On 30 December the airport of Adan, the temporal capital of the Saudi-Emirati-backed so-called “unity government” was bombed, right at the very minutes when the plane carrying the members of this new-old government arrived back to Yemen. Though since then the matter seems to fade into obscurity it is one of the mysteries of the Middle East. Not only because it is still not really known who committed the attack, as so far no one claimed responsibility, but also because accusations are many and wide-ranging, and also there are many odd circumstances.
The incident proved to be a rather dark debut for the otherwise gloriously envisioned new Yemeni unity government. Which on its own, though the Gulf media spared no effort to picture it a major breakthrough, had little chance for a real change. The new government came as a resuscitation of the Riyadh Agreement signed 5 November 2019, which was a major effort by Saudi Arabia to unite the various factions in South Yemen but also force the Emirati “allies” back in line to support the common effort. And as the original agreement never really worked, this renewed version was on shaky ground from the very beginning.
Since the Riyadh Agreement, however, amidst the infighting in the south and for the control of ‘Adan, the government in Sana’a made impressive successes. Most of the North with the recapturing of al-Ğawf and most of Ma’rib provinces became firmly in the hands of Sana’a, and it also managed to retaliate to Saudi Arabia many times with successful drone strikes.
Right after the attack on ‘Adan airport many immediately pointed the finger on al-Ḥūtī’s. Yet their involvement this time seems questionable even for some Saudi experts, and many suspect the incident to be much more tied to the internal struggle in the South and the Saudi-Emirati power struggle. A struggle not only fierce in Yemen itself, but has recently manifested in the Gulf reconciliation as well, bringing Qatar back to the game and opening the door for a wider Saudi-Turkish rapprochement.
The matter, however, while we still have little intel on what really happened at ‘Adan, grew much wider recently, as American and Israeli sources reported surging and alarming Irani activity in Yemen. This development comes at a time of growing tensions between Iran and the US, sudden diplomatic moves by Washington, and intense Israeli aggression on Syria.
A newfound unity
After the virtual collapse of Hādī’s government by mid-2019 Riyadh once again managed to force its will upon the different sides and the Riyadh Agreement was singed to unite the main factions being supported either by the Saudis or the Emiratis. This aimed to end the Southern Transitional Council taking over the whole of South Yemen, but also to block the Emirati ambitions for that aim.
This seemed to be a success at the time, but nothing came out of it. The power-sharing never happened and soon enough the two main sides were fighting again and Hādī was losing ground. Nothing ever was implemented from the Riyadh Agreement, and by mid-2020 Hādī was clearly out of the picture, as most of his territories were lost, and even its forces started to join the ranks of the Sana’a government forces. By that time most of his ministers, even his personal aides have resigned.
Then suddenly on 26 December 2020, a new government led by Hādī was announced, which was the result of intense Saudi mediation. This was meant to be a unity government giving posts to both northern and southern members and a minority share to the Southern Transitional Council as well. It was presented as the finally implemented Riyadh Agreement, but certain details were changed. More power was given to the southern separatist, but more importantly, this was not a Saudi-Emirati deal anymore, only a Saudi project. And this is not as much Hādī’s government anymore, as he serves only as a figurehead, as most powers were – in theory – transferred to Prime Minister Ma‘īn ‘Abd al-Malik, a reliable Saudi protégée. He was Prime Minister since 2018, but this was to be his government now. And it was soon announced that the new government would return to Adan immediately led by ‘Abd al-Malik, while Hādī would stay in Riyadh.
The new government deal was signed by several members of the STC as well and was accepted, but from the very beginning, it was doubtful how long this newfound unity last. Especially that they are losing ground against Sana’a. Complications, however, came sooner than expected.
As mentioned before, right at the time when Hādī’s new government arrived in Yemen to take charge on 30 December 3 major blasts shook ‘Adan airport. The explosions and the gunfire following it left 20 casualties dead and tens of wounded. It is not surprising that Hādī himself was not on the plane, it was known even before. Only minutes after the incident the Emirates accused the al-Ḥūtīs in Sana’a, claiming that they wanted to sabotage the Riyadh Agreement clearly trying to assassinate the government, which seemed convincing. And naturally, given the gravity of the incident international condemnation came fast from all over the world, giving long not seen support for the government of Hādī. Yet Hādī himself, and strangely even the Saudis were not that fast with the conclusions. The Yemeni President promised throughout the investigation, which so far has yielded no result, and while most international parties condemned the attack and showed sympathy to Hādī’s government also refrained to name possible suspects.
While an attack in this scale is indeed shocking even within the otherwise unstable conditions present in the south of Yemen, there are many details curious, and make it doubtful whether the al-Ḥūtīs had much to do with this.
First of all, and that was even pointed out by Saudi strategic expert Muḥammad al-Qabībān the very same day, interestingly the attack did not at all target the plane itself. Even though it had clear a clear chance. Rather the attacks targeted the airport building itself as if the aim was to cause panic, bloodshed, and substantial material damage. This could be credited to the lack of precision by the drones the attack was committed with, but that is somewhat doubtful. ‘Adan is one of the best-defended cities in South Yemen with several Patriot batteries deployed all around the airport. As even al-Qabībān pointed out it is almost impossible that such an attack could have been done without some information proving the presence of drones. But there was no such indication. Much rather suggesting that the attack was made either short-range missiles, or some howitzers from relatively close range, or even from within the airport. This further proves that if the attackers really wanted to target the government they could have achieved this aim at least partially.
Though the al-Ḥūtīs do possess the drone capability to hit such a target, they usually acknowledge their attacks, and usually, they target clear military targets. Many explained this apparent contradiction by the uproar the attack created as if the government in Sana’a only got afraid of the international reactions and backtracked. Yet whoever committed the act could obviously calculate these effects and this was surely not a random, but a well-planned attack. And it did not even make the worst possible effect, as if members of the government would have been killed the reactions would have been much harsher.
It is very unlikely that the al-Ḥūtīs, who clearly proved their strategic skills in the past years would have pulled off such an unwise attack. And this time they don’t even have an interest in this. Ever since the struggle broke out between Hādī supporters and the Southern Transitional Council led by ‘Aydrūs az-Zubaydī in 2017 the two sides tore each other apart. A new war started in the south within the overall Yemeni war itself, in which the power struggle between Riyadh and Abū Zabī also manifested, as both sides tried to promote their own vassals’ interests and agenda. The al-Ḥūtīs greatly benefitted from this struggle, liberating territories in the north and arriving at the city of Ma’rib by the end of 2020 pushing back the Saudis. The renewed Riyadh Agreement last December officially pulled the two southern sides together once again. But given the events in the last two years, it was clear this is only a temporal halt in the struggle, and sooner or later the fight will start again between Hādī and az-Zubaydī. It is much more beneficial for Sana’a to leave to the government as it is, as it did in the last year or so, knowing that eventually this agreement as well will break down. The attack only gave international sympathy for Hādī’s government and created some internal support for it. These results could have been easily foreseen and are not in the interest of Sana’a.
Recently another result came out of the attack, and once again the timing is somewhat curious. Thought the war in Yemen goes on for years, State Secretary Pompeo only now decided to declare the al-Ḥūtīs and their Anṣār Allah Movement as a terrorist organization. The step was considered by many international parties problematic and a huge obstacle to reaching peace in Yemen, as it is clear the al-Ḥūtīs are firmly established in Sana’a and run a functioning government. It is somewhat understandable that in his last days Pompeo made all he could to assure that the future Biden administration will not be able to backtrack on the previous policy. The attack on the airport, coincide or not, made his argument much easier.
Who’s the benefit?
If indeed the al-Ḥūtīs were not behind this attack, who could have been? And more importantly, why? Are there any other parties benefitting from the attack, either if that was staged, or indeed tried to assassinate Hādī’s government?
In fact, there are many parties interested in undermining the government in ‘Adan. The renewed Riyadh Agreement, weak as it is, clearly aimed to at least give an appearance of a functioning government in South Yemen. And this comes at a time when the Saudi forces are clearly losing ground along their border in the north and Ma’rib Province. Their failure at this point is clear, both politically to establish a vassal government in Yemen, both to uproot the al-Ḥūtīs militarily in the north. It has also been clear that the Emirates clearly gained the upper hand in most regional affairs seek to establish a new South Yemeni state under their influence, and the appearance of the Americans and recently the Israelis at their side further stabilize their position. Therefore it is clear that Riyadh cannot push its own agenda through, especially that its relations with Abū Zabī rapidly deteriorate. That was manifested in the Gulf reconciliation with Qatar, and the fast rapprochement with Turkey now. The Emirates is clearly not on the same page in these matters.
Therefore the whole involvement in Yemen is a growing waste of time and effort for the Saudis, and it is time to end it. The imminent fall of the city of Ma’rib further underlines this. It is logical to assume that the Saudi leadership, like so many invaders in Yemen before, understood that they cannot control the country and it is time to leave. That, however, poses a serious problem for Riyadh and very specifically for Muḥammad ibn Salmān himself. Back at 2015 when the whole Saudi intervention – then under a much wider umbrella – started, it was the personal project of the young Deputy Crown Prince at the time, who was only an aspiring Minister of Defense. He imagined that within a few weeks the war can be won. It is not surprising that it never happened, but the real problem is that most allies back then have either pulled out – like Morocco, Egypt, or Pakistan – or turned against Riyadh conducting their own agenda, like the Emirates.
In this very sensitive time, right with the departure of the Trump administration and growing internal conflicts Riyadh has to pull out and rearrange its capabilities and strategies in the region. The rapprochement with Qatar and Turkey, was even in the expanse of the relations with Egypt and the Emirate shows that it has already started. But how to end this involvement? At least in a face-saving manner for the Crown Prince, who is so eager to inherit the power in the kingdom?
The solution is actually not that difficult, he only has to follow the recipe of all great powers suffering a gradual defeat in a long war of attrition. Just like it happened with the Americans in Vietnam, with the Soviets in Afghanistan, and with Egyptians in Yemen. Declare that the government thus far supported managed to establish itself firmly, that part of the country is firmly under its control and all powers can be passed over to it. The completely end the war the local government has to start negotiations to reach national unity and all is well. This is exactly the model the Americans are following now is Afghanistan. It is obvious that the local government will collapse, but in time that can be blamed on them and it can be claimed that: “When we left all was well”. This, of course, is not a convincing model, but one applied time and again in every such war.
That is exactly what the Riyadh Agreement suggests. Hādī, who has become unwanted even in Saudi Arabia clearly proved that he cannot rule the situation, and lost most of his weak internal support. But he is still the most known Yemeni face internationally, and so far the Saudi policy was his behind him. So to create the image of a functioning government he is the ideal candidate.
If that hypothesis is correct, why would any party be interested to sabotage this track? The al-Ḥūtīs have not much fear of this trend, they in fact benefit from the Saudi withdrawal. The Emirates and its Yemeni vassals could finally get a free, could rid themselves from Hādī, and establish the separate state they have envisioned. Hādī and his supporters might lose the long run, but they have lost already and they have little influence left.
The real problem is that with a Saudi withdrawal the full burden of the war would now fall on the Emirates. They are powerful enough with their allies in the south, but a long demanding conflict with Sana’a is a problem. Therefore it is much better to keep the Saudis in, fighting the al-Ḥūtīs and keeping them at bay, preventing them from posing any real danger to the south. Only when the circumstances with much more substantial Israeli and Western support and with clearer international backing behind a separate South Yemen will be the Saudi exit appropriate. To prevent the Saudis leaving sabotaging this Yemeni government is crucial. It is even supported by the statements, all claiming the real target in the Adan airport was the Riyadh Agreement.
While this is only a theory, one important circumstance seems to support it. ‘Adan in last year or so has become firmly controlled by the Southern Transitional Council, an Emirati ally. In the name of the International Coalition, the Emirates operates the air defense batteries around ‘Adan. Yet not only they were the first ones to point the finger at Sana’a, but they would also be the ones with the best areal and security intel around the airport. It would be easiest for them to show evidence about the incident. Yet so far we have seen no detailed report by them. Which is indeed curious.
Seemingly unrelated, but this week other news about Yemen brought this event to a very different light. On 13 January 2021 Newsweek, and a day later the Israeli Yediot Aharonot reported the bombastic claim that Iran would deploy advanced drones in the northern Yemeni province of al-Ğawf, right along the Saudi border. A province that was completely regained by the al-Ḥūtīs in 2020. According to the claim, however, the target is not the Saudi kingdom, but Israel.
Newsweek provided two – unconvincing – satellite images claiming to show Iranian manufactured Šāhed-136 tactical strike drones – otherwise known as suicide drones – being deployed in al-Ğawf and spotted in December 2020. The claim was put into the context of the larger regional struggle between Washington and Tehran and the ongoing grand military exercise in the Persian Gulf trying to show the power and prevent last-minute military aggression by the now leaving Trump administration. The newspaper even cited Iranian Chief of Staff Major-General Moḥammad Bāqerī, who recently announced that Iran will soon deploy warships in the Red Sea to protect its trade vessels from piracy and provocations. According to Newsweek the aim of this drone deployment is to gain yet another position, from where Iran could launch drone strikes against American and Saudi positions in the region, and also against Israel, as the radius of these missiles reaches 2000 to 2200 kilometers. By Newsweek deduction, the main benefit for the Iranians would be that such attacks would not be retractable to them, only to Yemen, and they could refute any responsibility. While Newsweek did not, but a day later Ynet has connected this report to the bombing of ‘Adan airport as proof of the Yemeni drone capabilities. Even though it was largely suggested that the attack was not launched by drones. For an even more dramatic effect, it was also reported that Patriot and Iron Dome batteries were deployed around Eilat.
While this might sound sensational there are several weak points in this report. Such alleged drones could in theory hit Israeli targets from Iran itself, just like the American and Saudi positions in the Gulf and in Iraq. As it happened with the ‘Ayn al-Asad Base almost a year ago. If the aim is to make the hit indirect Syria and Lebanon provide much closer launching points. It could be argued that the Israeli airstrikes in Syria make such a move there uncertain, but with all conditions in mind, Syria is still a much more stable and reliable launching position than Yemen. And as earlier
airstrikes in Sudan proved, the Israeli could reach these supposed Yemeni targets. Also, while there is no barrier between Lebanon, or Syria and the supposed Israeli targets, in the case of Yemen there is still Saudi Arabia.
Several Yemeni strikes proved that the Saudi air defense is very vulnerable, but at such a long distance it poses a challenge. However, if we suppose that the Saudi air defense can be outflanked so easily, it is curious why the Israeli air defense deployment reported. The Israelis largely have the same American built Patriot systems as the Saudis, which did not really defend them. It is true that the Israelis have in addition the Iron Dome system, but that was proven just as much ineffective by Palestinians, and recently from Lebanon as well. If Tel Aviv truly sensed an imminent danger from Yemen it would launch airstrikes against it, and not just wait for such an attack with very doubtful results.
Overall, in mind of all possibilities, it is much more logical to assume that even if the Iranians are planning drone attacks on Israel they would use their Syrian and Lebanese positions, while against Riyadh and Washington their own assets. Pulling off such a maneuver in Yemen would require huge logistical needs, much easier to monitor, and much more in danger to be foiled either on the ground or in action. And this scenario even completely ignores the impressive drone capabilities of the government in Sana’a, which even without Iranian direct help managed to develop.
Strange fact, and most probably not a coincidence that practically all information given by Newsweek is either wrong or very doubtful. The pictures provided by Newsweek don’t really match show drones, and even the claimed objects are drones, they are not at any military installation, but at the barren countryside. The only suggested image does not match any of the Iranian drones. There is no Šāhid-136 drone registered at any Iranian armed services, and Tehran has only a few drones with a 2000 km radius, nothing beyond. Though the Šāhid drone family is the most successful and dreaded one, and it is indeed numerous, so far Iran only unveiled the Šāhid-129. Which is a successful model, but has no resemblance to those models on the only one picture. The designation Šāhid-136 has no record at all before 15 January 2020, so all mentions go back to this one Newsweek article, and its anonymous expert source. An improbable location, for an unlikely plan with a non-existent drone.
This suggests a more political motivation in the Yemeni fold. A justification why Israel should be more actively involved in Yemen. Which in Socotra with Emirati support is already going on. And an active involvement in Yemen might prove to be a factor in favor of a Saudi-Israeli normalization. Something, however, truly goes on behind the scenes in the region, though much is closer to Israel.
The regional chessboard
Recently on 27 December Ḥizb Allah chairman Ḥasan Naṣr Allah gave a long interview to the Lebanese al-Mayadeen channel. Among many other things, he recounted that during the Israeli aggression in 2006 one of the key tools for success was the Russian manufactured Kornet missile, which was delivered to the organization by the Syrian Ministry of Defense. This was not specifically new information, thought for the first time this was confirmed from such a source, but since then Israeli airstrikes against Syria suddenly surged. This well is not new, as the Israeli forces regularly commit aggression against Syria, the intensity increased recently.
Only last week two major attacks were carried out, first against the southern outskirts of Damascus, and then on 13 January Wednesday dawn a much larger sweep was conducted in Eastern Syria shelling targets from Dayr az-Zūr to al-Bū Kamāl at the Iraqi border. This latter attack lasted for 35 minutes and was actively assisted by the occupying American forces at the illegal at-Tanaf Base with jamming and intelligence. Israeli and Syrian oppositional sources claim a large number of victims among the Iranians and Iranian supported militias, while Iranian and Syrian sources largely deny this, only admitting smaller Syrian losses. The truth might lie somewhere in between, but what is specifically interesting that some of our local sources claim that even empty and largely abandoned depots were targeted by the Israeli. The sheer size of the operation – 35 minutes with direct warplane penetration – is beyond the “usual” precision hits of the Israelis claimed to target Iranian supplies in Syria. It much rather suggests that the Israeli command is anxiously looking for something, which they are not finding. Was that otherwise, there would be much more detailed reports by the Israeli media claiming some sort of success.
What further supports that this, is not only the numerous claims by Ḥizb Allah that they possess precision missiles but a recent drone maneuver as well. On 4 December 2020 Lebanese channel al-Manār affiliated with Ḥizb Allah presented videos made by Ḥizb Allah drones, which penetrated the Israeli airspace with ease and filmed the army positions in Galilee, in Brannite and in Ruwaysāt al-‘Ālam.
The drone even filmed the Israeli military on a drill. And not just any drills, but the Israeli army’s specific drill to repel drone attacks and infiltration from Lebanon. In light of this incident, the words by Ḥasan Naṣr Allah can also be understood that he was not talking about the past, but much rather about something in the present. Something the Israelis are looking for and probably have found it yet.
There is indeed a major regional power struggle, much beyond the American role even. Syria and Lebanon are much more vital scenes than Yemen for the moment. But the growing tension and the increasing Israeli presence in this fold shows that this about to change. And indeed the attack on ‘Adan airport might prove to be the prologue of major events.