YEMEN: Defeat Is Not an Option
Iran is still running the Shia rebel operations. Iran is their main source of outside support and the Iranian ambassador, one of the few in the rebel-occupied capital, is a former Quds Force general who is in Yemen more as a Quds Force commander than a diplomat. This ambassador doesn’t make many requests, but he does issue a lot of orders. The IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) is the separate military force formed in the 1980s to protect the religious dictatorship that has ruled Iran since the 1980s. The Quds Force is a component of the IRGC that instigates, supervises and sustains foreign rebellions and terror campaigns that might expand Iranian power and keep potential enemies on the defensive. The IRGC is also the main component of the radical faction in the Iranian government. The radicals, who put the expansion of Iranian power above everything else, are at war with the “nationalists” in the Iranian leadership that want to emphasize improving the economy and living standards for Iranians. The religious rulers of Iran see the nationalists as a threat and have given radicals, including the Quds Force, more authority, and resources in 2021. Yemen is seen as the cheapest and most successful of Iran’s overseas wars. Those in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq are all suffering setbacks and embarrassing Iranian defeats. In Yemen Iran is regularly and inexpensively attacking archenemy Saudi Arabia directly. It’s not just the Shia rebels of northern Yemen who are the problem, but the Iranian ballistic missile and cruise missile attacks on Saudi Arabia as well as the growing use of naval mines in the Red Sea and land mines wherever the Shia rebels are operating. The Shia rebels refuse to discuss any peace deal that includes the removal of Iranian operations from Yemen. In typical Iranian fashion, the Iranian government denies that it is behind the continuing violence in Yemen. That sort of worked for a while after the current civil war broke out in 2014. After a few years Iran admitted, or rather an IRGC general boasted that Iran had been covertly supporting an uprising among the Shia Arab tribes of Yemen for years before 2014. Many Yemenis knew this but were ignored for a long time because Yemen was famous for its many conspiracy theories and scams. Yemen has long been rated as one the most corrupt nations on the planet and that plays a large part in Iranian success at continuing to smuggle weapons and Iranian personnel into Yemen. If you know who to bribe and can afford it, anything is possible.
The Iranian problem is that Shia Arabs are a minority in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. There are lots of Shia Arab tribes just across the border in southwest Saudi Arabia but those tribes have been well treated by the Saudis and see no point in supporting their violent cousins in Yemen. The Saudis continue taking care of their Shia subjects by preventing the hundreds of Iranian missiles (mostly ballistic or cruise types) from hitting anything valuable (property or people) in the southwest. Iran continues to deny any involvement in all those attacks, and insists it’s just resourceful Shia tribesmen building ballistic missiles and explosives laden UAVs used on one-way trips as cruise missiles using their own resources. No one, including Iran or Shia Arab rebels, believe that but it remains the official position of the rebels and Iran.
The most powerful weapon Iran and Yemen’s Shia rebels have is the disunity of the rest of Yemen. The Sunni tribes in the south want autonomy or a separate state, a situation that was the norm for centuries. A united Yemen is a relatively new concept, only achieved in the 1990s. In the north, where the Shia tribes predominate, there are Sunni tribes that oppose the civil war, as well as a growing number of Shia Arabs. There are also disagreements among the Arab oil states, mainly the Saudis and the UAE, on how to deal with the Iranian threat in Yemen.
Unable to do much about Saudi air power, Iran has increased its efforts to disrupt traffic in the Red Sea, where several major Saudi ports handle most of the imports for western Saudi and a network of pipelines and ship loading facilities that soon will be able to handle all Saudi oil exports. Suez Canal traffic passes through the Red Sea and the second largest Yemeni port is on the Red Sea. All this justifies the increased Iranian efforts to covertly use naval mines in the Red Sea. While these are Iranian mines, its proxy Yemen Shia rebels take credit for placing the mines in the water. Hundreds of these mines have been placed off the Yemen Red Sea coast in the last few years but the damage so far has been minor. No ships have been sunk, even though a small percentage of the mines were more modern and deadly bottom mines that rest on the ocean floor in shallow water. Perhaps the less-effective mines were used on purpose, to disrupt shipping, but not sink a lot of it, because that might create a major international uproar and calls for international military action against Iran.
With all this in mind, Iranian efforts in Yemen are not crazy, risky, or expensive. But they are causing more pushback by the many foreign enemies Iran has made. Many of those foes in the West have imposed crippling sanctions on Iran and the increasingly aggressive Iranian efforts to disrupt Red Sea traffic is not having the desired effect. Instead, it has resulted in Israeli, American and Arab warships training together in the Red Sea.
Quds Force recruiting and training methods are causing problems. Many of the rebel fighters are teenagers coerced to join or attracted by the money. The heavy losses among these young fighters in central Yemen (Marib) are hurting rebel morale and making recruiting even more difficult. Iran appears to believe the heavy losses are worth it because the rebels need a big win to improve their negotiating position. A Quds Force general has been running the rebel operations for over a year and will not allow the rebels to negotiate a peace deal that includes Iranian banishment from Yemen. It’s one of those “defeat is not an option” situations for Iran and the Saudis. Yemenis are more willing to compromise but they are no longer in control.
September 8, 2021: In central Yemen (Marib province) the Shia rebel offensive continues and after seven months has still not achieved its two main objectives. 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 sometimes 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. Seven months of offensive operations have been costly, with rebel 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. That pause did not last long and fighting soon resumed.
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. Since then, the rebels have suffered most of the losses, which are now over a thousand dead and many more wounded. Government forces, supported by artillery and airstrikes, halted rebel attacks, some coming from three directions. Saudi pilots and ground forces have gained a lot of practical combat experience since 2015. Saudi pilots are much more accurate and surer of themselves than they were during the first two years (2015-16). On the ground the Saudis supply artillery and troops trained to quickly and accurately request and direct air and artillery support. All these ground teams have a year or more of combat experience and it makes a difference. The air strikes usually involve smart bombs directed at targets identified by Saudi air controllers on the ground. The Saudi pilots also have American Sniper targeting pods that enable them to make out individuals and identify vehicles on the ground.
The heavy casualties in Marib, and the few other areas where there is still shooting, many areas controlled by the rebels are full of angry Shia and Sunni civilians who have seen less food and other foreign aid getting in and more of their sons “recruited” to fight for the rebels. That pays well, compared to anything else available and gets the family priority when food and other aid is distributed. But too many of those conscripted sons are coming back dead or crippled. The rebels make an effort to return the bodies, which earns them some good will. In a third of their territory that is enough and now the rebels are kidnapping more civilians and holding them as hostages to obtain compliance from families or clans. Many of those kidnapped are suspected of providing information to government forces. This is often the case for someone in the family. The hostage tactic is an ancient one in Arabia and still works, but not as well as it used to. There is still cell phone service in Yemen and bad news gets out quickly, often with pictures or video.
September 5, 2021: In central Yemen (Marib province) Saudi Arabia confirmed that a recent airstrike killed Haidar Serhan, an Iranian Quds Force officer and eight of his subordinates. By monitoring communications in Yemen and media in Iran for funerals of IRGC and Quds personnel as these are usually noted, often along with praise for those who died in combat. The Quds Force team was in Marib to improve training and morale of rebel forces, who have been taking heavy casualties from airstrikes and artillery fire. There are proven techniques for avoiding detection and an airstrike and the rebel forces need some help in that area because most of their casualties are from the airstrikes.
September 4, 2021: In northeast Saudi Arabia, air defense systems intercepted three ballistic missiles and three cruise missiles (UAVs carrying explosives) headed for the Persian Gulf tanker loading port of Ras Tanura. Some of the debris from the intercepts fell on a residential neighborhood of the nearby city of Dammam, damaging 14 homes and injuring two children. The Shia rebels claim to have carried out the attacks using Iranian ballistic missiles large enough to cover the distance (1,100 kilometers) from northwest Yemen to the target area on the Persian Gulf coast. These missiles are similar to the ones the Shia rebels have used in the past, but with a second stage attached carrying a lighter warhead. Once the Saudis have collected and analyzed the debris from the ballistic missile a positive identification can be made. This is the second attack on this target using a longer range ballistic missile. An attack in March used only one missile, which was als0 intercepted. Three UAVs were also used in today’s attack and also shot down. A similar UAV attack here earlier in the year was traced back to an Iranian ship in the Persian Gulf.
Later in the day the Shia rebels fired a ballistic missile at the Saudi oil facility at Jeddah, on the Red Sea coast and about 860 kilometers from the Yemen border. This one was either intercepted or failed and missed its target.
September 3, 2021: In southeast Yemen (Mahra province) border security officials caught Hassan Ali Al Emad, a major Shia rebel official who was trying to enter from Oman disguised as an Omani. Emad did not speak the very distinctive dialect found in Oman and was soon identified as a Shia from northwestern Yemen. Saudi intel helps with border security here and was able to identify the illegal visitor as Emad, who was returning from Iran via a smuggling route that Iran had used for years but had become less safe over the last few years. Flying into the Shia-controlled capital Sanaa was risky because there was an air embargo and regular flights were not allowed and those that were allowed required passengers to be vetted by the Saudis.
Mahra province includes the entire border with Oman. The ancient 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 recently agreed to lock 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 new border controls also checked visitors for Iranians or Shia rebels trying to cross with a valid ID. 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.
September 2, 2021: Yemen is sending refugees back to Africa. Most of the refugees are smuggled into Yemen by Somali and Yemeni fishermen working for smuggling gangs in both countries. About 32,000 refugees are stranded in Yemen, often for several years. The majority are from Somalia and Ethiopia and willing to take free transport (by air) to their home countries. The smuggling route crosses the Gulf of Aden, which means a 750-kilometer voyage by boat to get to Yemen. This is short enough for small cargo and fishing boats to easily travel back and forth. For thousands of years there has been sea traffic on this route and over the last few decades that has involved more smuggling, usually of drugs and illegal migrants from Somalia or Ethiopia. The people smugglers typically overload boats for the two-day voyage across the Gulf and in a typical year hundreds of refugees are lost at sea. The people smuggling business changed after 2014 as the Iran backed Yemen Shia rebels, normally outnumbered, and outgunned by the government forces, took advantage of the post 2011 revolution to start a civil war to put a pro-Iran government in power. This disrupted the people smuggling operations because Saudi Arabia and its allies enforced a naval blockade on Yemen to stop Iranian from smuggling in weapons. The blockade often turned back the people smuggler boats after arresting the smugglers on board to gain more information on the smuggling gangs. Some illegals still got to Yemen but the Saudis had increased security on their border with Yemen. That meant most of the refugees, except those who could afford a more expensive detour, were stuck in Yemen. That situation worsened in 2020 when covid19 restrictions further limited the movement of illegal migrants into Saudi Arabia. While most foreigners had already fled Yemen, the Somali refugees in Yemen were giving up on the efforts to go north and seeking ways to get back to Somalia. In 2015 there were over 300,000 Somalis in Yemen, most of them there illegally. Foreigners, particularly illegal migrants, became a target in Yemen during the civil war because that conflict prevented Yemeni people smugglers from moving their clients north to the oil-rich Arab states and beyond. The most hospitable and accessible refuge for Somalis in Yemen was Somalia. So far most of the Somalis stuck in Yemen have returned to Somalia despite the continuing violence there. The civil war in Yemen has been a lot deadlier than the al Shabaab violence in Somalia, killing a lot more people and creating a lot more refugees.
September 1, 2021: International shipowners’ associations agreed to reduce the HRA (High Risk Area) off Somalia from most of the East African coast and deep into the Indian Ocean to a smaller area encompassing the EEZs (Exclusive Economic Zones) off Somalia and Yemen and the approaches to the Persian Gulf. EEZs extend 380 kilometers off the coast and the new HRA found that this is where the piracy risk remains, closer to Yemen than to Somalia. The piracy patrol already had more ships watching the Yemeni Coast and Persian Gulf entrance, where Islamic terrorist groups have turned to piracy but have so far been more of a threat than successful. The threat near the Persian Gulf entrance has been increased by Iran, which tried using some of its commandos to seize a ship, but the crew carried out their anti-piracy safety drill before the Iranians could board. The crew reached their fortified safe space and disabled the engines. The Iranians tried to get the engines going but failed and fled before help arrived and killed or captured any of them. The crew heard the pirates speaking and realized they were Iranians. As usual, Iran denied any involvement. The recent missile and mine attacks were disproportionately directed at Israeli-owned ships. Groups staging an attack to make it appear like someone else did it is an ancient practice referred to as “false flag” attacks. Like many other criminal activities, rapid technology developments have made it more difficult to make these successfully.
August 29, 2021: In the south (60 kilometers north of Aden city) Shia rebels based in Taiz province, about a hundred kilometers to the north, used UAV reconnaissance to spot where troops were gathered for training at and military base and quickly fire four guided rockets to hit specific targets. As a result, over 40 soldiers were killed and nearly twice as many wounded. Shia rebels have lost most of the territory they used to occupy in Taiz province. Earlier in the year the rebels controlled 30 percent of the province but now it is only a few coastal areas in the north of the province.