May 17, 2017

Yemen: Avoiding The Unavoidable

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May 11, 2017: Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh is now criticizing the Shia rebels, after supporting them since 2012. Back then he secretly allied himself with the Shia rebels in an effort to regain power. The Saleh family still has a lot of power in Yemen and has long been seen as a silent (but vital) partner in the Shia rebellion. After decades of corrupt rule Ali Abdullah Saleh was the target of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Yemen. He was forced to resign in 2012 and before the Arab coalition forces entered Yemen in 2015 Saleh made some attempts to broker a peace deal and thus regain much political power and possibly become president again. That was turned down by his elected successor and the Arab coalition.

Despite being a Shia himself Saleh managed, throughout his political career, to assemble coalitions of largely Sunni groups that kept him in power for decades. That coalition fell apart in 2011 but even as Saleh was deposed he was able to negotiate amnesty for himself. He was replaced by AbdoRabbo Mansour Hadi via elections the Shia insisted were unfair (but international observers approved of). Hadi and Saleh had long been political allies but the two of them disagree over Hadi’s ability to rule the country.

Saleh was long suspected of secretly supporting the Shia rebels and that proved to be true once the Shia rebels sought to take control of the government in early 2015. The Shia rebels were a frequent headache for Saleh but after he was deposed it did not surprise most Yemenis that Saleh had quietly developed an alliance with the Shia tribes up north. About a third of Yemenis are Shia and the Shia-Saleh Coalition attracted some Sunni support because the Shia have always called for a reduction in corruption and more effective government. Thus the rebels were not only more united but by early 2015 had the support of nearly half the population. That was then but now two years of civil war have cost the rebels most of their Sunni supporters. During those two years Saleh admitted his support for the rebels as did Iran.

Saleh switching sides again was not unexpected, not in Arabia and especially not in Yemen. Saleh has maintained contact with the Saudi government after 2012 although since 2014 this has largely been via third parties. Now Saleh wants to negotiate and the Saudis are inclined to at least listen. Even Hadi has to pay attention because he is dealing with growing separatist demands from some of the southern Sunni tribes. There are also complaints that the Arab Coalition troops are acting as an army of occupation, not liberators. Then again some of the southern Sunnis support AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and both these Islamic terror groups see the Arab Coalition as a target. At the same time Sunnis remain united in the belief that Iran is seeking to gain control of Arabia, especially the oil fields and the Moslem holy places (Mecca and Medina). This combination of Sunni separatism and Shia threat gives Saleh an opportunity and he, unlike many other leaders in the region, rarely misses an opportunity.

Defining Victory

At this point the Arab coalition sees itself as winning. Yet at the end of 2016 many in the Arab coalition saw themselves as losing and were looking for solutions. This was complicated by the fact that several months before the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab oil states in the Persian Gulf) declared its intervention in Yemen a success and that it should be the model for further joint efforts against Iranian aggression. Iran then pointed out that the Shia rebels were not defeated and that Arab policies all over the region had failed. The Iranians had a point. Yet while the Iran-backed Shia rebels in Yemen have not surrendered they are very much in retreat. Iran won’t admit that but the fact that Iran calls for more ceasefires and peace talks in Yemen says otherwise. None of these ceasefires or peace talks have worked but the UN is calling for another round of ceasefire negotiations before the end of May. This is complicated by the fact that Ramadan (the Moslem holy month) begins on May 27th and it considered bad manners to negotiate during Ramadan. Fighting and Islamic terrorism are another matter. The UN also steadfastly refuses to address the corruption that triggered the civil war in the first place and continues to make it difficult to deliver essential food and other aid or halt the delivery of Iranian weapons to the rebels (who were supposed to be the champions against corruption). It’s the proverbial “elephant in the room” no one wants to acknowledge much less try to eliminate.

Iran believes it is on the winning side, and not just for religious reasons (the thousand year old Shia-Sunni dispute). The Iranians have dominated the region for thousands of years and see Arabs as inferior in just about every way. The Iranians are smart enough to be subtle about this but the Arabs have understood the Iranian attitude for a long time. They also understand that historically the Iranians usually prevail in a dispute, be it commercial, diplomatic or military. Thus when Iran says they are winning in Syria, Iraq and Yemen most people are inclined to believe them, even if all those realists in the Middle East will not admit it (at least not in public). This attitude infuriates Arabs but Yemen seems to be following the Iranian script, not the Arab one.

Separatists Make A Case

In 2014 both the northern Shia and the southern separatists complained that a proposed autonomy plan did not go far enough in granting powers, or a share of government income, to the six proposed regions. The northern Shia complained that their region had no natural resources or access to the sea. The southerners still wanted to establish an independent state down there, and keep all the oil for themselves. Many southerners feel they got shortchanged by the 1990 unification deal, and were harshly put down in 1994 when they rebelled. The southern separatists are disunited and unable to mount a strong resistance to government control. The government keeps the peace by paying off (what it hoped was enough) southern dissidents to prevent another civil war. Many Yemenis insist that the country is not becoming a failed state, because modern Yemen has always been a failed state. The problems of tribalism, religious radicalism and corruption make it impossible for Yemen to function as a country.

The continued popularity of dividing the country in two is partly about what little oil Yemen has, as it is in the south and that’s where the separatists are. Islamic terrorists (mainly AQAP) is also in the south and willing to help the separatists. Most southerners just want peace and some prosperity. But there are enough devoted separatists in the south to provide sanctuaries and support for Islamic terrorists. Most southerners realize that a new (separatist run) government in the south would be as corrupt as the one they have now and the ones Yemen has had for thousands of years. As a result of all this and the two years of fighting it is more difficult to bring foreign aid into the south, which needs it the most, because AQAP believes such aid, even though most is from Moslem countries, is tainted and should be prevented.

There is also a separatist threat in the Shia north. Iran is accused, by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States as well as most Yemenis, of trying to establish another Hezbollah in Yemen. That was always a long shot and this attempt seems to have failed. Iran seemed to anticipate that and their support of the Shia rebels was always a low cost and largely covert operation. Iran tried to persuade the Yemeni Shia to adopt a more cautious and gradual strategy. That advice was ignored and when the Yemeni Shia had an opportunity to seize the capital and declare a new government in 2015 they did so. It didn’t work but came close enough to encourage Iran to spend a lot of what little cash they had to support the Yemeni Shia more lavishly. Iran knew that the Yemeni Shia, or at least some of them, would be grateful for this support and that would benefit Iran long-term. If nothing else it annoyed the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs. By early 2017 the outnumbered and outgunned Shia rebels continue to hold out against the Sunni majority and their Arab (led by the Saudis) allies. This is mainly a media victory for Iran because the Sunni Arab Gulf states are providing the Iranians with excellent media opportunities to criticize the Arabs and the West. Iran is making the most of the fact that the Arabs, even with greater numbers and superior weapons, are unable to quickly defeat fellow Arabs who just happen to be Shia. Iran, the largest Shia majority nation in the world, considers the Shia form of Islam superior to the Sunni variants. Iranian media plays up the suffering of Yemenis in general and manages to keep itself too low profile for the media to pay attention to. Moreover, the Shia form of Islam makes a big deal out of losing battles but ultimately winning it all.

Counterterrorism From Above

The U.S. has carried out more than 90 air strikes in Yemen against AQAP since March 1st. Most of these attacks used missiles launched from a UAV. In 2017 the United States has increased the use of air support and aerial surveillance for the government forces. In the last month there were about two American air strikes a day and about one a day has been with UAVs. There were only 39 UAV attacks for all of 2016 and the in the peak year (2002) there were only 41 attacks. So 2017 is already a record breaking year for American UAV missile attacks. In addition there are more American airstrikes using manned aircraft and smart bombs. All this is having an impact. Official AQAP announcements (released via the Internet), captured documents and interrogations of prisoners all indicate that AQAP is suffering low morale, especially since the American airstrikes picked up in early 2017. Defections to ISIL are still a problem but for AQAP leaders the surveillance and attacks by American aircraft (especially the UAVs) has caused some serious losses among the AQAP leadership and that has disrupted the organization.

As has been the case since 2015 most of the Islamic terrorists in Yemen belong to AQAP. Some 5-10 percent are with ISIL, which splits it efforts between attacking government and AQAP targets as well as the Shia (rebels or civilians). The ISIL/AQAP conflict is to determine which version of a religious dictatorship should rule Yemen. Since mid-2016 AQAP and ISIL appear to have temporarily stopped attacking each other and concentrated on more threatening foes, like government forces (troops and tribal militias) and Shia rebels. Both the Shia rebels and the Sunni Islamic terrorists accuse each other of working for the Americans.

There Still Be Pirates Here

The Somali pirates are still active, but not very successful. In the last month there were a few attacks on smaller ships (coastal freighters and fishing trawlers) and these were closer to Yemen than Somalia. Two of these attacks failed but the pirates did manage to get away with an Indian trawler and its eleven crew. Somali security forces later found and freed the trawler but only two of the crew were rescued.

May 10, 2017: In the southeast (Hadramawt province) an AQAP suicide bomber killed a soldier while attacking a checkpoint. Six others were wounded, three of them civilians. Yesterday the army began a major operation in the province to capture or kill the remaining AQAP groups. Aside from this attack the general AQAP reaction was to flee or try and remain hidden.

Saudi Arabia and the World Bank agreed to provide half a billion dollars to pay for emergency food aid. There are still problems with getting the supplies delivered to those who need it most. For those trying to move the food there is corruption (extra “fees” and “taxes” imposed by various groups) and the risk of getting shot at by anyone who does not agree with who is getting (or providing) the aid. Then there is the weapons smuggling, which is often accomplished by planting weapons among aid shipments with the understanding that if you want the food delivered, the weapons must get through as well.

May 8, 2017: Off the West coast Saudi warships discovered some naval mines. Upon closer examination it was determined that these mines were locally made contact mines. Modern naval mines were widely used for the first time during the Russo-Japanese war (1904- 1905). Back then contact mines, floating in shallow water and kept in place with an anchor and chain, were all that was available. When the tide was right they would be just below the surface, ready to explode whenever struck by a ship. Some 2,000 of these mines were used to destroy sixteen ships during the Russo-Japanese war. That's one ship lost for every 125 mines used. Arab navies in the area are familiar with this type of naval mine because Iran is believed to have a lot of them, as well as the more modern bottom mines that lay on the seabed in shallow coastal waters and use sensors to detect ships passing overhead and explode. Since using naval mines without a declaration of war is considered terrorism, Iran may have helped the Shia rebels build some primitive but effective floating mines.

May 4, 2017: Thousands of southern separatists demonstrated in Aden to protest the removal of Aden governor Aidarous al Zoubeidi. Local Sunnis saw this as another case of the GCC interfering with Yemeni politics.

May 1, 2017: The government offensive along the west coast has left the Shia rebels are largely confined to using the Red Sea port of Hodeida. This has been the main port for the delivery of foreign aid for civilians in rebel held areas and, in theory, government controlled areas. Government forces are closing in on Hodeida and the UN opposes fighting inside the city with Shia rebels to regain control of the port. That would make it more difficult for the rebels to smuggle in military supplies but would also interrupt food and other aid that comes through here. The government accuses the UN of refusing to crack down on rebels who have prevented UN personnel from inspecting aid shipments (for weapons and other contraband). The government also points out that the rebels have been seizing aid shipments and are preventing UN personnel from verifying that the aid is going to civilians. The rebels are putting up a strong defense around Hodeida and that slows down the advance but cannot stop it. As long as Iran has the support of Russia and China in the UN, the UN cannot act to at least assume full control of the port.

April 30, 2017: In central Yemen (Marib province) an American UAV used a missile to kill five AQAP men in a truck that had been used to transport weapons.

April 29, 2017: In the south (Shabwa province) an American UAV used a missile to kill three AQAP men in a vehicle.

April 27, 2017: In the north a Shia rebel landmine plus rocket fire killed two Saudi soldiers across the border in Jizan province. Shia rebels sneak across the border to plant landmines although most of the casualties on the Saudis side of the border are caused by mortar and machine-gun fire from Yemen. Since early 2015 year about 130 Saudis, mostly military and police, have died in this border violence, most of it in Jizan province.

President Hadi removed his fellow southerner as governor of Aden because the two did not agree on how to handle the demands of the southern tribes for more autonomy and a larger share of the oil income.

April 26, 2017: In the north, across the border off the coast of Jizan province Saudi naval and air forces intercepted a Yemeni Shia rebel boat loaded with explosives, apparently headed for a nearby Saudi offshore oil facility.

In Jordan an Arab League meeting there was a lot of criticism of Iran but the most ominous report was about Yemen where the Yemeni president detailed how he expected the Iran-backed Shia rebels to continue their retreat and be vanquished soon. This report detailed the growing amount of captured evidence proving Iranian activity in Yemen.

Government forces have surrounded the remaining rebels in the smaller ports of Midi (north of Hodeida) and have done the same around Mocha (south of Hodeida). Government forces are now concentrating on the defense of Hodeida and, 150 kilometers to the east, the national capital Saana. Government forces are now within 20 kilometers of Saana and about to take the airport there.

April 23, 2017: In the south (Shabwa province) an American UAV used a missile to kill eight AQAP men in a vehicle. One of the dead was later identified as a wanted (for planning terror attacks) leader.

April 21, 2017: In the south (outside the port of Mukalla) an army raid, using helicopters, managed to arrest several AQAP leaders.

April 20, 2017: Overnight two American UAV missile attacks killed two AQAP men in the south ((Shabwa province) while another a little north (Marib province) killed three.

April 19, 2017: Much to the annoyance of Iran Raheel Sharif, a retired Pakistani general is now in Saudi Arabia to lead the IMAFT (Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism). He joins 1,200 Pakistani military personnel already there to train Saudi troops, many of these trainees then going off to fight in Yemen. Founded (in late 2015) IMAFT is largely funded by Saudi Arabia, as are the Pakistani trainers in Saudi Arabia. At first Pakistan was reluctant to participate in IMAFT but eventually joined the other 40 members. Raheel was selected to lead IMAFT in January 2017 but not everyone in Pakistan was comfortable with that and it took several months to get Pakistani government approval. When Saudi Arabia announced IMAFT it named 34 Moslem nations (Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Chad, Comoros, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Gabon, Guinea, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Maldives, Mali, Malaysia, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Qatar, the Palestinians, Pakistan, Senegal, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, the UAE, and Yemen) as members. Indonesia, largest Moslem nation on the planet, was described as considering joining. The nation with the largest number of Moslems, India, was apparently not invited to join. All the current members are largely Sunni. Some nations are not welcome, like Iran, Syria and Iraq. This is because the Sunni Gulf States (led by Saudi Arabia) are at war with Iran, which considers Syria and Iraq allies. Pakistan has not announced exactly what it would do as part of this new coalition but did make it clear it will not take part in any operations against Iran or Syria. Such compromises were required to get enough senior Pakistani politicians and generals to agree. Nevertheless the Saudis, and many senior Pakistani politicians and generals are backing a proposal that 5,000 Pakistani troops be leased to the Saudis to help guard their Yemen border

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