Empires are usually created via conquest but that has become more difficult in the last century. The urge to establish new empires is much diminished now, largely because of the disastrous after-effects of national socialists (Nazis), international socialists (Soviet Union) and ethnic nationalists (World War II Japan). But the urge for defunct or legendary empires to be revived still exists. You can see it happening with China, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Islamic radicals seeking to revive the medieval caliphate.

At the same time there are also problems with democracies. As Winston Churchill put it, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. To make matters more interesting, all democracies are different, often drastically so. Despite all that, having the people as the ultimate source of political power manages to function in a wide variety of cultural environments. Democracy is also a perpetual work-in-progress and always a few major missteps away from degrading into totalitarianism or chaos. In Yemen, the local and national power brokers tend to have good connections in key tribes or tribal confederations.

January 24, 2022: Another ballistic missile was fired at a UAE city but was intercepted by Patriot ABM missiles.

January 22, 2022: The Arab coalition denied one of their airstrikes hit a prison in rebel territory. The explosion destroyed the prison building, leaving 70 people dead.

The UAE banned the use of any privately owned quadcopters or light sports aircraft for a month from today.

January 21, 2022: A ballistic missile fired by Shia rebels landed near an industrial zone in southwest Saudi Arabia. Two foreign workers were injured.

January 20, 2022: Arab coalition air strikes near the Red Sea port of Hodeida damaged the undersea cable that brings Internet to most of Yemen. Service was out for three days.

AQAP confirmed that their leader, a personal friend of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, was killed last November, along with two of his associates, by an American missile fired from a UAV. The U.S. reported a UAV attack on November 14 that killed three Islamic terrorists but was not able to recover and identify the bodies. AQAP has been less active for the last few years, waiting to see how the civil war will end. Yemen became the new headquarters of AQAP when Saudi Arabia was no longer safe for the terrorists after 2007. Then came ISIL and then an invading army of troops from oil-rich neighbors. ISIL forces in Yemen are even fewer and also less active.

January 18, 2022: In the Gulf of Oman a U.S. Navy warship seized a small freighter from Iran that was carrying 40 tons of fertilizer that is used for explosives in Yemen by the Shia rebels. The fertilizer was hidden but the boarding party did a thorough search because this boat had been caught carrying Iranian weapons to Yemen last year and was released because the owner said he would no longer smuggle.

Further south, Somalia officially backed the UAE after an Iranian sponsored bombing in the UAE capital. Iran says the attack was carried out by Shia rebels in Yemen. For nearly a decade Somalia has been in the middle of the Gulf Arab dispute with Iran and its allies Turkey and Qatar. The UAE has been the most active Arab state in Somalia and now appears to be overtaking Iran and its allies. The Arabs supply more aid than Iran and its allies.

January 17, 2022: An Iranian ballistic missile fired towards an oil storage area near a UAE airbase was intercepted by a THAAD ABM (anti-ballistic missile). This was the first combat use of THAAD, which the UAE bought to protect them from Iranian ballistic missiles fired from Iran. The target area also included housing for American and French troops. At first no one claimed responsibility for the attack although the Shia rebels in Yemen has claimed credit for such attacks in the past and eventually claimed this one as well. The interception took place over an inhabited area but there were no casualties. Fragments of the ballistic and THAAD missile will be collected, identified and separated. This process takes weeks but usually comes up with a positive identification. The UN often carries out or supervises these collection and identification efforts when Iranian involvement is suspected. Iran will often question the reliability of such identifications if the victim is a country Iran is hostile to.

Iran-backed Shia rebels did promptly take credit for three explosions in a UAE fuel storage area outside Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital. This happened at about the same time the ballistic missile was shot down by THAAD. The explosions left three dead and six wounded, all of them foreign workers. Hours later the Shia rebels took credit but it is unclear if the Iranian UAVs were launched from Shia rebel territory in Yemen because that is an air-distance of 1,400 kilometers while Iran is about 300 kilometers away across the Persian Gulf. This appears similar to a September 2019 attack on a Saudi oil facility that Iran attributed to the Shia rebels in Yemen but was later traced back to Iran. The same disparity in distances was present in the 2019 attack and examination of the debris from the explosive-laden UAVs identified them as Iranian and incapable of travelling from Yemen to northeast Saudi Arabia. Later in the day UAE and Saudi warplanes carried out airstrikes in Yemen against rebel targets. Even if there is proof that the attack was launched from Iran, as happened in 2019, Iran is not implicated immediately and is not the target for retaliatory attacks. Although there are no immediate consequences for Iran, the long-term impact is that Iran is considered untrustworthy and unlikely to comply with any treaties. This is why the 2015 treaty lifting sanctions on Iran began to fall apart in 2018 when the U.S. renewed economic sanctions and Iranian attacks on Saudi Arabia in 2019 and the UAE today make it less likely that Iranian demands for the restoration of the 2015 treaty are unlikely and Israeli preparations for air and missile attacks on Iranian nuclear research facilities are more likely if Iran does manage to build a nuclear weapon, or get close. With the latest attack on the UAE, which is now a less desirable tourist destination and fearful of more attacks, more nations are agreeing with the Israeli assessment of Iran as a hostile nation that only fears retribution for its misdeeds. The Americans did that in 2018 with the renewed sanctions but Iran managed to portray itself as the victim. The 2018 American efforts also led to most Arab Gulf states agreeing in 2020 to recognize Israel diplomatically and establish trade links. The Arabs are buying defense systems designed to detect and defeat the kind of attacks Iran uses. While Iran won some short-term victories, the long-term situation is less favorable.

January 12, 2022: The Saudi coalition backing the government announced the start of an offensive to seize control of all rebel held territory in the north. The government forces are now often trained professionals who know the most effective tactics and how to make the most of air and artillery support. The Saudis have quietly made contact with Shia tribes in rebel territory and provided cash and other aid, with more to come once the government offensive finally begins. By 2022, the rebels and their Iranian advisors had a good idea of which Sunni tribes in their territory was waiting for an opportunity to strike back. That information was not comforting.

January 2, 2022: Shia rebels hijacked a UAE cargo ship off the Red Sea port near the port of Hodeida, where most foreign aid enters the country. The cargo ship had delivered medical supplies for a field hospital in Socotra Island in the entrance to the Red Sea and was travelling to Saudi port of Jizan. The crew of eleven was mostly Indian but four were from Ethiopia, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines. The rebels want compensation before they will release the ship.

December 18, 2021: The Iranian ambassador to Yemen was flown back to Iran, where he died within a week from covid19. The Shia rebels had to get permission from the Arab coalition for this and managed to do so by revealing that the ambassador had caused many rebel faction leaders to criticize Iran for sending an experienced military man to Yemen, where he demanded that the rebels continue offensive operations despite the high casualties incurred and lack of progress to justify the losses. The Saudis agreed, after the rebels promised to not accept another Iranian diplomat. In response, Iran appointed the senior military advisor in Yemen to become the new ambassador.

Back in 2020 the recently deceased Iranian ambassador to Yemen arrived and made clear that, as a former Quds Force general, he was in Yemen more as a Quds Force commander than a diplomat. This ambassador didn’t make many requests, but he did issue a lot of orders and this caused growing opposition to Iran among the leaders of many rebel factions. After this ambassador returned to Iran, offensive operations in Yemen became less persistent and some Shia forces retreated.

December 10, 2021: Yemen peace talks between the Saudis and Iran are having no more success than those going between Iran and the Western nations over lifting sanctions. Efforts to negotiate a settlement of the issues in Yemen and end the seven-year civil war are still stalled because of two “non-negotiable” issues. First, there is the Iranian refusal to give up their presence and support of the Yemen Shia. This is unacceptable to Saudi Arabia and most other Arab states because they can see what happened in Lebanon when the Iranian presence and support of the Hezbollah militia was allowed to persist. The second difficult issue is calls for partitioning Yemen again. This has been the case in the past and most Yemenis came to believe unity was preferable. With Iran refusing to give up their control of the Shia north, partition is even less acceptable. No one has come up with a viable solution yet.

The new Iranian government has also adopted negotiating tactics that demand concessions before any serious bargaining begins. This is even more difficult when the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) is in charge, as is the case in Yemen. The Iranian 2020 elections were rigged (as they traditionally are) so the new president would be Ibrahim Raisi, an infamous mass-murderer and recognized war-criminal. Putting Raisi into such a public position is another example of how desperate Iran is to make clear to opponents in Iran, Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere what they are up against. Raisi took office in August 2021 and quickly addressed the sanctions situation. He insisted that Iran would not negotiate with the West until the 2017 sanctions were first lifted. Nations seeking to negotiate a new peace deal with Iran discovered that Raisi had the support of the religious dictatorship in Iran as well as the IRGC. In Yemen the Iranians demand that any peace deal include continued Iranian access to Yemen and autonomy for the Shia rebels in their home province on the Saudi border. This would mean continued use of Iranian cruise and ballistic missiles against Saudi targets. The Iranians would deny any responsibility, as they currently do for similar cruise missile and UAV attacks launched from Iran on Saudi Arabian targets and Persian Gulf shipping. Iran blames it on local rebel groups and often gets away with this approach. These are called “false flag” operations in which you make an attack that is disguised as by someone else. Iranians have been false flagging for centuries, as have many other nations in the region. Iran is considered one of the more adept and habitual users of false flag operations.

Despite those peace talks, or perhaps because of them, over the last month, the Saudi Air Force has increased its airstrikes in and around the Shia occupied capital Sanaa and elsewhere. The airstrikes were much heavier in central Yemen (Marib Province), where a year-long Shia offensive continues. More airstrikes were carried out in the northwest (Hodeida province) where a government offensive has been pushing back Shia forces, especially those near the Red Sea port of Hodeida. In the southwest (Taiz province) Shia rebels continue losing ground as a government offensive to reach the coast and disrupt rebel access to Hodeida has succeeded.

 

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