Date: Wednesday, 19 December 2018
Today a UN supervised ceasefire around the Red Sea port of Hodeida was supposed to begin so that food and other aid can be unloaded and sent off to an increasingly desperate and hungry population in northern and central Yemen. The ceasefire terms call for the rebels to withdraw their forces from the port area by January 1st and from all of Hodeida a week later. This is to be monitored by 40 UN personnel. This process really won’t get started until the shooting stops and that does not seem to be happening. That is how previous ceasefire agreements have unraveled.
Fighting intensified around Hodeida after the ceasefire was agreed to on the 13th and since then there have been nearly a hundred airstrikes against rebel forces in and around Hodeida. The airstrikes were in support of the continuing government effort to take the port from the Shia rebels. Anticipating this the rebels have placed a lot of roadside bombs, mines and other explosive traps to delay the advance. The government and the Arab coalition have more firepower but are not willing to suffer a lot of casualties. So the ground fighting has been slow and deliberate. But the advance does slowly continue. It was expected that when the time came for the ceasefire to begin it would be broken within a few minutes and then become yet one more failed ceasefire. The Saudis and UAE saw this coming and have been working on another solution since early in 2018. That was when the coalition and government agreed that the rebels were apparently willing to see the Hodeida port facilities put out of action for months (or longer) by battle damage and see much of the city turned to rubble by fighting rather than give it up. Severe destruction of the port would force all the foreign aid to come in via the two main southern ports (Aden and Mukalla) on the Gulf of Aden. This would mean more frequent use of trucks to get the food and other essential supplies to the civilians that need it. That would expose the supplies to bandits and Islamic terrorists who would attack aid convoys (as they have been doing for years).
In response to that possibility, the Saudis and UAE have been expanding the unloading facilities in Aden and Mukalla and diverting a lot of their ground forces to clear key roads from those ports to starving populations in the north. This clearance program is directed against the remaining AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) forces in the south as well as Sunni tribes that have been tolerating banditry on the roads (as long as it did not interfere with goods the tribe needed). This is complicated by the fact that many of these southern tribes back partition (dividing the country in two as it had often been before the 1990s). The basic problem here is logistics. Hodeida has long been the main port for bringing in goods. It’s not just the port facilities but the roads out of the port and reaching most of the population are shorter and in better shape than those coming north from Aden and Mukalla. There is no quick way to change that but the logistics situation can be changed if there is someone willing to pay for it and see that the fixes are implemented. Saudi Arabia and UAE have quietly put up the money, shipped in the additional unloading equipment (especially the large cranes that can move containers) and hired locals and outside contractors to get the expansion done as quickly as possible. At the moment that means early 2019. Actually, the increased flow of food and aid into Yemen has been slowly shifting to southern ports and more truck convoys are getting through to areas that were long supplied from Hodeida. The recipients don’t care how the food got to them as long as it arrived. As major upgrades to Aden and Mukalla unloading capacity are completed in the next month or so a lot more hungry Yemenis will see the food aid trucks coming from the south rather than the west. After a while, Hodeida will only be needed to feed pro-rebel populations and the rebel negotiating position on Hodeida will be greatly diminished.
The Saudis have a major incentive to shut down Hodeida because that port has made possible major smuggling operations to get Iranian weapons (especially long-range missiles) to the rebels, who then fire those missiles at targets deep inside Saudi Arabia. These missiles have, so far, done little damage because of the Saudi anti-missile defenses (Patriot PAC 3 anti-missile missiles). The fighting that has shot down Hodeida has also halted the delivery of these missiles (which are broken down and smuggled in as smaller items that are reassembled under the supervision of Iranian technicians). Because of this keeping Hodeida under siege and largely inoperative benefits the Saudis because it is much more difficult to smuggle in large Iranian missiles using the smaller smuggler boats (coastal fishing boats and cargo transports). For the moment all of these small smuggling efforts appear to be carrying small arms, ammo and short-range rockets (and mortar shells). The rebels are not getting any more of the large Iranian UAVs because of this and have to rely on the commercial quad-copters which are much easier to obtain via commercial shipments.
It has been proposed that Hodeida be made a neutral zone and that is a possibility if the port area is placed under the control of neutral troops. Both sides could delay this for a long time because of haggling over details. The food shortage is so great that pro-rebel populations are suffering even though the rebels diverted a lot of good aid to build a reserve for their supporters and their families. Those reserves are depleted and the Saudi led air coalition is hitting more economic targets in pro-rebel areas.
The rebel coalition has been visibly dissolving for over a year. The non-Shia tribes and groups, especially those in and around Sanaa (the rebel-occupied national capital) are losing confidence in the Shia rebels and their leaders. Over the last year, a growing number of these non-Shia leaders have defected. Although the rebels deny morale and unity problems they have been making public pleas for deserters, especially Shias, to return to the fighting. Army and coalition troops have reported that a shortage of rebel fighters have become a major factor in the rebels inability to resist ground attacks as effectively as they used to. For this reason, the rebels are eager to obtain a ceasefire or truce. This would enable them to rebuild their strength and be ready for another round of fighting. That is more likely than a peace agreement. The Shia rebels and their Iranian backers are both obsessed with self-destructive, and dangerous for bystanders, goals. The Shia rebels want their autonomy back. The Sunni majority in Yemen opposes autonomy or weapons for the Shia up north because those two things have made the Shia tribes a constant source of trouble for centuries. Iran wants world domination, starting with control of Saudi Arabia and most of the Middle East. Iran also seeks to destroy Israel and the United States. Neither Iran nor the Yemeni Shia have a reputation for honoring promises, treaties or anything that limits their activities. In short, negotiations may seem smooth but compliance will be in short supply. Expect both sides to resist implementing an actual, working, ceasefire or truce.
The Shia tribes never had the degree of Iranian support they have now. That support has included large shipments of Iranian ballistic missiles and rockets. These are primarily for use against Saudi Arabia. Because of that Saudi Arabia can both identify with what Israel is going through with Hamas and Hezbollah rocket attacks because Iranian sponsored Shia rebels in Yemen have been firing rockets, ballistic missiles and, mortar shells and machine-gun bullets into Saudi Arabia since 2015 killing over a hundred civilians and soldiers on the border. The Saudis have found the American made Patriot anti-missile missiles very effective in stopping nearly all the ballistic missiles. The shorter range rockets are another matter and there have been discussions about obtaining the Israeli Iron Dome anti-rocket system.
This rocket and missile threat to Saudi Arabia will make negotiating a Yemeni peace deal difficult. The Yemeni Shia have always been hostile to the Saudis but now it has moved beyond that. The Saudis will not accept any peace deal that does not guarantee a halt to the rocket and missile attacks. That means more government control of the Shia tribal areas of Yemen than before the rebellion began. That will be difficult for the Yemeni Shia to accept but for the Saudis nothing less is acceptable. Continued rocket and missile attacks would be evidence of Saudi inability to defend its own borders and the Saudi citizens that live there. Iran knows this too but the UN is less concerned about that sort of thing.
One very under-reported Iranian contribution to the Shia rebel effort is an effective media manipulation effort. Not as massive or well-equipped as the ones created by China and Russia (the main practitioners of this) but the Iranians do pretty well spinning news of events in Yemen to favor, as much as possible, the Shia rebels. The Iranians know what appeals to mass media, especially in the West, and what does not. Thus anytime a coalition airstrike kills civilians (or rebels who can be described as such) the Iranians see that pictures and stories are supplied to news media worldwide. Coverage of the nasty things the Shia rebels do to hostile civilians in areas they control is not reported because no journalists are allowed in rebel areas. Thus it is only later that it becomes known that the rebels were using civilians as human shields or letting them use a road the rebels know is constantly watched and most vehicles seen on it are hit with an air strike. The “hit anything that moves” policy can isolate a rebel force under attack and make the rebels easier to defeat. Iran also has other allies who are willing to help and this includes Turkey, which resents the prominent position Saudi Arabia has achieved in the Moslem world. Thus when an expatriate Saudi journalists (and prominent critic of the Saudi government) was murdered in Turkey (in a Saudi consulate) the Turks collected all the evidence they could and made most of it public and accused the Saudis of doing what they have rarely done, murder a critic who has left Saudi Arabia. The Iranians do this all the time, are often caught (in Europe) and Iranian death squads have been particularly active recently. But that really isn’t news but the Saudis doing this sort of thing is and the Turks ensured that it was widely publicized. The Iranians now owe the Turks and that was probably no accident.
The Iranians will also send out stories of rebel-controlled civilians going hungry when that can be blamed on the coalition, the Yemeni government or the West. Another technique is to make false claims of damage from Shia ballistic missile or UAV attacks on Saudi or UAE targets. These claims are eventually found to be false but Iranian media experts know that if you can get some traction with the initial story that is what most people will remember. Truth isn’t what counts here but supplying what editors are seeking at the moment.
December 17, 2018: Another indicator that the Shia rebels are losing and that peace is breaking out is the revival of people smuggling into Yemen over the last two years. In 2017 about 100,000 illegal migrants came in and this year that appears to have increased to 150,000. About 90 percent of these migrants are from Ethiopia while most of the remainder are from Somalia. Until the Yemen civil war broke out in 2015 people smuggling from Somalia (Somaliland) and Djibouti was a major criminal enterprise with over 10,000 foreigners arriving each month and then being moved north (mainly to Gulf oil states where cheap labor was in demand). The smuggling gangs had arrangements, especially with tribal leaders, throughout Yemen to allow the movement of the smuggled foreigners, for a fee. After 2015 the traffic began to go both ways with thousands of Yemeni refugees reaching Somaliland (often on smuggler boats that had carried African refugees to Yemen) each month. Meanwhile, the movement of Somalis (and other Africans) to Yemen continued with 100,000 arriving in 2015 and 115,000 in 2016. The civil war keeps most of these illegal migrants in UN supported refugee camps. Those with money can hire smugglers to take them across the Gulf of Aden to Sudan and from there to the Mediterranean coast and another boat to Europe. Since 2017 routes north to Saudi Arabia became usable and the people smugglers again had a way to get their customers to their destination.
December 9, 2018: Large port unloading cranes arrive at Aden and Mukalla for installation at the expanded port facilities. Two cranes were sent to Aden and one to the smaller Mukalla with more to follow.
December 3, 2018: The Arab coalition allowed a UN transport to fly out of the Sanaa airport with fifty badly wounded rebels. The aircraft flew to neighboring Oman and this goodwill gesture persuaded the rebels to negotiate about a ceasefire. This same route was used earlier to transport rebel peace negotiators to Sweden for the peace talks that led to the Hodeida ceasefire and the subsequent face-to-face talks over who was at fault for the failure of that ceasefire. The Sanaa airport has been largely closed since 2015 when the Arab air coalition came to the aid of the government.
November 29, 2018: In the United States (Washington DC) the Americans put a vast trove of Iranian weapons or fragments (of ballistic missiles, naval mines, remotely controlled bomb boats or UAVs) collected from countries throughout the Middle East (Yemen., Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and so on) as evidence of illegal Iranian arms exports. Most of the items displayed have Farsi (the Iranian language) markings. Opening the display in Washington makes it accessible to many foreign embassy personnel and journalists. Two more interesting items (Iranian made rocket launchers) were recently found in Yemen.
November 28, 2018: The Yemeni government and the rebels agreed to meet in Sweden within a week to begin peace talks.
In Yemen government forces began a major operation in the southeast (Hadramawt province) against remaining AQAP forces and tribes that offer the Islamic terrorists support. Hadramawt province has long been a base area for AQAP which now concentrates on extorting money from vehicles using the roads and planning attacks on the largest city in the province; the port of Mukalla. The last major concentrations of AQAP personnel are hiding out in the mountains of the Yabuth district, west Mukalla and the offensive will concentrate on that area.
November 25, 2018: In central Yemen (Baida province) an American UAV used missiles to kill two AQAP leaders and four of their followers. While the American UAV attacks continue in Yemen the number has greatly declined in 2018. There were none at all in October and only two in September. Many of the attacks are not announced at least not right away. So far in 2018, there have been about 37 attacks. As in 2017 (when there were 131 attacks) the ones in 2018 have been mainly against AQAP and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) camps and key personnel in central Yemen. This greatly reduces Islamic terrorist capabilities in Baida, which had long been an Islamic terrorist stronghold. East of Baida province are Shabwa and Hadramawt provinces. The later stretches from the sea to the Saudi border and is largely desert. Along with Baida, these two provinces used to host most AQAP personnel and base areas. But since 2017 AQAP has been under heavy attack by the Americans and the Arab coalition and the Islamic terrorists have responded by shifting more of their attacks to the government and Arab coalition forces. AQAP took credit for 273 attacks in 2017 and in the first six months of that year, some 75 percent of these attacks were against the Shia rebels. But in the second half of 2017, half the attacks were against fellow Sunnis (government and coalition forces). In 2018, the remaining AQAP are mainly fighting for survival against government and coalition forces. There was only one UAV attack on ISIL this year (in January) because ISIL is much reduced in size and capabilities. AQAP is more acceptable to more Yemenis in the south and survives. By mid-2017 Islamic terrorist attacks had declined more than 90 percent versus 2014 and the decline continued into 2018. AQAP and ISIL are still in Yemen and apparently keeping their heads down and rebuilding. The Islamic terrorists are awaiting the outcome of the current civil war as that will have a major impact on their goals and options.
Some Shia rebels are still active in western Baida province and government forces are eliminating or pushing out these rebel units.