Vultures of Yemen

                     This week we come to the conclusion of our study on Yemen, and on the rapidly changing realities there. The scene started to fundamentally change more than a year ago, which accelerated during the summer with the infamous hits on the Emirates and the Aramco, and around a month ago this change reached a new peak. The Yemenis really started to turn the table and the victories of Sana’a really started to show way much more than simple sporadic military successes in this prolonged guerrilla war.

            The rival government practically fell apart and its erosion seems to be unstoppable by now, even according to its staunchest supporters, with the fall of al-Ğawf province from their hands, and even more province possibly anticipating a similar faith. Which practically means that the inner front is won. As for the more broader spectrum the Saudi-Emirati tandem fell apart and now both states are trying desperately to carve their own wins out from this misfortune quest. But Saudi Arabia faces way bigger problems as Yemeni hits once again started to reach them deep within the kingdom. And that has serious inner consequences within the ruling family as well, as criticism against the Saudi Crown Prince prompted harsh measures. And while the Saudis desperately try to put their own lines and their proxies in order, and while the former Emirati “allies” depart with some of the loot, new vultures appeared in the Yemeni horizon. The Americans and the British started to deploy massive forces to carve out the most profitable chunks of the Yemeni south. Once the most promising spoils of this devastating war.

            While the war slowly steps into a new phase, in which the Yemenis will have to face Western forces after the gradual evaporation of their foes from the north, Yemen faces tragic daily realities. While the whole world now braces for the impacts of the Corona virus, in Yemen there is a devastated infrastructure, a torn society, which might just has to face an even more catastrophic intervention by the West. Though the destructive blockade since 2015 against this country might just has its benefits now.

            So this week we sum up our journey to the Yemeni scene, with the fall of the Saudi allies on one hand, and the complete military failure of the Saudi Coalition on the other, giving some prospects to what might come soon.


The war on Yemen.

            There has been a military axiom pretty much since the Gulf wars that modern wars are ruled and won by the air force. If any army has total areal supremacy and it is able to enforce and exploit this than it is only a matter of time until victory is achieved. Either by the total annihilation of the enemy force, or by its complete inability to operate, so it yields to any compromise. However, this traditional view was challenged in the late ‘90s, and since the early 2000’s a number of examples demonstrated that this axiom is no longer applicable. The most famous example by now in the Middle East is Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, in which areal supremacy could not achieve a breakthrough. As targets were successfully hit – mostly destroyed – and supremacy established the list of targets ran out, but the ground forces could not achieve victory. Therefore to escape a prolonged war of attrition Israel had to settle for a ceasefire without achieving any gains. The similar example was learned by the Western powers recently in Afghanistan and against Dā‘iš, and the same was true in Syria, where the areal superiority of the Syrian forces was never challenged, but it took huge efforts nonetheless to gain progress on the ground.

            When the Saudi lead Coalition started its war in Yemen the similar example was demonstrated once again. The Saudi-Emirati strategists, the backbone of the aggression relayed heavily on their air forces, thought they were more prepared than to resort to this card alone. Partially because as we saw between 2004 and 2010 the Saudi army already gained experience in Yemen, fighting exactly the same enemy as now, the Anṣār Allah Movement lead by the al-Ḥūtīs. Therefore they won over, or pressured a number of other Arab states to support this military expedition, with their more capable and experienced troops. Egypt providing naval and ground support, Morocco and Jordan joining the areal campaign and Sudan lending land forces. Thought many other states, like Pakistan took part with their special forces, mostly training local allies and Saudi-Emirati groups. There was, however, a well-founded concern in Riyadh and Abū Zabī that this support will stay limited, more applicable as a political tool than a real military help, and if the war is not won soon it might disappear fast. In most cases that is exactly what happened. Egypt pulled out the fastest, but after losing a fighter Morocco withdrew immediately, and such was the faith of all other states, Sudan being the only important exception. That is why it is imperative for Riyadh and Abū Zabī now to support the new Sudanese leadership, to keep the Sudanese troops on the ground.

            Knowing their incapability to fight a long war in Yemen, the Saudis and the Emiratis, thought they deployed considerable forces, resorted to special operations and forming local allies. The mass use of the Saudi and even the Emirati army is a very delicate matter. Not only for their relatively low fighting capability, but because the more capable forces are either the special units relatively small in number and not designed to control massive amounts of land, or units in which there is a high number of Yemenis by origin, even among the officers. That is one of the prime reasons why neither of the two main intervening powers used their on forces in mass and recruited local allies. They exploited the southern secessionist sentiments, extremist groups and won over mostly southern tribes in various ways. However, in the north their biggest ally was the so called Iṣlāḥ, or Reform Party, the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had its center in the northern province of al-Ğawf. While the first massive areal bombardment soon ran out of targets – just like in the previously mentioned examples – and the Anṣār Allah did not fall apart under the ongoing massive bombardment, a complete blockade was created around Yemen, troops were shipped in to the south, which was won over with promises of southern dominance in the new state under Hādī, and the main entry from the north for the Saudis was al-Ğawf. Throughout all the year of the war these were the main operational centers for the Saudis and the Emirates, especially after the most competent powers left the scene and they were left alone to administer this war. Which they could not win, only contain with the promise that in time under pressure the government in Sana’a will fall. Which never came and all campaigns against it lead to disaster.


Changing equations

            The lack of progress, the economic burden on the Saudi-Emirati duo, the humanitarian crisis pressing the Yemeni allies and stiffening resistance by Anṣār Allah presented an ever bigger pressure, which by now practically made the Coalition against Sana’a to collapse.

            After all major campaigns were driven back the first serious revenge came on 26 July 2018, when Yemeni drones managed to hit Dubai airport. That for long was considered a one-time miracle, and was completely hidden from the mainstream news, yet it was clear that Sana’a is progressing towards more powerful drone capabilities to convince Riyadh and Abū Zabī to leave. However, the same hit was allegedly repeated on 12 May 2019 in the port of Fuğayra, the Emirates, which brought much bigger attention. The matter was in fact so embarrassing that it was soon blamed on Iran, but noting was managed to be proven on the Iranians and after the heat grew fast last summer between the two sides of the Gulf the Emirates chose to retreat. Officially pulling out from Yemen, and less publicly signing a security protocol with Tehran, it was viewed that the Emirates realized how much they can loose and they chose to leave the matter to the Saudis. However, the results up until now rather suggest that the decision makers in Abū Zabī simply gave up the idea to win Yemen in total and decided to carve out as much as possible, while the Saudis are still bogged down fighting the Anṣār Allah. Which stopped to be priority for the Emiratis. The Yemenis increased their drone attacks and in mid-August 2019 they managed to hit the third biggest well in Saudi Arabia, the Šība oilfield along the Emirati border. This campaign reached its peak on 14 September 2019 with the infamous Aramco hits, and the hit on Yanbū‘, which showed that the Yemeni drones are capable of paralyzing the whole Saudi oil output.


            The panic was big in Riyadh, knowing that soon Western powers will put pressure on them that the oil transport cannot stop, they put all blame on Iran, completely downplayed the Yemeni capacities and vowed that this could never happen again. However, months later even the U.N. admitted that no connection can be established between the hit on Aramco and Iran. As the pressure at that time was growing on Tehran and it was perfectly enough to show a lesson tensions calmed down somewhat, at least until this February. However, the biggest lesson by these precision hits was not the level of the Yemeni drone progress, but that Yemenis – or the Iranians, the result is the same – have a shocking intelligence network within Saudi Arabia, which they didn’t even hide. Muḥammad al-Buhaytī, member of Anṣār Allah’s political committee clearly admitted that time that they had help from within, which looking at the Yemeni history is not surprising, but a very chilling message about the possible results of this war.

            The war heated up once again this February, with the constant breaches of the ceasefire made in al-Ḥudayda. The target of the Operation al-Bunyān al-Marṣūṣ was al-Ğawf Province and the Anṣār Allah made significant progress soon eliminating military leaders of the Saudi Coalition there. During these heavy clashes the Saudis once again resorted to their air support, which was not only anticipated, but even prepared for. On 17 February the Yemenis shot down a Saudi Tornado type bomber. That on its own is not that significant as it is not a particularly modern plane, but the fact that the Saudis claimed it was not shot down, yet later own videos proved that it was intercepted with a precision air defense missile was a huge humiliation. Even more so that the pilots were captured, who are claimed to be not Saudi citizens. Than a clear massage was sent to the Saudis once again, as on 21 February Yanbu‘, the hearth of the Saudi industry was flared up by Yemeni drone attacks. A fact never heard of in the Western media, but we in the Amaraia Center experienced a huge surge in visitors from Saudi Arabia that day. Meaning that there was very heavy news control on the matter. The Saudis tried to downplay what happened with the Tornado bomber, but on 23 February the Yemeni government presented 4 new and completely indigenous air defense systems. Which now takes away the last thing the Saudis enjoyed supremacy in. The result showed soon, as on 1 March the city al-Ḥazm, capital of al-Ğawf Province fell to the Anṣār Allah. Though the result was debated and even the same Muḥammad al-Buhaytī regarded it not as a final victory and the balance is swinging back and forth, only this week on 18 March it was officially announced that the entire al-Ğawf Province came under Anṣār Allah control. Noteworthy that in the last phases of this battle the Saudi air force failed once again as trying to intervene, on 17 March Saudi squadrons were chased away by the Yemeni air defense. Even after the fall of al-Ḥazm it was clear that the balance as completely shifted, since the campaign would not stop here. Even leading members of Hādī’s government admitted that this, also that it caused huge rifts between the different factions under Saudi umbrella, which will lead to even more losses.

            All guesses pointed that the next target will be Ma’rib Province, which captured would make Anṣār Allah in control unrivaled in the former North Yemen, but now having significant territories in the south as well. Almost immediately after al-Ḥazm Sana’a already called upon the people of Ma’rib to join their ranks and put aside infightings. That might have been a tactic, however an analysis by Lebanese expert Qāsim ‘Izz ad-Dīn suggest that key of success in al-Ğawf was not superiority in force or firepower, but that the tribes were won over. Offering immunity, putting them in charge of local administration and bringing order into the former chaos they simply had a better offer. That, and the elimination of the most prominent commanders left the Saudi-Hādī forces isolated and an easy prey. More significant, however, is that ‘Izz ad-Dīn suggested that a similar deal has already been cut between Sana’a and the tribes of Ma’rib, and that it might happen in the near future in al-Mahra Province, where resistance is growing against the Saudis. That seems to be proven, as on 17 March it was claimed that the Anṣār Allah took control over the Kawfal Base in the Ṣirwāḥ district in the close vicinity of the city of Ma’rib. This was denied the next day by Hādī’s forces, but nonetheless proves that the front is in the middle of Ma’rib Province now, which might soon change hands.

            Of course one of the reasons for the is rapid change is the support by the local tribes. But just as equally important that the opponent side practically fell apart by now. That is the constant blame and accusation of the Saudis now, thought they have much to do with this failure, which is a primarily political one. When the Saudi-Emirati Coalition moved in to the south Hādī’s biggest support base was the southern secessionist movement, which longed for old South Yemen. Most governors in the southern provinces belonged to this movement, which Hādī had no choice, but to keep in place. These, however, soon fell out of control, and with the lack of overall progress and the ongoing war they grew dissatisfied with Hādī. They grew unwilling to make sacrifices for the north. On 27 April 2017 President Hādī removed the governor of ‘Adan, ‘Aydarūs az-Zubaydī from his post on grounds that he was conspiring to overthrow his with Emirati help.

Aydarūs az-Zubaydī. In certain newspapers already addressed as “President”

            On 11 May 2017 lead by the same az-Zubaydī the Southern Transitional Council (STC) was formed. That soon lead to infightings and from January 2018 the STC was gradually taking over ‘Adan. Having no other choice Hādī rallied in more support from the Iṣlāḥ, which further aggravated the situation and on 10 August 2019 the STC occupied the Presidential Palace in ‘Adan. This was a practical coup, though President Hādī was living in Riyadh that time, but that made sure that he has no place to return to. Even more significant that when a last attempt was made to retake the city, and with some progress, the UAE bombed Hādī’s forces. The stalemate, in which President Hādī lost even his interim capital went on with sporadic heavy clashes until the Riyadh Agreement on 5 November 2019, singed in Riyadh by President Hādī and STC President az-Zubaydī in the presence of Muḥammad ibn Salmān and Muḥammad ibn Zāyid. The 20 points (7 economic, 6 military, 7 political) accord aimed to unite the two sides, so to continue the fight against Anṣār Allah, but nothing really came of it as the STC now openly raised the southern flag and with more persuasive Emirati support they still aim to create a southern state. In other words, the Emirates gave up the north and now carved up a realm of its own, even on the expanse of the Saudis.

Signing the Riyadh Agreement on 5 November 2019

            The last nail in the coffin is that after the developments in al-Ğawf and Ma’rib now even the Saudis are highly critical with Hādī’s government, and air open threats against them. Which is not even working really, with President Hādī being in practical house arrest in Riyadh, most of his cabinet resigned, his forces scattered and his tribal supporters changing sides. However, ditching Hādī by all sides, which is practically the case now, the Saudi-Emirati tandem loses its legal ground for its intervention. The UAE found a new excuse in the STC, but the Saudis so far are left without viable alternative. All that, however, works for the rapidly progressing Anṣār Allah.

President Hādī and ‘Aydarūs az-Zubaydī after the Riyadh Agreement

The backslash in Riyadh

            As the war failed to gain any benefit and was only getting ever longer, it started to be a real burden on the Saudi state. Economically, as it was expensive to pay the troops and the high number of mercenaries in the ground, and also to constantly provide military hardware, which lead Ibn Salmān to sign a number of arms deals with the Americans. Militarily as a large number of troops had to be kept on the ground and the losses were only increasing. But most importantly diplomatically, as the kingdom being bogged down in Yemen, most of its regional considerations were driven by the wish to keep up support in Yemen. Just as we saw before with Sudan.

            This lead to a massive criticism within the Saudi royal family against the Crown Prince, as the war was his idea, and as acting Minister of Defense at the time the failure were of his above anyone else. This criticism was only mounting with Ibn Salmān’s harsh crackdowns against rival princes and cliques in the ruling family, but that only brought a temporal calm. After the Yemeni hits on Aramco in the summer and on Yanbū‘ more recently this criticism only grew and it probably seemed ever more tempting to solve the matter with a palace coup, in which Ibn Salmān would be put aside, all blame later put on him and any face saving settlement cut in Yemen to arrange a pull-out. It is very probable that Operation Golden Victory to occupy al-Ḥudayda was launched in context, and that is why a ceasefire deal was cut soon after.

            The first real internal cracks started to show around 2017 with constant rumor of assassination attempts against King Salmān and Crown Prince Muḥammad ibn Salmān, but these are speculations so far, as no proof was put forward and both targets of such alleged attempts are clearly alive so far. However, the first real evidence of something is going on behind the scenes came on 28 September 2019, when long time personal bodyguard of King Salmān, Major General ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Faġam was shot dead under mysterious circumstances in Jidda, one of the economic centers of the kingdom. Even Western opinions were skeptical about the official version, by which al-Faġam was killed in a personal feud between friends, in which altogether three people got killed. All the more strange it was because al-Faġam was known to have good connections to most members of the royal family’s inner circles, with most princes and belonged to the “old guard”, which opposed the approaches of Ibn Salmān. Also that while the official line tried its best to brush this event under the rug, one of the first – and only – notable person to officially visit his family was former Crown Prince Muḥammad ibn Nāyif, the very person who got sidelined and humiliated by Muḥammad ibn Salmān. It took about two moths to receive more intel on this matter. According to this version, which is very likely, al-Faġam and his associates were killed in an assassination attempt on Muḥammad ibn Salmān, in which they got very close to succeed, only at the end being shot down by mercenaries of the American Blackwater company, who safeguard the Crown Prince.

            These were also still speculations, thought confirmed by internal source, but on 8 March something spectacular took place in Saudi Arabia, which retrospectively seem to confirm these guesses. On 8 March 2020 a major crackdown was launched by Muḥammad ibn Salmān arresting a number of leading Saudi princes (Magyar). The number of names soon arrived to 20, and the most prominent ones on the list are former Crown Prince Muḥammad ibn Nāyif and the king’s brother, Aḥmad. While Riyadh denies such event ever taking place, most internal sources confirm that the reason was to prevent an imminent coup, which would have replaced the current king and his son with Muḥammad ibn Nāyif, and which was being planned for months. Sources also claim that the first indication for that was revealed to the court after Major General al-Faġam was killed, who was one of the plotters. Even more interesting that by certain sources the last minute warning about the coup came from the Emirates, by none other than Muḥammad ibn Zāyid.

            This would leave us with a pattern in which the current Saudi leadership is practically Muḥammad ibn Salmān alone, acting almost completely alone and being isolated within the huge royal family. In this state he became a pawn of outer forces controlling the Saudi politics, as American mercenaries protect him physically and his Emirate master politically. That not only makes him a liability for the Saudi state itself, but indicate that the Saudi army will continue its mission in Yemen, mostly by now serving not its own interests, but of those in control of Riyadh now. And that is also shifting currently.


The new vultures

            One of the best indicators that the Saudi war machine broke down in Yemen is the appearance of new powers, exactly on the territory Riyadh had its eye to exploit in the Yemeni south. And against that it can do nothing being engaged with the much more imminent threat of the fall of al-Ğawf and the rapid advancement of the Yemeni troops to Ma’rib, which might soon fall as well.

            The first newcomers are the Americans. In late December 2019 Muḥammad ibn Salmān pressured President Hādī – a practical prisoner in Riyadh – and his government to lease the island of Socotra to the Emirates for 95 years, which is just one sign of how dependent the Saudi Crown Prince has become by his mentors. Few days later American forces arrived to the island to deploy Patriot air defense battalions there to protect the already established Emiratis base. Interestingly the similar measure is not applied in Saudi Arabia, which is being hit ever more frequently by the Yemenis, and in the most sensitive economic centers. On 8 March it was reported that US marine arrived to the island, and are taking over an Emirati prepared base. Which indicates a longer engagement. So far there is now news about that in the mainstream media.

            Only few days later, on 12 March it was reported that American and British troops entered the port of ‘Adan. According to local sources, some even within the government of Hādī, these troops are only the first batch of some 5000 troops by the two states, both rapidly building bases and observation posts all around the most vital gas and oil infrastructure in the south. Meaning that by now as Riyadh is sinking ever deeper into the quagmire, its allies started to carve out whatever it dreamed of five years ago and are not about to help as the war enters its new phase with more tribes joining the Sana’a government against the Saudis. And while Abū Zabī cut a deal to leave most possessions and stay in some areas with Americans symbiosis, such offer was not made to the Saudis.

            However, if such informations are true, they mean that the suffers of Yemen will only continue. The Saudis lost and they know it, the question is only when will they be allowed to leave, or when they will be pushed out completely. But knowing the history of Yemen, the war will not stop here, if the Americans chose to not to learn from the bitter lesson of Afghanistan. And the Yemeni situation is indeed tragic with every humanitarian indicators showing a tragedy. And now with the new Corona threat Yemen is more than vulnerable.


Losing the supremacy?

             As last week we indicated, Yemen has already became a graveyard for the Saudi and the Gulf supremacy in the Arab world. The Emirates chose to team up here with the Americans, and still have good positions in the most problematic scenes. After all, they gained inroads to the Egyptian and the Sudanese governments, which are now paralyzed by their interference to a certain limit. Through this channel they are active in Libya, where they are on the same side with Russia, while Washington is not heavily involved. Such tactical steps are not made by Riyadh, which is being more bogged down in Yemen, and by internal threats.

            The projected return of Syrian into the Arab League in the next summit in Algeria not only means the complete failure of the Gulf policies exercised in the so called “Arab Spring”, but joins together all those forces, which want to end this toxic influence. Riyadh is desperately left alone in this sinking ship, where now even Abū Zabī leaves it to sink. After all Muḥammad ibn Zāyid and his group are long ready for this major change, as more than a year ago Abū Zabī reopened its embassy in Damascus, while Riyadh is still refusing direct talks. But that all means the same. The Gulf is rapidly losing the power it had over the rest of the Arab world and most of the Middle East, and those who can salvage some of their influences rely on strong allies for the moment. For Qatar these are Turkey and Iran for the moment, thought ready to switch, and for the Emirates these are the US, Egypt and Sudan as a muscle. But for Saudi Arabia, no such “ally” is on the horizon, only an abusive relationship with Washington, a questionable Emirati “overlord” and a pending question. How to get out of Yemen, as the vultures gather?